How to Paint a Vintage Car

Painting is the most expensive step of restoring an antique vehicle. Creating a perfectly smooth, glossy surface requires an enormous amount of bodywork, sanding and painting. With so much labor involved, a show quality paint job can cost tens of thousands of dollars. By tackling at least some of the work yourself, you can reduce the price significantly. Here’s what you need to know if you’re contemplating painting your own car, from choosing the best way to fill in dents, to setting up your own paint booth.

Is it Worth Repainting a Classic Car?

While we usually think of car paint in terms of appearance, the primary purpose of paint is to protect metal and plastic from the environment. Once the paint fails, it won’t be long before rust attacks body panels, and UV light turns plastic brittle. Depending on the condition of your vehicle, a new paint job may be a good way to protect your investment, or it could lower its value.

Repainting a car with failing paint increases its value. It protects the underlying body, ensuring a longer life for the vehicle. Since painting is a major investment in time and money, a fresh paint job makes the car easier to sell.

Repainting a car that already has good original paint lowers its value. Fading paint can often be restored through restoration, using polishing and decontamination to get a near-new look while keeping the car’s originality.

Repainting the car in its original color is usually the best way to retain value, even if the color isn’t desirable. Repainting the car in a different color can have different effects on value, depending on the results. Only spraying the outside and leaving the door jambs and engine compartment a different color makes the car less desirable than one with a complete paint job.

Custom paint jobs are a matter of taste, so they may increase or decrease the value of the vehicle. A classic, reserved paint job is more likely to stand the test of time than the latest fad. For example, most people buying a hot rod today aren’t going to want something painted a flesh tone, a popular choice back in the 90s. However, they may keep the paint job if it’s a standard color, like orange or black.

If you’re trying to make the car look as original as possible, you need to replicate the factory paint, warts and all. That includes duplicating imperfections, like orange peel. It’s up to you to decide if that effort is worthwhile just to score a few more points at a car show.

What are My Choices for Paint?

All paint begins with a base coat of primer. This is a specially-formulated coating that bonds to bare metal, creating a surface that the paint will adhere to.

Modern dual stage paint follows the primer with a color coat and a clear coat. The paint is “baked,” pushing out solvents to bond the paint layers to the sheet metal. The shiny finish may look good, but it won’t match the look of original paint. These urethane-based paints require mixing with an activator/hardener, which must be fine-tuned to the current temperature and humidity. While older paint formulas required considerable heat and time, it only takes a few hours to dry the latest water-based paints with a quartz lamp. Overall, this is the most complex painting process, but it delivers the most durable results.

Enamel paint, used by auto manufacturers through the 1980s, offers a deep shine, but it isn’t as shiny as a clear coat-covered paint. It’s easy to apply, requiring minimal equipment and mixing. It also dries on its own, requiring no added heat. However, this paint is fragile, and will eventually crack and flake off. It’s a good option if you’re only painting a few body panels, and want to match the original paint.

Lacquer paint was used from the early days of the automobile up to the 1960s. It’s cheap, easy to apply, and dries to a shiny finish on its own. However, it’s also the most fragile type of automotive paint, and it’s especially prone to cracking. Lacquer is also toxic, and is banned from use in some areas. Lacquer is only a good option if you’re restoring an antique that will rarely see the outside of a garage.

If you’re building a rat rod or a classic hot rod, you may want to consider a “rattle can” paint job. This is just regular spray paint from a can, or a general purpose outdoor paint applied with a paint gun. The results will be rough, which fits these styles of vehicles. These paints aren’t durable, which can be an advantage if you’re trying to create artificial patina.

What about Vinyl Wraps?

Vinyl wraps are an inexpensive way to change the color of your car. Thanks to digital printing, it’s possible to apply flames and other effects that would cost a fortune to replicate with paint. However, it isn’t a replacement for body work and paint. If your paint job is starting to crack or flake off, it will continue to do so under the wrap. A vinyl wrap also won’t stop the spread of rust, or cover up holes and dents in your car’s body panels.

Vinyl wrapping should only be done by an experienced professional. Unskilled wrappers often cut into paint when slicing vinyl to fit the vehicle. These scratches are covered by the wrap, and they won’t be evident until it’s removed.

A correctly applied vinyl wrap lasts several years, and it’s easy to remove. This makes it a great option if you want a different color, but you don’t want to disturb the car’s original paint.

When Should I Paint My Classic Car?

The more areas that are covered by the paint job, the better the end result. If you’re fully restoring your car, it’s best to have the car painted when the interior and drivetrain are out of the vehicle. This makes it easy to paint the door jambs and engine compartment.

For some owners, the best time of the year to paint is winter. If you have a heated garage, you can take advantage of the consistent temperature and humidity for curing your paint. Painting during the rest of the year lets you take advantage of warmer outdoor temperatures to speed up curing.

