Quiet Quality – Richardson’s Custom Auto Body Builds Top-Shelf Rides from a Small Space
Don Richardson painted his first car back in high school in the mid-1970s. He’s still painting today at his shop – Richardson’s Custom Auto Body – in Washington. Now, instead of painting classmates’ cars in his parents’ garage, he works from a shop on the same property in rural Hoquiam, turning out prize-winning rides that have been featured in magazines, won top awards, and earned the respect of the rodding community.
Don was always mechanically inclined. As a youngster he tinkered with mini-bikes and go-karts. At the ripe old age of 11, his father bought him a running ’36 Ford pickup for $50. He tore it apart, teaching himself basic mechanics and fundamental bodywork. “It always intrigued me to make things look prettier,” Don said.
At 15, Don traded an old motorcycle for a ’54 Chevy two-door post; hat was the first car he painted. “I had a local body shop guy come over and help me when I sprayed it,” Don said.
This was the mid-1970s and Don was driving his ’54 Chevy with wide whites while his contemporaries were messing with Camaros and Mustangs. Don says his teachers liked his Chevy. He even painted a couple of teacher’s cars while he was in high school. Extra credit, anyone?
His first paying job was at 15 when he painted the front fender of a friend’s Karmann Ghia for $25. (Put the phone down – he charges much more these days.) Doing the backyard body shop thing in his parents’ garage during high school, Don painted an average of a car a month. After high school, he took a good-paying job at a local lumber mill, but he kept working on cars in his spare time. After four years, he left the lumber world and started his own shop in a two-car garage. That was October 1979. “I worked on everything,” Don said. “I did any little dents and dings to get started.”
The project that moved Don into the realm of customs and hot rods began in 1983 when he acquired a ’39 Ford coupe called the Bonneville Boomer. That car was originally built by Doug Rice and raced at Bonneville in the early ’50s. “I had to sell everything I owned at the time to buy the car,” Don said. “After I finished that car people started coming to me to do their old cars.”
BUILDING A TEAM
Don worked solo for the first 13 years, but as his customer base grew he knew it was time to add to his team. And, to keep up with the increased workload, Don built a 40-by-60-foot shop next to the original location on his family’s property. The new shop included a dedicated paint booth.
While the staff size has fluctuated over the years, Don said he’s most comfortable with himself and three or four employees. Don does all the painting, but his current team has been on board for several years and team members can all do a little bit of everything in the shop. Everything includes just that, except for interior work. The shop does chassis and mechanical work, metal work and paint.
While Don has a veteran staff now, he shares the concern of other shop owners who struggle to find good people. “I talked with a guy recently who has a big shop – 28 cars currently in the building – and he went through 13 employees last year,” Don said. “He has seven now and he has to work seven days a week to keep up with the work.”
Don has his team working a four-day week, 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. If they all work efficiently, Don said that works financially. And, they all get three-day weekends.
The shop stays busy, too, relying on word of mouth and repeat customers. “We interview our customers,” Don said. “We ask a few questions: Can you afford to do this? Are you going to have $50,000-$100,000 for parts, etc.?” Most of his customers come in knowing what’s involved to build a top-of-the-line hot rod or custom. “I learned years ago that you can’t give estimates on a really big job,” Don said. “You can do it on a small job.”
Don has the customer sign a contract that either limits the work to a certain dollar amount and then they stop, or they work on a time-and-materials basis. The shop bills customers monthly. “We don’t take any money up front,” Don said. “I’d rather work for your money and get paid. I turn down some customers now because I don’t think they can pay for the whole job. I pick and choose because we’re so busy. Sometimes if you pick the right job it can get you more jobs when it’s done and out in public.”
That strategy has paid off. Don estimates that more than two dozen of his builds have been featured in magazines. “It’s nice to have two or three cars a year that get out to the big shows and get exposure,” Don said.
A look around the shop shows the variety of builds at any one time: A Ford Torino, an early-’30s Model A Vicky, a vintage panel delivery, a late-’60s Mustang, a ’65 Chevy pickup, a Willys Gasser. One project, though, is a longer-term build, a ’34 Ford pickup that belongs to Jerry Logan and is destined to be a competitor for the Ridler Award at a future Detroit Autorama. The truck has been in the shop for about three years. It’s powered by a ’55 T-bird Y-block with twin superchargers and fuel injection. “Painting a Ridler car is like painting five cars,” Don said. He should know. He’s the paint whisper.
Don mixes a lot of special colors. He doesn’t have a sophisticated mixing station because he’s about 90 miles from a PPG training center. “We’ll go up there and mix some wild colors,” Don said. “A lot of them will look like candies, but they are really base/clear.”
When Don works with a customer to mix a custom color, he keeps the formula on file along with other important data – the color of the sealer, how many base coats, the type of clear. He also gives the customer this data, so that if a panel ever needs to be repainted they can make sure to get the correct match.
It’s been a long road since painting that first Chevy in his parents’ garage, but the combination of experience, talent, and commitment to quality has kept the shop on a steady, solid course. Richardson’s Custom Auto Body will mark its 40th year in business in 2019 and, if Don has his way, will continue turning out eye-popping builds for years to come.
Richardson’s Custom Auto Body – Hoquiam, WA
Photos by Steven Bunker