Fender Mender: Auto body technician makes dents disappear

Three cars await repairs in Stephan Dale’s workspace at Ball Body Shop in Middleton: a bright red Toyota Prius C, pockmarked from a recent hailstorm; a Ford Fusion needing a rear quarter panel replacement; and a Toyota Sienna van with damage to its sliding door. In 2010, Smart Motors acquired Ball Body Shop, where 26 technicians now work in an expanded, renovated, and surprisingly clean space.

Dale, 42, has been employed here for two and a half years, but he’s done auto body repair for more than two decades. A large tattoo on his forearm spells out “Yahweh” in Hebrew letters. “I was in a fairly bad motorcycle accident a couple of years ago,” he explains. “I believe that God helped me out, so I owe him some advertising.”

On any given day at Ball Body Shop, Dale might find himself sawing, sanding, pounding, glueing, or welding in a quest to restore vehicles to a nearly new condition.

There’s no doubt that Dale is a husband and father first and an auto body technician second. “The guys give me a hard time about it,” he admits. “But I come in at 6 a.m. so I can leave at 2 or 2:30.” After work, he plans to splash around with his three young children at the Middleton public pool.

Two wall-sized tool cabinets are peppered with family photos and his children’s drawings. “I’m very, very fortunate,” Dale says, glowing. “I’m not going to lie about it or try to hide it.”

Vehicles in various stages of repair occupy more than 24 repair bays around the room. Even more cars await painting. It’s not unusual for the shop to see between 70 and 100 vehicles a week, according to Jeff Hepp, director of collision facilities. Early summer is particularly busy, he notes, because young drivers are driving more, but demand really ramps up in fall, during deer season. “We see a lot of icky stuff,” Hepp admits. “Most people know this won’t be a cheap date.”

Until vehicles are completely inspected, estimates are just estimates. “I’d say 90% of the repairs we do have hidden damage,” he notes. The shop’s average repair cost is $2,300.

What the hail is going on?

Every vehicle in the shop is washed before it’s worked on, and any prior damage, including light scratches imperceptible to an untrained eye, is circled with a yellow wax marker. “It helps keep everyone honest,” Dale explains.

Parts needing repair are immediately disassembled, and replacements are ordered. The hail-damaged Prius, he says, will take an estimated 60 hours of repair work. He glued down its new steel roof yesterday. Today, he’ll spend part of his shift welding all around its front and back.

The car’s interior is covered for protection as Dale hoists a $22,000, liquid-cooled welder over his shoulder. It’s heavy, he admits, moving it into position. “You want to put the new weld next to the original weld,” he explains. “The original weld compresses the metal and makes it thinner. If you go right over the same weld, it will be even thinner and not as structurally sound as the factory would want.” He has about 150 welds to make on this roof. That number, he says, is pretty typical. Some vehicles require as few as 40, others as many as 200. It all depends on the length of the roof.

Locating each weld spot by sight and feel, he positions the welder’s pinchers above and below the metal at the precise weld point, then presses a trigger. The machine beeps, and sparks shower toward him. It comes with the territory, evidently. Dale shrugs. “Occasionally, they crawl through the laces in your shoes and we hop around a little bit. You kinda have to be tough there.”

The weld is complete, and he moves on to the next. He works quickly. He then lays a bead of a clear seam sealer all around the roof’s perimeter and spreads the sealer with a small paintbrush. “After 22 years, I’ve got all these steps memorized, so my job is really enjoyable now,” he says. “I’m not stressing over what comes next.”

Noticing a slight imperfection on the steel replacement roof — likely from shipping, he notes — Dale taps and sands it out by hand. It is ready for paint, he declares, and the customer will never know the difference.

A man and his tools

Sometimes, it is simply more efficient to replace a part rather than repair it, as with the Prius’ aluminum hood. But to demonstrate how dents would be removed, Dale illuminates the hood with a special hail light.

Paintless dent repair works best for small to medium-sized hail damage where paint hasn’t been compromised, he says, selecting from his collection of metal tools ranging from 3 inches to well over a foot in length. “There is something very subjective about hail tools,” he comments. “It’s just a rod that pushes, but I have many. They make great back scratchers!”

Working from the underside of the hood, he inserts the tool into a nearby hole and maneuvers its tip to just under a dent. Then he pushes upwards on the metal until the dent is smoothed out. Applying too much pressure can result in a high spot, which can be tapped down with another tool until flush.

If he had his druthers, Dale would do paintless dent repair all day. “I love it,” he says. “I put my music [headphones] on and push dents out. It’s time-consuming, but it’s about getting the best [original] product back to the customer.” It’s also cheaper than conventional repair, according to Hepp.



Dale moves over to the Sienna van. He’s already removed the door and its exterior “skin,” and the exposed metal doorframe lies horizontally on a table. Using a caulk-gun-type device, Dale squeezes a jet-black substance on the inside of the doorframe in several pre-designated areas. The rubbery goo will remain flexible and reduce door vibration, he explains. With another gun, he pumps a continuous bead of black glue around the perimeters of both the doorframe and the new skin before bonding the two pieces together.

Flipping the door over, he uses what he refers to as a door skin shark to bend the new skin’s metal lip all around the doorframe, sealing it. A colleague then helps him lift and reattach the repaired door to the van. This is the “moment of truth,” they laugh. It fits perfectly and will remain in place for 24 hours while the glue dries.

“It is really satisfying when you know you put the customer’s car back into the best possible condition it can be. That’s what keeps me coming here,” Dale says.

Calmness is also a virtue, he notes. “I’m really organized, and a little ADD, as you can see. I have three to four jobs that I’m working on simultaneously, but I might have to drop everything to help someone else out. It just never gets old for me. I think cars are cool. They’re part of my life.

“I like people, but probably inanimate objects just as much,” he laughs.

Safety first

Dale attends continuing education classes whenever they’re offered. “I never stop learning,” he says. “The more I know, the more I can help the estimator, or help in the paint department.” And cars are so much better now, he insists. “They weigh less for better gas mileage, but they’re not any less safe. It’s all about passenger safety rather than saving the car, and that’s how it should be.”

Aluminum and lighter-weight metals designed to improve mileage can also increase road noise, he cautions. “But then Audi and Land Rover have been working with aluminum for 15 to 20 years, and there’s nothing cheap or buzzy about them.”

Dale is paid on a flat-rate system, which is typical in the auto repair industry. He has a set rate that is multiplied by estimated repair hours. If an estimator determines that a repair is projected to take six hours and it takes Dale just four hours to complete, he still gets paid six hours times his rate. “Any good technician wants to be at least 150% to 200% efficient,” Hepp explains. “If they are, they can make a very good living.”

There’s no doubt that hailstorms mean money. “It’s a win-win,” Dale insists. “I haven’t had a customer yet that’s been hurt by hail. The customer’s okay and I get lots of dents to get ADD on.”

His own garage houses the family car, two motorcycles, and a scooter. When not attending to the family, working on a motorcycle, or building something, Dale shares his kids’ enthusiasm for Tonka trucks, radio-controlled cars, and his son’s battery-operated motorcycle.

At one time, he served as a youth pastor, and he still helps out in that capacity when he can. “Eventually, you do need to pull your head out of cars and talk to people,” he says. “I prefer [talking to] middle-schoolers.

“I may be one of the few that do!”

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