Top 5 things I learned painting my car at home

It was challenging. It was rewarding. It was heartbreaking.

During the month of March I tackled what I consider to be the pinnacle of a car restoration — the paint.

When this project began in August of 2017, the 1967 Mercury Cougar arrived wearing dull white paint. I actually wasn’t sure if it was primer or a topcoat. There was overspray on most of the trim, rust was bubbling up on the doors and quarters, and the body panels looked as if someone had played bumper cars in a parking lot full of shopping carts.

Almost four years later, I finally finished the mechanical and interior refurbishment, and I was ready to tackle the paint and body. Here’s the most important things I learned during the process.

Number One: Don’t buy your paint online

I had a white Mustang in high school, and I know white is a popular color for Cougars, but I just wasn’t feeling it. To be honest, if I was building the perfect Cougar it would be Hunter Green with a Saddle Leather interior. However, I ended up with a white Cougar with red interior that originally was Onyx black. I decided to take it back to black, but with a metallic paint. Like many others, I’ve gotten in the bad habit of just ordering things online instead of getting out to a store to see what I’m buying. I ordered all my paint from Eastwood.com. I lucked out with their Epoxy Primer. It sprays really well. The 2k High Build — not so much, but if you dilute it enough it’s ok. The real problem was the Midnight Metallic Black.

The Eastwood base colors mix 4:1, so while it’s $185 per gallon, you’re actually only getting 5 quarts. By comparison the PPG Shopline paint mixes 1:1 at $205 per gallon, so you’re getting 8 quarts. Even with slow reducer I suffered solvent popping in the Midnight Metallic Black, which left dotted lines on the roof and trunk lid of the car. I also screwed up and accidentally drug my air hose along the edge of the roofline. There was nothing to do except sand it all down and start over. I needed more paint. Unfortunately, Eastwood had a big message on their site saying they were out of stock until May. I took a trip to my local Tasco where I should have gone in the first place. They gave me a handful of color chips to pick out exactly what kind of metallic black I wanted and then mixed me up two gallons. Their low-end Shopline paint sprayed better than the Eastwood, and by choosing Ford Tuxedo Black, future color match is easy. I can get touch up paint at any auto parts store.

Number Two: You need good lighting in your work area

I have fluorescent shop lights hanging in half my garage, but the other side is really dark. There is a noticeable difference in the paint work done on the bright side of the garage versus the dark side of the garage. Good light helps you see the wet edge, the extent of coverage, whether or not you’re running the paint, and if you have solvent popping or other issues happening. If I was going to paint more cars in my garage I’d add lighting to the other side of the ceiling or at least set up some shop lights on that side.

Number Three: Sanding is tedious and messier than spraying

Sanding cars is incredibly tedious and messy. I was expecting the spray mess, but being covered in enough poly primer powder that I looked like a ghost was a new experience. The powder gets into the air and settles on everything. It got tracked all over the house. Having a clean area is really important for a good paint job, and it took days of cleaning and washing out the garage to remove enough dust to spray again. Also, use blocks to sand, not your fingers. If you sand without a block you’ll end up with a sad, wavy finish. 2k is the only layer that will hide a few of the issues you don’t spend time sanding before you apply it. Every other layer is going to show everything, so spend the time sanding. But yes, it is really tedious.

Number Four: Carefully read your paint data sheets

Yes, the data sheets show mix ratios, but many of them also specify gun pressure and tip sizes. More importantly, it lets you know how soon you can spray your next layer. For instance, the epoxy primer I used took three days to cure enough for sanding. Three days is a long time to wait for the next coat when you’re trying to fit a paint job into vacation time. However, you could overcoat the epoxy primer with 2k primer after 30 minutes, but if you waited more than six hours, you were stuck waiting the full three days. Once the 2k was on the epoxy, you could sand it within an hour. The clear coat also has to go onto the base coat within a certain number of hours or you have to scuff and spray another layer of base before you can clear. Each paint is slightly different, so always ask for the data sheet when you’re buying the paint.

