How to Paint Plastic

Painting Plastic - Finished Result

Lee Wallender 

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 15 - 30 mins
  • Total Time: 2 - 3 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $10 to $25

When your plastic items are dull, dated, or simply unappealing, painting them with fresh colors and smooth finishes will make the pieces look new again. Painting your plastic items keeps them out of the landfill and helps you preserve your favorite pieces. Painting plastic is a quick project with long-lasting results.

Before You Begin

Set up a work area for painting your plastic items that's protected from other areas since spray paint overspray tends to carry.

Work on old cardboard rather than on sheet plastic. Paint soaks into the cardboard but tends to smear on sheet plastic.

Safety Considerations

When painting plastic and when using mineral spirits, be sure to work in a ventilated space, avoid breathing in the vapors, keep away from any heat source, and do not eat or drink in the area. The cap should be sealed tightly when the can is not in use.

If you do come in contact with the mineral spirits, immediately wash your hands with soap and warm water.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Bucket
  • Rags
  • Nylon scrub brush (as needed)

Materials

  • Spray paint
  • Dish soap
  • Fine sandpaper
  • Mineral spirits

Instructions

  1. Clean the Surface of the Plastic

    Fill a bucket with warm water and a little dish soap. Scrub the plastic with a rag or sponge. Mildew-heavy items like patio chairs, outside tables, and vinyl fences will require more than one washing and may need heavy scrubbing with a scrub brush. Thoroughly rinse the surface with cool, clean water, so that no suds remain.

    Clean the Plastic with Warm Soapy Water
    Lee Wallender
  2. Sand Glossy Surfaces

    Paint adheres far better to rougher matte surface plastics than to glossy plastics. Since most plastic is glossy, sanding is then an essential step. Lightly sand all surfaces with 180 to 220-grit sandpaper. Fine sandpaper such as this will prevent you from marring the surface. Since plastic is soft, you can do the sanding by hand. However, if you have large areas to sand, you may want to use a random orbital sander.

    Do not vigorously sand the plastic, as this may create enough friction to melt the plastic. This is especially important when using an electric sander on plastic. It's often best to sand by hand.

    Sand Glossy Plastic
    Lee Wallender
  3. Wipe Down the Plastic With Mineral Spirits

    A final cleaning with mineral spirits or isopropyl alcohol is crucial, as this will remove the fine plastic dust produced by the sanding. Take the plastic material to a well-ventilated but protected area, such as under a patio awning or outdoors on a dry day.

    Tip

    Check local waste management regulations for guidance on disposing of rags soaked with mineral spirits. Be safe when tossing the soaked rags as they are flammable.

    Drip the spirits or alcohol onto a clean rag and wipe down the surface. Do this as many times as necessary until the rags come up clean and dust-free.

    Clean Plastic with Mineral Spirits
    Lee Wallender
  4. Spray the First Coat of Paint

    Patience is needed when spraying painting plastic. If you are accustomed to laying down one or two coats on wood, paper, or cardboard, you'll find that plastic is an entirely different material to work with because it is not porous or absorbs paint.

    If possible, lay the work material flat (horizontally). Thoroughly shake the can, then test spray off to the side, into the air, or on a piece of scrap material, until the paint sprays freely and finely.

    Tip

    Overspray can produce fine dust that will dull semi-gloss or glossy paint sheens. To prevent this, do not move the spray can backward as you spray. Instead, move forward. Spray dust will then be covered up with fresh paint if you move in this direction.

    Hold the can between 8 and 12 inches away from the plastic, with the can be tilted at about a 45-degree angle. Spray lightly across the surface. Do not aim for total color coverage at this point, as that will usually lead to drips.

    Lay Down First Coat of Paint on Plastic
    Lee Wallender

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  5. Apply Subsequent Coats of Paint

    Let the plastic dry for at least two hours in a warm, dry environment. The paint should feel solid and dry to the touch, not tacky. 

    If there are a few dried-on drips and drops, you can sand them down flat. For this, the paint has to be 100-percent dry and hard. Otherwise, you might end up with smeared paint that is difficult to remove.

    Paint the plastic with a second coat. As before, resist the temptation to lay down a thick coat of paint. Keep the paint can tilted at an angle and lightly mist the surface at about 12 inches away. Spraying from too far away can be counter-productive, as you end up with a dusty, grainy coat of paint that is difficult to paint over.

    After letting the plastic material dry for at least a few hours, give the surface a final coat of paint.

    Paint Second Coat of Paint on Plastic
    Lee Wallender

Painting Plastics Tips and Troubleshooting

  • If the paint isn't sticking to the plastic, the problem is usually that the surface is too glossy. Thoroughly sand the plastic to a matte finish for best results.
  • Keep the spray light to avoid drips.
  • An initial tack coat of about one-third to one-half coverage will help later coats stick better.
  • If you encounter a fresh drip, wipe it up immediately and then spray over it.
  • Hold the can upright as much as possible to avoid splattering the paint.
  • After every couple of sprays, shake up the can to keep the paint mixed.
  • Avoid using up the very last part of the can, as this tends to splatter the paint.

Type of Paint to Use

Plastic has long been regarded as a tricky material to paint. The paint tends to drip, pool, and blotch; once dried, it quickly peels off. But paint manufacturers have developed special spray paints that go on smoother, stick better, and resist peeling better than conventional paint. Most general-purpose spray paints work on plastic, but care must be taken to prepare the surface before painting.

For the sake of convenience, you may wish to use a spray paint labeled as being specifically meant for plastics, like Krylon Fusion for Plastic or Rust-Oleum Specialty Plastic Primer Spray.

In many cases, you can use general-purpose spray paint, such as Krylon® Paint + Primer or Rust-Oleum Universal Spray Paint.

General-purpose spray paints offer more color choices than specialty plastic paints. Even though these general-purpose paints are not prominently labeled as being suitable for plastic, manufacturer specifications typically state that they will work on the material.

Should You Use Spray Paint or a Brush for Plastics?

While it's usually best to spray paint onto plastics, you can brush paint onto plastics if needed.

Manufacturers such as Rust-Oleum offer quart-size cans of primer (Rust-Oleum Specialty Paint For Plastic Spray is one product) and quart-size paints meant for plastic (such as Krylon Fusion for Plastic and Fusion for Plastic Brush-On). Formulated the same as the spray-on versions, the only difference is the delivery system.

Paint brushed onto plastics can smear or create brush marks. Thus, spray paint tends to produce a smoother, drip-free surface with no danger of brush marks. If the item you are painting is less than 25 square feet, it may be best to use spray paint.