• Home
  • How To Paint Your Car On a Budget - Eastwood Tech Library

Painting Your Own Car



If you're restoring a vehicle, a major milestone in the process is when you paint the vehicle. At that stage, although still far from finished, the project really starts to take shape. Depending on your skill level and ambition, you may wish to tackle the paint job yourself.

If you've never painted before, the idea of painting your vehicle may seem like a fun project, or it may seem overwhelming. Although there are proper techniques to learn about spraying, nothing is out of the scope of a hobbyist who is willing to practice and learn. To get you started, Eastwood offers books and DVDs, paint guns, paints, technical advice, and all the supplies you need to paint your vehicle. When you see your freshly painted vehicle, the sense of accomplishment will be your greatest reward.

A large part of a successful paint job is directly related to the amount of preparation. Painting a vehicle is a tedious process that involves a lot of prep. If you do not properly prepare the vehicle for paint, you'll see defects in the finish, and there may also be adhesion issues. In terms of preparation, we're referring to rust repair, damage repair, bodywork, block sanding, using the correct products, keeping the surface clean, proper sanding, etc. If you're willing to put in the time and work, the end results can make it worth all your effort.

Different people have different reasons for wanting to paint their cars. Maybe you want to say you did "all" the work yourself, maybe you cannot afford to have it painted, maybe you want to learn something new, maybe you want to be certain of the work that's going into the vehicle before and during painting...the list goes on. Regardless of your reasons, there are certain things that need to be considered for a successful paint job.

To get started, you need to develop a game plan. The key to a successful paint job is planning your steps, taking your time, and properly prepping the surface. If you're in a hurry, DO NOT attempt to paint your car. If you cut corners prepping the vehicle for paint, it will be very noticeable in the final finish or shortly down the road. To properly paint a vehicle, there's a lot more involved than spraying paint onto the vehicle. When developing your game plan, here are several things to consider:

  • Do you have a place to prep and paint the vehicle?
  • Do you have (or are you willing to purchase) the needed tools to paint a vehicle?
  • Will the vehicle be stripped to bare metal, or are you going to paint over the existing finish?
  • Are you painting the complete vehicle (door jambs, trunk area, underhood, etc) or only the outside?
  • What type of paint do you plan on using? Acrylic enamel, urethane, acrylic lacquer, base coat/clear coat, water-based, etc.?
  • What brand of paint system are you going to use?

If you're considering painting your vehicle, first think of where you're going to prep and spray it. Do you have a dry place to store the vehicle while you are prepping it? Ideally, you'll want to spray in a clean, dirt-free, temperature-controlled environment. Are you going to rent a spray booth, paint in your garage, or paint in your driveway? Is it legal to spray a vehicle there? All of these factors must be considered before you think about picking up a paint gun. Tip: if it's illegal to paint your vehicle in the area you live, you can still strip it down and prep it for the body shop. It's a good way to save money.

You'll need the proper equipment to paint a vehicle. At a bare minimum, you'll need a paint gun, an air compressor that can meet the demands of your paint gun, and a moisture separator. The moisture separator will ensure that you have a dry air supply (moisture in your air supply is an easy way to ruin a paint job). Another option is a turbine paint system, such as the Earlex System. It does not require an air compressor, and ensures that you have a dry air supply.

In addition to the spraying equipment, you'll also need safety equipment like painter's coveralls, an approved respirator, goggles, and disposable nitrile gloves. The chemicals in today's paints are dangerous and can be absorbed through your skin and eyes. When working with these chemicals, you must follow all precautions and make sure you use all of the required safety equipment.

There are two general paint gun designs: gravity-feed and siphon-feed. Gravity-feed guns have the cup mounted on top of the gun and use gravity (and air pressure) to feed the paint into the gun. Siphon-feed guns have the cup mounted under the gun and use a pick-up tube to deliver the paint to the gun.

In addition to gravity-feed and siphon-feed designs, paint guns are commonly known as either HVLP (high volume, low pressure) or conventional. HVLP paint guns pass a high volume of paint through the gun's nozzle at a lower pressure (as low as 10 psi at the air cap). Conventional paint guns require high pressure (60 psi or more) to spray the paint. HVLP paint guns generally have higher transfer efficiencies, meaning they put more material on the item you're spraying. This results in less overspray and less wasted material. Some locales require that you paint with an HVLP paint gun or a compliant non-HVLP paint gun.

