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How to Paint a Car - Supplies, Steps, & Tips

Having your car professionally repainted can be very expensive. However, a fresh paint job or even simple maintenance to cover and prevent rust doesn’t have to be delegated to the nearest auto body shop. Repainting your own vehicle can sound like a daunting task but is one that lies well within your grasp. Whether you’re dealing with rust spots, blemishes, or want to update the entire vehicle’s look, the proper tools and a clean workspace are all that you need to save some money and do it yourself.

Steps to Painting a Car

Here’s a quick overview (we go into much more detail below) of how to paint a car:

  • Get the proper supplies and prepare your workspace.
  • Be aware of rust spots and take proper steps to fix.
  • Determine the type of paint you are going to use.
  • Sand your vehicle.
  • Wipe vehicle down with thinners to remove dust and particles.
  • Practice your paint spraying technique.
  • Prime the vehicle.
  • Sand again until smooth.
  • Apply up to 3-4 coats of the topcoat.
  • Apply lacquer to the vehicle.
  • Buff the vehicle with a buffer.

There is much more to each step which we will explain now.

Step One - Car Painting Supplies and Preparation

Painting your own vehicle is time-consuming, so make sure to set aside a few days or several weekends to complete the task.

  • Begin by assembling your supplies. You’ll need 1200- and 2000-grit wet-and-dry sandpaper, a powered sander, masking tape and making paper (for masking off areas you don’t want painted), spray gun, air compressor, paint thinners, primer, an acrylic topcoat, clear-coat lacquer, and a buffer. You’ll also need face masks and safety glasses.
  • The amount of paint you’ll need is going to vary on car size and the volume of the vehicle’s areas requiring paint. Generally, for small to medium-sized cars, 1 gallon of primer, 3 gallons of topcoat, and 2-3 gallons of your clear coat is recommended. For larger vehicles, use 1 ½ gallons of primer, 4 gallons of topcoat, and 3-4 gallons of clear coat.
  • When repainting areas the same color as the existing paint job, have your paint color matched by finding the color code - usually located on the vehicle’s compliance plate - and take this information to an auto shop.

Prepare Your Workspace

  • It is crucial to ensure that you have a clean workspace that is free of dust and debris. A covered shed fitted with a dust extractor would be great, but making certain that dusty areas around your painting station are cleaned and thoroughly hosed down will help prevent blemishes. A paint booth designed for this task would be the ideal solution.
  • If you will need to work outside, ensure that the weather will be conducive to painting and that you won’t be working under trees or anything else that could drop debris onto the car.

A Few More Pointers - Things To Watch Out For

  • Rust. Before beginning the vehicle painting process, check to make sure you’ve properly treated any rusty spots. The best way to avoid potential rust is to keep your car in a covered garage, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Light rust can be sanded out before being painted while heavier rust will need to be treated and sealed with a rust converter product to prevent spreading before continuing with the paint job.
  • Determine which type of paint you’ll be using. Generally, there are two paint types to choose from - Waterborne and Solventborne. Solventborne paint is the most traditional type and contains a solvent base like lacquer, enamel, or urethane. Thus, this type tends to carry more volatile organic compounds than Waterborne, making the latter an increasingly popular and more environmentally-friendly option. Automotive paint is specifically designed for use on vehicles and any other type of paint should not be used.
  • Visit our automotive paint type page for more information.

Getting Started

  • Sanding will be next your next important step. You can sand down to the bare metal if you like, but it’s not completely necessary. Just make sure you take the proper time to sand thoroughly (up to 2 hours per panel) and finish with the wet-to-dry sandpaper to ensure that you’ve given the paint a smooth even surface to bond to.
  • Sand in circular motions to provide as even a surface as possible. You may have to sand corners and other hard to reach areas by hand.
  • Once sanding has been completed, wipe down your vehicle with thinners using a clean rag to remove dust and let the any residue dry completely before proceeding with painting.
  • If you’re only planning on painting the outside of the car, mask the areas you don’t want painted. If you’re going to paint your entire vehicle (inside and out), you may need to go as far as having your engine removed. Inner door sills and the engine bay will add more paint hours to the job, but if you’re trying to be as thorough as possible, you’ll need to prepare every inch that might be painted.

Priming Your Vehicle

  • Safety comes first. Make sure you’re wearing your face mask and goggles to avoid paint contact with the eyes or lungs.
  • Practice your spraying technique first. Using a piece of scrap metal, hold the spray gun about 6 inches from the surface. Spray from side-to-side in a continuous motion, pressing the trigger only when you are moving the gun, otherwise the paint will be uneven and blobby. Once you’re comfortable that you can apply a steady, even coat, it’s time to move on to priming.
  • To prime your vehicle, you will need to mix your primer with thinners according to the paint can directions. The amounts will vary based on the type of paint you’ve selected.
  • Begin priming your vehicle by spraying from the roof down. It will take about 2-3 coats to cover the entire surface evenly, and the curing times for primer will be noted on the can. Each coat of primer will take about 10 minutes per panel to apply and anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to cure.
  • Allow the primer to dry completely between each coat before continuing to the next step.
  • Once primed completely, you’ll need to resand your vehicle before painting to reduce the powdery effects and regain the smooth, even surface. Use the 2000-grit sandpaper, and then wipe your car down with thinners and a clean rag. Be careful not to use too much thinner as this can strip the primer off completely - not something you’re trying to achieve.
  • Clean your spray gun and take the time once more to ensure that areas you don’t want painted are covered. Tidy up your work area if necessary.

Painting Your Vehicle

  • Thin the topcoat you’ll be using with thinner, just like primer. Recommended ratios will be on the back of the paint can.
  • Apply topcoat using the same techniques as with the primer. The painting and curing times will also be quite similar to the primer, taking about 10 minutes to paint each panel and 20 minutes to an hour to cure. As with the primer, allow the paint to dry thoroughly between each coat.
  • Apply up to 3-4 coats of paint, or as your supplies allow. If you run out around coat two, you will need to get more to ensure proper coverage and an even coat.
  • Before completing the last pass with topcoat, wipe down the car and remove any powdery residue that may have built-up with 2000-grit sandpaper. Wipe the car down again with a clean rag.

Lacquering Your Vehicle

  • Repeat the painting/primer steps with the lacquer, covering with 1-2 coats.
  • While clearcoat is still wet, remove any masking from areas that weren’t being painted. Use caution to prevent blemishing the clear coat or getting tape stuck in it.
  • Allow the lacquer to cure for the recommended time. Once dry, inspect the vehicle for any blemishes or runs. Sand these down lightly and respray.
  • Buff your vehicle with a buffer, making sure not to linger on one spot too long as this could burn the paint.

Once You’re Finished

Sometimes, no matter the steps you’ve taken to ensure the most even paint job, blemishes and mistakes can still occur. Whether the paint dries in an uneven pattern, there’s a color mismatch, or bleeding occurs, these can be fixed. To help you troubleshoot and solve any of these issue, here are 5 common car paint problems and how to fix them.

Painting a car doesn’t have to be a stressful, drawn-out process. Simply ensuring you buy quality products, use the right tools, and have a clean, dust-free workspace, you can achieve a professional-level car paint job at home. Visit our site for more tips, tools, products, and anything else you’ll need to get the job done right.