Do it yourself Paint job

So you need/want/insist on a paint job but aint got the cash? Thinking about just trying it yourself? How hard can it be - right? The article below refers to the authors comments and experiences on how he did a cheap do-it-yourself paint job. Don't take this article as the bible on how to paint a bus, just read it thoroughly and ask lots of questions and you should be well on your way.

Submitted By: Chris Mills

Unfortunately body shops are hard to recommend city to city because they are generally privately owned and not franchises unless you deal with MAACO or Earl Shreib's. I had a 97 Jetta painted at MAACO once. Cost me 250 dollars and it looked great but had a little orange peel. However they don't mask worth crap and you don't want them doing your bodywork. they also told me not to wash it for 30 days...hmmm. But a nice clean straight *shell* taken to them *ready for paint* will prolly turn out just as any other average shop could do it. They do suck at prep work so the more you can do the better. Also The better the paint they use, the more it costs and longer it lasts.

Now that you've heard that, you gonna turn back from all the hard work ahead? ok then lets continue...

First I'd decide whether you want a show paint job or a basic driver paint job. Are you going to paint inside or inside the engine compartment? Door jambs? If you plan a color change consider doing both. Nothing like a nice looking red car that reveals blue door jambs when the driver opens his door! I painted all the above on mine and detailed the engine compartment. Looks much better than I hoped. Understand I also removed the engine and painted all the tin, fire wall, trapdoor above the engine, cleaned all the fuel injection parts. Seemed like a million hours. The door jambs and engine compartment were not hard to do but required alot of sanding at odd angles - lots of corners and crevices and seams to work around.

To me there are an infinite number of prices to charge for the same paint job - but, I figure there are four types:

  •  a show quality paint job ($2000+) I'd cry if it got wet. 

  • The driver paint job (decent quality, a few blemishes, some waves in the panels - average quality materials) 

  • The old favorite - El Cheapo budget job (MAACO or Earl's - scuff the old paint with sandpaper, squirt paint from a pond of paint out back, very little prep, corner cutting in every department). That pond wouldn't be so bad but the pump keeps pulling leaves, small rodents, and the occasional rock into the
    system... .<grin>

  • The final version is the "my first paint job" variety. The results can vary with your patience and diligence but the cost is probably the best and cheapest and you gain a few new tools. I recommend this type because the job is as good as you want it to be, you can spend as much time as you think it needs, you learn a skill that you can use on your next project, and you gain a skill that you can trade for other work or parts or simply $$$. I you aren't very confident, check your local community colleges as they usually have courses that teach welding and paint & body work. You can also have the local community college students paint your car for a "donation" (50 bucks or so). The teacher guides them as they paint your car. Risky but if your hurtin for cash it might be the way to go.  You might get a pretty decent paint job for cheap.

I use projects where I do the work as a method to justify a few new tools each time! If you are saving a thousand bucks, why not spend a few hundred and have some tools for this job and the next paint job. I would borrow an air compressor or buy a Lowe's/Tractor Supply/Wal-mart Campbell Hausfeld.

Buy the biggest you can afford. I personally insist that you buy a "2 stage" compressor, as it really is the only thing that can do the job without running constantly and it will be able to run your other power tools you have or will soon be buying, with ease. If you cant afford a 2 stage compressor (usually in the 700 and up range) Campbell Hausfeld isn't the best or the cheapest but they do fit some budgets and assuming you would not be running it hard everyday
it would probably last quite a while. You may have to wait for it to fill up which can suck when your in the middle of spraying that perfect coat. If you could find a used compressor you might be able to get into a larger compressor for cheap - surplus industrial equipment or something. You could also rent a nice big compressor from an equipment company that comes on a trailer. Check your local phone book and shop carefully. If it has a big tank then you can probably expect good results driving a spray gun. There are specific CFM ratings for compressors and for accessories like spray guns. It is a measurement of Cubic Feet per Minute of air produced or used at a specific pressure. Check some of the catalogs like Harbor Freight or Northern or Grizzly and see what they offer. Many times I can shop their catalog and then find something comparable locally and not pay the shipping that the catalogs would require. These same suppliers offer spray guns and grinders and 101 other accessories.

