Coating, Painting, and Spraying Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders - What They Do

Millions of items ranging from cars to candy are covered by paint, plastic, varnish, chocolate, or some other type of coating solution. Painting or coating is used to make a product more attractive or protect it from the elements. The paint finish on an automobile, for example, makes the vehicle more attractive and provides protection from corrosion. Achieving this end result is the work of painting and coating workers.

Before painting and coating workers can begin to apply the paint or other coating, they often need to prepare the surface. A metal, wood, or plastic part may need to be sanded or ground to correct imperfections or rough up a surface so that paint will stick to it. After preparing the surface, the product is carefully cleaned to prevent any dust or dirt from becoming trapped under the paint. Metal parts are often washed or dipped in chemical baths to prepare the surface for painting and protect against corrosion. If the product has more than one color or has unpainted parts, masking is required. Masking normally involves carefully covering portions of the product with tape and paper.

After the product is prepared for painting, coating, or varnishing, a number of techniques may be used to apply the paint. Perhaps the most straightforward technique is simply dipping an item in a large vat of paint or other coating. This is the technique used by dippers, who immerse racks or baskets of articles in vats of paint, liquid plastic, or other solutions by means of a power hoist. This technique is commonly used for small parts in electronic equipment, such as cell phones.

Spraying products with a solution of paint or some other coating is also quite common. Spray machine operators use spray guns to coat metal, wood, ceramic, fabric, paper, and food products with paint and other coating solutions. Following a formula, operators fill the machine's tanks with a mixture of paints or chemicals, adding prescribed amounts of solution. Then they adjust nozzles on the spray guns to obtain the proper dispersion of the spray and hold or position the guns to direct the spray onto the article. Operators also check the flow and viscosity of the paint or solution and visually inspect the quality of the coating. When products are drying, these workers often must regulate the temperature and air circulation in drying ovens.

Some factories use automated painting systems that are operated by coating, painting, and spraying machine setters, operators, and tenders. When setting up these systems, operators position the automatic spray guns, set the nozzles, and synchronize the action of the guns with the speed of the conveyor carrying articles through the machine and drying ovens. The operator also may add solvents or water to the paint vessel to prepare the paint for application. During the operation of the painting machines, these workers tend the equipment, observe gauges on the control panel, and check articles for evidence of any variation from specifications. The operator uses a manual spray gun to “touch up” flaws.

Individuals who paint, coat, or decorate articles such as furniture, glass, pottery, toys, cakes, and books are known as painting, coating, and decorating workers. Some workers coat confectionery, bakery, and other food products with melted chocolate, cheese, oils, sugar, or other substances. Paper is often coated to give it its gloss or finish and silver, tin, and copper solutions are often sprayed on glass to make mirrors.

The best known group of painting and coating workers are those who refinish old or damaged cars, trucks, and buses in automotive body repair and paint shops. Transportation equipment painters who work in repair shops are among the most highly skilled manual spray operators, because they perform intricate, detailed work and mix paints to match the original color, a task that is especially difficult if the color has faded. The preparation work on an old car is similar to painting other metal objects. The paint is normally applied with a manually controlled spray gun.

Transportation equipment painters who work on new cars oversee several automated steps. A modern car is first dipped in an anti-corrosion bath, then coated with colored paint, and then painted in several coats of clear paint, which prevents scratches from damaging the colored paint.

Most other transportation equipment painters either paint equipment too large to paint automatically—such as ships or giant construction equipment—or perform touch-up work to repair flaws in the paint caused either by damage during assembly or flaws during the automated painting process.

With all types of coating, it is common for the painting process to be repeated several times to achieve a thick, smooth, protective coverage.

Work Environment

Coating, painting, and spraying machine setters, operators, and tenders held about 143,400 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of coating, painting, and spraying machine setters, operators, and tenders were as follows:

  • Fabricated metal product manufacturing - 20%
  • Transportation equipment manufacturing - 16%
  • Automotive body, paint, interior, and glass repair - 15%
  • Machinery manufacturing - 8%
  • Furniture and related product manufacturing - 4%

Painting, coating, and decorating workers held about 12,400 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of painting, coating, and decorating workers were as follows:

  • Miscellaneous manufacturing - 15%
  • Fabricated metal product manufacturing - 12%
  • Nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing - 8%
  • Transportation equipment manufacturing - 6%
  • Furniture and related product manufacturing - 6%

Painting and coating is usually done in specially ventilated areas. Workers wear masks or respirators to protect themselves from inhaling microscopic particles or harmful chemicals. They also may wear gloves and other protective equipment to shield their skin and clothing.

Painting and coating workers often stand for long periods. They also may have to bend, stoop, or crouch in uncomfortable positions to reach different parts of the products they work on.

Injuries and Illnesses

Painting, coating, and decorating workers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. Hazards include muscle strains and exposure to toxic materials. Factories have installed sophisticated paint booths and fresh-air ventilation systems to create a safe work environment.

Work Schedules

Most painting and coating workers are employed full time.

Education & Training Required

Painting and coating workers employed in the manufacturing sector are usually required to have a high school degree or equivalent; employers in other sectors may be willing to hire workers without a high school diploma. Training for beginning painting and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders and for painting, coating, and decorating workers, may last from a few days to a couple of months. Coating, painting, and spraying machine setters, operators, and tenders who modify the operation of computer-controlled equipment may require additional training in computer operations and minor programming. Transportation equipment painters typically learn their jobs through either apprenticeships as helpers or postsecondary education in painting.

Becoming skilled in all aspects of painting usually requires 1 to 2 years of experience and sometimes requires some formal classroom instruction and on-the-job training. Beginning helpers usually remove trim, clean, and sand surfaces to be painted; mask surfaces they do not want painted; and polish finished work. As helpers gain experience, they progress to more complicated tasks, such as mixing paint to achieve a good match and using spray guns to apply primer coats or final coats to small areas.

Additional instruction in safety, equipment, and techniques is offered at some community colleges and vocational or technical schools. Employers also sponsor training programs to help their workers become more productive. Additional training is available from manufacturers of chemicals, paints, or equipment, explaining their products and giving tips about techniques.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Painting and coating workers in factories need to be able to read and follow detailed plans or blueprints. Some workers also need artistic talent to paint furniture, decorate cakes, or make sure that the paint on a car or other object is the right color. Applicants should be able to breathe comfortably wearing a respirator.

Coating, Painting, and Spraying Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Painting is a model for knowledge, a way of knowing the world. That's the core philosophy of most painting program, where uncovering what you want to say carries equal weight with learning how to say it. Students choose whatever materials, processes, forms, and formats that best enable them to express their relationship to the world. All approaches - traditional and non-traditional -- are supported and... more