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Auto body wizards build cult-like following

David Vocelka, left, and Joe Henderson own and operate Autocraft, which is between Osage and Park Rapids off Highway 34. Dogs Max, at left, and Balto, an Osage stray, are low-key and greet all customers, even sometimes escorting them down the road. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

BY Sarah smith

Tucked away in the pines between Park Rapids and Osage, a two-man body shop has built a fanatical following.

David Vocelka and Joe Henderson’s customers keep coming back to Autocraft.

And this winter, the two men are swamped with work thanks to early snow, ice and fender benders.

They worry about customers. One customer wanted an SUV by Christmas. It’s nearly a weeklong job.

It wasn’t possible, Vocelka said. It’s not like the men can work continuously on one vehicle. Paint needs to dry. Parts sometimes get sent back because they’re not the right ones.

But amid the chaos of work, hundreds of cars each year, the quiet men run a quiet shop.

Even the dogs, Max and Balto, are quiet, although they often chase customers out of the lot and down the highway on the way home.

They’re just getting their exercise, and they only chase customers they like.

A monstrous box of Milk Bone biscuits sits on the front counter, treats for when they’re especially good.

Vocelka always thought he’d be painting trucks for a living. A third generation auto mechanic and body shop kid, he fell into what came naturally in building Autocraft near his family home.

The small lobby is chock full of car parts. One bare wall is filled with eight grandchildren’s artworks tacked up.One wall of Autocraft's lobby is filled with childrens' artworks. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise

The dogs come and go, inside, outside. They like to sniff each vehicle, as if passing a lick of approval on them.

Last summer, the men made an investment in a revolutionary green product for the Minnesota northwest region, but one that Europe has been using for 30 years, Vocelka said.

They invested in a system of water-based paints manufactured by DuPont.

They are environmentally friendly and dry much quicker. DuPont is still working on a water-based clear coat, so for now, the men use urethane.

They had become frustrated with the inability to match the paint perfectly on newer model cars.

Now a computerized system tells them, down to the drop, how to mix each tint. All paint systems now do that, Vocelka said.

But when DuPont came out to demonstrate the product last summer, it also inspected the garage for cleanliness and humidity.

Because there are only two working there, cleanliness wasn’t the problem.

You could eat off the garage floor, but you may want to avoid a spot Max and Balto have cleaned beforehand.

It was the humidity level DuPont worried about.

The garage must be kept as dry as desert air. That’s much easier said than done in the springtime, but winter air is perfect for painting.

It coincides nicely with prime time for auto mishaps. The men keep a humidity gauge in the corner next to the paint computer, and check it constantly.

They are perfectionists, artists. One drip of the wrong paint can be disastrous. Although the computer tells them how

much paint to apply by spray guns, the men trust instinct and often override the computer suggestions as to the amount of paint to apply.

What they don’t tinker with are the tints in the mix. They go strictly by the book.

The paint is mixed by hand with a stir stick, then filtered twice before going into a sprayer.

They are as persnickety about their guns as they are about the mix.

At $700 per gun they must be thoroughly cleaned after each paint job.

Paint can dry in a matter of hours, not days. An unattended paint gun can deplete the bottom line quickly.

Vocelka started the business in 1976. Henderson has been slowly buying into it and will take over some day.

Vocelka’s sons weren’t interested in the business, so Henderson is a surrogate. Henderson began part-time in 1999 and was fulltime by 2002. He is buying the business on a contract for deed and hopes to take over some day.

Vocelka’s quiet life was interrupted by the grandchildren coming for a noisy Christmas.

He points to a photo on one wall of three grandkids dressed as Bonnie and Clyde.

“This is about how it is,” he says with a wry smile.

The vintage adding machine with a crank handle was demolished a few years ago by grandkids, long before bargain hunters would have paid a fortune for it. The shop now uses an electronic one and computers for the paints and records.

The men took off Christmas Day only and were back at work, sanding out the blemishes that come with an early winter in the north woods.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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