Campbell Hausfeld (for example) sells a couple of different siphon spray guns - the cheap one and the not so cheap one. The cheap one will work with any of the compressors (because it has a low CFM requirement) and is okay but I've also got their better one and it does a better job of reducing the paint to a proper controlled fog (finer mist) than the cheaper gun. I've only got a small rotary compressor w/o a tank and it's CFM rating is too small to push the bigger gun. Eventually I will buy a proper air compressor.

There are all sorts of cheap Asian imports. Many of them are copies of Binks guns and other professional quality equipment. Often they are so close in design that they will use brand name (Binks for example) spare parts interchangeably. I have a cheap import touch up gun. It has a small cup and can spray very good paint patterns (it would spray a car just as well as a  regular gun, except the cup is so small). A decent gun can be had for $50.

My last word on spray guns is clean them immediately after usage. Do your painting, open the door, move the car if you have to - but - don't forget to clean your gun within about 30 minutes or less. Less if you used a hardener in your gun. Otherwise you will spend forever trying to get the paint out of the gun. I bought a set of long tip torch cleaners to clean the orifices of my spray gun. The first 3/32" of these tip cleaners was smooth and then each of them were made like a file to help file the baked junk out of a torch tip. I cut most of this smooth portion of so I could clean the tips on my spray gun easier.

You'll also need some sort of sander. You can do ALL of it by hand but you'll prefer a sander I bet. There are hundreds of really nice air tools on the market but they require a large air compressor in order to run them without spending most of your time waiting for the compressor to catch up (you'll use more air than the machine can pump on single stage compressors).

However with the arrival of DeWalt and Milwaukee and Porter-Cable on the scene in the past few years with some very nice electric power tools - I think you might get off cheaper with electric power versus air power. Because I do some woodworking, I have two palm sanders. The first is my old  Black and Decker Professional. It has a square sanding pad and uses regular sandpaper that you cut to size - 4 pieces per sheet. It has a simple orbital motion and it's progress is slow but good. The Black and Decker Professional line was an ancestor to the DeWalt line (also built by Black and Decker).

This past Christmas I bought a Porter-Cable sander. It has a round head, Velcro fastened sanding pads, and the action is random orbit - this means in addition to the head making a random rotation the head is also free to spin. It removes material many times faster than my B&D square pad sander with equal or better results. Most of the tool makers have their own versions.

There are two 'trim' levels. The more expensive version has an electronic speed control that limits how fast the sander can run during periods of no load (not touching anything) . I have used both and bought the cheaper version - I didn't need the fancy control. Woodworkers apparently will sit these sanders in a holder and let them continue to run while they move their wood around. I have a wood working catalog and they advertise a special holder (universal to all makes) to allow this. I just turn it off if I need to move anything.
Belt sanders are too rough, adaptors to sand using your drill seem too slow, and the high speed grinder/sanders have uses only when working body damage or rust because they work too quickly and leave such a coarse texture.

One way or another I can't use a power sander once I am done stripping the old paint off and I have begun to prep for paint. That sanding I have always had to do by had with a sanding block. Thankfully primer is soft and works fast. However I know folks that can do all of it with power tools.

Here's my quick and dirty (cheap) routine:
Strip the car of any trim I can - bumpers, lighting, moulding, etc. Strip the car with 60 grit sandpaper. Wear a dust mask!

Grind any places which require filler to bare metal. Better adhesion.

In case of large rusty holes: Cut out rust and weld in new panels. Small repairs I butt weld. Larger panels or pre-formed repair panels overlap.

In case of rusty pin holes: You can just drill out the rust. If using filler slightly dent the metal to allow a minimum thickness of 1/16" or so of filler covering the hole. I use metal impregnated filler because I will never be able to get to the back of this repair and seal the filler the oozes in. Regular polyester filler is hygroscopic (fancy words...) and will absorb moisture until the metal is cover with rust again and the filler falls out. The metal impregnated version will not.

Coat everything rusty (inside and out) with a rust converter or a rust encapsulater. The generic rust converters in a spray can seem to have troubles coating well enough. POR-15 is excellent I hear but I have never ordered any. 

 I have used a brush on converter that is water based apparently (water cleanup). You have to top coat this stuff because it can wash away. POR-15 is probably a much more long term solution. I'm 'testing' some of the brush on water based stuff on the top of my Beetle in the backyard under a tarp. Going on 9 months and it is standing up well. So scientific.....

