The paint on most cars used to be too brittle to bend.
A door ding, a dent from a baseball or divots from hailstones once required giant sanders, toxic spray paint and trash bins out back engorged with scrap metal and empty cans of Bondo.
Today, James Bishop just uses his hands and a few long, lightweight hammers to massage the dimples from a car's surface.
Call him The Dent Whisperer.
He's been doing it for 22 years. But Bishop is hardly alone. The process he employs is called paintless dent repair, or PDR, and it's now the go-to method for anyone looking to avoid the high costs of resurfacing or replacing an auto body panel, especially for hail damage.
Consider the difference in time and effort to repair a minor dent:
Traditional auto body repair:
1. Grind paint off with sander.
2. Bang metal back into shape.
3. Fill remaining gaps with metal putty, often called by the brand name Bondo.
5. Spray with primer.
6. Spray with base coat.
7. Spray with paint.
8. Possibly spray with four additional layers of paint and finish. A pearl paint, for example, can take up to seven layers to match the original color.
Cost: About $1,000 plus car rental.
Time: As much as a week or longer.
Paintless dent repair (PDR):
1. Disassemble back side of the panel to access the dented area from behind.
2. Slowly push and pull the metal back into place.
3. Use a straight-light tool to ensure surface is straight and smooth.
Because the paint job remains intact, no finish work is needed.
Cost: As little as $300.
Time: One afternoon. No rental car required.
Avoid a comprehensive claim or surcharge
If you're footing the bills yourself for a hail repair because you dropped your comprehensive coverage, the savings are almost irresistible.
But even if you have comprehensive coverage, you might consider PDR to avoid filing a claim at all or to hang onto your claims-free car insurance discount. While a single claim might not raise your insurance rates, a series of them almost certainly would.
Use of PDR also might scale a larger claim down a level that avoids a surcharge, or penalty, on your premium for the next three years.
"A $3,000 claim might get you a surcharge," says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner, "but a $500 claim is likely to be below most insurers' thresholds."
Is this a PDR-appropriate ding?
Car insurance companies received more than 322,000 claims for hail damage in 2012, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The Highway Loss Data Institute says the average hail loss claim is about $3,100.
"Insurers are all in line with using PDR, but on hail damage," says Bishop, owner of The Ding Guy, in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They're still not real adept at qualifying damage that's not hail damage."
While an insurer might refer you to a PDR outfit for hail damage, you can ask if it's a viable option in other cases as well.
PDR's applicability is limited to small, shallow depressions. A baseball that came over the fence, a runaway shopping cart, a bad parallel parker -- all are potential PDR moments if the paint is intact.
Dent Wizard still likes to restrict PDR to vehicles less than 10 years old, as all paint brittles with time.
Extensive damage, or damage that crosses car seams or is in hard-to-access places, may make traditional repair a better choice.
Your insurance company will probably only cover work done by an approved PDR shop. If you're paying out of pocket, do a search at the Better Business Bureau website for accredited "auto paintless dent repair" companies in your area.
PDR isn't a cure-all
As with windshield repair, don't trust just anyone claiming to do PDR. Rogue repairmen have been known to drill holes to reach the back sides -- something that poses a safety risk and should never be done.
Bishop saw a car recently with 20 holes that had been drilled into the bracing structure of a car's hood.
"Manufacturers build the hood to fold a certain way in a front-end collision," he says. "If you create points that are weaker, it'll fold in other places and can send the hood through the windshield."
Easier on the environment
Mother Nature will thank you. Think about what all the hundreds of PDR shops aren't tossing and spraying.
"You could literally fill a sport stadium with the panels that I haven't thrown away, and that's just me. And drums and drums of paint I haven't used," says Bishop. "It is kind of mind-blowing when you start looking at the big picture of what this offers."
But your wallet benefits, too, not just at the time of repair but at resale time, too.
"Usually if someone notices if a panel has been repainted, their initial thought is that there has been an accident and that there are more issues inside to worry about," says Todd Yanak, a vice president of Dent Wizard International, a PDR chain operating, mostly at partner shops, in 47 states.