There you are, with a freshly inked certificate showing you’ve completed a program in paintless dent repair. While you’ve invested plenty of time and money to get this far, the road ahead may still be rocky.
One technician who regularly trains people in the art of PDR compares the skill set to learning to tie your shoes. As a young child learning the skill, you may have tossed your shoes, jumped up and down, and thought you’d never figure out its intricacies. Today, you can probably do it with your eyes closed.
In fact, the biggest problems most instructors see with newly trained techs are that they’re not willing to keep an open mind about other approaches to PDR, and they don’t invest in the practice time necessary to become truly proficient in its nuances.
The other common challenge these trainers see is battling some erroneous assumptions about the marketplace itself. In many areas of the country, new technicians may encounter stiffer-than-expected competition, especially when it comes to servicing dealerships.
When it comes to doing the actual work of paintless dent repair, those who instruct in the process say the two most-common mistakes they see among beginning technicians are not properly assessing the job, and not having access to a particular panel. In some respects, the two go hand-in-hand.
James Ramirez, master instructor at The Ding King’s Fountain Valley, Calif., facility, says those are among the first things his classes focus on.
“We try to show them all the possibilities on whether something can be done or it can’t,” he says. “One of the biggest problems that guys will have is accepting jobs they know they shouldn’t be accepting.”
Steve Hopf of Ultra Auto Reconditioning, a division of Ultra Dent Tools, Riverside, Calif., agrees.
“They have to make a judgment call as to whether they can fix that dent or not,” he says. “Even an experienced technician might not be able to know for sure if he can fix some of the more complicated dents until he attempts the repair.”
One angle of that, certainly, is having access to a particular panel to work on it. However, skill and experience also play a role.
Most technicians with a reasonable level of skill can do dime-sized dents, but some more-experienced ones can handle larger dents, such as those occurring when a vehicle is kicked.
While Ramirez says part of his program is to teach technicians to be honest with their customers, that’s not to say the technician shouldn’t be willing to give the job a try unless it has an obvious problem, such as the dent is too close to an edge, the metal is too stretched, or access just isn’t possible.
“You never know unless you try it,” he says. “Don’t just look at something and say, ‘I can’t do that.’ Every car and every job is different.”
The same holds true from model year to model year. Fred Alvarado, vice president of training, research and development for the Saginaw, Mich.-based Paint Bull, says it’s important to remember that there are some pretty standard access points, whether the job is on a car, truck or van.
“If it’s a fender, you always have the option of the headlight or blinker,” he says. “You also have the option of the wheel well. The standard [access points] we’re going to use the most don’t change that much.”
The main exception, Alvarado adds, is on doors, where such things as fiberglass and Styrofoam sound-deadening inserts and bracing are just a few of the potential headaches technicians may encounter.
Still another thing to be aware of is an increasing use of aluminum or double-metal panels in new vehicles. Alvarado notes that when it comes to dents in aluminum, PDR techs should think of them as being different, rather than more difficult.
“GM [General Motors] is already starting to do a laminated panel and it’s going to be a little bit different pushing a dent through that stuff,” says Alvarado. “I don’t see much difference in it, but aluminum panels also seem to be a challenge for some techs-even experienced ones-because the metal is softer and moves differently than steel.”
The Open Mind
Whether it’s a new laminate or an old steel fender, among the biggest problems these trainers see with novice-and even some experienced-techs is that they’re not expanding their horizons when it comes to PDR.
Although they’re all experienced, these instructors believe it’s important to keep learning.
For instance, although he’s a master instructor on the topic, The Ding King’s Ramirez says, “At the point where I am now, I feel I am very advanced in this field, but I do know there will always be new techniques to be learned.”
Paint Bull’s Alvarado agrees. He’s studied with PDR experts all over the world, and while he says there’s only one way metal works and one way it’s going to come out, there are a variety of ways to get it there.
“Patterns can change, the image can change, the tools can change, but new techs sometimes don’t recognize that fact,” he says. “They’ll learn from somebody who tells them this is the only way they can do it, and if they keep doing it just that way, they’re not getting the full effect of what they should be trying to do.”
Especially if you’re new to the skill of PDR, the old saw that practice makes perfect definitely applies.
“When they come here, they’re trained in the basics,” says Ramirez. “When they leave they have the gist of it, the foundation, but from here they’re going to need practice to help hone their skills, and the more you do the better you get.”
Hopf also touts the value of practice.
“That’s one of the reasons why students fail. They don’t commit enough time to it,” he says. “My opinion is a person has to work diligently for a minimum of five to 10 hours a week consistently, persistently; otherwise they’re just never going to get it. You can’t not practice.”
He recommends that techs in training get damaged body panels such as hoods or doors from body shops, which are often free. Those panels can provide a safe way to practice before the tech moves on to working on complete cars. He suggests a tech contact used car dealers and offer a reduced rate during the learning process.
“At that point techs can get work by charging a reduced price, thus getting paid to practice,” Hopf says. “This is a win-win because the dealer gets a lower price for a repair that is adequate, and you get paid.”
That practice is also going to equal proficiency and improve the speed necessary to make money at the job. And it’s an example, Alvarado notes, of how some technicians don’t budget enough time to learn to do PDR quickly and efficiently.
“A lot of people we see haven’t quit their original job,” he says. “They have a lot of responsibilities, but they need the ambition to go out every day and put a tool in their hand and do dents. It’s really something you have to practice.”
Even for the person who’s dedicated enough to put in the hours necessary to become proficient at PDR, there’s the real possibility that they’re getting into a market that will offer some stiff competition.
Alvarado notes that’s the one thing that may ultimately hinder fledgling techs from starting their own small businesses.
Doing advanced research can help techs recognize whether a market is saturated. Looking at ads in the local paper, and searching the Yellow Pages and Internet allows new technicians to gauge the amount of competition in an area, particularly because in many markets the number of PDR techs doing work through dealerships is sky-high.
Hopf says the competition is very high in most cities and dense suburban areas.
“If you’re on the outskirts or in some small town, then it may be less difficult. But in all big cities the competition is going to be tough. Unless you can get highly skilled at it, you may struggle,” he believes.
When that’s the case, the other major option is to look at the retail market, which can offer advantages of customer loyalty, but may require more up-front advertising expenses to become established.
Whether you get started working with dealerships or jobs off the street, PDR techs with the training and perseverance necessary to make it through the first years, and an open mind that’s willing to try new things as needs arise, have the best chance of success.