This Is How to Paint a Car the Right Way

Whether you want to cover old damage or you’re ready for an updated look, it might seem like painting a car should be a simple DIY fix.

But if you’ve spent much time caring for your vehicle, you probably know that a professional-looking paint job would be a daunting task—and you can’t exactly just pick up a brush and start painting.

However, painting a car isn’t as overwhelming as it may seem at first, provided you’re methodical about planning your project and following the proper instructions. If you’re considering a new look, here’s how to paint a car the right way.

Can You Paint Over Existing Auto Paint?

First things first: do you really need to go through the extensive steps of stripping off old paint to start anew? Can’t you just paint over the existing layer of paint?

The answer to this question depends on the car.

If your car still has it’s original paint job or a high-quality respray, you may be able to simply paint over the existing layer. This only works if there’s no texture to the paint job, meaning no peeling, bubbling, cracks, or pockmarks. With an older paint job that’s in good shape, you may only need to do some sanding before recovering it.

However, if you have an older paint job with obvious wear and tear, you may have to strip it to the bare metal. This is especially true if your car is rusted, and severe rust may even warrant a visit to a professional for repainting.

Take a hard look at your car to decide which option would be best. Keep in mind that sometimes, a little extra work on the front end can mean the difference between an effective, stunning paint job and one that looks odd or uneven. The steps below will help you in either case you choose.

Grab the Tools You’ll Need

When you’re ready to start work on your car, it’s time to gather the tools and supplies you’ll need for the job. This includes more than just your paint of choice! Here’s what you should have on hand:

  • An automotive dent repair kit
  • Body filler putty
  • The right grit sandpaper for your needs
  • An electric sander (optional for light sanding but necessary if you want to remove all paint)
  • 1-2 gallons of base coat or epoxy primer, depending on the vehicle size
  • 2-3 gallons of topcoat, depending on the vehicle size
  • 3-4 gallons of clear-coat lacquer, depending on the vehicle size
  • Newspaper and/or painters’ tape
  • A paint sprayer
  • Paint thinner
  • Safety gear including safety glasses, gloves, and face masks

If your aim is to match the original paint color of your vehicle, you may be able to work with an auto paint shop to match it. Alternatively, you may want to opt for a high-quality updated look to your car, including EL paint for a sleek and modern touch.

1. Repair Damaged Parts

Before you go any further, take some time to repair any visible dents, scratches, and other damage. This ensures a smooth surface for your paint job.

With the help of a simple dent repair kit, streamline any large dents in your car. These kits use suction tools to allow you to pull out any dents and return them to their original position.

Next, fill in smaller indentations with a body filler putty, which you can find at most hardware stores and automotive repair shops. You’ll apply this putty over uneven surfaces on your car before smoothing the surface out for a uniform look.

2. Strip the Car

Start using your electric sander to remove the existing layer of paint on your car. You may need to use sandpaper to smooth away narrower areas or smaller crevices.

If your existing paint layer was in poor shape, this is where you would use an electric sander to sand the vehicle down to the bare metal, which offers a smooth surface for your first coat of paint. Make sure to sand with the same pressure in all areas, ensuring that even layers of paint are removed.

Alternatively, if your existing paint is relatively smooth, you may only want to use the sandpaper to sand away enough to buff out any minor imperfections. This will mean sanding around the now-hardened body filler.

Once the car has been sanded, wipe it down to remove any lingering traces of dust and debris.

3. Prime for Painting

Now is the time to mark off any areas you don’t want to paint. Use newspaper and painters’ tape to secure the areas around the car’s lights, mirrors, and windows.

From here, add your primer to your paint sprayer. Don’t forget to follow some quick car painting tips: opt for two or three thin, even layers of primer, waiting for each layer to dry, rather than applying a heavy coat all at once. Always remember to work from the roof down toward the wheels, letting the primer sit for about an hour between coats.

The primer will dry with a powdery finish, so you’ll need to use the sandpaper to smooth the surface.

4. Paint the Car

Finally, you’re ready to paint! Mix the paint and paint thinner as the manufacturer recommends, and start painting with the same top-down spraying technique you used with the primer.

Here, you’ll want to apply three or four thin, even layers. You’ll need to check the manufacturer’s instructions for drying times, and you’ll also want to remove any leftover powdery finish with the sandpaper between layers.

Last, you’ll apply the clear coat lacquer. Remove the newspaper and tape before this layer has dried, and check for any last imperfections as you go. Let this final layer dry before wiping down your car with a clean cloth.

Know How to Paint a Car the Right Way

Whether you need to sand down your entire car or update a few vehicles, knowing how to paint a car the right way can help you make the most of this DIY project. With a little planning and forethought, in addition to plenty of elbow grease, you can repaint your vehicle at a fraction of the cost of a professional paint job. Grab the tools you need, mark off the weekend on your calendar, and get started!

Want more of the tips you need to care for your car? Check out our other guides for more helpful insights.