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Painting the car is something we’ve all considered at some point before banishing the thought to that area of our brain where all of our unrealized DIY-dreams exist. It’s not as hard as you'd think, however, and you probably already own half the tools you need in order to complete this task. I’m here to take you through every step of the process, with insider tips and product suggestions along the way.
Painting your car is not as tricky as many would have you believe, but it’s important to have a plan in place before you get started. This includes finding the right place to work, the best tools to work with and a method that suits you. This article will cover everything you need to know, as well as offering advice on how to stay safe and get professional-looking results. I know - you’re welcome…
Before You Begin
Really think about where's best to carry out this project - the key things to consider here are space, ventilation, lighting and time.
Whilst the process itself can be done in a couple of days, remember that you’ll want to leave the car for at least 24 hours after painting in order for it to be touch-dry, and another week or so before it’s fully cured! It’s important to be patient with this, trust me.
You’re going to be moving around a lot so you’ll need plenty of room for yourself as well as all your equipment. Tidy up any trailing cables or stray tools that are lying around before you start - it sounds self-explanatory, but most adults have experienced the agony of standing on a Lego piece in the dark, so you can see where I’m going with this!
Get all your equipment out early – this means you’re ready to go, but also avoids you accidentally getting dust everywhere while you’re digging around in a cupboard for your sandpaper halfway through.
I’d suggest covering the garage or workspace in tarp or protective sheets – it can get pretty messy when there’s a paint-sprayer involved. This is also a good way to prevent dust-fall, which is essential during the final stages of painting your car.
Once the car is painted, you’ll need to leave it for around a week or so before the paint is fully cured, and any dust will compromise the hard work you’ve done throughout, so a dust-free zone is ideal! I’ve also mentioned using a dust collector below – set that up now if you have one.
You'll also be using lots of chemicals, in the form of paint, cleaning products, etc, so make sure your DIY den is well-ventilated. The cleaner; the better - of course, you’ll be wearing a respirator mask (safety first!), but dust can affect more than just your lungs and poses the risk of compromising your paint job if it gets in the way.
Good lighting is also essential - you want to see everything you’re doing while painting your pride and joy! There's nothing worse than missing a strip because you couldn’t quite see what you were doing, so take the time to find a well-lit area, or install some extra lights for this job.
Of course, a DIY-er is nothing without their tools. Ever started cooking and had to send the kids out for eggs halfway through? It pays to have everything ready, no matter how spontaneously your motivation strikes you!
You’ll need all your safety gear on from the very beginning, so make sure it’s all clean and functioning before you do anything else. I’m talking the full works:
You’ll want something that sits tight on the wrist to prevent any debris or dust creeping up your arms, and I’d always recommend something with textured fingertips, just to make gripping easier for you while you’re working.
Either fully waterproof or at least splash-proof, your coveralls should fit well and come with a hood for full protection. Elasticated cuffs are best!
It’s up to you whether you go for a half or full mask, but make sure it fits well. Elasticated, adjustable straps and a lightweight frame will keep you comfortable while you work, and, if you choose to go for disposable filters, make sure you use a new one for this project and change at any point you feel necessary.
You’ll also need to have all your painting gear ready to go:
The first step of this process involves cleaning your car thoroughly and getting rid of any rusty bits or debris. Using a pressure washer isn’t essential, and you can do this by hand, but it’ll save you plenty of time and effort. If choose to do this outside, do it in space with plenty of empty sky above – doing it under a tree is just asking for leaves, twigs or bird droppings to land on it!
Yep, you really should be this concerned about dust! If dust falls onto the newly-painted car before it has finished curing, you could end up with an uneven surface. This can be rectified in the final stages of sanding/ buffing, but I’d suggest using a dust collector where possible. It essentially filters the dust out of the air and collects it for you, and keeps the area clean and tidy.
For a small car, I’d suggest buying a gallon of primer; for larger cars, around a gallon and a half. This will be used in the early stages of preparing your car for its new paint job and can be thinned if needed according to its instructions.
Automotive paint is easy to find in most hardware stores. Speak to an assistant for more specific help, but you’ll want to buy enough to cover the whole car, so take note of the measurements I’ve listed below before you take a trip to the store. If you want to repaint your car in the same color, it’s easy to find out the color code from the car manufacturer. Work on the basis of three gallons for small cars and four gallons for larger cars.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get good quality painters’ tape. Look for something adhesive that doesn’t leave a lot of sticky residue and you’ll be fine!
You’ll probably be using an air compressor with this. I’d recommend an oil-free compressor, which eliminates any risk of oil contaminating the paint and ruining your hard work. Look for something that can run for a long time, you’ll need it! You can view our reviews on Airless Paint Sprayers here
I’d go for wet-and-dry sandpaper, around 1200-2000 grit, which you’ll be using to sand away any excess primer.
