How To Paint Your Car Like a Pro: Ultimate Painting Guide

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 a car

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…

Primer

The primer is the base coat or the paint that you will put on the bare metal. Primer acts as a binding agent between the metal and the colored paint. You will want to pick a primer color that is a similar shade of your final paint. Lighter primers, like grey or white work well for bright colors, while black primer is best for darker finishing colors.

Base Coat

The base coat is the paint layer that has the actual color in it. The base coat does not offer any protection to the base paint, primer, or metal underneath. Because the primer is porous, the base paint will stick well and minimize blemishes, but it offers no moisture protection, which can result in paint chipping, bubbles, and rust.

Clear Coat

The clear coat is the finishing layer in multi-stage painting. It protects all paint layers beneath from moisture, wind, and general erosion. Most clear coats also come with UV inhibitors to help prevent sun damage over time. In modern car painting, the three-stage painting process is what is used, with a primer and base coat paint followed by a clear coat.

Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint isn’t used on cars much anymore. It is considered an antiquated painting method and is generally reserved for restoration projects of older cars. Acrylic paint, unlike a base paint, does offer the shine and protection to the primer layer and metal beneath. With acrylic paint, there isn’t a need for a clear coat layer. This is why acrylics are sometimes referred to as single-stage paints.

Metallic, Chameleon, Acrylic Enamel

These types of paints are rare. Metallic paints are mainly used in sports cars for an extra sheen or flakes of shiny metal bits to add glitter or shine to the final project. Chameleon paints appear to change color based on the way the sun or lights hit it.

Often turning from a green or blue to a purple or black, chameleon paints are rare and used mainly in exotic or street racing style cars. Acrylic enamels are extra thick and will need to be thinned to allow spraying through a spray gun. These paints are hard to come by and are often known as Acrylic Named paints because they are specialty paints for early model cars and trucks.

If you are restoring a 70’s model Dodge, for example, you may want to use a named paint such as HEMI-Orange acrylic to bring back the original appearance.

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!

setting up to spray paint a car

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.


Tool Kit

Repair and painting car car mechanic worker

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:

  • 1
    Nitrile Gloves 
    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.
  • 2
    Coveralls
    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!
  • 3
    Respirator Mask 
    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.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.

Other Things You Will Need

best pressure washer for cars

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.

Car Paint Preparation

Painters Tape 

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!

Thinner 

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.

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.

Sandpaper 

I’d go for wet-and-dry sandpaper, around 1200-2000 grit, which you’ll be using to sand away any excess primer.

best paint brands

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.

Paint car with spray gun

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

Buffer 

You’ll be using this in the final stages, so opt for something high-quality to help add a final shine to your paintwork.

Clear Coat Varnish - Lacquer

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:

Car Sanding

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

Car Painting Clean

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.


Treating Rust Damage

If your car or truck has rust damage, you will want to treat, repair, or replace the damage before you paint. You will need to decide how much damage there is and what type it is.

Surface rust can be sanded and treated, while rust holes or more severe damage will need to be patched or even removed. You can patch rust holes after removing the rusted areas with products like Bondo, which fill holes and allow primers and paint without much difference in appearance.

If you have rust, surface, or otherwise, you should get a rust treating or rust inhibition primer. These specialized primers will seal and contain rusted areas to help prevent the rust from spreading further.

Safety Tips When Painting Cars

As I mentioned in the Tool Kit section above, having your tools and protective gear on and in good repair is important. Paint is considered a hazardous material, and you need to familiarize yourself with treatment procedures before you begin.

Most paints will have these procedures printed on the cans or packaging. If you are in doubt or need more information, you can look up the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the paints to get all the details you need. At a minimum, you need to know what to do if you get paint in your eyes, mouth, or on your skin.

Aside from personal safety, paint sprayers and the painting environment can pose possible safety concerns. Static electricity can build up in the sprayer system, so taking precautions to prevent this is imperative.

Lights, dryers, and heat lamps can also cause safety concerns. Make sure you know where the power supplies and circuit breakers are located as well as possible prevention methods such as fire extinguishers, sand, or other fire extinguishing methods.

Get Priming and Painting

Finally, on to the fun part, we’ve all been waiting for!

Time To Prime

Worker Painting A Red Car In Paiting Booth Using Professional To

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

spray painting a car

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

Using paint sprayer to paint car yellow

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.


Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to have my car painted?

The overall costs of painting a car have too many variables to give a specific answer. They type of paint, the number of coats, damage repairs (if needed), and the time frame for project completion all go into the final cost.


Also, you will need to consider the year, make, and model of the vehicle. Custom jobs will cost more (over $20,000 possible). However, on average, for a newer car, with a simple, single-colored paint job with a primer, base, and clear coats, will cost between $1500 and $3000, according to CostHelper.com.


What is the best car paint brand?

The best car paint brand is highly debated. There are generally two tiers of paints, budget, and premium. Budget brands like Rustoleum and Dupli-Color are among the top brands used by DIYers.


Premium brands generally come from the Manufacturers themselves, But premium paints like Meguiar's, do extensive research and color matching to get you the best possible genuine color.


How many coats of paint does a car need?

The number of coats will depend a lot on the type of paint you are using and how thin you need to make it for application. In general, a car needs a minimum of three coats, one each for the primer, base and clear coat. However, with a proper paint job, sanding and repainting are a part of the process, and for a showroom quality paint job in your garage, you can expect two to four coats for each paint used.


Question

Again, the time it takes to paint a car is determined by your patience level, how much extra care and time you take to prep, check and sand or buff trouble spots properly. You can have a car painted in as little as one day. However, each coat of paint should rest for 24 hours to be tacky (touch-dry), and the final product will remain wet for up to 10 days after you finish painting.


Can I paint my car a different color? Is it legal?

It is legal to change the color of your car. You can change the color at any time, for any reason. What will vary by location, though, is if you are required to report this change immediately. Some states and jurisdictions will require you submit a registration update (some can be done online) with the new color as soon as you paint the car. Other areas of the country only require you to notify the DMV with the change when you do the annual registration.


In Summary

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!


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