Check around because there are a variety of excellent materials out there. Beware of the catalogs re sellers - their prices maybe significantly higher than if you do a little research and buy from an industrial supplier instead. For example much of the stuff that EASTWOOD wants to sell you can be bought in bulk quantities for cheaper prices because there is an industrial application for it. You might even discover that you can find it locally and get some helpful advice at the same time from the fellow or lady behind the counter. It maybe a different brand as well but much of the materials we use in the old car hobby is manufactured by more than one company anyhow. If you aren't sure you are getting the same stuff, put your money back into your pocket, and check other suppliers, friends, or the Internet before you buy.

Reseal body seams if necessary. 3M makes body sealer (and about 150 other substances for the car industry).

Go get out the phone book and find a paint and body shop supplier in your town. Make a visit. Tell him you are doing your first budget paint job. If he spends alot of time trying to bamboozle you into spending your money on the best of best paint SYSTEM you might try to bring him back to earth and get him to talk you with a normal vocabulary - in terms you understand. If you have no luck, out the door you go. Sooner or later you will find somebody that will take a few minutes and explain it all to you in simple terms. Here is a good basic primer. Here is what you thin it with. Here is the paint, here is what you reduce it with, the hardener, and here...He will have to know what kind of paint you are trying to top coat with - such as lacquer (lots of rubbing to get any gloss, old technology), basic acrylic enamel with hardener, or color+clear coat type paint. The type of topcoat will dictate the primer type (chemistry) they have to match or you will have problems.

This same person is also going to be a good source of information on good body shops. Undoubtedly it'll be a shop that buys from him and one of his buddies but I'd still ask. Another good place to ask around about body shops is local cruise-ins, shows, speed-parts stores and auto parts stores. This is where you get to meet the 'car guys' who all know a bunch of other 'car guys' and hey - everybody needs a paint job - somebody paints on the side!

You'll need primer, thinner, paint sticks (usually free) and funnel filters (also usually free). I also recommend a paint stick marked with measurements (a $5 item) or a paint cup also marked for mixing (also about $5). You can go for regular primer or high build primer. The regular primer just helps the paint grip the car and will help you get the panels sanded straight. The high build does the same but also helps get the panels straight faster because it is thicker (less sanding and re coating). It also costs a little more. I'll leave the chemistry up to the folks selling you the primer because it is a little different brand to brand. So are the mixing ratios - primer and thinner. There are also 3 or 4 colors of primer. Grey, black, white, beige. The choice depends on the final color you want to put on the car. The paint guy can help you out here.

Get some surgical gloves so that folks don't worry that you have some rare chameleon skin disease (with black, grey, beige or white patches of skin). Also ask the paint guy about a proper respirator. Some of the new paint materials are really mean stuff and can make you quite sick. Much worse than turpentine ever dreamed of! Respirators come certified for certain materials. Some masks would be useless against paint. Before you begin sanding and primering the car take a quick look at your work area. You are going to be relatively noisy doing this process. Are you going to really piss off your neighbors? Do they work nights and try to sleep when you might be working? Will any paint drips on your driveway get you thrown out of the house? I always make a mess - it's my trademark! <grin> Will over spray get on anything important like your house, car,
motorcycle, or little sister? Worse yet - will over spray get on your neighbor's house, car, or little sister? Over spray a real royal pain to get off of painted and glass surfaces - oh, and little sisters.

We are on the cheap here so here's what I've done: Prime the car in urethane high build primer. Sand with 200 grit or so paper. You want to do this with a sanding block. The idea is to straighten the body so when the glossy top coat paint is applied the reflections seen are more or less accurate - more like a mirror than a lake with ripples in it. How perfect does it have to be? The paint will stick to a wavy body just as well as a perfectly blocked panel so it's all up to you - how much patience do you have? If you sand with paper too coarse, you just sand off all of the new primer - so - coarse enough to get the job done in a reasonable time and fine enough to not just sand all the most recent coat of primer off.

