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Picking the Right Metal for Your Upfit
Picking the Right Metal and Finish for Your Upfit
April 27, 2018

One of the most common questions we hear from our customers is about the durability of a particular finish on metal.  Stainless steel, paint, powdercoating, or anodizing are all used extensively when you upfit and customize a work van or truck and, for many customers, “how it looks” is nearly as important as “how tough is it?”

With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look at the most common metal finishes and the pros and cons of each one.

For the ultimate in corrosion and wear resistance, it’s tough to beat stainless steel.  While “stainless” is traditionally defined by the chromium content of the steel alloy, there are literally scores of recipes for stainless and, while it is durable and beautiful, it does have some drawbacks.  Given the fact that for nearly half of the year, the roads of western Canada have some type of salt on them, stainless steel’s noncorrosive nature is often a smart investment.  An annual polishing and regular cleaning is about all that is needed to guarantee stainless steel stays, well, stainless and the fact that it requires no additional finishing steps after production does mean that, despite the initial costs, little, if any, additional preparation is needed.  The downside is that stainless cannot be hardened and tempered like traditional carbon steel alloys, making it virtually impossible to build some vehicle components out of stainless exclusively.  At the same time, the fact that stainless steel is still heavy – it is steel, after all – and the long worklife of a stainless steel component may not be offset by the additional material costs and fuel consumption versus a lighter material that is properly maintained.

By far, the majority of truck upfitting materials today – like ladder racks, shelving, flatbeds, and trailers are produced from aluminum or a carbon steel alloy and then, a finish of some type is applied to them.  The durability of those finishes can vary greatly, but each has its place.

Powdercoating is by far the toughest.  Essentially, any metal can be powdercoated and, for our purposes, the easiest way to describe the process of applying such a finish is that a polymer is sprayed on to the prepared metal surface and then bonded to the surface through the application of heat.  The end result, unlike a coat of paint, is that this polymer flows and forms what can only be described as a skin that is far tougher than paint.

Due to the durability of powdercoating, caring for powdercoating is much easier than a painted finish – like stainless, regular washing and cleaning is about all it needs and, perhaps once a year, a coat of wax.  Powdercoating does present a challenge, though, if it is scratched – corrosion can work its way under the powdercoating and break the chemical bond between the coating and the metal.  Traditionally, most users have found it easier to simply care for scratches by cleaning them thoroughly and simply applying a coat of matching paint over the damaged area.

Paint is the old standby when it comes to protecting metal and, despite the drawbacks due to its lack of bonding strength, still has a very real place is the world of upfitting trucks and vans.  As most everyone knows, the surface is prepared, paint is applied and allowed to dry and cure, and the surface has a layer of protection.  Paint, though, requires maintenance.  Monthly washing and cleaning, quarterly polishing and protective waxing, and the knowledge that, as that surface is polished, it gets thinner and more likely to fail.  On the other hand, paint is a perfectly durable way to protect a variety of things – especially interior upgrades or those that will have limited exposure to inclement conditions.

There is some real irony in the debate between paint and powdercoating – most of the manufacturers that we work with actually prefer powdercoating over paint because the spray pattern and volume can be easily controlled and thus, costs kept down since there is no overspray lost in the powdercoating process.

When it comes to aluminum, our preference is to leave it in it’s natural finish.  Aluminum is exclusive among metals in that, as it oxidizes, the oxidation coating becomes self-limiting.  When steel corrodes, the rust can continue to “dig in” and pit the surface.  Aluminum oxides simply cannot do that.  The primary way that aluminum corrodes is due to either an acidic environment or one in which the natural oxidized coatings are removed.

Of course, nobody likes to look at an ugly, oxidized toolbox, but don’t worry – when you polish off that thin coating of oxide, you’re still leaving plenty of metal, so make sure you keep that diamond plate toolbox bright and shiny to match any other bright aluminum accessories you might have on your truck or van.

Aluminum is also sometimes finished via a process called anodizing.  This process is most often used in firearms and certain “performance” pieces in cars – such as intake manifolds.  While anodizing is beautiful, in our experience, it lacks the durability of powdercoating when it comes to harsh conditions.  Leave anodizing to the hunters and the racers – you’ll be happier and your work truck will look newer, longer.

When the time comes to build the perfect work truck or van, it pays to think about how you want the metal to be finished.  If you stay on the go, stainless steel offers superior corrosion resistance for several lifetimes, but powdercoating and even properly cared for paint can still be effective, provide great corrosion protection, and still help you to command a premium when you trade in your truck.  Our recommendation?  Look at each option carefully and know what the benefits and detriments are to each and then, let Expertec pull it all together into the perfect vehicle for your fleet or company.