When you’re restoring a car, few things make it look modern and flawless like a new coat of paint. Although any auto body shop can do the work for you, if you’ve got some time and the right supplies, you can save money doing it yourself. In this blog, the team atRed Label Abrasives outlines how to paint a car: the supplies you’ll need, the steps involved, and tips for best results.
Steps To Painting A Car
We cover all of the steps in more detail with tips below, but the quick overview to all of the steps involved in painting a car are as follows:
To match your vehicle's original paint, look for the compliance plate, which is typically found under the hood. The color code may also be found inside the door frame on the driver’s side. For the perfect match, take this code to an automotive paint seller. You can always contact the car manufacturer if you can't find the code.
Where you paint is just as important as the materials you use. It’s better to do so indoors, so rain or windblown debris don’t mess the new surface, but take some safety precautions first:
Always wear a respirator.
If you’re painting in your garage or a shop attached to the house, tape plastic sheet over the connecting door to keep the fumes out.
Vent the room by cracking the garage door.
Mist the floors with water to keep sanding dust from becoming airborne.
Once you’ve got your location chosen, decide when you’re going to do the work. Generally speaking, early morning is best in spring and summer because fewer bugs are around and you can leave the windows open. If you’re working during colder months, afternoons are preferable because temperatures are warmer.
Step Two: Do Some Deconstruction
Start by removing everything that can get in the way of a smooth and even paint job. This includes stickers, emblems, and parts you don’t want to paint, such as door handles and bumpers. While you can opt to tape around these parts, it will affect the uniformity of the final result, so take a few extra minutes to remove them and set them aside.
Step Three: Treat the Surface
Paint reveals the tiniest details, so if your car’s surface has scratches, scrapes, chips, and other small flaws, they won’t disappear beneath a new coat. If anything, these imperfections will be even more visible.
Use a finer grit sanding paper (320 to 500) to remove the paint. If you’re not stripping it down to the bare metal, you’ll need to feather the edges of any scratches or chips, meaning that you sand them until the edges are too fine to feel with your fingers. However, if the old paint is peeling or cracked, you’ll need to strip it completely: damaged paint is always visible even beneath a new coat and eventually it will create surface issues.
Step Four: Sand
Basically, if you're going to paint a car, you'll need to do a lot of sanding! The trick is to get the right abrasive grit for the recommended surface treatment.
If the current coat of paint is in decent shape, you can prepare it using 500-grit sandpaper, which will make the surface just rough enough to ‘grab’ the new coat. The bodywork and primer should be sanded to a minimum of 220-grit, and preferably 320-grit. You should not sand the body with anything higher than 500-grit, because the paint requires some roughness to adhere.
You can sand your entire car by hand, but it’s easier to do most of the work with an electric orbital sander and use hand sanding sheets for the smaller details. If you’re sanding by hand, you’ll want to stick ourRhynowet sanding sheets to a block to avoid applying uneven pressure while sanding.
Pro Tip:Make sure you get the right abrasive material for auto body work. Most sanding discs designed for stripping paint and smoothing metal are manufactured using closed coat aluminum oxide. Closed coatings prevent debris from getting trapped among the abrasive grains. A higher grit-to-surface ratio also allows for aggressive cutting and smoother finishing.
Step Five: Remove Rust
If the car has experienced body damage, some rust may have set in. It will have to be removed: even the smallest amount can ruin the new paint job and keep eating into your car’s metal. Minor rusting can be sanded away, but anything heavy should be treated with rust killer or replaced completely.
If you use a spray-on rust killer, let it cure for at least 48 hours before applying paint on top.
Avoid using body filler to treat rust holes. If the holes are too deep or extensive, metal work will need to be done.
Step Six: Prime the Surface
You need to apply primer to a car before painting it. There are several different coats that may have to be used, depending on how you start out.
If you’re working with bare metal, you’ll need epoxy or etching primer to scuff the surface for filler primer or surfacer, which is a thicker primer applied to fill chips or sending scratches (but not dents). Once applied, block sand the entire surface of the vehicle, prime it again, and block sand it again.
Sealer is the last surface coating you apply before its time to paint. It effectively seals all the primer and provides a smooth and uniform canvas for the paint.
Pro Tip:Make sure that the primers you use are compatible with the final paint color. You should also work with only one brand. If you switch brands, or even series of paints within one brand, you can get compatibility issues that lead to paint checking, peeling off, and other problems.
Step Seven: Apply Masking
You’ll want to mask the car, unless it is completely stripped. Don’t use newspapers: the inks can transfer to metal, creating a mess. Use painter's masking tape and automotive tape to mask your vehicle. If you keep the lines neat and tidy, the final product will be much better.
Step Eight: Wipe the Surface Clean
Wiping the body clean is the last step before spraying paint. You’ll need the following:
Grease and wax remover
Use one lint-free cloth to wipe the remover on the car, taking one small section at a time), and another cloth to clear away the remover. Don't let the chemicals dry on the car. If it happens again, re-wet the surface and then wipe it dry.
Once you’re done, wipe the entire area with the tack wipe. Now you’re ready to paint!
Step Nine: Apply Paint
To apply the paint, you will need a gravity-fed paint gun that is connected to your air compressor. For automotive painting, you’ll be using an LVLP (Low Volume Low Pressure) and/or HVLP (High Volume High Pressure) gun.
Pro Tip:LVLP is better for clear coats and single-stage enamels, since its spray is very smooth and finely atomized. However, the HVLP method is faster when it comes to thinned paints such as latex. Most people use an HVLP gun for their base coat and an LVLP gun for their clear coat, but an LVLP machine can do the entire job.
In terms of compressors, it is recommended that you go for the larger tanks, as they will allow you to complete the job without having to stop and refill as often. They typically range between 60 and 80 gallons in size.
To paint, hold the spray gun six inches from the surface of the vehicle. Use side-to-side motions to apply light, even coats. Depending on the size of your car, it may take three to four coats before you’ve covered the entire surface. Once you’re done, let the paint dry for the amount of time recommended by the manufacturer.
Step Ten: Sand Once More and Apply Lacquer
To remove any powdery residue before applying your final coat, sand the surfaces again and then wipe the surface with a clean rag. Then apply a clear lacquer using the same application technique you used with the paint. While lacquer is still wet, carefully remove all masking tape from the car surface. Let the clear coat dry for the manufacturer-recommended time. Finally, buff all painted surfaces and use a rubbing compound to achieve a glossy finish.
Quality Abrasives Are Key to a Perfect Paint Job
Good results depend on how well you prepare the car’s surface for painting. When you’re dealing with damaged old paint or heavy chipping, you want to use an abrasive that’s been manufactured to sand these flaws away without damaging the metal.
At Red Label Abrasives, we sell industrial-gradesanding discs for auto body work. They include hook and loop wet/dry film backed sanding discs, which are flexible enough to sand complex shapes while maintaining the durability needed to strip away layers of caked/on paint. OurAbrasilk sanding discs are also specifically designed for automotive paint finishing. If you need help choosing the right size for your sander, please call844-824-1956 orfill out our contact form and an abrasive specialist will soon be in touch.
David Kranker is a writer and creative maker who has been covering the abrasive and knife-making industries on the Red Label Abrasives Blog since 2020. David spends his time continually researching sanding and bladesmithing to provide readers with the latest and greatest information. In his free time, David utilizes abrasives for many different home and auto projects at his home in Delton, MI.