Text and images by Bruce Caldwell
Flames are as traditional as the hot rods they adorn. The variety of flame styles and variations is immense. The most traditional, old school flames are white/yellow/red (or yellow/orange/red), but after that the sky is the limit.
In recent years, flame creativity has really taken off. All types of colors, paints, sizes, and designs have been showing up. There are realistic flames, tribal flames, ripped flames, candy flames, metalflake flames, primered flames, pinstriped flames, and combinations of flames and scallops (sclames).
For all these different types of flames, there are two major subsets: good flames and not so good flames. Poorly done flames are painfully obvious. Good flames aren’t so obvious, because they complement the vehicle, rather than stand out like some brightly-colored mistake.
Work With the Body
Good flames accentuate the car’s natural lines. Bad flames fight the natural flow of the car. The goal is to enhance the body lines, not conflict with them. Some old school flames are simply massive arrays of bright colors. They almost overwhelm any body lines, but sparser, more stylized flames need to be carefully placed for best results. Even a wall of fire needs to pay attention to how fenders and hoods fit and how the flames look where they meet major body parts.
Many vehicles have awkward areas or trim items that can interrupt a flame job. It helps to work on these areas before laying out easier sections. Some painters like to sketch flames, but most people find it easier to grab a couple rolls of tape and experiment.
Remember that the tape your eyes see isn’t the size of the finished flames. You typically perceive the outer edge of the tape as the flame size. The actual size is the area inside the tape. Pin striping can expand flames slightly, but not much. If you don’t allow for this visual deception, the finished flames may not be the size you wanted.
Let it Flow
Besides proper placement, another key to great flame layout is flow. Flames are kinetic. They move, they dance, they flicker, so even though custom paint flames are a two-dimensional representation of real flames, they should still suggest motion. Flow gives motion.
By flow, we mean that the lines and curves should have a smoothness or rhythm. They should be fluid without any noticeable breaks. The flame licks should taper gracefully as they trail off toward their tips. The upper and lower edges should taper equally. One edge shouldn’t be straight with the other edge slanting toward it.
Curves are critical to great flames. The inner curves should flow without interruption. These curved areas don’t have to be perfectly round, but the style of curve should be consistent throughout the whole flame job.
The best way to understand the importance of flow is to study and photograph as many flame jobs as possible. Look for vehicles similar to yours in magazines and at car shows. Viewing real cars is best, because you can check out the flames from all angles.
To get the masking tape to flow from your hands takes practice. If you practice long enough, you’ll eventually find your zone. The experience is similar to how it feels once you master downhill skiing or skateboarding where all of the sudden you and the equipment meld.
Tape, Tape, Tape
Great flames rarely happen the first time you apply tape to metal. Even the best, most experienced flame painters can go through many rolls of tape before they get a satisfactory design. Using lots of masking tape is an expected cost of painting flames, so plan on it. It’s a minor expense compared to paint.
There are many sizes and types of masking and layout tape. The least expensive, old-fashioned crepe masking tape can be used for preliminary work. This tape is used to get the basic design in place. It doesn’t have to stick past the design stage.
When it comes to final taping, always use the best and freshest tape. Good adhesion is imperative. Most painters use 3M blue vinyl Fine Line tape, because it is flexible for tight curves and easy to use. The thin Fine Line tape is overlapped with automotive grade (never use common household masking tape) tape. Large areas are filled in with wider tape and/or masking paper.
The easiest flames to lay out are totally random ones. Real fire is random, but hot rod flames tend to be more symmetrical. Even flames that aren’t identical side to side generally work best if there isn’t too much variation.
The easy way to get symmetrical flames is with a pattern. Flame painter extraordinaire Donn Trethewey demonstrated a tried-and-true technique for symmetrical flames on Jim Carr’s chopped 1935 Chevy sedan.
Lay out one side until you’re satisfied with the design. Donn uses regular ¼-inch tan or green crepe masking tape. The curves don’t have to be perfect, because this is just the basic design.
When he has the design he likes, he covers all the flames with masking paper. The paper is taped to the car and reference marks are made, so it can be repositioned exactly. Use a wide, soft lead pencil or a Crayon to trace the tape design onto the paper.
Remove the paper and place it on cardboard. Use a pounce wheel (available at craft and fabric stores) to trace the design. The pounce wheel leaves small perforations. If the pattern is satisfactory, the ¼-inch tape is removed from the car.
