How to Paint a Car

Publisher: Popular Mechanics

If your car’s paint is looking dingy and faded or you’re just looking for a change of color, a DIY car paint job could save you thousands of dollars. Good prep work and being systematic in your approach will have your car looking like new in no time. Follow our guide below for a quick primer on how to paint your car, and then get to work.

What You’ll Need

Painting your car is a time-consuming job, so set aside a few days or a couple of weekends. It’s best to use a shed to avoid the elements, but it can be done outside—weather permitting and using certain precautions.

You’ll need plenty of 1200- and 2000-grit wet-and-dry sandpaper, an electric or air-powered sander, masking tape, newspapers for masking off, an air compressor and a spray gun, a buffer, paint thinners, face masks, safety glasses, undercoat, topcoat acrylic or enamel paint, and clear-coat lacquer. A dust extractor, while not essential, will help keep the area clean.

For a small- or medium-size car, you’ll need approximately one gallon of base coat or primer, three gallons of topcoat, and two to three gallons of clear coat. For large cars, use one and half gallons of base coat, four gallons of topcoat, and three to four gallons of clear-coat lacquer. Professionals will use less than this, but factor in a few practice runs and any corrections that you’ll need to do. Plus, it’s better to have too much paint than too little.

If you want to match the original color of your car, give the color code, found on your car’s compliance plate, to an auto paint shop. They will be able to match it.


Clean your working area to remove dust. If you’re spraying outside, hose the area down and be sure that you’re not painting underneath trees or anything else that will drop contaminants onto the wet paint. Then wash the car down and clean the surface of any dirt, grease, or road grime.

Decide whether you want to paint details such as the engine bay, inner doorsills, and trunk. This will dramatically add time to the job because you’ll need to strip the car down to its bare shell, including removing the engine. However, if it’s just the exterior you’re looking to improve, then simply mask the areas you don’t want painted.

Put on your dust mask and protective eyewear, and turn on the dust extractor.


Start sanding away using circular motions. You may have to sand corners and crevices by hand. The best finish is achieved by sanding the entire car back to bare metal with a perfectly smooth finish. This can be time-consuming, with each panel taking up to two hours to complete. If time is limited, you don’t have to go right back to bare metal. Just make sure you get a smooth, even surface by finishing the last part with a fine-grade wet-and-dry sandpaper.

Wipe the whole surface down with a clean rag and thinners to remove dust, and wait until residue from the thinners evaporates completely before continuing.

how to paint a car


Mask up areas you don’t want to paint using masking tape and newspaper or plastic sheeting. Take the time to do this job well to avoid unsightly overspray.

Mix the primer with thinners using the ratios recommended on the paint can instructions. It will vary for different paints.

Before you start painting for the first time, it’s best to practice your spraying technique. Get a cheap used car panel from a salvage yard, or use any piece of scrap steel you have lying around. Hold the spray gun approximately 6 inches from the panel and spray in a side-to-side sweeping motion. Apply the trigger only when you are moving the spray gun. If you hold it continuously as you spray, the paint will be thicker in the spots where you change direction, causing runs.

When you’ve got your technique down, start applying the primer on the car, working from the roof down. Apply the primer in thin, even coats. It will usually take two or three coats to cover the surface completely. Use the recommended drying times as specified on the primer car instructions between coats. Each coat will take about 10 minutes to apply per panel and between 20 minutes to an hour between recoating for the primer to cure.

The primed surface will have a powdery finish, so use 2000-grit wet-and-dry sandpaper to lightly sand the surface to a smooth, even finish. Clean the spray gun and wipe down the primed surface with a rag slightly dampened with thinners. If you apply too much thinner to the rag, it will strip the primer back.


As with the primer, mix the paint with thinners using the recommended ratios on the paint can instructions. Apply the topcoat paint using the same spraying techniques. Each coat will take about 10 minutes to apply per panel and between 20 minutes to an hour between recoating for the paint to cure.

Apply three to four coats using the recommended drying time specified on the paint can instructions between coats. Before applying the last coat, remove any powdery residue with 2000-grit wet-and-dry sandpaper and wipe down with a clean rag. Repeat the last two steps with the clear-coat lacquer.

Remove the masking while the clear coat is still wet, being careful not to get any tape or paper stuck on the wet paint. Let the clear coat cure for the recommended time. Inspect the finished job for runs or imperfections. If you find any, sand back affected area with 2000-grit wet-and-dry sandpaper and respray.

Buff paint in circular motions with a buffer, being careful not to burn the paint by holding the buffer in one spot too long.

With some practice, a methodical approach, and persistence, a DIY car paint job is achievable. The satisfaction you get from doing it yourself is well worth the effort, and the money you will save will astound you.

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