Joe Walker hit upon his money-making idea by accident ? one that caused an estimated $9,000 in damage.
He had just started a new job and was trying to find the best route to his office outside Detroit when he got distracted and sideswiped a van.
?Neither one of us wanted insurance involved, so we agreed to get our cars fixed quietly,? Walker explains.
One high-end bodyshop quoted $9,000 to repair and paint his car. His father steered him to a cheaper shop that charged just $900.
His new employer, Elcometer, makes instruments for industries that need to monitor the paint thickness on their products, such as automobiles and appliances. So Walker tested the paint job on his repaired car. There was so much body filler and paint, the instrument couldn?t register a reading ? not a good sign.
?My car lease was up, so I figured I was in trouble. But, to my surprise, they took the car back, no questions asked,? he says.
Out of curiosity, he followed it to a wholesale auction in Flat Rock, Mich., where he watched seasoned professionals eyeball the car before bidding on it. If anyone needed an accurate paint meter, it was these guys, he reasoned.
?I asked the auction house if I could set up a table and demonstrate our paint gauge to the dealers. They agreed, and I made three sales that day,? he recounts.
Since that brainstorm 17 years ago, Walker has become a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, spreading his company?s little gizmos far and wide.
?We?ve sold 100,000 paint meters to the industry,? he boasts, which has also earned him the position of Elcometer?s vice-president for North America.
Coating thickness gauges are used by bodyshops, dealerships, automobile appraisers, detailers and professional car buyers. They provide a quick assessment of the paint finish to ensure the vehicle?s condition matches its reported history.
It?s essentially x-ray vision for people who need to know.
The first affordable paint gauges were magnetic pull-off testers, which measured the force required to detach the built-in magnet from a painted steel surface. The more force required, the thinner the paint.
A scale on the device corresponds with paint thickness, measured in mils, or 1/1,000 (0.001) of an inch. Walker says their accuracy is typically off by 15 per cent.
Contemporary manufacturing techniques require more precise measurements, so electronic gauges have become the standard. They use a constant-pressure magnetic probe and eddy currents to provide consistent readings shown on a liquid crystal display.
Accuracy is typically plus or minus 1 to 3 per cent.
Electronic paint gauges sell for $350 to $1,000. They have revolutionized the way used vehicles are being assessed, not only at the wholesale level, but in retail environments, too.
Jim Krigos, a partner at Gyro Mazda in Leaside, uses his electronic paint meter to help him appraise potential trade-ins. Customers are supposed to disclose any previous accident history, but Krigos gives them the benefit of the doubt.
?Some people come in with a trade and have no idea of their car?s history,? he says. ?Paint meters take the guesswork out of appraisal, because it will divulge the vehicle?s paint history.?
He bought his meter about four years ago and made it part of his arsenal of disclosure tools to inform used-vehicle shoppers.
?We have three levels of vehicle inspection: our own mechanical check done on a hoist, the CarProof vehicle history report, and our paint meter,? he says.
He says CarProof and Carfax are good services, but have limitations. The documents only disclose what?s been reported to authorities. If a car owner does not inform his insurance provider of a collision and gets the car repaired at a bodyshop for cash, the history report remains clean.
?As a dealer, it costs around $50 per vehicle to acquire the CarProof information,? points out Kevin Bavelaar, dealer principal of Toronto?s Auto Showplace.
?Now, we use Auto Check from the Used Car Dealers Association, which is a lot cheaper, and we augment that with our paint meter. We?ve been doing it for years.?
Paint meters have become so entrenched in the industry, Bavelaar says some wholesale auctions provide paint thickness numbers right on the vehicle?s report.
As a professional auto body repairer and painter, Darryl Roberts appreciated having a mechanical paint gauge in his shop.
He now teaches auto body repair at Centennial College, where he makes use of several types of meters as teaching tools.
The electronic gauge he places on a freshly painted Volkswagen Jetta?s roof displays 3.5 mil. But, as he walks around the sedan, the readings begin to fluctuate. The hood shows 10 mils, while the front fender starts very high at 21, then recedes to 6 as he checks along to the rear quarter panel.
The numbers suggest the Jetta has been in a major front-end collision. The paint was likely blended with the original body panels in the middle of the car.
Roberts confirms the car?s tainted history, but warns that even a paint meter can be fooled ? if a bodyshop really wants to conceal its work.
?If they use brand new body panels and paint to factory specs, the repair work can match the original sheetmetal, as long as they don?t blend the paint over the existing panels,? he says.
A good body shop could also sand its repair work and remove paint to the same level the new paint will fill in.
But, realistically, Roberts says there are few shops that will do so, simply because car owners and insurance companies aren?t willing to pay for the long hours required.
Appraisers look for consistency in paint thickness from front to back and top to bottom on a vehicle.
If the meter can?t show a reading, it likely means the presence of body filler.
At Gyro, Krigos has taken to using his electronic paint meter to sell used cars to skeptical customers. He walks around a 2010 Mazda3, placing his device on each of the horizontal and vertical steel panels (it won?t read plastic bumper covers).
The numbers are consistently between 3.5 and 4.5 mils, proving the paint and bodywork are original. He has a potential sale.
?Not every dealer will do this,? he says. ?But I would argue more disclosure is a good thing for the industry.?