The Hydroblast Shop - Workshop Profile

By: Guy Allen, Photography by: Ben Galli

Presented by

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After pondering his future one day in a board room, Allen Sutton decided to strike out on his own

Allen Sutton freely admits to being more of a motorcycle than car bloke, and his workshop looks like heaven for anyone who’s a fan of two-stroke Yamaha street bikes from the eighties. Scattered about the place is a fleet of RZs in various forms, including 125, 250 and 350, plus a pair of very tasty-looking RD-LCs. With those sorts of distractions lying about, it’s a wonder he finds any time for his real business, which is vapour-blasting.

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The South African expat’s path to his current modest situation – "you’re looking at all the employees right here!" – was anything but straight-forward. "I grew up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa," he explains. "As a young bloke I started off in the radiator industry, picking up and dropping off recored radiators from workshops. So I always got my hands dirty from 16 or 17.

hydroblast-3.jpgAllen explains the finer points to the Ed

"Then I started to work for 3M as a junior salesperson, and I worked my way through until, eventually, I was in the abrasives department. So we were always sanding, polishing, scotch-brighting and eventually teaching customers what to do – how to polish metal. I was there about 18 years, through to 2006.

hydroblast-11.jpgThe tools look simple enough. However, Allen has developed his own secret recipes

"I quit all the wonderful people in South Africa – amongst all the tears and smiles. My wife had landed a job in Melbourne which we couldn’t refuse. Then I started to work for a paper mill company for about seven years, and I got bored. I was in the board room – now I know why it’s called that – and they were putting up figures and projections for the coming year. Meanwhile I’m thinking about the Yamaha RD I was restoring in the garage at home."

Clearly it was time for a change, and his previous experience at 3M held a clue on which way he’d go. "Back then I did a little bit of research on vapour blasting – I’d heard about it back in South Africa – and looked at the market. There was one guy doing it locally and doing it very well. I thought there was room for another. I didn’t want to tread on his toes, he was a nice bloke, so I thought I’d just plot my own path."

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However, Allen soon discovered there is a yawning gap between getting a new machine and actually being able to get decent results out of it. "I took the punt and ordered the machine," he says, "which cost a lot of money and realised I needed a compressor to drive it. I started with a smallish one, which wasn’t good enough. Then I upgraded to a screw compressor, which is what you need.

"I was getting a lot of car work – engine blocks and the like – so I needed a bigger machine.

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"When you get into this you think one machine will do. But it’s like buying a really expensive guitar that you can’t play and no-one wants to teach you. So you learn through trial and error. You practice on a few parts and stuff things up. Then you get frustrated because you’re not getting the results you want. But eventually you learn."

Critical to the process is what goes into the machine – the magic mix. He has his own recipe which is very much a secret.

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Then there’s the technique. "You’ve heard of French polishing of timber – you start off with course grit and you go smaller and smaller and end up with 2000 and a highly polished piece of timber. A similar process applies. You can take any part to a sandblaster and it will be quickly cleaned but it will be pitted and textured. What I do is a refinement of that.

hydroblast-32.jpgCarburettors need extra care

"In any blasting game you have a couple of variables. You can play with pressure, angle and dwell time. You vary the technique according to what part you do. I play that machine like a musical instrument, according to what I want it to give me back."

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While the majority of the jobs he gets are for car and motorcycle restoration, he gets a fair bit of industrial work. "It’s stuff that’s been CNC cut and they want the cutter marks blended so they can anodise them."

By way of contrast, restorers sometimes want the original cutter marks left in place! "I get a lot of car wheels which are collector pieces," Allen explains, "like Centreline wheels. This is one of the only processes that can get a Centreline to look original. The polishers have a go, but they either get them too bright or they lose the cutter marks. It looks authentic and I’m able to get around the little rivets."

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Different parts can require very different techniques, he says. For example something robust like a V8 intake manifold is treated very differently to something delicate like a carburettor. "If you blast a carby too hard, you can end up in trouble." He likens the material to an Aero chocolate bar – it has a skin, but is porous underneath. "So you need to be careful not to damage that outer surface. Some things just take time, and carbies are one of them."

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As with a lot of businesses, it took time for word of mouth to do its work and build up the business. "I started off with one machine and, through the biking connections, it went really well during summer time. Come winter when it was eight degrees and raining, you’d sit here wondering if you’d done the right thing. It builds up over time and more and more people come in. I’ve yet to put out a job where the customer comes back and says they’re not happy. "I’m a stickler for quality. I spent some years in the army (he did national service in South Africa) and I think that helps your mindset when it comes to attention to detail."

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These days, there is still the odd quiet patch, which he puts to good use. "When I have a couple of quiet days, I work on my own restorations – I call them quality days!" While two-strokes dominate at the moment, he has broader tastes, with a nice Kawasaki Z1300 parked beside a Z1000 that’s undergoing restoration.

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What does it cost for hydroblasting? He’s charged $90 per hour since opening in 2013. "I have an idea of what it will take. If it’s unusual, I’ll give a rough ballpark. I know for example a V8 intake manifold takes an hour and a half, or a barrel like that (pointing to a single-cylinder liquid-cooled motorcycle unit) will be about half that."

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For Allen, getting the job right is more about patience than anything else. "You have to do each customer’s piece like it’s you own." Looking at his own restoration projects, and the commercial work scattered about the workshop, you get the feeling he means what he says… 

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The Hydroblast Shop,
3/41-43 Sinclair Rd,
Dandenong

Tel 0400 516 979
thehydroblastshop.com.au

 

From Unique Cars issue 437, Mar 2020

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