How to Choose the Right Restoration Shop for Your Project

By Barry Kluczyk   –   Photography by the Author

Carved on the ancient Greek Temple of Apollo is the proverb “Know Thyself,” a philosophical maxim that suggests self-awareness and honesty about how one’s limitations are fundamental to happiness.

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For every enthusiast with a half-completed project under a tarp, those words might as well be spray-painted on his or her garage door. Sure, some of us get bogged down in a project when its needs exceed our skills, but most projects languish because of time—and the lack thereof, to be more specific.

001 Word of mouth will get you started Speak to owners at car shows and ask where their restoration was performed
Word of mouth will get you started. Speak to owners at car shows and ask where their restoration was performed—and don’t be afraid to ask how satisfied they were and whether there were any significant issues in working with the restorer.

The alternative is trusting your vintage Chevy to a restoration shop, but that can introduce a whole bag of new anxieties, as we’ve all heard the horror stories about projects gone awry. From shoddy workmanship and ballooning costs to shops that seem to evaporate overnight—with customers’ cars left unfinished or their more valuable parts disappearing into the night with the shop owner.

Read More: Replacing Window Regulators, Side Glass, and Weatherstripping on a Chevy II

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Committing to a restoration is a monumental and expensive undertaking, but while entrusting your vintage vehicle to a professional restorer demands a leap of faith, it should not be blind faith.

002 Word of mouth will get you started Speak to owners at car shows and ask where their restoration was performed
Tour the prospective restoration shop. In addition to viewing the other projects underway, inspect the facility and ask questions about how your vehicle will be incorporated into the workflow.

“The most important thing is finding an established business with a strong track record,” Werner Meier, the founder of a Masterworks Automotive Services, a restoration shop in the Detroit area with more than 40 years of experience primarily in Corvettes and other Chevys, says. “Bad news travels fast, so the reputations of shops spread quickly, especially when they’re not good. Ask around and listen to the experiences of others.”

003 Seeking out a shop that specializes in specific vehicle genres or marques such as Tri Fives F bodies or Corvettes can pay off in a more knowledgeable restoration
Seeking out a shop that specializes in specific vehicle genres or marques such as Tri-Fives, F-bodies, or Corvettes can pay off in a more knowledgeable restoration, but it may involve shipping the car a considerable distance, which makes it difficult for periodic personal inspections during the project.

In short: Do your homework. It may sound like obvious advice, but it can be a more challenging task for enthusiasts outside of larger urban areas where options are much more limited. That means venturing beyond one’s zip code and personal comfort zone may be the only viable option.

Even after the shop’s experience and apparent reputation are vetted, there are a number of questions to be asked to further reinforce their qualifications, while also rounding out your knowledge of their processes and procedures.

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004 Corvette restorations are a world unto themselves particularly when it comes to fiberglass repair
Corvette restorations are a world unto themselves, particularly when it comes to fiberglass repair, and it’s important to seek an experienced Corvette specialist for such restorations.

Ask for a shop tour. The owner should be happy to walk you through the facility and show you the projects in progress. Inspect the work on the other vehicles and ask questions about the extent of work such as rust repair that has been made to them.

Ask how long the technicians have worked in the shop. Turnover is high in the restoration industry, especially with bodywork techs and painters, so it’s an encouraging sign if the shop has a good track record of retaining its staff.

005 Before the shop tears down your car and puts it on a rotisserie a deposit will be required and a payment schedule established as work progresses
Before the shop tears down your car and puts it on a rotisserie, a deposit will be required and a payment schedule established as work progresses. If cash flow becomes a problem, let the shop know as soon as possible. They’ll slow the work or pause it altogether, but communication is essential.

Read More: Bug Abatement on the Fly

Ask about the shop’s specific services. Some do engine work in-house and others farm it out. It’s the same with upholstery, so it’s important to be clear about the shop’s role in every aspect of the restoration. In some cases, you may leave the bodywork, paint, and assembly to one shop and entrust the mechanical refurbishments to another.

