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Fordite: Beauty Left Behind On Automakers Paint Lines

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By Jennifer Strong:  Fordite or Detroit Agate is highly sought after by collectors, but it is not actually a stone; it’s a piece of automobile history.

Henry Ford may have said you can have any color car so long as it is black, although paint color choices have long been important to car lovers. Lacquer replaced the slow hand brushing process by being able to be sprayed on during the production process. In time enamel paints were introduced that were both hand sprayed and baked on a car body or pieces on the paint line. Acrylic paints in vibrant colors used this same process and followed.

  • Fordite or Detroit Agate
  • Fordite pieces in the rough after being removed from paint racks.

As a result of the painting process it would build upon the skids and racks used for transporting them down the paint line. Many layers of different color overspray would build up and get repeatedly baked, forming a hardened slag. Over time, the residue became too thick and had to be removed from the fixtures because it ended up interfering with the painting process.

Soon it was realized that this material could be cut and polished like gemstones into artistic works suitable for jewelry settings, and factory workers began taking pieces home as colorful souvenirs for their families. Fordite is now a general term for a material made up of paint layers formed during the hand spraying years in auto plants.

  • Fordite or Detroit Agate
  • A partially finished surface shows how the material is sanded, before forming and polishing.

Like the naturally formed rings of agate, the colorful layers in each piece of Fordite tell a story. The earliest pieces are comprised of mostly blacks and browns, the common paint colors of the time, but most Fordite available today reflects a wild array of paint colors. Some pieces have gray primer layers between the colorful ribbons, and others contain shiny flakes of metallic paint. The most coveted appear to be older pieces from the Ford River Rouge Plant that might include bright greens and oranges and also metallic colors.

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The phasing out of hand spraying on the assembly line began in the 1970s and was replaced by robots and electrostatic painting processes. The paint residue used to create Fordite is no longer found in auto factories because of new painting technology. Jewelry makers today search for raw material from retired autoworkers. The nostalgia of Fordite created as a byproduct of the assembly line is as important to most collectors as the beauty of the piece itself.

An excellent video below by Alex Atwell covers how Fordite is cut and made into jewelry and art, and tells more about this uncommon 20th century industrial artifact. 

Share with us what you find of interest these photos via Reddit Pics.

Editors note: This article was written by Jennifer Strong a long-time contributor from San Francisco, California, she has a great eye for finding and photographing vintage automotive treasure.

18 responses to “Fordite: Beauty Left Behind On Automakers Paint Lines

  1. How cool! Like growth rings on a tree, I imagine those paint ‘rings’ tell the tale of how painting cars progressed over the decades!! Me, I’d love a polished chuck of it simply for my coffee table–talk about a conversation piece!!!

  2. I’m a lapidary artist and have been working with Fordite since 1976 when I learned stone cutting at a rock & gem club in southeast Michigan. While it’s a widespread story told for decades, that “they don’t make it anymore” that’s just not true! Even with robotic and electrostatic painting there is still SOME overspray that accumulates and is baked on. Old Fordite is almost impossible to come by anymore and almost all of what you see people like me working with now is contemporary material. it’s also not true that most of it is from the River Rouge plant, or Detroit, or even Michigan. There are car factories all over the world and any where that they paint cars on an industrial level you will find some Fordite forming. The hard part is getting someone that works there to be willing to take it out of work and sell it on the open Fordite market. Giant corporations don’t just let employees walk off the grounds with industrial waste like they used to! Also, according to my suppliers sometimes it’s sand blasted off the skids so it is sometimes destroyed in the removal process. I mostly make bead pendants and earrings out of it these days. Most of the material I get is from a Ford truck plant (not in Michigan), although I do have small amounts of Corvette material from the factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky and I occasionally get other varieties of material. It’s definitely a fun and unusal material to work with! Regards, David at DVHdesigns

  3. Great info. That’s why I so enjoy your work, David. Either I’m reminded of something I enjoy, or as so often is the case I learn something new. Thank you.

  4. We might (and can) imagine our world far in the future, not hundreds but thousands and thousands of years from now when the automobile has receded not only from its practical application but also from what may remain of our evolved human consciousness. Because of geologic change, examples of the 4-wheel contrivance which holds a fascination for us are no longer extant. We might imagine that examples of Fordite also known as “Detroit Agate” have survived, perhaps included in comprehensive collections of minerals. How ironic it would be if the detritus scraped from the bottom of the Ford assembly line paint racks are the only remnant from the great age of the automobile to survive into that far distant time…..

  5. When I came home to show my husband (a Ford paint engineer) my beautiful new locket of Fordite, I asked him if he knew what it was. He said, “Sure. Paint!” Didn’t phase him a bit. I love it and wear it often. Super article. Thanks for sharing.

  6. My late father was a long-time millwright at a Ford assembly plant, and had access to a practically unlimited supply of paint rack offal during the colorful era. One of his hobbies was making knives, and he fashioned many with Fordite grips. I still have a couple of them.

  7. I saved several chunks of “Fordite” from the Dearborn assembly plant. These were created during the making of 1965 and 1966 Mustangs (and a few Falcons too). I always knew they were far too pretty inside to toss. As a production management apprentice we were told occasionally to “clean” some of the special hooks, door holders and other pieces used on the assembly line. So huge quantities of this stuff got tossed on a regular basis. Some people laughed at me back then for saving the chunks. Looks like I get the last laugh!

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