DIY Exclusive: Pro Tips to Help You Flawlessly Paint Your Own CarMany auto body professionals cringe when someone calls and asks how to paint a car; they know it's not as easy as it sounds. It's not impossible, though. With the right tools and supplies, and a heavy dose of patience, DIY car painting can save you thousands of dollars.
The key? Preparation.
"Prep work is 95 percent of what we do," says Jon Bell, owner of Jonny on the Spot, a Fowlerville, Mich. auto body service. "You literally spend hours and hours on prep work. You finally get to paint it when you're done getting it ready."
Start with the basics: clear out your workspace, fill it with the supplies you'll use and set up a proper ventilation system.
Gather your personal protective equipment so you're not missing anything when it's time to start spraying. Paint fumes are incredibly toxic, which is why the pros wear respiratory protection. A good mask can help prevent isocyanate poisoning, a potentially deadly condition. Even the most well-ventilated paint booths can quickly fill with dangerous fumes that often cause permanent respiratory damage, so it's imperative that you wear a combination respirator that covers at least your nose and mouth.
"A regular particulate mask will still let the toxins through. Use one that's a step up, like a micron filter paint mask with cartridges," Bell says. "You're going to want gloves, too." The protective equipment checklist also includes safety goggles and a disposable chemical protective suit that covers most, if not all, of your skin.
Choosing the right location is vital. Ventilation and exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays have a lot to do with a great paint job. While it's true that UV rays can help paint dry, it's like the old saying goes: Everything in moderation. Too much sunlight can cause paint to dry too quickly and your finish will be pockmarked by thousands of tiny bubbles that will require professional intervention.
"Don't try to paint your car in direct sunlight," says Bell. "You want a closed room. All you really need is enough light to see what you're doing. You always have to have some kind of crosswind sucking fresh air into the booth and pushing it out. I use 16,000-BTU fans and they clean the air in the room in about three-and-a-half minutes."
Once you've protected yourself and created the right working environment, it's time for the real work to begin.
Walk around your entire vehicle and make note of every area that's going to need extra attention. Rust, dents, scratches and what the pros call pinholes-tiny bubbles created during the dent-filling or bonding process-need to be addressed in order to create a professional-quality paint job.
Dents on doors or fenders that haven't caused extensive creasing in the metal can be popped out one at a time with an ordinary plunger. Wet the plunger's outer ring and place it over the center of a dent; push down to create suction and pull it back toward you. It might take a few tries, but the end result is pretty rewarding (and cost-effective).
If the plunger trick doesn't work, wrap a piece of flat metal in a cloth and place it on the outside of your dented panel. Then bang out the dent from beneath with a flat-ended hammer, working from the shallow ends to the center.
Dents that can't be bumped out can sometimes be filled with special compounds to create a smooth surface. Clean the area thoroughly, removing dirt, debris and rust. Whip out some 220-grit or 180-grit sandpaper and prime the area. Mix your hardener-filler and apply small amounts until you've filled the entire dent, but do it in layers if it's deep so it can cure properly. Slathering on too much hardener-filler at one time will create those pesky pinholes.
Fill holes in panels with the same product by placing a sheet of flat metal beneath and dabbing it on. Like with dents, make sure the entire area is clean and rust-free before you get started. Read the manufacturer's instructions to determine how long the hardener-filler takes to dry, then smooth it with a medium-grit sanding block or paper until the compound is flush with the rest of your panel.
"The biggest mistake most people make is not sanding. I'll spend more time fixing a screw-up or fixing shoddy workmanship than I would starting from scratch," says Bell. "If you're going to do it, make sure you do it right. If you're confused, find someone who knows what they're doing and ask."
Bell isn't exaggerating the importance of sanding. A car that hasn't been sanded to remove every speck of old paint won't hold the new paint properly. In fact, a shiny new paint job can end up looking worse than the original surface if it hasn't been put on the right foundation.
To strip thick paint right down to the metal, start off with a heavy 80-grit sandpaper that can slough off several layers at once. If the existing finish is really rugged, there's nothing wrong with starting out with 40-grit or lower as long as you're careful not to gouge the metal beneath.
A power sander will slash hours off your prep time (and save you from a week of sore arms), but pay attention to how much you're grinding away. It's hard to gauge the paint's depth when you're not feeling it with your own hands, and sanding too fast can burn the paint rather than grind it off. You could even generate enough heat to warp the metal beneath. If the paint job you're replacing was done improperly, you might be able to peel sheets of it off by nicking it with a razor blade.
Once you have a fresh surface to work with, you can finally start making magic. Primer and sealant are the next step, and believe it or not, you're more than halfway done when you reach this stage. Use masking tape designed for this type of work to cover any areas you don't want to get paint on, and remember that paint particles can-and do-get everywhere. Windows, mirrors and areas reserved for special finishing touches all need to be covered. Newspaper is porous, and it can let thin paints such as clear-coats leak through; think about using something sturdier, like plastic, to save yourself the hassle of cleaning it up later.
Wipe the area you're about to work on with a Naphtha-based cleaner to remove oil or other debris, and then hit it again with a dry tack-cloth. A clean surface is one of the most important components in the foundation of a great paint job. Put on all your protective gear, turn on the fans and prep your primer according to the manufacturer's directions.
"You can find a hybrid primer that will fill pinholes," says Bell, which can help you save time and create a better finished product. "Right after the primer, you lay sealant." Use thin coats to prevent drips, because they'll have to be sanded away or repaired before you can apply the actual color. Drips are fairly common on curved areas and vertical areas, but by using thin, even sprays and working from the top down you can generally avoid creating them.
Bell has a secret trick that keeps dust and debris from floating up in the air and ruining your hard work: water.
"When you have a closed-up room, wet the floor down a little. That's key. The problem with wetting the floor down too much is that it creates condensation. What a little water does is settle all the dust so you don't get minute pieces in your paint," says Bell. "If you're spraying something inside, you're putting pressure into the air. That stirs up dust. I use a pump sprayer, like a pesticide sprayer, to wet the floor down between each coat. You just need a light mist."
Wetting the floor before applying your first coat creates the right environment for a good base. From there, use the same tactics you used with the primer. Long, even strokes will make a smooth surface; the thinner your coat, the faster it will dry.
Accidents can happen during the painting process, so be prepared. People find touching wet paint almost irresistible (you know, to make sure it's really wet), so if your buddy comes in and touches your last coat, Bell has some special advice.
"If something like that happens within the flash times, like you paint one coat and let it flash for 10 minutes, and then paint it again, just keep painting. You can buff it out in the final steps. Make sure you're using an absolutely flat block and a lot of water. Patience is key with that," says Bell.
Follow the paint manufacturer's directions on how long to wait between coats and how many coats to apply. Bell also stresses that you need to wait until your paint is completely dry before applying top coat. Like your color, topcoat may need to be applied liberally to give you the perfect finish.
When everything is dry, give your entire car a once-over. You're looking for drips, runs, dings and particles of debris trapped in the paint or topcoat. If you find anything, be gentle and stay patient.
"I've stayed on a run for eight hours. Sometimes it's easier to sand it down with 320-grit and then move up in grit all the way to 800 or to finish with 1,000," says Bell. If you do encounter an issue, retrace your steps and use the paint manufacturer's recommendations for touch-ups.
Painting your own car is time-consuming if you do it right, but it can save you big bucks. If you have the time and inclination, you can get a professional-quality finish without paying a pro-and just think of all the respect you'll earn and experience you'll gain.