Prepping a Car for Paint

Whether you're wanting to update your vehicle's look, need to cover up slight structural damage, or repaint after repairs, it's more than possible to conduct your vehicle's paint job at home. Painting your own vehicle can actually be a simple process if you've thoroughly prepped the car for paint.

Making sure you have the proper space and tools will also be highly beneficial to achieving a clean and timely paint finish.

How To Prepare a Car for Paint

  1. Time Allowance - Before you even begin the process of preparing the car for painting, you'll need to map out the time you have available and the amount of time it will realistically take to carry out the process from start to finish. Take into consideration that each hands-on step -- especially cleaning, sanding, priming, and curing -- could take at least 2 hours per section, most likely more. Unless you're only sanding and refinishing a small area, you probably won't be able to sand, prime, and paint in one day. Allow yourself one full day for sanding and priming at least. If you need to drive your vehicle before you get around to painting it, make sure that the primer you've chosen can be exposed to elements, as some should not. Making other transportation arrangements is generally recommended so that you're not driving your vehicle around with bare metal or primer exposed.

  2. Cleaning - Starting with a clean vehicle is especially important for achieving a great finish. You'll want to wash your car thoroughly, making sure to get in any nooks and crannies you'll be painting.

  3. Sanding - In order for the paint to bond to the vehicle surface for the best finish, you'll need to strip the current finish and any rust spots down to the bare metal before continuing with primer by sanding. Small spots you can sand by hand, but a sander will make larger panels and curved areas go more quickly. Sanding the entire vehicle down to the bare metal can be very time consuming, so the other option is to just make sure you sand down to a smooth surface that is even. A high quality wet/dry sandpaper can help you acheive this even surface.

  4. Clean Again - Sanding may leave behind residual dust and particles. Giving your vehicle another rinse and a quick dry will prevent any of these from marring your final paint finish. Wiping it down with a thinner is also recommended to remove as much as possible.

  5. Taping - Now is when you'll want to tape off or cover any parts of the vehicle that don't need paint, such as chrome surfaces, windows, bumpers, door handles, etc.

  6. Priming - Primer helps seal out moisture and any potential for rust down the road. It also helps the paint bond more permanently with the vehicle surface. Depending on the type of primer you choose, you may need to thin it or mix it in order to "activate" it. Read the instructions thoroughly before continuing, and have access to a few clean buckets to make this process easier.

  7. Curing Time - You'll usually want to apply several coats of primer, and depending on workspace temperature, type of primer, and thickness of the coats, you'll need to allow enough time for the primer to completely dry between coats. Read the instructions to figure out how long this process might take, and always allow extra time if it's still tacky or seems less than completely dry.

  8. Double Check - Give your vehicle another quick once over -- check to see if you need to sand any more thick or patchy areas, or give it another wipe down to get rid of dust.

You've now prepped your vehicle for painting. Keep in mind that the actual painting process can take a bit of time; each vehicle panel can take up to two hours to paint, so if you need to save the rest of the project for another day, throwing a tarp over the vehicle is a good idea. You can also go ahead and assemble your tools for the next day and make sure your paint spray gun is thoroughly clean, prepped, and ready to go.

Workspace for Car Painting

First thing's first. You'll want to make sure you have an ideal space for painting your vehicle. This involves an area that is relatively clean and dust-free to avoid particles ending up in the car finish or your materials.

  • If you have the garage space, make sure it is clean and well-ventilated -- a few small exhaust fans are a good idea to prevent fume build-up and help with drying time.

  • Good lighting is important. Without good lighting, it may be tough to see small blemishes or inconsistencies in the sand or paint job. Make sure you have adequate lighting wherever you'll be working.

  • The space should be large enough that you can move comfortably around the vehicle on all sides at all times. This is especially important if you're using a paint spray gun on the larger areas of the vehicle fray, as a continuous stream will coat the vehicle better and result in a better quality finish.

  • If you're removing any panels and painting them separately, make sure you have a station set up to the side, or even just outside your workstation, to avoid overspray.

  • Set up a small area to the side with any other painting supplies you'll be needing throughout the vehicle prepping or painting process -- clean rags, sanding supplies, brushes, etc.

If the weather is decent, it's entirely possible to conduct your paint prep and painting outside. Just make sure the vehicle isn't parked beneath any trees or anything else that could drop particles or other bits onto your fresh paint job.