Use the dry, regular sand paper to strip the body down and to sand body filler and use the dark or black waterproof paper to wet sand each coat of primer. Wet sanding is a process of using sand paper wetted often to keep it clean and last longer, to control the dust, and to lubricate the sand paper. Gives a finer surface because all of the old sanding dust isn't trapped between the paper and paint. Mostly it's just that the finer grade sand paper wouldn't last very long if it wasn't washed often because it would just clog up with paint dust. Try dry sanding with a fine grit sometime. I use an old bucket that is reasonably clean with just two drops or so of dish washing liquid. The soap just helps counteract the oil from your hands and whatever oil may be on the car from air tools or whatever.

First coat of primer goes like this. Start up the air compressor and let it build up pressure - it should shut off when it is full. Be sure if this is a borrowed compressor that it doesn't have an automatic oiler in the air system - these automatically oil tools that use air for power. Your spray gun needs no oil and the paint won't either. Find the valve on the bottom of the tank and open it - the air pressure inside the tank will force any trapped water out of the tank. My friend always closed the valve but let it leak slightly so any residual moisture could find it's way out anytime.

Make sure you have some sort of dryer on the air system - this separates the moisture out of the air coming from the tank so you won't get droplets of moisture fired into your fresh primer. Some people insist on having a dryer at each end of the hose. You can never have enough dryers. Drain all dryers of moisture. There will be a valve on the bottom of it.

Get out your spray gun and paint materials. Measure out enough primer into the measuring cup. Add thinner. Mix until the paint and thinner thoroughly mix. An experienced friend is helpful here because they will know if the paint is the proper consistency. A cheap low volume gun will have different needs from a nicer high CFM volume gun. Mine liked paint that was like melted ice cream (homemade ice cream without the fruit).Put a cone filter into the top of your paint cup (bottom of the spray gun) and pour the paint in. Don't go all the way to the top. Now look at the inside of the top of the cup - the lid portion still attached to the gun head. On some guns (siphon type) there will be a hole that allows air inside the cup to replace the paint that gets sucked out by the gun. On some guns this is a short looped piece of tubing. Same function. One some guns - like my cheap gun there is nothing BUT LOOKS like there is (b/c this same gun shell gets used for several different models, some which have the hole drilled in the top). If there isn't a hole there, DON'T drill one. Ask me how I know... Just believe me when I say it will drip lots of paint all over while you are trying to spray.

If you have a cheap gun then you will have one control after the trigger. The cheap guns like mine have an adjustment on the back of the head behind the trigger (closer to you) that limits the travel of the trigger. As a result the spray pattern is altered AND the volume of paint is altered. The tip of the gun can also be adjusted giving a vertical or
horizontal fan of paint. I use the vertical.

On my fancy gun I also have an adjustment at the tip that controls the fan of paint - wide or narrow. The adjustment of the gun at the rear mostly limits the trigger and the volume of paint sprayed. Adjust this limit so that each pass you make - you have the trigger pulled all the way - I can't successfully adjust the flow of paint by altering the amount I squeeze the trigger but you might. I have much too much to worry about and I rely on the trigger limit the paint delivery.

Everything here is a system. Everything affects something else also - the consistency of the paint, the air pressure, the wind, the air pressure, the temperature, the settings on your gun, the distance between the spray gun and the surface you are painting. You just have to find what works for you.

I try to lightly dust the panel painted and then immediately coat the panel again - a little heavier. During this same period I'm adjusting the gun for the right paint volume and fan size. I prefer to paint with half of each new pass of paint overlapping half of the last pass of paint. If your primer or paint is arriving on the vehicle as a rough, dusty paint then you are using too much pressure, or too much distance gun to car, possibly you have the wrong thinner (too much) , or you aren't spraying enough paint in each pass. If it runs then pull your gun away from the car, increase your air pressure, or you have the wrong thinner (too little). I try to err on too little thinner than too much. If it ain't right - just let it dry and sand it off.

Thinners come in different temperature ranges based on the temp you are spraying in - faster thinners aid paint in drying faster in cooler temps. At cooler temps paint dries slowly and there is more chance for something to get into the paint or for the paint to sag or run.