Number Five: The cut and polish process is a completely different skill set

I was aware that I knew nothing about painting cars, so I invested in a weekend seminar to learn the basics long before I bought any equipment. We spent lots of time spraying, but the cut and polish process was just a PowerPoint slide with a quick demonstration. I was woefully unprepared to polish paint, and the Meguiars paste and $29 buffer from O’Reilly’s weren’t helping the situation. My first attempt wet sanding left too much orange peel. (By the way, did I mention sanding it incredibly tedious?) My second attempt was better, but after the cutting compound, you could still see swirl marks in the paint. My third attempt finally ruined the paint on the hood. After many, many hours I finally have a handle on wet sanding. A friend from the Cougar Club loaned me a professional polisher, and I bought some quality cutting compound and polish. The results are better, but if I could do it all again, I would have spent a long time practicing these processes on a car with bad paint, not the car I spent four weeks painting. Yes, when I mentioned heartbreak in the introduction, this is what I was talking about. There are definitely sections of the car I will have to paint again due to my own incompetence when trying to polish it. The wet sanding, cut and polish is not quick. It’s another job in itself, and it will make or break a paint job.

I know, there are no mind-blowing epiphanies here, but if anyone out there is debating whether or not to paint their car, I hope this helps.

Learning to Paint: Applying clear coat

I spent an entire morning sanding down the color coat I had applied the day before to remove all of the cardboard and plastic that had stuck to the paint when I flipped various pieces before they had cured. I had previously sanded it all with 400 grit, but this time I wet sanded with 600 grit to get a better finish.

I dug out some wire hangers and worked out a new tactic for the my second attempt at color.

I mixed, re-mixed, and then mixed the color again hoping it would be more red this time around. It looked the same as it had before.

Once I had two nice coats of color back onto the parts, I let them cure for an hour, and I prepped for clear coat.

The Eastwood Clear mixes 2:1, so it’s a bit thicker than the color and base coats that mix 4:1. In the future I think I would add reducer when using it with the turbine sprayer.

The Eastwood instructions only call for two coats of clear, but the Kindig It Paint with the Pros instructions call for five coats of clear. It was going on really thick and really clouding up the air in the garage, so I quit at three coats. There really had been virtually no overspray with the base and color coats, but even using the low VOC activator in the clear coat, it was creating serious fumes. People walking their dogs along the street were coughing as they passed the house.

The first coat went on really well and made the color shine, but the second and third coats went on cloudy and had me worried. Thankfully, they dried clear.

I gave all of the parts plenty of time to cure before touching or moving them this time. I’m proud to say that after having to prime twice and shoot color twice, I got the clear right the first time.

I would have liked less texture in the final project. I think reducer would have helped. As I analyzed the parts in the light, I thought, it’s not TERRIBLE, but I wouldn’t have paid for this job. However, it can only get better after the cut and polish.

Learning to Paint: The first attempt

In September 2019, back when the world was normal, and we jumped on airplanes to breath up each other’s exhales without thinking twice, Mary and I made a trip to Salt Lake City.

During that trip Bryce Green and Freddy Carlson taught us how to paint.

When you have pro equipment being set up for you in a climate controlled spray booth with two of the best painters in the world coaching you, it’s hard NOT to paint well. Recreating that magic in my garage has proven to be more of a challenge. I didn’t really have the space or want the noise of an 80 gallon compressor. Additionally, I was going to have to install multiple moisture traps along the walls. I decided to take a chance on an Apollo 5-stage turbine sprayer.

Allegedly it delivers a continuous 9.5 psi of dry air, and it has a nice HVLP gravity fed gun similar to the SATA guns we used during our class. It’s fairly quiet, and I can spray anywhere there’s a wall plug. I’m hoping we can spray varnish and maybe even gel coat on the sailboat as well.

When we learned the Kindig It paint method, it started with bare metal, then epoxy primer, then filler, then polyester primer, then 2k urethane primer, then sealer, then basecoat, and finally clearcoat.

First off, I’m on a budget. Second, I don’t really have the time or energy to take the Cougar all the way down to bare metal. For my test run, I decided to see what would happen if I sanded the parts, used a little rust encapsulator where necessary, then jumped straight to a 2k primer.