Reinstall the template on the car’s left side and dust the holes with baby powder or carpenter’s chalk. Flip the paper over to mark the right side of the car. Use the reference points to properly position the template. Dust the right side and remove the pattern.
Now there is a powder outline of symmetrical flames. Use that outline as a guide for the 3M Fine Line tape. It’s at this point that Donn gets very precise about inner curves and tapers. When he is satisfied with the 1/8-inch Fine Line outline, he finishes taping and masking. The surface is cleaned, prepped and painted. The result is a great set of symmetrical flames.
A black 1940 Ford covered in wild flames is a hot rodding icon. The taping and masking required for this job was monumental.
Well laid out flames should flow smoothly and enhance the car’s natural lines. The flames in the cove of this 1958 Pontiac succeed on both counts.
There is a good flow and reasoning to the flames on this 1932 highboy. The flames emanate from the exhaust headers and flow up and over the rear tires. This gives a feeling of motion even when the car is parked.
Having flames coming off the front wheel wells is a good way to add interest and a sense of motion without flaming the whole nose of the car. These flames haven’t been pinstriped (they don’t have to be), but an apple green or process blue stripe would make them really pop against the black primer.
Here is a beautiful set of flames on the hood of a 1933 Ford highboy. The flames have excellent flow and uniform inner curves with great fades. Notice the neat little stand-alone lick in the center of the hood.
Flaming a louvered hood can be very difficult and extremely tedious to tape. For all that effort, these flames look a little disjointed.
A good solution to louvers is to design the flames so they flow around them. This classic flame job is on a clone of the iconic Tom McMullen 1932 roadster.
This Chevy pickup has a louvered hood, but the flame licks just “kiss” the louvers. Notice how the process blue pinstriping helps define the flames. Also notice how smoothly the color fades are.
Flame designs can be free floating and a single color, as evidenced on the trunk lid of this fat-fendered Ford Tudor sedan. The licks are similar side-to-side, but not identical.
Here is another great example of unique flames. This mid-sixties Chevy pickup tailgate has a Von Dutch style flaming eyeball.
Flames don’t have to be elaborate to be effective. This Pro Street GMC pickup used a couple big licks as part of a unique two-tone paint scheme.
As a means of breaking up the huge expanse of yellow paint on the nose of this Merc, areas of the underlying black paint were turned into flames on the front fenders.
This close-up shot illustrates the importance of perfectly smooth inner curves. A lighter shade of purple was used as a border. Even though the lighter purple is thickest at the center and tapers as it flows away, the curve is perfectly smooth. Some black paint was strategically airbrushed as shadows. This gives a sense of depth.
During the initial layout stage on this 1935 Chevy, Donn Trethewey established a gently flowing upper line with tape. This serves as a boundary.
Less expensive 1/4-inch crepe masking tape can be used to create a preliminary design.
The upper reference line has been removed. The left side of the car has its basic layout. This will serve as the template for the right side of the car.
A continuous sheet of masking paper or butcher paper is used to make the pattern. Positioning reference marks should be made at key body points such as doorjambs.
A pencil with a large lead, such as a carpenter’s or child’s pencil, is used to trace the underlying tape flames onto the masking paper. Don’t use a ballpoint or marking pen. A crayon is ok.
The masking paper is placed on a large sheet of cardboard. The design is traced with a pounce wheel. Be sure the entire design is punctured.
The punctured masking paper is taped to the left side using the reference marks. Baby powder or carpenter’s chalk is patted on the design, leaving the flame outline. Then, the pattern is turned over to mark the right side of the car.
Blue vinyl 3M Fine Line tape is used to follow the chalk/powder outline. Notice how Donn holds the roll of tape a long way from the surface. This makes it easier to achieve a smooth flow.
Automotive paint grade masking tape and paper were used to totally cover all areas not being flamed. The flames flow down the inside of the fenders and onto the running boards.
Donn Trethewey first applied a base coat of bright yellow. Then he applied the red, starting at the grille. The yellow will show in highlighted areas, and it helps make the red more intense.
Here is the flame job part way through the unmasking process. Most of the blue Fine Line tape is still intact. The whole car still needs to be clear-coated, color sanded, and buffed.
Here is Jim Carr’s chopped 1935 Chevy with its new Donn Trethewey flame job.