Confessions of a Paintless Dent Remover

Calling a paintless dent remover instead of taking your car to the body shop can save you significant amounts of time and money. But choose carefully — the job is far trickier than it looks. We managed to track down and speak with the Obi-Wan Kenobi of paintless dent removers, Los Angeles-based Sean McMullan of Crayford Coachworks, as he massaged a complex ding out of a Subaru Impreza. His keen and entertaining insights are below.

I tell people I'm the McDonald's of the automotive world — I make everyone happy for a lot less money. To be specific, I can usually fix your dent for a third the cost of a body shop. Sometimes it's even a tenth the cost, if you add in the car rental and down time. But you have to know what you're doing, as you almost have to be an artist to know how to do this job. The dent on this Subaru Impreza — caused by a baby seat falling onto the car — looked like it was going to be borderline impossible to fix.

The number-one thing causing dents is people driving into trash cans. Number two is irate girlfriend/boyfriend incidents. When I show up, no one admits to causing it. He says, "She was drunk" or she says, "He was seeing some other chick." I sometimes have to tell them to stop because it gets quite heated at times, and I'm there to fix the dent, not the relationship.

Decades of Experience

I've been pushing metal for about 30 years, since I was 15 and started working in a body shop in Kent, in southeast England. I used to own my own body shop but now I'm strictly mobile — I come to you to fix your dent. I'll try to find a place to park without too much traffic and one that has good light. I work out of the back of my Toyota Tacoma pickup, which holds my tools. Most dents take only about 15 minutes or so and I charge about $100-$125.

When people call me about a job I ask them to describe the dent. Is it the size of a quarter? A half-dollar? What is the color of the car? Because that makes a difference, too. I also want to know what caused the dent because I've seen so many of them. If they are some distance away I may ask them to take a picture and e-mail it to me.

Part of being a good dent guy is knowing when to say no. I can't fix dents in structural components like the side rails of the roof because there's no way to get to them. If I can get to the dent, I can usually repair it, and I've special tools to gain access to nearly every part of the car. But if I can't gain access, often it's a no-go.

Hundreds of Tools

Being able to fix a dent has a lot to do with light or the shadow that it generates over the panel. That's why I use these boards that I suction onto the car. They help me work on the dent and let me see when I've got it worked out. I probably own a couple of hundred tools because every dent is going to require some shaping. In some cases I have to make my own tools and light boards.

The hard part is knowing when you're done. You think it's absolutely perfect, you go and have a sandwich, come back and say, "Shoot, I missed that." So you must walk around it, change the light before you know if you're done. You can get it good enough, or make it perfect.

Horrific Failure Rate

A lot of people get into this business thinking it will be an easy way to make money. They last for maybe a year or so and then they drop out. It has a horrific failure rate and it's much harder to do than people realize. Everyone asks if I'm going to screw it up when I fix the dent. Quite often I'll decline the job if I can't make it flawless. Or I'll ask the owner if they would accept a tiny imperfection. Most people are all right with that.

Sometimes I get called in to fix a dent that someone else has already had a go at. If it can be shaped back into a nice gentle salad bowl it's easy to lift out. If they've pickled it, it'll look like the Pyrenees Mountains. We call it "chewing it up" or "pizza-ing it" because they hit all over the place instead of working out the dent.

Occupational Hazards

This job is hard on your eyes because you're always squinting at the dent in bright light. Also, your wrist takes a hiding. I have to get into some awkward positions, and if I go out in the morning on a tough job and it's cold, I can throw my back out. I go to the chiropractor once a week, and he can tell what kind of a week I've had. He keeps me up and running.

Hiring a Paintless Dent Remover

If you have a dent you think could be handled by a paintless dent remover, it's a good idea to go to a body shop first to get an estimate. Then, use the one-third rule to figure out what a paintless dent guy could do it for.

Call around and ask how long they've been doing it. Make sure they have been doing it for at least 3 years. You want to find if they have automotive experience prior to dent repair. You'd be surprised that a lot of guys in our business can't do things like remove a taillight to get to the backside of a dent. And just be a good judge of character — feel them out on the phone.

Job Satisfaction

If I've done my job right, I can come back and look at it, even with my light board, and say, "Now even I don't know where it was." When I'm done, the dent could be perfect but something doesn't look quite right. So I'll take a tool and put back in that orange peel look.

I guess it's like art — some people have the ability to draw and others just don't. That's what I love about my job. What I do seems impossible to most people. And that I can do it quickly is like instant gratification.

Read more articles in the Edmunds Confessions Series.