By the way, I never thought I’d have a favorite sandpaper, but I ordered several rolls of Indasa paper from Big Kid Blocks, and I have to say, I love Indasa sandpaper. It is so much better than whatever I usually grab at the hardware store. I also highly recommend their Show Gun cleaner and AngelWax products.

All of the engine parts for this test were giveaways from various members of the Southeast Texas Cats Mercury Cougar Club. The valve covers were from a 68 Cougar. The oil pan was from a 65 Mustang. All of the pieces had different color paint and varying amounts of rust. I cleaned them with a wire wheel, but the gold paint on the oil pan was especially stubborn. I gave it all a spray with rust encapsulator, then sanded with 220.

I emptied all 22 ounces of 2k primer onto the parts. At times I felt like I had the gun spraying well, but at times it felt like I was barely getting any paint out at all. I was using a 1.5mm nozzle, but I think I probably needed a 1.8mm. (Unfortunately, I haven’t purchased a 1.8mm.) I kept turning the air pressure up, but in fact, I probably needed to turn it down to increase paint flow.

When the primer dried, it had a very rough texture. It smoothed out easily with 400 grit, but sanding won’t be an option when I get to the color coat.

I finished sanding, wiped it down with paint prep, then re-assessed. The coverage had become a little thin in some places, and there were a few spots showing bare metal.

I decided that instead of moving on to the base coat, it would be better to troubleshoot my issues and try another coat of primer. I’m going to spend more time adjusting the gun and increase the amount of reducer for better flow. Hopefully I’ll have time for attempt number two before the weekend is over.

1967 Mercury Cougar project update

I haven’t done a great job of documenting the progress on my 67. Most of the earlier projects were just so filthy that I wouldn’t have even of thought about touching my cameras. However, now that I’m home with plenty of time on my hands and in between major projects, I thought I’d take a moment to catch up. As I was editing, I realized I didn’t even touch on half the projects I’ve done over the past three years, but nobody really wants to hear about the restoration and alignment of a glovebox latch or the linkage for a shift indicator light. I hit most of the major projects, and I was even able to match up photos for some of it.

Since this car is a pretty plain-jane standard, my goal wasn’t a full restoration. I was hoping to just create a nice, usable driver. I’m hoping to start some paint and body work this year, but we’ll have to see how the world turns out after we get out of social isolation.

Installing LED headlights on a 1967 Mercury Cougar

I like the warm, yellow glow of vintage halogen headlights. Unfortunately, they’re not so great for actually seeing at night. The go-to fix for the past 10 years has been High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlight conversion kits. Of course, these bulbs draw much more power than the originals, which wasn’t great for vintage wiring that was never meant to handle that sort of amp draw in the first place. The solve that issue, it required the installation of a headlight relay and some new wiring to alleviate the load. Otherwise, turning on your brights might result in a fire.

With LED technology becoming so commonplace I figured there had to be a better solution. We converted all the bulbs in our boat to LED years ago. Surprisingly, there still wasn’t a great LED solution being carried by any of the major restoration and parts shops.

Projector LEDs are by far the best option, but most of them are really funky looking. I wanted something that looked as original as possible. My search led me to a site called dapperlighting.com. They have a projector LED headlight called the OE7, which still looks like the vintage 7” glass lights used on Mustangs, but it has a projector housing inside with an LED bulb. Unfortunately, my 1967 Mercury Cougar has four 5.75” headlights.

Dapper Lighting also sells an array of 5.75” lights with various halos, colors, and even options to make them change colors and work as turn signals, etc. It’s neat tech, but it’s not what I needed at all. My headlights don’t even show unless they’re turned on, so having halos that come on with the parking lights or turn signals built into them would be a complete waste of money.

My search moved on to eBay. I found a vendor called Stark Lighting that was selling stock looking 5.75” glass bulb housing with an H4 bulb socket on the back paired with LED bulbs. It was a plug and play solution, but I was hesitant to purchase them. Being a non-projector bulb and housing, I was really worried about the glare. I can’t stand those cars on the road that put the HID bulbs in a housing that was never meant for them and blind everyone on the freeway.