You’ll be using this in the final stages, so opt for something high-quality to help add a final shine to your paintwork.
This will be used with both the primer and the paint itself, most likely, so double check with the store assistant that the product you’re buying will be compatible with both.
This will be used in the final stages to add a high shine to your paintwork. Make sure it’s compatible with the automotive paint you’ve opted for! Small cars will use around two gallons; large will use between three and four.
Time To Scrub Up
Now that you’re fully geared up, it’s time to prepare your car for its transformation:
• Have a nice scrub - it might seem like the most boring part of this task, but it’s one of the most important. Get rid of any scrappy bits or rust that has been hanging around the metal. Make sure your canvas is totally free from debris before you start. Use a pressure washer to clean the car thoroughly before you begin.
• Break it down - if possible, strip the main body of any trim or moldings, which should be easy enough. If not, it’s better to leave them and work around them than snap something off by accident!
• Smooth operator - time to sand the main body of your car, taking off all the paint until you hit the original metal or primer. Getting back to matte means there's more for the fresh coat of paint to stick to and will also offer a more even finish. Use circular motions and work your way around the car in order to cover as large an area as possible, quickly.
• Keep it clean - I’d suggest using gloves, if you haven’t already got them on, to protect your hands as well as to avoid smearing greasy fingerprints everywhere while you clean. You can use the thinners listed above at this stage to get rid of any last bits of paint or debris.
• Mark your territory - use the painters’ tape mentioned above to section off everything you're painting from everything that needs to remain paint-free. Essentially, tape the windows, handles, mirrors etc - anywhere you don’t want paint needs to be thoroughly taped-up so there’s no chance of accidentally spraying it, or leakage/dripping occurring if you overspray.
Get Priming and Painting
Finally, on to the fun part, we’ve all been waiting for!
• Time to prime – now that we’ve thoroughly cleaned the metal base of the car, we need to prime it in order to make sure the paint will dry evenly and will properly adhere to the metal. If there are any uneven surfaces, make sure you blend everything in nicely so that the whole surface is level. Wait the full amount of time specified on the primer you’ve chosen! Read the label to see if you need to add any thinner to the primer at all. Work from the top down, so you can catch and reuse any drips or excess primer that may drip down. Better to drip on the doors than the floor!
• Even it all out – sand down any primed areas to ensure an even surface. If any of the primers left drip marks at any point, sand this off, too. This is the new base upon which you’ll be painting, so make sure you put in the effort now for optimum results later in the process. You can use the wet-and-dry paper at this point for the best results.
• Wax on; wax off – now it’s time to get rid of any dust you’ve accumulated during the priming/ sanding stages. Again, this means that the base you’re using is smooth and clean, and will give a better end result when you get round to painting it.
• Spray as you go – the time has finally come to actually paint your car! Make sure you check the paint label so you know how much to thin it out, if at all, and follow the instructions on your air compressor/ paint-sprayer if you’ve not used it before. It’s really important to be fully protected at this stage, so zip up your coveralls and pull your goggles down – things can get pretty messy! I’d suggest applying around 3 or 4 coats, making sure you wait the allotted time between layers. Add the clear coat varnish/ lacquer at this stage for a final shine boost.
• The waiting game - waiting is a boring yet crucial part of painting your car, so give the paint plenty of time to cure and set. Generally, the paint will be touch-dry in less than 24 hours, but it may take around a week for it to fully cure and adhere to the car. At this stage, I’d recommend leaving it in the garage or painting space – moving it around will only add to the risk of dust or debris falling into the paint while it cures. To get a nice, even finish, try to leave the car and resist moving the tarp or protective sheets in the area, as this will increase the chance of dust particles floating around.
• Finishing touches – now that the paint has fully set and cured, you can give the car one last sanding over. This evens out any little bumps, air bubbles or dust particles that may have gotten in the way along the process. Rinse the car off after this to get rid of any debris. If you wish, you can now dry and then buff the car to bring out the shine in the paint – I’d suggest doing this by hand! This saves you money on a buffing machine, and also allows you more accuracy if it’s your first time.
So, there you have it – a fully-comprehensive guide to painting a car. I’ve gone through all the equipment and tools you’ll need, including all the safety gear I’d recommend using throughout the whole process.
I’ve listed each step in the process, from preparation through to the finishing touches.
The main thing to remember is that you can always try again, if, for some reason, the end result isn’t to your liking. Just as you’re re-painting your car now, you can re-paint it again if needs be.
Just make sure you read each section clearly and follow the instructions on any paint, chemicals and tools you buy yourself. Make sure you put the hard work in at the beginning (sanding, priming, etc) so that the end result is professional-looking and sleek. Hopefully this guide has eased your mind and prepared you for painting your car – enjoy!