How to Paint Metal

Vintage brown rusty metal table and chair outside
OceanProd / Getty Images
Overview
  • Working Time: 3 - 5 hrs
  • Total Time: 2 days
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $25 to $50

Painting metal is different than painting other surfaces. The material is challenging to work with. Paint doesn’t stick as well to a metal surface as it does to wood or plaster. Also, metal is prone to oxidation and rust. When painting on metal, it’s essential to use a formulated paint for metal, especially if you want to control rust and weathering.

Metal paints come in oil-based and water-based versions. Oil-based paint is trickier to work with, but the results are longer lasting. Water-based acrylic paints come in spray paint versions and can be overall more forgiving. Learn more about choosing paint types and several steps needed to prepare the metal for painting.

Preparation

Primer is a must for painting metal. If the metal surface has been painted before, you'll need to remove old paint, rust, debris, grease, dirt using a wire brush or wire-brush tool. If the metal is smooth and has nothing on it, you'll still need to scuff up the surface of the metal so the primer can stick to the surface. The pads will also help smooth away some metal imperfections.

Safety Considerations

Anytime you're working with metal, make sure to protect yourself. Use a dust mask or respirator, protective goggles, and gloves. Also, work in a well-ventilated area. When grinding away rust with a wire rotary tool, use earplugs for ear protection. 

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Shop rags
  • Scuffing pads
  • Dust mask or respirator
  • Goggles
  • Earplugs
  • Wire brush or wire brush drill attachment
  • Natural bristle paintbrush (optional)

Materials

  • Water-based acrylic paint or oil-based paint for metal
  • Acetone
  • Rust remover (optional)
  • Mineral spirits (optional)

Instructions

  1. Remove Old Paint and Rust

    Use a wire brush to remove any loose or flaking paint and as much surface rust as possible. If a handheld wire brush is ineffective, consider using a wire brush attachment for your drill for highly degraded surfaces. If the rust has penetrated deep into the surface, soak the object in an appropriate rust remover and follow all steps as specified by the manufacturer. Wipe the surface with a damp cloth to clean any dust, debris, or rust that’s leftover. Remove remaining grease by wiping the metal with a shop rag dipped in acetone. Allow the acetone to dry. 

    Tip

    Avoid using water when cleaning since it doesn't effectively clean metal. 

    brush to remove rust from metal
    Hennadii Havrylko / Getty Images
  2. Scuff Up the Metal

    If the metal doesn't have paint on it or it's smooth, take a scuffing pad and rub it along the metal. These pads will lightly etch the surface of the metal, which will allow the primer to stick more effectively.

  3. Prime the Metal

    If you couldn't get rid of all the rust in the previous step, coat the metal with a zinc chromate primer that's formulated for coating rust. After you have coated the area with this special primer, then apply a coat of self-etching primer. This primer should be specifically designated for metal, including a self-etching component. Read the label to verify that metals are an intended surface. The last consideration for primer is to be sure the primer is compatible with the paint you want to use since a primer can be either oil-based or water-based. 

    Closely follow the instructions on the primer label since they have different drying and cure times. If the metal is going outdoors, consider adding a second layer of primer to help prolong metal oxidation.

    Europe, Spain, 2018: View Of  Metal Fuel Tank Painted With Red Oxide Lead Primer
    Kypros / Getty Images
  4. Apply Paint

    If you're debating whether to use spray paint or a paintbrush, the easiest way to paint metal is to use a can of spray paint. It is faster, but it does not create as hard of a finish.

    Here's how to use spray paint: 

    • Shake the can several times to mix the paint. 
    • Hold the can 6 to 12 inches away from the metal, which will prevent the paint from pooling. Spray the object using long, sweeping motions (don't hold it in one spot). If you notice excessive dripping, wipe clean, back up, and start the process again. 
    • For best results, apply up to three thin coats of spray paint and allow the paint to dry before applying an additional layer.

    If you want a longer-lasting finish, brush on the paint using oil-based paint. By painting the metal object with a brush, you can create a thick surface that will be more durable. 

    Painting metal using a paintbrush:

    • Mix the paint according to the manufacturer's specifications. If the paint feels too thick, it might need to be cut with some mineral spirits
    • Once the paint is a desirable consistency, use a high-quality natural bristle brush to paint on a thin layer.

    Tip

    Oil-based paint tends to dry smooth, so you won’t need to worry about brush strokes if you apply a thin layer with a natural bristle brush.

    Cropped Image Of Hand Applying Varnish On Metal Fence
    Roberto Pangiarella / EyeEm / Getty Images
  5. Allow the Paint to Cure

    The metal needs to cure for 36 to 48 hours before moving it. Ensure the object is in an area that won’t be affected by extreme temperatures or direct sunlight when drying.

    When to Call a Professional

    Items that have significant rust may need the help of a professional painting contractor to see if the metal is salvageable or can be restored. You can even take appliances like washing machines and clothes dryers to an auto body shop and have them do the work. You'll get a hard, professional finish, but that can be a bit expensive.