We recommend you use a gravity-feed HVLP paint gun. With a siphon-feed gun, there's always a little material left in the bottom of the cup that doesn't get sprayed. The gravity-feed design allows you to spray the full cup of material. Also, you should consider using gravity cup liners or the 3M™ Paint Preparation System. Both these items allow you to spray at different angles, even upside down. Eastwood offers a variety of paint guns from Eastwood, DeVilbiss, Binks, and more.

Depending on the type of paint you plan to spray, you may need additional tips and nozzle caps for the gun. Some paint guns come with tips and nozzle caps to spray heavy primers, while others are better suited for spraying lighter-bodied paints and clears. For lacquers, enamels, urethanes, base coats, and clear coats, you'll want a spray gun with a 1.3-1.5mm fluid tip. For spraying water-based automotive paints, such as Auto Air, you'll want a spray gun with a 1.0mm fluid tip. For heavy paints and primers, a spray gun with a 1.8-2.2mm fluid tip is ideal.

When deciding to paint your vehicle, how much will you take the vehicle apart? Are you going to remove the hood, trunk, doors, glass, etc., or are you going to tape it up and paint while it's together? Taking everything off allows you to make sure there's no hidden damage, and it allows you to get paint into nooks and crannies. However, you'll have to deal with gapping the panels, reinstalling glass, replacing seals, etc.

If you decide to paint the vehicle while it's still together, remove as many of the small parts as you can: antennae, door handles, lights, locks, wipers, etc. Nothing looks worse than a nice paint job that has overspray on parts that should have been removed. If you're leaving parts on the car that are not going to be painted, be sure to use high-quality automotive masking tape and masking paper...newspaper doesn't cut it. Newspaper is porous and can allow paint to get through to the surface below. Tip: to get paint under installed seals, take some nylon clothesline or coated wire and put it under the seal, and then mask off the seal. This will lift the seal enough to allow paint to spray between the seal and the body of the vehicle.

Do you plan on stripping the vehicle to bare metal, or painting over the existing finish? Stripping the vehicle to bare metal allows you to see what is hiding under the paint: rust, body filler, shoddy repairs, and other damage. You'd be surprised what has been found under existing layers of paint. Stripping the vehicle to bare metal also allows you to know exactly what products are being used. If you paint over an existing finish (perfectly acceptable for some applications), you never really know what's hiding under the surface. Also, if this finish was not properly prepped, your new coating may flake off due to the existing finish flaking off. If you don't know the history of the finish on the vehicle, it's generally a better idea to strip it to bare metal and start fresh. There's nothing worse than having a new paint job flake off, or have rust start popping out, due to shoddy repairs that were made under an existing finish.

When painting over an existing finish, the finish must be in good shape. Faded finishes are okay, but should not be peeling, cracked, or otherwise damaged. If the vehicle has been repainted, we recommend you strip the vehicle down and start from bare metal. If you do decide to paint over the existing finish, wash the vehicle and then use a high-quality wax and grease remover like PRE Painting Prep on the surface. This will remove any wax that could cause adhesion problems.

You'll want to wet sand the surface with 320-400 grit sandpaper. This will roughen the surface and allow your new finish to adhere. If there are any chips, dings, or scratches, repair them with a catalyzed glazing putty. Once you make these repairs, you should seal the entire vehicle with a quality sealer primer.

Generally, it's recommended that you stick with one brand's paint system throughout the entire painting process. However, there have been many successful paint jobs that have mixed products. If you decide to mix primers and topcoats from different manufacturers, we recommend you test for compatibility before you start spraying on your project. Tip: Eastwood's new line of primers and clearcoats are high-quality products that work well with most paint systems. These products work especially well with Auto Air paints. For repairing wavy panels, Evercoat SlickSand is also a versatile, high-build, sprayable, polyester primer that can be used with most types of topcoats. It can be applied over bare metal or prepped painted surfaces.

If you decide to strip the vehicle to bare metal, there are several options: chemical paint strippers, chemical dipping, media blasting, and mechanical stripping. Each method has its pros and cons.

Chemical paint strippers can quickly remove multiple layers of paint. Chemical strippers are available in aerosol and brush-on applications, and in liquid and gel forms. Usually, multiple applications are required to fully strip the panel to bare metal. It is advisable to avoid seams, as stripper may seep out after you've painted your vehicle and lift your fresh paint if all of the stripper was not removed. Chemical stripping can be messy, but is effective at removing multiple layers of paint. Be sure to read all warning labels, follow directions, and use appropriate safety equipment.

