How to Paint a Car: Save Thousands on Your Paint Job

Whether you’re looking to restore your car’s paint or completely change its look, getting a paint job can be an expensive service to request. Knowing how to paint a car without a messy finish can help you achieve your desired look without the huge expense.

Rideshare services have strict cosmetic guidelines written within their vehicle requirements, making it near impossible to get approved to drive when your car’s paintwork has noticeable damages. Plus, even if you have the right vehicle model and black leather seats to earn more with Uber Black, a non-black exterior will leave you stuck earning less with UberX.

If professional car painting is totally out of your price range, following a DIY process may be the perfect answer to your rideshare driving woes. Keep reading to learn how you can give your whole car a five-star paint job.

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Preparing for Your Paint Job

How to paint a car: Vintage car in garage

Even before you consider what supplies you may need for a DIY paint job, you need to be aware that car painting is an incredibly time-consuming process. Be prepared to set aside at least a full day for the complete painting process and avoid driving your vehicle for at least a week for best results. If this doesn’t seem feasible to you, make sure to wait until you have the time, as you don’t want to quit in the middle of the process.

You also need to make sure you have an appropriate space for painting your car. This should be a covered space to limit dust, but you do want significant air flow to be safe while working with paint fumes. There should also be enough room to freely walk around your car.

Keep in mind that using your home garage to paint a car may be illegal in your area (check with your local authorities first) and is dangerous if your heater or furnace is located there, too. Otherwise, your home garage should be an adequate space, though a separate, professional garage is always recommended when possible.

Materials

Once you have your designated space and time, gather the materials listed in this section. The list may seem long, but you may already own many of these items and the final cost will be far lower than what professional car painters will charge you regardless.

Employees at your local auto parts store can help point you in the right direction, though you can always use Amazon for the most convenience.

  • Large plastic sheets
  • Safety gear, including a respirator, gloves, safety glasses, and sturdy shoes and clothes with full coverage (including a hood)
  • Painter’s tape or masking tape
  • Metal grinder (if your car is rusted)
  • Dual-action power sander with 400-grit or 600-grit sanding pads
  • Clean tack cloths or gentle rags
  • Paint thinner
  • Automotive masking paper
  • Car primer ⁠that’s compatible with your paint color ⁠— 1 gallon for standard-sized cars, 1.5 gallons for large cars
  • Spray paint gun ⁠— high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) preferred
  • Portable air compressor that’s compatible with your paint gun ⁠— 60-gallon preferred
  • Scrap metal
  • Car paint — 3 gallons for standard cars, 4 gallons for large cars
  • 2000-grit sandpaper
  • Automotive clear coat lacquer — 2-3 gallons for standard cars, 3-4 gallons for large cars
  • Power buffer (optional)
  • Buffing compound (optional)

How to Paint a Car: DIY Process

How to paint a car: Red vehicle in the middle of painting process

Once you’ve gathered all your materials, cover your garage space with plastic sheets. This will prevent accidental paint stains, while also providing dust protection for your car. Then, put on your safety gear and make sure your car is parked and fully off.

Preparing Your Car Surface

  1. Remove any decorative trim pieces from your car body, or cover them with painter’s tape.
  2. If you notice any rust, use a metal grinder to remove the rust. Rust can damage new paint, so this will ensure your final results are as even as possible.
  3. Using your dual-action power sander, sand your car down to the bare metal, working in circular motions and in small areas at a time. When complete, the surface won’t be smooth, but it should be as even as possible and your old paint and primer should be sanded away. Feel free to break up this process into several days if needed.
  4. Dampen your tack cloths with paint thinner and wipe away any dust and oils from the surface of your car. Let your car dry for 10 minutes.
  5. Using your painter’s tape and masking paper, completely cover surfaces that you don’t want your automotive paint to get on. This includes your windows, mirrors, and grills.