006 Before the shop tears down your car and puts it on a rotisserie a deposit will be required and a payment schedule established as work progresses
Hidden damage and rust—mostly rust—is why most resto shops can’t provide a specific estimate. This A-body floor had rust hidden under a patch panel that otherwise looked sound. The resulting repair added hours to the final cost of the project.

Ask if there’s a backlog of other projects. For a complete nut-and-bolt restoration, you can assume your car might be “under the knife” for perhaps a year, but some shops may have a waiting list of a year, 18 months, or longer. Ask how long the queue is before dropping off your car.

Ask how the shop will document progress. The best shops will send regular updates with photos depicting the progress of a customer’s project. It’s peace of mind—especially from a distance—that the restoration is moving forward, but also that the incremental payments for the work are being applied as the shop indicated.

007 Frame rot is another problem that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself at first glance because much of it is located internally or on the top of the rails
Frame rot is another problem that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself at first glance, because much of it is located internally or on the top of the rails, which aren’t visible with the body still mounted to it. Frames can be repaired, but it takes time—and time is literally money with a restoration.

Ask about a deposit and payment schedules. The shop will likely ask for a deposit in order to start the project, but in addition to that, there will be payments—or “draws”—throughout the project. They’ll often vary in amount, depending on the hours applied during each time period, along with any parts to be purchased, so be clear about how the shop expects to be paid during the restoration. Generally, $2,000-$3,000 should be a sufficient good-faith deposit to get the ball rolling. Be wary if the shop asks for something very large such as $10,000 for the deposit. They could be trying to cover other bases with your money.

008 Hourly labor rates vary greatly anywhere from $45 to $120 per hour or more
Hourly labor rates vary greatly, anywhere from $45 to $120 per hour or more. It’s an important consideration in the restoration’s investment, but other factors ultimately determine the total hours the project will consume, meaning the rate itself shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

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Don’t shop by the hour. Regardless of one’s resources, the bottom line for many is the bottom line of the restoration itself: Cost—and it’s going to be a lot.

“There’s no way around it. For a full, rotisserie-type restoration, it could be 700-1,000 hours or more. It’s logical, then, to ask about the shop’s hourly labor rate, but it shouldn’t be a primary factor in selecting a shop,” Meier says.

“There is tremendous variation in the hourly labor rates charged by restoration shops, but the rate itself isn’t the only indicator in how much the job will cost in the end,” he says. “The few dollars you think you’re saving per hour may eventually add up to more in the long run, if the shop spends more time on the car.”

009 Ask whether the shop farms out some of the sub projects such as engine building or upholstery
Ask whether the shop farms out some of the sub-projects, such as engine building or upholstery. If so, ask about the vendors they work with. Many resto shops don’t do their own engine work, so it may be up to the vehicle owner to get the engine built and delivered to the shop.

One shop may have a lower rate but fewer technicians, who ultimately take longer than a shop with a higher rate but more craftsmen who may get the job done sooner. Also, a shop may subcontract more jobs than another, which also carries different costs.

A good chunk of that time is going to be carved out of the bodywork and paint. Hundreds of hours may be consumed in pre-paint block-sanding and post-paint color-sanding to achieve a flat, smooth appearance.

010 Ask whether the shop farms out some of the sub projects such as engine building or upholstery
Most shops have preferred vendors for reproduction parts, such as this Camaro quarter-panel from AMD. Selected for more than cost, shops typically use those preferred vendors based on quality and availability; this is an area in which the owner should trust the shop.

Read More: Upgrading Your Chevelle’s Wiper Motor

“We might have 400 hours into sanding and painting, and only eight hours will actually involve spraying the color,” Nyle Wing, a longtime and recently retired restorer who specialized in vintage muscle cars says. “It’s all in the countless hours of blocking before the paint is applied and color-sanding afterward.”

