18 Years And Still Growing,
Dents, Etc. Was Built To Last
Dents, Etc. Was Built To Last
When Mike Wahl of Dents, Etc. got into the paintless dent repair (PDR) business 18 years ago, the Internet was an alien landscape of untouched potential; there were few “green” regulations covering the dangers of inhaling volatile organic compounds (VOCs) while working with automotive paint; and the only thing less assessable than PDR tools, was finding a PDR training program. Servicing Carlisle, Iowa south of Des Moines, Wahl began working in an automotive body shop specializing in collision restoration while still in high school.
Even at a young age, he was feeling the effects of breathing in toxic fumes caused by paints, primers, polishes, and fillers; asbestos found in clutch mechanisms; and brake dust. Even though he protected himself with coveralls, respirators, and gloves, in those days, adequate ventilation didn’t always protect against dust and other particles created by the machines that irritated the respiratory tract, injured the eyes, and damaged the skin.
“I was looking for something in the automotive repair industry that was easier on my lungs,” Wahl says. “Working in collision repair, I saw this new and exciting concept known as PDR. It had its limitations at the time, for instance, the dent had to be small, and the paint couldn’t be broken, but it was appealing to me because I knew I could build my own business, leave the body shop environment, but still work on cars.” Wahl knew he had to learn more about it, but it wouldn’t come at all easy.
“I approached a dent repair company about training me locally but they would have no part of it. The Internet was just coming on but it wasn’t nearly what it is now in terms of researching things.” Wahl finally found a school in California where he spent a week going through their training program. “Let’s just say there was nothing eye-opening, nor were any great secrets revealed that week,” he admits. “It was sub-par and very limited, and more or less trial and error. PDR was in its infancy and their approach was to share what they could and students would make it, or they wouldn’t make it.”
In their defense, Wahl says he has learned since then that you can more or less tell when you are training someone whether they have it in them to succeed at dent repair or not. “By the time I finished that class, I was committed. Failing was not an option for me.” When Wahl got back home, he moved his dining room table down to the basement, brought a couple of car hoods home from work, put some dents in them himself, propped them up on the dining table, and went about practicing removing the dents every night. “Sometimes I surprised myself and the dent came out pretty good, but sometimes they came out terrible,” he says. “I had to figure out what I did wrong on those and make sure I didn’t do it again.”
He says it took a while before he got comfortable enough to do a real dent. He continued to work at the body shop while he practiced and learned more. “Finally, I picked up a used car dealership account and began doing work for them on weekends,” he says. “I got to the point, after awhile, that I couldn’t continue to do both — work at the body shop and maintain my sideline work. That was when I quit and went out on my own and I have been on my own ever since.” He says tools were a big factor between now and then. “Compared to today’s standards, I worked like a caveman with a light bulb and couple of rods,” he laughs. “The tool lines have grown tremendously. When I first got started, there weren’t many tools available.
I remember when the whale tail came out; finally you could get into tight spaces like at the corners of a panel.” Indeed, the PDR tool industry exploded in the last decade making the work quicker, easier, and the repair itself nicer. Rods now come in many sizes and you can buy them with double bend or collapsible capabilities. Today there are dozens of knockdowns, hammers, slide hammers, dent lifters, and the glue pull. “I remember when the glue point and shaved tools came out it was a big change,” Wahl says. “Glue point evolved into the glue pull and shaved tools let you get into thin access areas so you could repair more damage.
That was when PDR grew from only being able to fix small, golf ball-sized dents mostly caused by hail on flat surfaces like the hood or roof, into larger sized dents in more difficult to access areas like side panels and doors.”
Currently on the Board of directors for the National Alliance of PDR Technicians (NAPDRT), things have come a long way in 18 years, not just in the training and supply side of PDR, but in terms of having a professional organization focused on improving the industry, and in opportunities like NACE and MTE, which encourage new people to get involved. Wahl conducts several PDR seminars for NAPDRT at the International Autobody Congress and Exposition (NACE) every year, which is committed to the automotive collision industry. He also spent nine years helping manage and organize the Dent Olympics competition at the Mobile Tech Expo in Orlando. “I go to MTE every year and I am now on the support committee,” he says, but through the years, he has seen some characters. “Dent guys all have very big egos. You have some who will stand back and boast about what a good job they did on a dent when the dent is still visible. One year, a contestant fixed the wrong dent. We gave him another one, but he spent an hour fixing a dent that wasn’t his.
“Regardless of how good you are at fixing a dent on the job, it is nerve-wracking out there on display,” he continues. “Remember, you are fixing one little dent, while a host of other dent guys who all think they are the best, are staring you down. When you finish, some backseat driver starts telling you how poorly you did in comparison to some of the others … it is very intimidating.”
Wahl says growing up in Iowa he never had to hit the road chasing hail as many young PDR technicians did. “We have a fair enough amount of hail in and around Des Moines that keep me busy. If a huge storm hits, the circus will come to town, but we are a close-knit community and most of the car dealerships and body shops prefer to work with businesses in the surrounding area. There are new dent guys who come into the market for a while, and then go away,” he continues.
“I am very happy with how Dents, Etc. is doing. We have great customer relationships and we still, after eighteen years, pick up new customers. We have people bring their vehicle to us who say they first took it to a body shop. ‘I know you can’t fix this …’ they will say, but what they don’t realize is that telling me it can’t be done is my biggest downfall … Oh, I’ll fix it and the customer will be thrilled with the result while I am my own worst critic.”
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