Painting a car or vehicle 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 right tools you need in order to complete vehicle paint job.
I’m here to take you through a multi step process, with insider tips and product suggestions along the way.
Paint a car or vehicle is not as tricky as many would have you believe, but it’s important to have a plan in place before you get started your vehicle paint job.
This includes finding the right place to work, the best tools to work with and a method that suits your standard paint job.
This article will cover everything you need to know, as well as offering advice on how to stay safe and get professional-looking results of your vehicle spraying paint job like an experienced painter do. I know - you’re welcome…
Now that you’re fully geared up, it’s time to prepare your entire vehicle for its transformation. You'll want to start by removing visible dents, color sanding down rust spots entirely, and removing any plastic or chrome trend.
Have A Nice Scrub
It might seem like the most boring part of this vehicle task, but it’s one of the most important.
Get rid of any scrappy bits or remove rust that has been hanging around the bare metal with rust removal.
Make sure your canvas is totally free from debris before you start painting vehicle. Use a pressure washer to clean the vehicle thoroughly before you begin.
Break It Down
If possible, strip the main body of any window trim or door trim or door handles or plastic trim or door frame 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!
Sand The Body
Time to lightly sand the main body of your car in circular motions or side to side sweeping motion, 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 or powdery finish with smooth surface. Use circular motions or side to side sweeping motion and work your way around the applying paint a 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 masking tape or painters’ tape mentioned above to section off everything you're painting from everything that needs to remain paint-free.
Essentially, masking 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.
Tools You’ll Need For The Paint 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 or safety equipment like gloves, safety glasses, face masks on from the very beginning, so make sure it’s all including safety glasses are 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 low 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 respirator 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 diy project and change at any point you feel necessary.
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 money and 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 surfaces before it has finished curing, you could end up with an uneven surface. This can be rectified in the final stages of block 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.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get good quality painters’ tape or masking tape. Painters tape is preferred over masking tape. Painter's tape doesn't leave as much sticky residue or powdery residue as masking tape.
Paint thinner will be used with both the spray primer and the paint itself, most likely, so double check with the store assistant that the paint thinners like mineral spirits or rubbing compound or denatured alcohol 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 manufacturer's instructions.
I’d go for wet-and-dry sandpaper, around 1200-2000 grit, which you’ll be using to sand away any excess primer.
Automotive paint is easy to find in most hardware stores or local authorities. Speak to an assistant for more specific help, but you’ll want to buy enough to cover the whole vehicle, so take note of the measurements.
I’ve listed below before you take a trip to the store. If you want to re-paint a car in the same color code as existing paint 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.
Spray Paint Gun
You’ll probably be using an air compressor with paint guns.
I’d recommend an oil-free air compressor, which eliminates any risk of oil contaminating the paint and ruining your hard work and paint gun.
Look for something that can run for a long time, you’ll need it for your painted vehicle!
You’ll be using this in the final stages, so opt for something high-quality to help add a final shine to your vehicle paint work.
Clear Coat Varnish - Lacquer
Clear coat lacquer will be used in the final stages to add a high shine to your solventborne paint work on vehicle.
Make sure clear coat lacquer is compatible with the automotive paint you’ve opted for!
Small cars will use around two gallons for clear coat lacquer (apply lacquer); large will use between three and four.
6 Step Guide To Spray Painting A Car
Finally, on to the fun part, we’ve all been waiting for!
1. 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 after painted. After it is clean, apply a corrosion resistant, self-etching primer to your vehicle!
Read the label to see if you need to add any thinner like mineral spirits or rubbing compound or denatured alcohol to the applying primer cure 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!
2. Even It All Out
Sand down any primed surfaces in circular motions to ensure an even surface . If any of the primed surfaces 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 or clean rag at this point for the best results.
3. Wax On; Wax Off
Now it’s time to get rid of minimal dust you’ve accumulated during the priming/ block sanding stages by suing wax or grease remover. 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.
4. Spray As You Go
The time has finally come to actually paint a car! Make sure you check the paint label so you know how much to thin it out, if at all, and follow the instructions so that you know how to use your 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 safety goggles down – things can get pretty messy! I’d suggest apply paint around three to four coats using the same painting technique or spraying technique, making sure you wait the allotted time between layers. Add the clear coat varnish/ clear coat lacquer at this stage for a final shine boost with same spraying technique.
5. The Waiting Game
Waiting is a boring yet crucial part of body shop painting your own car, so give the paint plenty of time to cure and set. Generally, the body shops painting 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 home 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 side to side, as this will increase the chance of dust particles floating around.
6. Finishing Touches
Now that the paint has fully set and cured, you can give the car one last sanding step over with proper techniques.