011 Restorations also typically involve tracking down used take off and N O S parts that aren’t available in the aftermarket
Restorations also typically involve tracking down used, take-off, and N.O.S. parts that aren’t available in the aftermarket. A smart way to keep the restoration rolling and save money is tracking down those hard-to-find parts personally, as the hours a resto shop spends on the phone doing it only adds to the bill. Plus, if you select the used parts personally, there’s no question about your satisfaction with their condition.

Don’t tell the shop to take down the quality of the paintwork a few notches to save some money. Most will refuse.

“It’s hard for some to understand why a paintjob might be $40,000, when a body shop will paint a car for far less,” Wing says. “Restoration shops are not body shops. The work is different and that’s what you’re paying for. We simply do our level of detail with the paintjobs; take it or leave it.”

012 The majority of hours in a professional restoration is rooted in bodywork painting and paint detailing
The majority of hours in a professional restoration is rooted in bodywork, painting, and paint detailing. Removing quarter-panels, replacing rusted or previous damaged metal takes time, but cutting corners to save a few dollars only shows in an inferior final product.

Werner Meier echoes those sentiments. “In the end, nobody is happy with a ‘cheaper’ paintjob,” he says. “For one thing, a still-expensive restoration just doesn’t look great in the end. The customer is ultimately disappointed and it’s the shop’s reputation on the line when others see the compromised work.”

013 Block sanding comes after the basic bodywork as the body is prepped for painting
Block-sanding comes after the basic bodywork, as the body is prepped for painting. It can easily consume more than 100 hours of labor but is absolutely necessary to get the body perfectly straight and smooth.

Read More: How to Install Modern Gauges in Your First-Gen Camaro

And let’s be clear: A body shop is not a restoration shop. Some body shops will take on show-quality paintjobs and perhaps other elements of a restoration, but their bread and butter is in everyday collision repair. Among the many resto horror stories we’ve all heard are the ones about the car languishing in the body shop because it’s too busy with collision work.

It can also be frustrating when a restoration shop doesn’t offer a more definitive estimate when discussing the project. Unlike the very specific estimate of a body shop, that can easily be interpreted as evasive or even shady on the resto shop’s part, it’s mostly because the shop doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.

014 When it comes to painting the actual time in the spray booth is comparatively minor but the cost of paint materials has skyrocketed
When it comes to painting, the actual time in the spray booth is comparatively minor, but the cost of paint materials has skyrocketed in recent years, so expect to pay handsomely for them. Depending on the type and brand of paint, a single gallon can cost $200-$1,000. Then there’s the clear and other supporting materials. For a top-quality paintjob, there may be $5,000 or more into just the paint.

“There are ballpark prices we can offer for certain materials and specific aspects of the project, like the block sanding, but it’s very difficult to quote a price for the whole restoration when we haven’t torn down the vehicle to see what we’re really dealing with,” Meier says. “Even good-appearing cars with no apparent big issues can reveal a nightmare after the paint is stripped. We have to make the assumption that we are working with the worst-case scenario with every vehicle when it comes to rust, previous damage, and so on.”

015 After painting that mirror finish comes from dozens of additional hours of color sanding and polishing the fresh paintwork
After painting, that mirror finish comes from dozens of additional hours of color-sanding and polishing the fresh paintwork. Like block-sanding, it’s a painstaking and time-consuming process that can take dozens and dozens of hours.

Read More: Rebuilding Related Items During a Rewire

That means the handshake deal for an agreed price often seen on cable TV car shows is just for the camera. Virtually no established, professional restoration shops operate that way. The projects are intentionally open-ended in order to leave room for the unexpected.

016 Beyond the show quality finish it’s also important to be very clear with the resto shop about the finest details
Beyond the show-quality finish, it’s also important to be very clear with the resto shop about the finest details, such as the surface finish for trim and even items like headlamps. Don’t assume the shop will source original T-3 lights, for example. The owner should source them personally or make clear that’s what the shop should source.