After much debate and a drive home from the grocery store during which I couldn’t tell if my headlights were turned on or not, I finally decided to give them a try.

cof

While the Stark Lighting eBay listings proudly display the Sylvania logo, there was not any sort of logo to be found on any of their packaging.

The housings are real glass, but they don’t have the same concave surface as the stock lights.

The bulbs have a large heatsink and fan on the back. I have my questions regarding the longevity of those little fans, but we’ll see.

The metal retaining rings took some finagling to seat over the H4 housings, but there were no issues with the bulbs protruding out of the back. There was plenty of clearance for everything. All four bulbs have high- and low-beam capability, so you just leave the center blade exposed when you press the connections together on the high-beam only plugs.

The result was a stock looking headlight with a very white light.

rhdr

I drove the car around for a weekend with stock headlights on the driver side and LED headlights on the passenger side. There was a dramatic difference.

rhdr

I could see much further down the road with the LEDs.

I was hoping that after the conversion I would be able to just change the bulbs from the rear of the housing instead of removing the entire housing, but there is a retainer clip over the bulb that can’t be opened with the housing installed in the car.

I don’t feel like these lights cause crazy glare for oncoming drivers, but I aimed them down more than what the manual specifies just in case.

Now even in a well-lit parking lot at night, I can still tell my headlights are on when I pull the switch. This has definitely been one of the best modifications I’ve made to the car.

London Calling: The long tow home

Well, the Cougar and I managed to fulfill our acting obligations. She did a great job looking like a running car that was getting gas, even though she wasn’t running and the gas pumps didn’t actually work. I just did my best to follow directions and look distraught everyone time the gas station attendant died in my arms. However, once we finished, the big question was, how do we get home?

My wonderful parents, still bailing me out of trouble at age 41.

Well, big thanks to my parents who made the four hour drive from Montgomery Saturday morning to drag me home. They even picked up a trailer in Conroe, so that it would only be a 24-hour rental rate instead of the steeper U-Haul one-way fees.

I went to Home Depot and bought a 1-ton come-along to make loading the car easier, and it was … for a minute. We got it about halfway onto the trailer when the come-along jammed up. That’s when we started attracting bystanders. Unfortunately we didn’t attract enough to just muscle to car up onto the trailer, but we did attract enough to have lots of extra opinions on how to make it all work.

Once the Cougar was finally loaded, we took a ride into downtown Corpus for lunch at the dog-friendly Executive Surf Club. It was the only relaxing, vacationy part of the trip, which I had promised Mary would be so incredibly relaxing and vacationy, except for the evening I’d be working on the movie. (Sorry, honey.)

My mother’s attempt at a group selfie.

We cruised a few miles down the coast to get a look at the ocean before going back to pick up the rig for the drive back to Houston. Of course, there was a mandatory stop at DQ, so my mother could get a Blizzard.

Just looking natural at the trailer club out behind the Dairy Queen.

We made it back to Spring around 8 p.m., and I made enough commotion trying to back the trailer into my driveway that it attracted all the neighbors. Big shout out the everyone who helped pushed the Cougar off the trailer and into the garage.

Back in the garage, ready for a rear-end tear down.

Well, some lessons learned.

First off, Hollywood is rough. Even if you’re the main character in a crime documentary re-enactment scene, your pay slip still says “extra.”

Movies do not pay well enough to cover classic car maintenance and repairs.

Maybe I should invest in a vehicle with some towing capacity and a trailer hitch.

And most importantly of all, I have an amazing family. Thank you again to Mary for picking me up off the side of the road and sitting around in a hotel all weekend while I dealt with the car issues. Also, huge thanks to my parents for spending an entire Saturday driving to help me get the Cougar hauled home.

I’m a lucky guy.

London Calling: The show must go on

After some discussion with the local producer about replacing my car with a Camaro, it was decided that “The Phantom” needed the authenticity of a white 1967 Mercury Cougar to match the crime scene photos. A guy named Joe had trailered in a 1980s Ford Crown Victoria from Austin for the scene.

