It's been almost five years since Bill Harden traded in his paint brush for an air-powered spray gun, but he's no longer painting people's houses and apartments. Now it's motorcycle frames and just about any other metal item that people want to protect.
His clients are hardly the biggest change, however. Instead of paint, Harden is spraying dry powder in a booth inside of Top Dog Powder Coating, 13428 C St.
It's a process known in the manufacturing and automotive worlds that now increasingly is finding its way into consumer uses, providing steady work and growth for some small businesses in the area.
“We'll coat everything from automotive wheels to engine parts, aluminum bar stools, handguns, ATV parts,” Harden said. “The options are enormous.”
Introduced in the U.S. during the 1950s, powder coating is the process of applying dry paint particles with air and setting the finish with heat.
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Like 90 percent of powder coating users in the U.S., Harden uses the electrostatic spray process, in which the dry particles are electrically charged. The positively charged particles adhere to a negatively charged metal surface, which, once properly coated, has its finish set in a large oven.
Powder coating remains less well known than its oil- and water-based paint counterparts. But it's more common than people realize.
Powder coatings represent a “large share” of the consumer appliance market, said coatings industry analyst Phil Phillips, president and owner of CHEMARK Consulting Group.
“Powder coat can take a lot of punishment, so you can move a fridge around in your kitchen and it won't get scratched like paint,” Phillips said.
Additionally, powder manufacturers are helping drive annual market growth of about 4.5 percent by offering thousands of colors for even more diverse applications, such as patio furniture and even road striping.
Outdoor furniture is especially well-suited for powder coating, Harden said. Patio chairs can be sprayed for around $75 apiece, about as much as it costs to get a wheel coated.
Durability is one of two factors that has attracted more consumers — both private and industrial — to powder coatings. The other is environmental appeal.
Unlike liquid paints, powder coatings contain no hazardous compounds, nor are chemicals needed for cleanup. That helped them gain popularity on the West Coast in the 1960s, when federal regulations cracked down on the emission of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, from non-automotive sources.
Over the last half-century, the practice has migrated to the Midwest, where Phillips has noticed a “groundswell of activity for powder coating.”
“If you look at what's being coated, I think powder coating is more of a Midwest thing than anything else,” he said.
He referred to the Rust Belt states, where metal products and automotive manufacturing plants have increasingly turned to the practice. “Powder coating follows manufacturing,” he said.
A bit farther west, the practice is thriving in Omaha, too.
For 15 years, Lozier Corp. has used powder coating exclusively for all of its metal products, which include store shelves and other fixtures, said David Gnuse, vice president of operations. He estimated Lozier consumes “millions of pounds” of powder each year.
Gnuse said its durability makes it more attractive than paint, but it's also a more cost-effective application, because overspray can be reclaimed using a vacuum system and reused.
“That aspect makes it more economical than liquid (coatings), and environmentally there's less waste and no solvents or hazardous chemicals,” he said.
Durability is especially a bonus for medium- and heavy-industrial uses such as agriculture and transportation, two areas that make up a good part of the work at Omaha-based Great Plains Powdercoating. Regional manufacturers have called on the company for 25 years to coat either high volumes of small parts or very large individual parts for things such as tractors, harvesters and train engines.
Jim Schulte, president of the company formerly known as Great Plains Polymers, said the business has grown significantly in recent years.
“Over the last three years, we've probably had threefold growth in employment,” Schulte said. Great Plains Powdercoating employs 15 people and now operates from two locations.
Schulte said the company is nearing completion of an expansion at its 9,000-square-foot South Omaha space that will give it a second production line. Taking advantage of a depressed commercial real estate market and low interest rates, Great Plains bought that facility in 2012, adding to its 20,000-square-foot leased building north of 90th and Maple Streets.
Even large companies that do their own power coating sometimes subcontract to Great Plains, Schulte said.
Corporate accounts for Top Dog Powder Coating, which consists of Harden and his semiretired father, include Dillon Bros. Harley-Davidson and Black Rose Machine Shop, a garage that makes custom motorcycles.
The Dillon Bros. account started two years ago when it had a customer who wanted to powder coat a part. “They brought it to me,” Harden said.
Now the Harley dealership brings in orders two or three times a week — more when the weather suits motorcycle riding.
Former vehicle fleet technician Chris Bagley started his custom powder coating shop, New Wave Powder Coating, five years ago. Like Harden, Bagley's experience with powder coating began with a search to find a local shop that could do work for him personally.
“I was just looking to get a bicycle frame powder-coated at first, and I found out how expensive it was,” Bagley said. “I found out how to do it myself and then started doing it for friends and it blew up.”