We were honoured to interview the phenomenal Rachael Durbridge this month – a passionate auto paint specialist dedicated to providing the perfect restoration and experience for her clients. Her love for all things cars, passion projects, expertise, and enthusiasm for continuous learning is inspiring. Read all about her amazing journey below.
Background and Influencers
Growing up, I hung out with my middle brother a lot, and we were both into cars at an early age. I was into cars so much that my netball coach gave me a copy of Street Machine when I was 14. I’m also very artistic and into all kinds of media and methods, like sketching and painting, and did quite a bit of it going through school.
I remember the Motor Traders’ Association came to my school – they had guest speakers talk about the kinds of roles you could get into in the automotive industry. My interest sparked immediately – I thought, realistically, it would be great to work in an area where I could use my passion and talent for art and cars. So when we had the mandatory two weeks’ work experience in Year 11, I wanted to try spray painting. My teacher said, “oh, no…try hairdressing instead, that’s what most of the other pathway girls are doing”. I like to give most things a try, so I tried it. After a week, I was absolutely sure that this wasn’t for me.
In my school holidays, I decided to pursue becoming a spraypainter. I went to a local crash shop – Gawler Body Works – which was just around the corner from my house. I approached my future bosses, Greg Sambell and Bernie Stack, and asked them whether I could do some work experience with them. They instantly said, “yeah, no problems!”. They got me in for a week’s worth of chores and doing what-not. I think they were impressed that I gave up my holidays to do it. I’m glad I did it because it changed my life.
The atmosphere in the shop, being around the boys, the work – I felt so welcome and fit in straight away, it was really nice. After my week finished they said, “you might want to ask for a job, because you’re part of the furniture now”. That made me really happy and said OK.
I was offered an apprenticeship in the same crash shop because my boss saw how keen I was, the real dedication I showed in working during my holidays, showing initiative, and keen to take on whatever jobs they had for me. I was there to learn everything I could.
When I started out as an apprentice, I did the usual things workplaces get apprentices to do – maintenance, cleaning, and assisting the guys. The next step was spraypainting techniques – priming, prep work, and making sure it’s done quickly and correctly – they get you to work in these areas because if there are any mistakes, it can be corrected easily. Then it was on to final finishes.
I loved my work and anything to do with cars as an apprentice. I utilised free periods to work, go straight into work after school, gave up Saturday netball to work as well as school holidays. I actually did a lot of juggling during my apprenticeship – school, two jobs at McDonalds and Adelaide International Raceway, as well as working in the workshop. The job at the Raceway was fantastic – my role included scrutineering and supporting on-track Wednesday nights and on weekends when they had events.
I was signed off my apprenticeship in three years and stayed with the workshop for eight. I learned a lot, made mistakes along the way (it’s the only way to learn), and became flexible and adaptable along the way. Spray painting is fantastic, but it’s also a really technical skill where things can go wrong very easily. I was really fortunate to work with the people I worked with – a lot of apprentices are taught a confined set of skills, whereas I was taught everything.
Qualification, Becoming a Specialist
I moved into becoming a specialist away from spraypainting. It’s quite different from what a spraypainter would normally do. I help with technical issues and colour matching. It’s a dying art that people aren’t taught anymore these days. Custom painting is a niche market where people want their weekend cars painted – it’s all about finding out what people want in the process, any specialist effects, as well as the show appearance they want. If they’ve imported their car, colour matching is quite difficult – they might have a bingle, and I provide them with the technique and skills of perfectly blending so that the damaged area isn’t noticeable. The position is a lot less physical than that of a spraypainter, as you’re no longer on the workshop floor. I’m basically a colour therapist!
That doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped spraypainting! I’ve had my panel truck project (featured in April’s Street Machine) which was a big job because I was doing it on the side of work – after work and over the weekend. I also worked on an XP coupe – locking down, painting, and applying – with my good friend Flynn’s refinishing. I was also helping a couple of friends with a few resprays. I still love doing it, and the final product, but it does take it out of you physically.