Joe, being an absolutely amazing guy, agreed to use his trailer to pick the Cougar up from the transmission shop where they had FINALLY looked at the problem around 3 p.m., but then said they wouldn’t get to it until Monday.

Three of us could not push this car up the ramp. She’s a heavy girl.

We deposited the Cougar in front of the gas pumps at the Sunny’s Convenience Store, carefully making sure the axle didn’t slide out when we were rolling it around.

These gas pumps don’t actually work. #acting

Mary’s one question was whether or not there would be a food buffet where all the actors could just graze in between shoots. There was — sort of.

As the production assistants finished setting up lights and removing all the blatantly modern signage from the gas station, I was issued my authentic 1983 street wear — a grey polo with a grey sweater. Apparently in the crime scene photos, Kevan Baker was also wearing a hat, so they stole a sweaty baseball cap off one the PAs and stuck it on my head.

I’m going to look goofy as heck in this movie. Also, watch for continuity because the bloody, dying gas station attendant falls into my arms. However, that meant my sweater got bloody on take one, and we did it about 25 times. Then we switched back to some pre-death scenes after I was bloody. Should be interesting to see if it shows.

Hurry up, and wait. That’s what making movies is all about.

So after all the intense gas pumping, stabbing, and first aid scenes, they wrapped it up with a Police ID of … you guessed it, the wrong Carlos. To add a bit of irony, the actor who played the actual killer was used as a stand-in with the Police for the ID scene.

They shot this scene from behind the car to catch the bright mag lights shining in onto the perp. They had instructions to let the light wander off the guys face onto the camera lens and then back. I’m really curious to see what it actually looked like in the camera.

The Cougar rolled out of scene, taking 5.

Once we finally wrapped, Joe trailered the Cougar back to our hotel and unloaded her in the parking lot for me before going back to the set for his police cruiser. Thanks, Joe!

Now we just have to get the Cougar back to Houston …

London Calling: Waiting is the hardest part

Upon investigation of the breakdown, it seems I had a wheel bearing disintegrate, which then let the rear axle slide out.

Those tires really fill the wheel wells when the axle is extended.

Since I don’t have a traction lock rear differential, all the power is being sent to the road through that driver side rear tire. Once the axle slide out of the differential, there was no more power.

That’s not where everything is supposed to be located.

I need a shop to replace the axle and press in a new wheel bearing and seal. Since there’s oil all over the brake shoes, those need to be replaced as well.

It’s 2 p.m. and the place I dropped it last night just now got it on the lift. They close at 6 p.m. Call time is at 7 p.m.

We discussed towing the car over if it’s not fixed in time, but towing costs bust the production cost of the movie. They’re searching for another car.

I’m starting to get worried my Cougar is going to be stuck in Corpus Christi.

London Calling: The Cruise to Corpus Christi

Sunny skies and open roads

I had to drive to work in the rain. Driving in drizzle during rush hour in Houston is the most hazardous thing you can do in a car. You’re almost guaranteed to get rear-ended sooner or later.

However, I made it to work, and my day ticked ever so slowly away as I waited for the big road trip.

I managed to get out of the office by 4:30 p.m., gassed up the Cougar, and we tackled traffic heading south out of town. She was purring like a kitten.

I noticed an insane amount of police presence along 59, mostly monitoring northbound motorists. It’s as if someone declared there was an immigration crisis at the border and then instructed DPS to make sure they apprehended enough people to prove it. I made sure to stick to the speed limit.

Just before the turnoff onto 77 I stopped for more gas. I probably had enough to make Corpus, but I didn’t want to risk it.

Taste that sweet premium

After filling up, I turned the key, and I got the dreaded slow crank. This was my biggest fear. I JUST replaced the starter last week.

I popped the hood, jiggled the starter cable, and tried the key again. She started right away. I smiled, put her in gear, and headed on down the road.

I had turned off of 77 onto 136 at dusk, and I was cruising down that little road thinking to myself, you did it. You built a reliable driver. Where should we go after this? Maybe we can tour cross-country the way the Bumfuzzles toured in their vintage Porsche. Maybe I’ll make the drive to the West Coast Classic Cougar open house this year.

