How to…The ins and outs of dent removal
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Back when music thrived on vinyl records, I had a three-hit rule: I could justify buying the album if it had three hit songs on it. Today the same guideline applies to my daughter’s long-suffering 2009 Pontiac Vibe. After three hits, it’s worth getting the body fixed. Let’s just say it’s known to the body shops in our area.
I don’t ask about new dents anymore. My daughter, Julia, is a coach and sometimes drives her athletes to the subway after practice. The athletes can be careless with their equipment and the Vibe bears the brunt of it. Still, the latest dent was a big bruiser on the driver’s door above the character line, so it caught the sun every time.
Rather than go to a body shop, I looked into a few dent removal services in the Greater Toronto Area. One featured an online estimator, so I punched in the information to get the cost for one door dent: $320. Not nearly the $100 to 150 these places often advertise.
I began watching the do-it-yourself dent removal videos on YouTube and looked at the kits you can buy on Amazon. The tutorials made it look easy – and I’m a pretty quick draw with a glue gun. So, I pulled the trigger on a Paintless Dent Removal (PDR) kit for $63.
My kit arrived 24 hours later in an impossibly small carton. Inside was a “dent lifter” tool, a tiny hot-glue gun, glue sticks, some plastic tabs, two plastic scrapers and a small hammer. There are cheaper kits, but I liked the solid metal lifter because it seemed to provide more finesse when pulling steel back into shape.
PDR involves gluing a plastic tab in the centre of the dent and using the tool to pull the metal out of its depression. It’s almost impossible to do it in one yank. Usually, the glue lets go and you have to remove the residue with 95 per cent alcohol, glue another tab and use the tool to pull again. And again.
Done correctly, PDR is a great solution because there’s no messy body filler, sanding or painting involved. You can vanquish a small dent in an hour once you get the hang of it. But there are caveats, as I soon discovered.
A dent can happen anytime, including the nasty half of the year when the days are short and the weather frigid. Being November, I waited for a mild Sunday and washed the car so I could examine each blemish. The smallest was a horizontal dent on the front fender. I decided to attack it first while learning to use the puller.
I chose a small, elongated tab and topped it with hot glue before quickly sticking it on the small depression and waited five minutes for it to solidify. I adjusted the lifter, making sure the tab’s knurled end fit properly in the tool, then adjusted the feet to splay over the dent with room to spare. The tool should mount vertically so that it pushes against the curve of the fender — and not perpendicular to it – to avoid new dents.
By squeezing the spring-loaded handles, the tool pulled the tab outward bringing the metal with it. The videos often show the user squeezing and releasing the tool in rapid bursts, coaxing the metal to move into shape. The other option is to do it in one hard pull – not recommended when the dent is shallow.
In my case the glue let go, but not before pulling the dent maybe 70 per cent of the way out. I repeated it two more times – after cleaning the dried glue each time – until I was satisfied the dent was essentially gone.
To be honest, my definition of successful dent removal is not what the pros would consider a job well done. I could make out a tiny ripple where the bent metal expended its energy after being forced back into shape. However, nobody would notice the ripple except a pro. Let’s face it: the Vibe is a $3,000 car.
I moved to the second dent at the rear quarter panel, where it meets the plastic bumper cover. This was a larger elongated dent, complicated by the fact it bent part of the fender flare over the rear wheel. To my surprise, the big tab I used held on for dear life and it took a good minute of forceful pulling before the glue let go.
The result was surprisingly good; I restored about 60 per cent of the dent with one pull. But my early success was thwarted when I failed to fix any more of the dent, despite applying different-sized tabs four more times. I was wasting a lot of time cleaning the dried glue, and I hadn’t even come to the main event yet.
The door dent was 10 centimetres long and also deep, but what really made it a challenge was the crease in the middle. I couldn’t affix a big tab over the crease and expect a good grip because it was not a flat surface. I tried gluing on either side of the crease, but the dent was stubborn.
The tool I had did not lend itself well to this kind of dent. I used four different large tabs, and not one of them moved the metal noticeably. Bigger dents respond better to traditional dent pullers, those steel rods with a sliding weight that yanks on the metal in one violent motion before the adhesive lets go.
After four hours of futzing on the driveway dark rain clouds rolled in, prompting me to collect my tools and head inside. It was getting cold anyway. It dawned on me that I was going to need help.
Juderaj Anthony is a 15-year veteran of the dent removal trade and proprietor of Auto Dent Solutions. He greeted me outside of his nondescript industrial unit in Scarborough and ran his hand over the door dent. “You don’t use a glue puller for this. I have $15,000 worth of tools to do the job properly,” Anthony said. Quiet and unassuming, I immediately warmed to the guy.
Anthony used to work at a car dealership detailing vehicles. Every so often, he’d see someone come by with some steel rods and work the metal from the underside of a door skin or hood and magically push out the dents and dings from a vehicle on the lot.
“He would get paid $100 for an hour’s work – I had to work a long day to make that kind of money,” Anthony said. He decided to trade his sponges and polish for a new set of tools.
Anthony practised a long time to learn the technique, mastering the long hook-like rods that descend down the inside of the door and gingerly push against the steel skin to work the dent out from behind. The inevitable high spots are remedied with knock-down tools frequently tipped with plastic or even leather.
Anthony became a mobile dent artist, travelling from dealership to dealership, fixing both new and used vehicles marred by unsightly dings. The promised land is apparently Alberta, where a skilled tradesperson can make hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why there?
“Hailstorms,” Anthony said.
I left the hapless Pontiac in Anthony’s good hands the next morning, and by lunchtime he had called me to collect it. He charged me $150 for the repair, a reasonable fee I was happy to fork over.
The door looked flawless in his garage, though when I brought it out into the sunshine, I could make out the faintest ripple where the dent had been. I was not disappointed. It was, after all, a high-mileage Pontiac Vibe. It would live to get hit another day.