In the end, a restoration is an investment in the shop’s time and your money. Locating a restorer with the experience for your Chevy is the first step and asking the right questions after you find it will help ensure your classic gets the most from both.

ACP

017 Just about anything on wheels can be returned to the road
Knowing thyself in a restoration also means knowing thy car—and its value. Just about anything on wheels can be returned to the road, but only a handful of blue-chip collector cars will be worth more than the investment in a proper resto. That makes a restoration a labor of love because in almost every instance the car won’t be worth more than the cost of the restoration.

Restoration Dos and Don’ts: 10 Tips to Make the Most of Your Professional Restoration Investment

DO: Your homework: Be the champion for what’s correct for your car, particularly if the shop doesn’t necessarily specialize in your vehicle. Provide the guidance on surface finishes, model-year specifics, and other elements that will make the restoration more authentic, especially if you are having a restomod or Pro Touring car built.

DON’T: Hover over the restoration shop: Let the shop do their work. Helicoptering over the project because you live nearby invites stress on your part and the craftsmen doing the work. A few in-person visits to track progress is fine, but don’t make the shop your weekly haunt. You’ll annoy the staff and interrupt their workflow.

DON’T: Be afraid to ask questions: What kind and/or brand of paint does the shop typically use? Are they going to media-blast the body or chemically strip it? If they don’t do their own engine work, who do they typically use? Get into the weeds of your restoration’s details, so you’re clear about the hows and whys of the work.

DO: Be patient: Restorations take a long time. It could take nine months or a year or more, so get ready to wait. And sometimes the restoration shop is at the mercy of the schedule of outside vendors, such as upholsterers or chrome shops. Be patient.

DO: Be clear about authenticity: Do you expect period T-3 headlamps to be installed or are parts-store replacements suitable? What about a date-coded fan shroud? Or N.O.S. parts? The shop will build the car to your demands, so be sure to discuss and be clear about the level of authenticity you want in the vehicle.

DON’T: Change course midstream: It happens often: A simple repaint turns into a full-blown restoration, or a standard resto turns into a concours-ribbon-chasing project. Changing course midway through the project inevitably requires the shop to backtrack and redo work. That adds time and money. Make your plan before the shop starts and stick with it.

DO: Hunt down the hard parts: If your vehicle needs hard-to-find parts, track them down yourself rather than relying on the resto shop to do it. You’ll save the money they’ll charge for spending hours on the Internet doing so, while also ensuring the found items—especially used parts—live up to your standards.

DON’T: Throw away the take-off parts: Rusty, beat-up, take-off parts may take up a lot of space, but don’t toss them out until after the restoration is completed. You or the restoration shop will likely need them at some point for reference, a neglected piece of hardware, or even as the pattern for fabricated component. Hold onto everything until the project is completed.

DO: Maintain insurance coverage: Anything can happen during the course of the restoration, and while the shop’s insurance will provide coverage for some incidents, it’s important to maintain your coverage for others. The shop could go out of business overnight, leaving you with only pieces of your car—or missing pieces of the more valuable components. Hedge your bets.

DON’T: Expect to make money: Only a fraction of cars are worth more than what it costs for a full restoration. If you’re committing to the project, do it for the love of the car and thrill of the project itself. If it’s because you’re harboring notions of turning a profit after the color-sanding is completed, don’t bother. For the vast majority of vehicles, it ain’t going to happen.

Sources:

Auto Metal Direct
(888) 255-3895
Autometaldirect.com

Classic Industries
(888) 816-2897
Classicindustries.com

Golden Star
(972) 315-3758
Goldenstarauto.com

Original Parts Group
(800) 243-8355
opgi.com

Speedway Motors
(855) 313-9173
Speedwaymotors.com/allchevyperformance

Summit Racing
(800) 230-3030
summitracing.com

Year One
(800) 932-7663
https://yearone.com/ (Enter code ACP20)

Click on this issue’s cover to see the enhanced digital version of How to Choose the Right Restoration Shop for Your Project.

acp march 2024

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