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A makeover that really sticks

Once reserved for industrial surfaces, powder coating is gaining popularity as an affordable, lasting way to update home furnishings.

October 09, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Make no mistake. Betsy Leder, a Westside interior decorator, is joking when she says, "I would powder-coat my children if I could."

It's just that she really, really loves the sturdy, sleek finish that "painting" with powder can provide for old metal wastebaskets, tables and furnace covers.

"It's an amazing old method that you can use today to give rooms a shot of color as well as an updated look without looking trendy," Leder said. "It' so cool."

Long used as an industrial-strength coating for washers and dryers, store fixtures, highway signs, ski poles and auto parts, powder coating is fast becoming the finish of choice for home renovators aiming to perk up rusty or corroded items that can't be easily painted with a brush.

Farmers powder-coat their tractors. Shop owners powder-coat their shelves. Parents powder-coat rusty metal wagons. Office workers sit at powder-coated desks and push powder-coated thumbtacks.

Jane Smith, proprietor of the 29 Palms Inn in Twentynine Palms, decided to try powder coating to salvage her kitchen cabinets. She hauled her cabinet fronts and drawers to Applied Powder Coat in Oxnard. There the 1950s-vintage parts, manufactured by St. Charles, were sandblasted and powder-coated in what Smith calls a "whipped-butter soft yellow."

"They were chipped up at the bottom," Smith said. "Now they look like new. I'm stoked."

"People would say, you could just paint them, or replace the fronts," Smith said. "I didn't want to. Any time I can, I go overboard to save the old stuff."

Powder coating can also lend a modernist touch. Margaret Griffin, a Culver City architect, advises clients to make furniture out of steel tubing and then use a metallic powder coating. The cost is about half of what it would be to use stainless steel, she said.

"It's a more economical way to get a nice, clean look that's almost like a matte-finish stainless," Griffin said. And that finish is even, with no brush strokes.

These days, home-furnishing and gardening catalogs sing the praises of powder-coated products. Ballard Design features a bread box and canisters, powder-coated "for easy cleaning."

The same catalog features a European-style bistro table and chairs, "crafted of solid steel with weather-resistant powder coat finish for years of durable wear."

"Powder coating has pretty much cornered the market on metal patio furniture," said Jeff Palmer, a spokesman for the Powder Coating Institute's 250 members. Yes, the industry even has its own trade group, in Alexandria, Va. Palmer estimates that there are 1,000 custom powder-coaters nationwide, with an additional 4,500 or so companies that powder-coat the products they make.

Powder coating is a dry finishing process, Palmer explained. The powder is made of a mixture of pigment and resin, generally either epoxy- or polyester-based. Special machines mix and pulverize the material into a fine powder.

The powder is sprayed with an application gun that gives it an electrostatic charge onto a product that's electrically grounded. The charged powder particles adhere to the item, which is then loaded into a curing oven heated to 300 to 450 degrees.

As the powder melts, it fuses, forming a durable finish that resists chipping.

Powder coating has advantages over paints and other liquid finishes, said Vic Anselmo, president and owner of Applied Powder Coat.

"It's very environmentally friendly -- no fumes, no toxic chemicals, no solvents," Anselmo said. The only waste that's generated is dust, which Anselmo said is reclaimed for future use or collected in filters, melted and then solidified into an 18-inch-square of plastic that gets bagged and thrown into the trash.

"It takes you months of processing to accumulate enough powder to clean out your system and bag it up," Anselmo said. Federal regulators, he added, have cracked down on cleaning up paints and other liquid finishes, "so the liquid people have to charge a lot more."

Prices for powder coating range widely, depending on the item's size and condition. For sandblasting and powder coating the hatrack pictured above, Anselmo charged $100.

Smith's big roomful of kitchen cabinets cost about $2,300.

A typical patio chair would run about $55, and a table, about $200.

Clearly, powder coating isn't for everything. Tempting as it might sound, you can't powder-coat your walls. The item has to fit into a curing oven. But some ovens are huge -- big enough, for example, to powder-coat snow-removal equipment.

Although powder coating is used primarily for metal products, the industry is working to develop powders that can be cured at lower temperatures for use on ceramics, wood and plastic.

Anselmo said individuals walk in off the street to his two plants in Chatsworth and Oxnard. They bring in everything from metal furnace enclosures to bike frames to wrought-iron gates.

"We are seeing more and more things," Anselmo said. "More people are finding out about this process and getting things done."

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