• Chemical dipping is done by professionals. This is the process of dipping the vehicle in chemicals. This method is very effective and removes all paint, body fillers, seam sealers, and rust. It also strips the inside of panels. If the chemical is not fully cleaned from the vehicle, it can seep out and lift the new paint. Also, this method will clean the back sides of panels and other areas that are hard to access. If you cannot treat the inside of panels, they can start rusting from the inside.

Media blasting is a method of stripping paint, rust, and body fillers that uses abrasive blasting equipment. With this method, media (sand, poly abrasive, walnut shells, baking soda, slag, etc.) is shot at the vehicle to abrade the surface and remove the coatings. Different types of media are available for stripping coatings and rust. Depending on the media being used, care must be taken to avoid warping large flat panels. Also, abrasives can get into cracks and crevices. If this is not thoroughly cleaned, it could blow out and end up in the paint when spraying the vehicle. Media blasting can be used to quickly strip large areas of paint and rust.

Media blasting can be done at home with a siphon blaster or a pressure blaster. Pressure blasters are quicker than siphon blasters, and Eastwood sells several models to suit your needs. Be sure to use appropriate safety equipment, including a NIOSH-approved respirator and blast hood.

• Mechanical stripping is another method of paint removal. It can be done by hand sanding with sandpaper, or by using pneumatic or electric grinders and sanders. Sandpaper, cleaning discs, and stripping discs are common methods. This process is effective, but it can take longer than other means of paint stripping.

Now you need to decide on the paint type and paint brand. Most paint manufacturers recommend that you use their paint systems, including cleaners, primers, paints and clear coats. This is to ensure that there are no adverse reactions among different products. There are a large variety of paints available that can be used: acrylic lacquers, acrylic enamels, urethanes, base coat/clear coat, and water-based. Eastwood carries Eastwood premium paints and Auto Air water-based paints.

For typical paint jobs on a vehicle that's been stripped to bare metal, here's an example of the steps:
(1) Wipe down surface with paint prep.
(2) Epoxy primer (offers superior protection of the bare metal).
(3) Bodywork done on top of the epoxy-primed surface.
(4) Sealer primer.
(5) 3-4 coats of base coat.
(6) 3-5 coats of clear coat.


(This is an example of the steps for products are commonly applied. Paint manufacturer's recommended products and application order may vary. Paint manufacturer's instructions should be followed.))

Depending on the purpose of your project, you might select different types of paint. With restoration projects, many hobbyists opt for acrylic lacquer or acrylic enamel to replicate the original factory finish. If you're looking for durability, urethanes, base coat/clear coat finishes and water-based finishes are great choices.

Before you start to spray, be sure to read the paint-mixing instructions and paint gun instructions. Be sure your paint gun is set-up to spray the type of finish you are using. If you've never painted before (or even if you have), you may want to look into our Paintucation videos. These videos show you how to avoid common mistakes, and present a wealth of information. Before spraying your project, you must practice, practice, practice. Spraying a fender is a lot different than spraying a whole vehicle. For practice, spray your wheelbarrow, lawn tractor, trash can, or go to a salvage yard and pick up some extra fenders, hoods or doors. This will allow you to get a feel for spraying, and also allow you to practice with different air pressures and fan patterns. This is also a good way to learn the products you are spraying.

When setting up your paint gun, hold the gun 6" from the surface and try to get a fan pattern that's approximately 6" long for spraying automobiles. If you are spraying smaller objects, a 4" pattern is usually ideal. We recommend you practice with different fan patterns before you begin spraying your project.

When spraying, be sure to keep the gun parallel to the surface you're spraying. If you're spraying a solid or metallic color, you should use a 50% overlap on each pass. For candies and pearls, you usually want to use a 75% overlap. When spraying, walk with the gun and keep your wrist firm. If you move your wrist, this will vary the gun's distance from the surface you're spraying, resulting in uneven coverage. A large part of spraying is developing a feel. The more you practice, the better you'll become. There's a fine line between laying the paint on flat and texture-free, and running it off the panel. To get this feel, you must practice and become acclimated to your spray equipment and the products you're spraying.

Be realistic with your expectations of your first paint job. It probably won't be perfect. There might be dry spots, runs, dirt, and/or bugs. Take your time and remember that many of these problems can be corrected with color sanding and buffing. Use each paint job as a learning experience. With practice, the right equipment, the right products, and Eastwood's expert advice, you'll be able to produce a paint job to be proud of.