Slower thinners try to keep paint wet longer when it is hot so it has a chance to flow and flatten out before is solidifies. They do this by varying the evaporation rates - that is faster thinners evaporate faster. We painted my bus using a fast reducer (thinner for enamel). I bought the reducer a week before when it was cool. We painted the bus on a hot afternoon but the store was closed and I could not get any slower reducer). On my van I wound up with some orange peel because the paint dried too fast before it could flatten (smooth) out. Fortunately we planned ahead and there is enough paint that I can color sand the paint and get the texture under control.

It's probably good that painting a car starts out with many coats of primer because mistakes in primer just sand out. Mistakes in your topcoat stare at you forever.

Once you have the panel sprayed - and be sure to plan to work until you are out of paint in the gun - if you anticipate spraying some more you can just do a quick clean on your gun. While the primer dries - put a bit of thinner into the gun's cup. Slosh it around hard and then take a throw away rag and put it over the tip. Spray some thinner into your rag and then once wet with thinner use the rag to wipe the outside of the gun down. Scrub any paint drips off your gun and sit it aside. I'd be sure there was still some thinner in the gun. Once the primer is dry on the car, work it again and then once satisfied, mix your primer again and spray. If you are done for the day, disassemble the spray gun (remove cup and tip) and clean everything until it looks new and there is no trace of paint. I have a hard time with grey primer because it is hard to see on chrome spray guns.

I leave about a 1/3 of the cup full of thinner and drop the tip and the tip ring into the cup and re-attach it to the gun and sit it on the shelf.

When you are finally sure that the car is ready for paint, give it a light coating of primer in black. Now sand it one more time with a sanding block. If the black primer sands away uniformly then you are set. If it sands away unevenly you aren't ready for a show stopper paint job yet.

The places the black primer is left represent low places - needs more coatings of primer. The places it sands away first represent high spots and need to be brought down even with the surrounding sheet metal.If a show stopper paint job isn't a goal and wavy panels won't keep you awake - then just ensure the primer is smooth everywhere - down low to the
body seam, in the rain gutters, and along the edges of each door and window. Sand the car with some fine sand paper (maybe 300+) a last time. Prime again if you have to - if you sand through or something.

Sand paper choices are arbitrary understand. You could strip the paint down with a rock if you were prepared to repair the gouges it would leave. So you strip with 60 or 80 grit. You could strip with 2000 but you'd still be working on this paint job in 10 years. Then you start priming. The smaller scratches from the sand paper disappear first - filled by the primer. If you used high build primer then maybe even some of the larger scratches goes away the first time. As you work the panel repeatedly you move to finer grits because the panel is getting straighter and straighter and you want to remove less and less primer quickly. Each coat of primer fills more of the remaining blemishes and scratches.

The final sanding prior to topcoat should be fine sand paper because you are done straightening the panels, and the big gouges are filled with primer, so the only reason you are sanding at all is to create a surface that the top coat can grip, and to remove some of the finer scratches left by the previous more coarse sanding. Get out some paint-prep and wipe the car down. This is a liquid designed to dissolve and remove any oils on the primer that might still be sticking around. Topcoats cannot tolerate ANY oils and oils will cause what is called 'fisheyes' as the paint is repelled by the oil leaving a little uncovered spot where you are looking right at the primer still. The paint-prep solution smells alot like charcoal lighter fluid to me. Use one rag to apply the paint-prep liquid and in the other hand another rag to wipe it off simultaneously so the oils don't have a chance to reapply themselves to the car's surface as the cleaner evaporates.

Wax on, wax off...

Get out a tack rag and wipe the whole car down.

Gotta go take a break? Do it again when you get back. You can't do too much
of this. This will also give you yet another chance to check the car body
for rough places.

Ready for paint? Okay!

  • CHEAP paint - Tractor Supply Co. - gallons of several colors and shades for $15.

  • BETTER - cheap auto body supplier paints - maybe $40 or so for a gallon. You'll need more chemistry for the proper prep of the paint for the spray gun and for the primers and such. Acrylic enamels and lacquers are here. Lacquers by the way have no gloss to them until they are rubbed forever. They look great based on the amount of effort you give them but the rubbing can last forever. The enamels are much like spray can paint.

    Above that comes the base and clear coat paints like found on new cars. Not difficult but alot more time and money involved.

  • BEST? The sky is the limit and the opinions are far reaching as to who makes the best paints. Saw a thing on TV where each gallon of some special pearl type paint was over a thousand bucks - they were spraying it on custom motorcycles (Harley type bikes) that went for $50K+.

