Paint by numbers: Top 10 vehicle restoration tips

"I dream of painting and then I paint my dream." – Vincent Van Gogh

At Precision Restorations, most of our projects involve total vehicle restoration; others may focus on a specific customization task. But nearly all of our work encompasses the last — and most visibly noticeable — step of the restoration process: painting. Like Van Gogh, we dream big…and you can too. Simply remember to take your time with each and every step. You’ll reap the best results, and your vehicle will be picture perfect for many years to come.

Here are Precision Restoration’s top 10 steps to creating your own masterpiece.

Step One:  Where To Begin
Start by applying an etching primer over any bare metal (the primer must have acid in it to truly bite into the metal). If you decide to go another route, then be prepared for a product that will not stick over time. Remember that each step you complete affects your final product. You want your paint work to at least meet (we hope you exceed) your vehicle’s original pristine appearance.

Step Two:  A Prime Example
After you have completed all body repair, apply four to five coats of primer over the entire vehicle (or, at the very least, the repaired areas). Use a two-part urethane high-build primer since one-part primers or lacquer primers do not fare as well over time. Once the primer is applied, let it bake at 140 degrees and then allow it to air dry for at least one full day.

Step Three:  Block It Down
Once the primer is fully applied, you are ready to block sand the vehicle. We start with 220-grit sandpaper on the block and then step down to 320. Block sanding makes the vehicle’s panels as straight as possible plus removes any waves. You might find it necessary to re-prime after this step if you get a break-through in the body filler. The final sand, which is completed with 400-grit on a dual action sander, gets rid of any marks left by the block sanding.

Block sanding starts with 220-grit paper and steps down to 320-grit.


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Step Four:  A Clean Machine
The most effective way to clean the sanding residue from your vehicle is to wash it with soap and water. You also can use a high-pressure blow gun to make certain that your vehicle is squeaky clean.

Step Five:  Just Mask It
Get ready to mask and tape your vehicle once it is clean and dry. Our masking process involves outlining everything and then going back to apply the paper. Try not to leave any holes open. If you do, tape them closed from behind. This is crucial for two reasons: first, it eliminates getting paint where it doesn’t belong, and; second, you keep the dirt that could be sitting in your vehicle trapped inside. Dirt definitely can ruin your paint job. Our professional painter also tapes masking paper to the ground around the vehicle to decrease the risk of dust landing on each project.

This Camaro was carefully masked and taped up before any
spraying started. It’s critical to keep the car’s surface free of
dirt before you start painting.

Step Six:  Problems Solved

Clean your vehicle with solvents, which removes any contaminates on the panels that may cause paint to properly adhere. This step also reduces the risk of getting any “fish eyes” in the paint. We use both water-based and solvent-based cleaners since they remove different types of impurities.

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Step Seven:  Get Ready, Get Set…Paint!
The final step before painting: use a high-quality tack rag right before you spray tack to remove any dust that has settled on your vehicle. Then the fun begins.

For the base coat, we set our paint guns at approximately 27 psi. Check with your paint supplier and paint gun manufacturer regarding the correct psi since each gun works best at different pressures. 

Although it makes no difference where you start painting, it is important how you spray. You want to begin at a specific point on your vehicle, such as the driver’s rear quarter. Once you get to the driver’s front fender, start back at the driver’s rear quarter again and move around the vehicle the other way. This maintains your “wet edge” so you do not end up with a large dry spot at the end of the job.

Different painters will have different spraying techniques, but
the key is to remember where you started and apply the paint
evenly. It takes practice to get it right.

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Step Eight:  Cars And Stripes
If you want to apply stripes to your vehicle, we recommend baking the vehicle for 15 to 20 minutes so that the base coat has time to sufficiently dry. Measure out where you want your stripes to appear (we use a ribbon-type tape measure since it is flexible and goes around curves better). Your measurements must be accurate since you do not want to make any mistakes at this point.

Once you have everything measured, begin laying it out with a fine line blue painter’s tape. To achieve the best results, press down hard on all edges and corners. After laying the stripes out, measure them again to see if they are still correct. Then you can tape off the rest of the vehicle with paper and plastic to avoid any overspray.  Next, you can apply the color of the stripes using the same process as Step Seven. Remove the tape after the paint has dried for 15 to 20 minutes.

Step Nine:  Crystal Clear
The time has come to apply the clear coat, so tack the vehicle again with a tack rag to remove any loose dust. We set our paint guns at 40 psi, but check with your manufacturers for the correct setting. Again, you need to use at least a 50 percent overlap, maybe a little bit more, to ensure even coverage and avoid dry spots. We typically apply three coats with a drying time of 10 to 15 minutes in between coats. Just like the base coat, you need to carry the wet edge around the vehicle.

Professional shops will often use several coats of clean coat.
The spraying technique is basically the same as that used in painting.

Step 10:  The Final Step
After you have baked the clear for at least 40 minutes, let the vehicle sit for approximately two days. Then you can wet sand and buff the vehicle to remove any orange peel or dirt nibs that may have gotten into the paint.

You need to first get rid of the dirt nibs with a “dirt nib” file. Next you can wet sand with a 1,000-grit sand paper. The best way to sand is by hand, but it also can be completed with a dual action sander. Then move down in grit to 1,500 and then 2,000. Be careful around the edges not to cut through the clear; otherwise you will have to repaint. We then move on to a 3M extra cut compound with a wool pad, followed by a 3M rubbing compound with a white pad, and finally a 3M swirl mark remove with a black pad. Work with approximately two square feet at a time with each of these steps until the haziness is gone.

Wet sanding is the last step before buffing. Start with 1,000-grit
paper and graduate to 2,000 for final wet sanding.

The Finished Product
One final wipe, and your work is complete. Stand back and admire your expert workmanship. Even better: take your successfully painted masterpiece out for a spin. You deserve it!

Helpful spraying tips:

• Keep approximately a 50 percent overlap from the last line of paint that you laid down since this guarantees a complete, even coverage.

• Spray two to four coats of base color (this depends on the color).

• Stop and check in between coats for any dirt nibs in the paint.  If you have them, then sanding is required before continuing with the next coat.

• Once painting is complete, review your work to see if you have any splotching, modeling or “tiger stripes.”  If you do, then go back and repair your mistakes. Depending on the defect, you might have to lightly sand and repaint the panel.

Precision Restorations is a St. Louis, Mo.-based company that provides restoration and customization for antique, vintage and classic cars and trucks. Specialties include mechanical restoration and upgrades; custom and stock interiors; professional body and trim restoration; aluminum body restoration and fabrication, and; paint work ranging from driver quality to show quality.

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