Working in a Male-Dominated Environment
Because I’m close with my two older brothers and hung out with the boys doing up cars, I’m comfortable being around males in an auto environment. So when I got into spraypainting, it seemed absolutely normal for me to be around guys all the time. I knew how to interact with them – if they were being smart with me, I’d be the same back to them.
When I was younger, and an apprentice, I’d understand certain attitudes towards me working on customer cars. I got that customers were petrified that I would be working on their car because of my level of experience. I felt differently once I was qualified though – some customers were unsure, so I’d just be myself, use a lot of technical jargon, and they’d instantly brighten up and feel more confident in my abilities. I really haven’t experienced poor attitudes because of my gender very much – it’s only happened to me three times – there have been three customers that didn’t want me to work on their cars. I just brushed it off and dealt with it by saying “well, all the males are out today or busy, so you’ll have to deal with me”.
It’s great to see a lot more women working in spraypainting than when I started. From memory, there were two or three when I started out. For a while it was just me, then I started to meet more and more once I started to travel around Australia. The women I’ve met in my journey all have great mindsets – it’s all about pushing through, giving it a go, and putting everything they have into it.
Working in the Automotive Industry
I think the industry’s a lot better these days! Mental health awareness has changed a lot since I started out at 15 years of age. I was fortunate to work with three women in my career so far. Everyone I worked with in the trade had a fair attitude and gave anyone a go – it didn’t matter, as long as you showed dedication and gave it your most every day, they’d be fair with you and provide you with flexibility if you needed it.
The trade allows me to travel around Australia, which I’m super grateful for. I’ve met a lot of inspiring people along the way, including my main mentor and good friend Owen Webb. I was offered my dream job in Perth working for Park Automotive with Geoff Ashdown, repping House of Kolor. I packed my things and within a month I went from Adelaide to Perth. This trade isn’t just a job – it’s a way of life and friends are family.
My first piece of advice is for schools – having mentors and role models giving you guidance and advice at a young age is crucial. Ensuring you have different options available, as well as explaining possibilities will provide girls the ability to make decisions. So schools should definitely organise career expos and motivational speakers that offer advice on a range of trade options.
My second piece of advice is for anyone thinking about taking up spraypainting or any other kind of trade – if you really want to do it, give it a go. Don’t be afraid that you might be the only girl in the workplace, because whether you’re male or female, you all want to do the same job and be treated the same way. For me, it’s about equality, not favouritism in the workplace for one person or group above another. Also, don’t be put off by other people’s attitudes if you come across some bad ones – their insecurities don’t have to be yours.
My third and final piece of advice is for everyone – you only get one life, so make your job something you love. Try and turn your hobby into your job.
Long term goals
I do have some long-term goals, and I really believe in never stopping having long-term goals. I want to take on metalwork, more work with cars, mentoring, and teaching.
I’d love to go over to America to do some training courses over there that specialise in paint – I feel like they’re 10 years ahead of us in relation to innovation and products. I’ve learnt so much from people in America and throughout the world – we’re a real community, and they’ve been so generous in sharing a lot with me.
I’m a knowledge sponge and want to be a jack of all trades, so any kind of physical work like learning how to renovate a house would be great.
Outside of the job
I have a lot of hobbies outside of work. I work as a judge for the summernats team doing major car events such as Summernats, motorex, red centrenats, Motorvation & great events. This is a bucket list job and we have a great team under Andy Lopez. I also get to meet a lot of people through my work, see their work and the amount of time and energy they’ve invested in their passion projects. I’m also into rally driving – dirt and tarmac rallies. I was my old boss’ navvie. I’m also into dirt bikes too. Finally, I also have restoration projects going here in Perth and back at home in Adelaide too.
We thank Rachael for her time, and for sharing her incredible story with us – we really look forward to catching up with her in the future.
Are you inspired to become a spraypainter like Rachael? To receive information and advice on taking up an apprenticeship, get in touch with us via email.
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