Then I attempted to speed up, and there was a lurch and a click. I decided that maybe I shouldn’t speed up, and just stuck with cruising at 65. I was only 25 miles from the hotel, no need to rush.

A few minutes later, there was another click and suddenly I lost all power. I guided the car to the side of the road to assess the situation.

She was still running. Temp was great, no warning lights. I tried to put her back in gear — nothing. Reverse — nothing. Overdrive — nothing. Drive — nothing. I was stuck.

I called my Hagerty roadside assistance number. The operator pinged my location and said a tow truck would be there in about 60 minutes. About ten minutes later my wonderful wife rolled up behind me.

I had tried and tried to talk her into coming with me, so we could make a weekend of the event, but she had insisted she wasn’t coming until Friday. Thankfully her FOMO (fear of missing out) got her moving early, and she had left Houston just a few minutes after I did.

We sat together in the Terrain looking up at the stars and petting the dogs until the tow truck arrived.

Sometimes you need a little help to get there

The car got loaded, and we noticed the left rear axle was sliding out. When troubleshooting car problems, it’s usually good to start with the piece that’s falling off. My guess is the transmission is actually still functioning, but there’s nothing connected to the differential to power the car.

We dropped the car off at Greatstate Transmissions. Who knows if that was the right place to take it, but nothing was open at 11 p.m., and I didn’t really want to pay for another tow from the hotel to a shop the next morning. They open at 7 a.m., so I’ll call them early to find out if the Cougar will be moving in time for her big scene.

We’re definitely coming out upside down on this little venture, but hey, it’s already been interesting.

London Calling: The wrong Carlos

On the evening of February 4, 1983, Wanda Lopez, a gas station attendant in Corpus Christi was stabbed to death. A man named Carlos DeLuna was arrested and convicted of the murder, then executed by lethal injection in 1989. DeLuna always maintained his innocence and claimed the murder was committed by a man named Carlos Hernandez. However, DeLuna was never able to identify Hernandez and prosecutors referred to him as “a phantom” in court.

Carlos DeLuna at left and Carlos Hernandez at right

Years later, an investigative team determined Hernandez was a real person, lived near the site of the murder, and he had a tendency to stab people.

The case of mistaken identity and probable execution of an innocent man has been researched in detail, and a Columbia Law School professor wrote a book on the case.

So how do the Cougar and I fit into all of this?

Well, apparently the first witness on the scene was a man named Kevan Baker, who had stopped to gas up his white 1967 Mercury Cougar.

The white Cougar was a key part of authentically recreating the crime scene.

I made sure the producers were aware that my car was a work in progress and not what could be considered anywhere close to restored, but after sending plenty of pictures, they assured me it would work great for the movie and said the re-enactment scenes would have a soft focus anyway. Plus, the scene is set in 1983, so it’s not like the car would have looked showroom new.

My next challenge was making sure the old girl could take on 250 miles of highway to get to the shoot.

We’ve had to work through a few mechanical issues.

While drivability has gotten better and better over the past year and a half of work, I had kind of taken everything apart to install the air-conditioning and never put it all back together.

I did manage to get the correct console shifter installed and swapped in the refurbished console and radio, but I just didn’t have the time to replace the heater core and tackle the interior portion of the AC install yet. I’ll have to pull everything apart again when I get back to get it finished before the real summer heat starts.

I also finally put the rear emblems on the car. They’re kind of expensive, so I had planned to paint the car first, then put them on, but these people need a Cougar, so it better say Cougar.

The reproduction 1967 quarter panel trim has allegedly been discontinued by Scott Drake.

Then, just to keep me on my toes, the starter decided to go out last week. I replaced that as well. We’re ready to roll — but I brought plenty of tools, just in case.

There were several times in the past few months when I was tempted to just start banging out dents and spraying spots with primer to get the body work started. I had also been talking to a guy in Austin about stripping her down to bare metal and painting her black.

I guess sometimes it does pay off to take things slow.