How Do I Prepare My Car for Painting?

Most of the cost of painting a vehicle is the preparation. For most people, it makes sense to do the prep work, then leave the actual painting to a professional.

Preparation starts with removing the bumpers, lights, trim and other pieces that won’t be painted.

For the best results, the paint should be applied to a perfectly flat, defect-free surface that has a slight texture. This starts by block sanding large surfaces. Scuff pads and flexible sanding blocks conform to the shape of body panels, so they can remove paint evenly. These tools can also get into nooks and crannies without leaving dips or scrubbing to the metal on panel edges. Depending on the condition of the paint, you can choose to sand down to the metal, or leave some of the original paint. Paint should only be left on if it’s free of imperfections. Paint that is cracking, crazing or delaminating will continue to degrade, taking the new paint with it.

With most or all of the paint removed, it will be easy to find imperfections. This includes rust, pinholes and rot. Tackling bodywork now will deliver the best results from your paint job with the minimum amount of work.

Unless your car is completely stripped down, or you’re painting a body panel that isn’t bolted to the car, you need to cover areas that won’t be painted. Masking paper can cover large areas, like windows, while tape is useful for covering trim.

How Do I Repair Body Panels?

Dings and dents are a normal part of a car’s life. However, if the car in question has been on the road for decades, these small impacts can add up. If you want a great looking car, you need to fix these issues before laying down paint.

Large areas of rot can be cut out and replaced with fresh sheet metal. It can be difficult to weld in a patch panel that matches body lines, but that doesn’t matter if the panel fills a hidden area, like a floorboard. Replica panels are also an option. They cost more, but require less labor to fit.

Paintless dent repair (PDR) uses tools to reshape the panel. Contrary to popular belief, body panels don’t have “memory,” so dents can’t be popped out. Instead, PDR tools gently bend the metal into the desired shape. This takes considerable skill, so it’s worth hiring a professional, rather than experimenting and ending up with a ruined panel. PDR works great on large dents that haven’t broken the paint, as well as hail damage.

Body filler is a putty that bonds to metal, hardening into a sandable surface. Once it’s sanded flush with the surrounding panel and painted, it’s indistinguishable from the metal. When used in large amounts, it will eventually separate from the panel. However, it’s a long-lasting solution for covering over small dents and heavy pitting.

High-build primer is somewhere between body filler and standard primer. It’s formulated to be sprayed on thick, coating rust pitting, wavy surfaces and other small imperfections. When you sand this coat, there’s enough of the primer left behind to fill in these holes and gaps. This primer isn’t applied directly to metal. Instead, a self etching primer is applied first to create the strongest possible bond with the sheet metal, followed by the high-build primer.

What Do I Need to Paint a Car Myself?

No matter the preparations you make, there’s no question that a professional will do a better job than you can do at home. However, there are still plenty of ways you can improve your chances of creating a shiny, durable paint job.

There’s more to applying paint than buying an air gun. A water filter is needed to remove moisture from the air before it’s mixed with the paint. The compressor must be an oil-free design, or the oil that lubricates the pump can find its way into the paint. This compressor also needs to be big enough to supply the paint gun. If you use a compressor that is too small, the fluctuating air pressure will cause paint to dribble out of the gun instead of spraying out in an even pattern.

What about airless paint systems? While people have successfully used them for low end paints used on rat rods, there are currently no airless tools that will work with automotive paint.

The painting area also must be clean. Wiping down surfaces and wetting down the floor limits the spread of dust. Some hobbyists go a step further, building their own positive pressure painting booth. Using a combination of fans and filters, clean air is pumped into a room, keeping air pressure higher inside than outside. This stops dust from entering the booth.

Of course, you also need to take safety precautions when applying paint. Solvents are hard on your lungs and skin, so you should always wear a respirator and protective clothing while painting.

How Do I Paint a Car Myself?

To get a good quality paint job, the paint must be kept away from dust and oil during the entire painting and curing process. All panels must be cleaned thoroughly. Along with regular washing with soap and water, cracks and crevices should be blown out with compressed air to remove any trapped dust left over from sanding. Wiping down panels with a pre-paint cleaner, often called “panel wipe,” removes any remaining oils or dust.

Most paint formulas must be mixed with hardeners and other ingredients, according to the current temperature inside your paint booth.

Pulling the trigger on the spray gun doesn’t immediately deliver a smooth, pressurized stream of paint. Spraying should start away from the car, so that the droplets splatting out of the nozzle don’t land on the body. Sanding is required between coats to get the best finish.

A new paint job will be fragile until it fully cures. Depending on the paint you choose, this process can take anywhere from hours to weeks. The paint surface must remain dust free until the paint hardens. At this point, it’s safe to sand and polish the paint, and the car can be driven normally. However, wax should not be applied until curing is complete and the last of the solvent has left the paint.

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