This evens out any little bumps, air bubbles or dust particles that may have gotten in the way along the process. Rinse the entire car off after this to get rid of any debris.
If you wish, you can now dry and then buff your own car to bring out the shine in your fresh paint job.
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.
Before you apply your last coat of paint, remove any powdery residue or oil residue with 2000-grit wet-and-dry sandpaper and wipe down with a clean rag.
Do you want to paint the engine bay, trunk, or inner doorsills? Painting these can add time and complexity to the project, especially if you're going to paint the engine bay, which could require some mechanical knowledge to remove the engine and other accessories.
Safety Tips When Painting Cars
As I mentioned in the Tool Kit section above, having your tools and protective gear like face mask on and in good repair is important.
Your repair shop may provide you with a damage appraisal, which is the written estimate of the cost of the damage your entire vehicle suffered.
Paint is considered a hazardous material, and you need to familiarize yourself with treatment procedures before you begin. Paint fumes can be harmful and potentially lethal.
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 proper supplies of power and circuit breakers are located as well as possible prevention methods such as fire extinguishers, sand, or other fire extinguishing methods.
Treating Rust Damage
Although oxidized car paint is fairly straight forward to restore, rust damage can be much more difficult. You will need to assess how much damage there is and what type it is.
Vehicle's surface rust can be sanded and treated with power sander, while rust holes or more severe damage will need to be patched or even completely removed. You can patch rust holes after removing the rusted areas with products like Bondo, which fill holes and allow primers and applying paint without much difference in appearance.
If you have rust, surface, or otherwise, you should get a rust treating or rust inhibition primer. These specifically designed primers will seal and contain rusted areas to help prevent the rust from spreading further.
Other Considerations When Spraying Vehicles
Really think about where's best to carry out this project for larger vehicles - 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 body shop 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 proper 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!
To optimize your work process and avoid spreading dust, it's best to get all your equipment out early. This means having your sandpaper, clean rag, and other tools from trusted suppliers like Eastwood Company readily available before starting.
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 or clean rag 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 body.
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 paint job.
Stripping your own vehicle to bare metal allows you to see what is hiding under the paint: rust spots, body filler, shoddy repairs, and other damage. It takes many hours of spreading body filler, sanding, and repeating the process to ensure a panel's straightness, and, again, some specialty products and tools are required.
Types of Car Paint Explained
Unlike a lot of other DIY projects, car paint job is more specialized, and there are several different types that you will need to use for a single, finished application.
Let’s take a look at those paint types now.
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 bare metal and the colored paint. You will want to pick an enough primer color that is a similar shade of your final paint job. Lighter primers, like grey or white work well for bright colors, while black primer is best for darker finishing colors.
The base coat is the paint layer that has the actual color in it instead of color variations. The base coat does not offer any protection to the base paint, primer, or bare metal underneath. Because the primer is porous, the base paint will stick well and prevent blemishes, but it offers no moisture protection, which can result in paint chipping, bubbles, and rust spots. Wipe the primed surfaces with a rag slightly dampened with thinner.
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 painted.
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 bare 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 acrylic enamel 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.
If you want to match your car's original paint, you can find this information on the “compliance plate,” which is typically found under the hood. Before the clear coat dries, remove the masking tape used to mask off the areas where you didn't want paint applied, but be careful not to get any tape or paper stuck on the wet paint.
Once the clear coat is cured, inspect the finished job for runs or other imperfections. You also want to avoid painting in your garage if it has a furnace, water heater, or any other potential source that can ignite paint fumes.
Car Painting FAQs
How much does it cost to have my car painted?
Car painting cost varies depending on factors like paint type, coats, repairs, and time. Typically, a basic paint job for a new car with primer, base, and clear coats can cost $1500-$3000,, according CostHelper.com. Custom jobs can be over $20,000.
How many coats of paint does a car need?
A car generally needs a minimum of three coats of paint: one for the primer, base, and clear coat. For a showroom quality paint job, two to four coats per paint type may be necessary.
How long does it take to paint a car?
The time it takes to paint a car depends on your patience and preparation. It can be done in a day, but each coat of car paint should dry for 24 hours to be tacky and the final product can take up to 10 days to completely dry.
Can I paint my car a different color? Is it legal?
Yes, changing your car's color is legal, but reporting requirements may vary by location. Some places may require you to update your registration immediately, while others may only require notification during annual registration.
What is the best car paint brand?
Best car paint brand is subjective, but there are budget brands like Rustoleum and Dupli-Color popular with DIYers. Premium brands like Meguiar's offer genuine color with extensive research and color matching. Manufacturers also offer their own premium paints.
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 like face maskI’d recommend using throughout the whole process.
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 painted result is professional-looking and sleek.
Hopefully this guide has eased your mind and prepared you for actual painting a car – enjoy!