How to paint a car (jello not required)

By this point, regular readers here are used to me writing about home projects. Last weekend, we undertook the mother of all home projects: we painted my car. Here’s the tale:

So, 21 years ago (1989), my aunt & uncle bought a Toyota Camry wagon and promptly named her “Nellie.”  Nellie lived a charmed life, going on the proverbial Sunday drives to church, and the occasional trip to the doctors’ office, Home Depot, and every once in a while a longer adventure to a cabin nearby for some fishing. When my uncle passed away about 5 years ago, my aunt graciously sold me Nellie, and she began a more workhorse-like life as my commuter car. Which was fine when I worked at a job about 7 miles from home. But when I got laid off from there, my next job was (and is) 40 miles away.  So although Nellie is in sound body and mind, her paint began to show her age:

hood before repainting

Sun, road salt, 105 in the summer and -8 in the winter. Poor girl was showing her age.

It became clear that something needed to be done before the hood started rusting.  There are plenty of options out there for a quick-and-dirty paint job, and as a home repair enthusiast my first instinct is usually that “we can do this ourselves for cheaper.” After considering some of the shortcuts, my good friend L.O. — who is a professional architectural restorer — stepped in and said “We can do this if you let me lead the project.”  The results are below.

The first step is to get rid of the nasty ancient clearcoat that is covering the paint.

Sanding the hood of the car

Taking a palm sander to the hood of your car is a pretty thrilling/sickening/awesome feeling. But the clearcoat must be removed. Note Fritz the Dog just behind me, supervising the entire prep stage.

After the hood and roof were sanded with the palm sander and the sides were hand sanded, lacquer was applied to remove the rest of the clearcoat and to clean the paint. Lacquer also helped to soften the very thin gray pinstripes, which we then peeled off with a razor blade. Here’s what she looked like:

The car after it has been sanded

Kind of rough at this stage, eh? No time to ponder, though, as the next step is to tape and cover every part of the car that is not to be painted. If you’ve ever painted a room, you know how much fun taping is. And how long it can take.

Taping and all the rest of the prep work was the longest part of this project.

Taping and all the rest of the prep work was the longest part of this project. That's my nephew, "Dan J" in the background. He was immensely helpful. I think perhaps he covets the car. We shall see, Dan, we shall see ...

With everything taped off, it’s time to mix the paint. I ordered a kit from Restoration Shop. Perhaps in retrospect I could have been bolder than “Midnight Blue,” but it seemed a safe choice for a dark blue car. The kit we ordered had the paint, a reducer, and “wet look” hardener. The directions are pretty clear about the required mixtures, but L.O. had also asked me to get some small quart containers to do the mixing. Of course, it helped that L.O. has done this before and knows what she’s doing. She’s also a great teacher and so didn’t mind explaining it all to Dan J:

L.O. and Dan J., mixing the paints.

I noted at this point that the difference between me and Dan was that he wants to learn how to do this so he can paint other cars, I hope to never have to do this again!

But my friend L.O. is the master here, so we stood back while she painted. The smell is pretty nasty, and she wisely wears a respirator. We stood back and helped moved the hose or anything else that needed to be done while she moved around the car:

Painting with a spray gun

L.O. brought her air compressor and her spray gun. Yeah, that helped. 🙂

The trick, apparently, is to spray in one long sweep and release the trigger, then spray in the other direction and release the trigger. In other words, don’t just hold down the trigger and go back and forth. Doing that will cause too much paint to be applied when you change directions. At least this is what I learned. I did not try it. L.O. knows what she’s doing. Hence the final result:

After the pint job

And remember the hood?

There’s still some more work to do after the paint cures for about 4 weeks. I’ll update you on that stage when we get there.  We’ll sand out any blemishes in the paint, buff her up and re-apply those pinstripes, as well as shine up the front and rear fenders as well as all the other rubber on the trim. She may not be ready for the showroom floor, but she’s a beauty to me!

All in all it was a success because we had someone in charge who knew what she’s doing. We started at about 10:30 Saturday morning, and worked through the day just taking occasional breaks for water and Diet Coke. We were just finishing up the painting when the six o’clock bells at the church down the street began to toll. So we washed up enough to eat some pizza, drink some pinot grigio/ beer, and before we could get too relaxed on the front porch, we went out back and pulled off the tape and newspapers before the paint completely dried.

The weather cooperated, my friends and family worked like dogs, (while the dog, thankfully,  stayed out of the way), and we had space in the backyard to work. It can be done.



  1. Wow, that is an inspiration! It never occurred to me you could paint your own car. Our old Saab needs to be painted (the 1985 one with almost 250,000 mile on it that we can’t bear to get rid of). Perhaps doing it ourselves would be the solution since we don’t want to spend a lot on such an old car! Keep us posted with the next phase when the paint cures!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s