    My recipe for cheap? Acrylic enamel + hardener. Hardener adds gloss and toughness. Also more brittle and likely to get deep chips under the right circumstances.

    Any shade of any color (cheap paint solid colors I mean) is more or less the same price - they can mix it for you. Be careful if you make up a color not in the catalog, they may have a hard time matching it - depends on the skill of the operator.


We usually do the top coat painting outside in the driveway. We put the car inside the garage for the night. Not necessary but makes final prep easier in the morning. Come morning while it is still cool and the bugs are not out yet, we push the car out, wipe it down - pre-paint prep and tack rag. Then we tape off anything that is in the way and that we could not take off. If this is an old car (VW's especially) you should have removed all of the windows and worked the window openings and later reinstalled the windows with new rubber. My van had rust under the front windshield in a
big way and only by pulling the window was I able to repair it. Found rust I did not know about in the rear window as well.

We use just regular masking tape. Everything gets covered. Tape the edges of everything, then tape the middle. If we use paper, every edge of the trim gets taped, and then the newspaper gets taped along one edge. This taped edge is added to the already taped trim but we don't have to be particularly careful when attaching the newspaper because the care was taken when we taped the car. Any over lapping sheets of paper should have the top sheet on top just like a shingled roof so you don't catch wet over spray in the folds and inadvertently paint a window or something. Make sure everything is reasonably tight - no flapping paper throwing dust at your fresh paint.

Cover the wheels with blankets.

When we painted my VW Westy two tone red and white, we painted the red first, let it sit overnight, and then carefully taped it off and added the white upper topcoat.

Hang paper off of the back of the lower body seams if you don't want paint on the frame or the propane tank or exhaust. Stuff towels in the engine intake vents to keep the over spray out of there if important to you. Okay - time for the show. It is easier with a helper that can keep your paint mixed and ready for you.


New to me, my body shop friend advised me to use a sealant that lays between the primer and the topcoat. It is a water based spay that you shoot from a regular spray gun. You don't have to sand it or anything. Supposed to seal in bad stuff and keep out moisture. Sure I said.

Start up the air compressor, purge the moisture, check out your gun (clean it again) , add your first cup. Check the car over one more time. Check the sky for rain.

Get out the mixing cup, add paint, then thinner, then hardener, and maybe some fisheye preventer.
Maybe now is a good time to pray, borrow a rabbit's foot, do some yoga, or meditate for a while. Not too long - you have paint in the spray gun.

Start painting! 12-18 inches away from the car, enough paint volume to do a heavy dusting each pass. Overlap each pass. Make sure that as your arm is working side to side that it maintains it's distance from the vehicle and is consistent. Don't stop moving at the end of each pass and keep spraying - let off the trigger before you stop moving. Don't get into a rush, many light coats are better than any heavy coatis which might run or sag. Once you are done, let it sit for a while and while it is still soft - not wet - remove the tape and paper. Now clean that spray gun because paint with hardener in it is worse than paint without it. It is like concrete - once it's there - it's permanent.

Rejoice, sing a song about your new paint job and call your friends long distance to tell them about it. Finally I would recommend some rust proofing measures a month or two later. You should not really do any of these type things before a big paint job because I bet you stand a really good chance of fisheye problems due to the heavy oils.

Boiled linseed oil or Chain saw bar oil. Spray into bottoms of doors, rocker panels,. quarter panels, fender wells, and coat frame rails. Get everything. Probably would not hurt to repeat this annually with boiled
linseed oil or the bar oil. The Waxoyl would build up. One fellow said they would plug up the drains on his car's rocker panels and fill them up with oil and then let it drain out. That's my plan too!

Any questions or comments?

This isn't a complete lesson in auto body painting but it does sum up the basic steps that I was so hungry for when I was considering my first paint job. It certainly is a big project but perfectly doable. It will require alot of time and some money but should be cheaper than paying some else for their labor.

The best thing is that it is a skill and will improve each time you practice it. It will also improve with fine tuning because you can elaborate on this through reading and discussing it with car buddies. There is always more than one way to do most of this but this was my method. It worked well so I'll keep using it.

Chris Mills
Cookeville, TN
ICQ# 5944649