Priming Your Vehicle

  1. Prepare your paint primer with paint thinner based on the instructions on the container. Then, prepare the spray paint gun and air compressor and load the gun with the primer, using the directions for your model.
  2. Test your paint primer on your piece of scrap metal to get the hang of your paint sprayer. Take note of how far it sprays and practice so that you’re comfortable applying an even layer. Always spray in horizontal straight lines, about 6 inches away from the surface.
  3. Starting with the top of your vehicle, apply your primer on your car. Let the primer sit for as long as recommended on your container (usually up to an hour). Then, add one to three more coats, again using your product’s container for an exact recommendation, with the same waiting time in between each coat.
  4. Let your primer sit for another hour. During this time, clean your spray gun as recommended by the manufacturer.
  5. Using your 2,000-grit sandpaper, smooth away the gritty powder left on the surface of your primer. Work in small sections and straight lines.
  6. Dampen your tack cloth with paint thinner and wipe down your car’s surface. Let it dry for 10 minutes.

Painting Your Car

Figurine of auto spray painter

  1. Load your spray gun with your desired auto paint and practice even application on your junk metal until you’re comfortable. You may need to use paint thinner to prepare your paint if the container recommends it.
  2. Starting with the top of your vehicle, apply your car paint on your vehicle. Let it sit for as long as recommended on your car paint container (usually up to an hour). Then, add two to three more coats, using your product’s container for an exact recommendation, with the same waiting time in between each coat.
  3. Let your car paint sit for another hour and clean your spray paint gun once again.
  4. Using your 2,000-grit sandpaper, lightly remove the powdery residue on the surface. Again, work in small sections and straight lines.
  5. Dampen your tack cloth with paint thinner and wipe down your car’s surface. Let it dry for 10 minutes.
  6. Load your paint sprayer with your clear coat. If you want to be extra careful, you can practice applying it to your junk metal first to ensure it sprays the same way as your previous two products.
  7. Spray on your clear coat, starting from the top of your car. Let it sit for as long as recommended on the clear coat container.
  8. Sand your vehicle and use paint thinner to wipe it down as you did in previous steps. Let it dry for 10 minutes.
  9. Repeat steps 2 and 3. Then, remove the masking paper and painter’s tape.

Applying the Finishing Touch

  1. Let your vehicle sit for about a week. While your paint will be dry in a day or so, your paint will still be curing, so you definitely don’t want to touch it or move it anywhere.
  2. Use your sandpaper to lightly remove any little imperfections on your car’s paint job. Be very careful to not sand too much, as this can be difficult to fix.
  3. Using your buffing compound and power buffer, gently polish out your entire vehicle in circular motions. Be very careful not to overwork any part of your car, or else you may actually damage your new paint. Bring your vehicle to a professional to complete this small step if you’re not comfortable doing it yourself.

Frequently Asked Questions

Closeup of car headlights

Understanding how to paint a car is not only useful, but it’s also a huge money-saver. As you consider your car painting options, here are our answers to some frequently asked questions that may be on your mind:

1. How much does it cost to have a professional paint my car?

A professional paint job will typically cost you at least $1,000 at your local auto body shop, though prices around $3,000 are fairly common. Depending on the quality you’re looking for, as well as how much work the professional needs to put in to restore your car’s body prior to the paint job, this price can increase even more.

For reference, a DIY paint job can cost as little as $200 in supplies, plus a few hundred dollars’ worth of labor. While painting your vehicle yourself likely won’t get you a high-end look on the first try, it can save you thousands if you have the time.

2. My home garage is not an appropriate space for a car paint job. Do I have any other options?

In most major cities, yes. Maker spaces, as well as auto workshops that can be rented out, are on the rise as the interest in DIY car maintenance and the gig economy grows. You can search “DIY auto shop near me” on Google to find spaces that can accommodate your painting project.

If you live in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, or Dallas, GarageTime is a helpful tool that can connect you to available garage spaces in your city.

To save money, we recommend completing the sanding process at home before moving your car into the professional garage for the actual paint job.

3. How do I find an exact match for my car’s current paint color if I don’t want to switch?

Most modern vehicles have a color code sticker located near their vehicle identification number (on the driver’s side door jam or bottom right corner of the windshield) or in the glove box. Auto parts stores can help you translate. You can also search for your vehicle’s code on this handy color code search tool.

Get the Look You Want

Painting an entire car may not be the easiest or fastest process in the world, but if you’re a DIY enthusiast or you want to save a large amount of money, it’ll be worth it. For rideshare drivers, knowing how to paint a car yourself may be exactly what you need to start earning on the road.

Once you have the perfect look for your vehicle, you’ll want to keep it that way. Learn how to wash a car to keep your vehicle looking freshly painted for a long time.