Tools Needed

Assembling your tools first helps every process go a bit smoother, and prepping your car for painting is no exception.

  • Safety accessories FIRST. Wear pants and long sleeves. Safety goggles/glasses and dust masks or respirators are a must to prevent breathing in harmful particles and fumes and keeping them out of your eyes. Gloves can be worn when mixing primers and thick sturdy shoes are important for protecting your feet.

  • You'll need access to a hose for cleaning the car in between processes.

  • Make sure you have the proper sandpaper. For the initial sanding, make sure your sander is outfitted with at least 1200-grit sandpaper. Using a machine for the first pass will help it go quicker, but you'll want to finish any detail sanding by hand with wet-dry-sandpaper and wipe the car down with a thinner.

  • Having the right paint spray gun for the job makes things so much easier, and assembling it before you begin your project will save you time. Check to make sure it's been cleaned well since the last time you used it, and if it hasn't been cleaned, go ahead and clean it. Having a thinner on hand in which to soak any stubbornly grimy parts makes this aspect a bit easier.

  • A quick test to make sure your spray gun is spraying evenly and consistently is a good idea as well. You can do this with a bit of the primer on a cardboard panel before using it on the vehicle.

  • Keep rags, small brushes, and any other small tools you might need close by and easy to reach.


Determining which type of primer you need for your vehicle is important. Primer is the foundation for your vehicle's paint job, so it's important to select the right one.

  • There are several different types of vehicle primer -- urethane, epoxy, and high fill, among others. Epoxy primer is usually the best option as its most compatible with a wide variety of finishes, prevents corrosion, and is necessary to use when you've sanded down to bare metal.

  • Depending on the type of primer you've chosen, you may need to mix it with a thickener, a thinner, or an activator. Read all instructions thoroughly and test the mix on a small area to make sure it's the proper consistency.


Prepping your vehicle for painting also includes knowing the color you want or need when it comes time to paint your car. The type of paint you choose for your vehicle is also important, and there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • If you're just retouching some rust spots or blemishes and want to keep the vehicle color the same, you'll want to have the paint shade matched by an auto paint shop to avoid inconsistencies. This is actually pretty simple; you just need your car's color code, which can be found online, in your owner's manual, or listed somewhere on your vehicle, much like model numbers and other important info. Once you've obtained your color code, you can take it to an auto paint stockist, and they'll match the shade for you.

  • When choosing a new paint color, consider that brighter, flashier colors are more expensive, and certain colors, like red, are actually pulled over more often. White or silver reflect sunlight more efficiently, and offer better road visibility so sticking with what may seem like a boring or typical color may actually be a good idea.

  • There are two major types of car paint: solvent-borne and waterborne. Solventborne paint is usually a little sturdier than waterborne, but waterborne paint has recently come a long way and produces some great coats without all of the harmful fumes and chemicals that could be present in a urethane-based solvent-borne paint. Ultimately, you'll need to decide which one works best for you.

  • In addition to solvent vs waterborne, you'll also need to decide if you want to select a paint that has a topcoat “built in” -- meaning you'll get a glossier and more protective finish without having to go back and apply a third and separate topcoat. This type of paint is called single stage paint, and could save you a lot of time and effort.

  • If you end up selecting a two stage paint and still want a topcoat, you will need to apply a clear coat top coat separately once you've completed the painting process. Applying a clear coat also makes it easy to buff out and refinish minor dings and spotting.

Cautions and Summary

It's extremely important to follow all of the car paint prep steps properly. If the surface of the vehicle was dirty or improperly prepared, you could run into some common paint issues with your final paint coat. Problems like cracking, flaking or peeling, or inconsistencies in paint finish are usually the result of an improperly prepared surface and will need to be rebuffed and refinished. Some good rules of thumb are to spray lightly instead of heavily, correct any drips or mistakes as you go, and DON'T RUSH. Taking your time when it comes to both prepping your car for a paint job and painting your car will yield much better results.

By following these steps you'll set yourself up for achieving a more professional paint job at home, as well as ensuring safety during execution and avoid some potential issues with your paint finish. And now that your vehicle is all prepped and ready to go, it's time to paint! Visit Auto Body Toolmart to browse our painting materials, car painting tips, and supplies.

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