Spray Painting 101

spray paint can
Spray Paint Can. Martin Diebel / Getty Images

If you love decorating your home, chances are you've held a can of spray paint a time or two. Sure, you can shop 'till you drop looking for the perfect piece; however, if you're at all thrifty or resourceful, spray paint can come in handy for transforming

Spray painting is a very simple process, but it can go awry if you don't follow some basic steps. 

  1. Choose the right paint. This might seem like a no-brainer, but just in case you're brand-new to this process, it's worth mentioning that there are different kinds of spray paints. Some are specifically for plastic, some are better for wood, and some are all-purpose. The cans are clearly marked, though, so just take the time to make sure you grab one that will adhere to the material you are painting. In my experience, metal, ceramic, and painted wood are the easiest materials to paint. But don't let that stop you from painting anything under the sun. Choose an all-plastic paint for things like plastic lawn furniture, and one with a built-in primer for raw wood. A spray paint that touts excellent bonding works better for glass. 
  2. Select a finish. Next, choose the finish you want. Flat finishes will have no sheen whatsoever. Semi-gloss, gloss, and lacquer have increasing levels of shine. There are also some amazingly-fun paints available for creating metallic, chalkboard, dry-erase or magnetic surfaces. For instance, Home Made Modern shows how to turn a pantry door into a chalkboard using spray paint, or you can make a memo board with magnetic spray paint. Finally, you won't believe how gold spray paint transforms these ordinary objects.
  3. Wait for the right day. This may sound nit-picky, but the weather actually makes a big difference in the way a project turns out. If you're painting something small in your basement, you probably don't have to worry. But for larger projects that require a lot of spraying, you're going to need to work outdoors because of the fumes. Choose a day with low humidity and a moderate temperature. Too much moisture in the air and temperatures that are too cold or too hot greatly affect the paint's ability to cure. A slight breeze can be helpful, but obviously if it's too windy, you'll get a lot of overspray, which can damage nearby surfaces not to mention waste paint. 
  4. Prep your project. There's not too much prep work involved with spray painting, thankfully. Just make sure your project is free of any sticky residue and is wiped clean. If it has any rust, sand it off first. At this point, if there are any areas of your project that you don't want painted, tape them off with painter's tape. For raw wood, or for dark-colored projects that you want to paint white, for example, you can purchase a spray paint primer or get one with a built-in primer. This will help you achieve the coverage you want in fewer coats. 
  5. Prep your workspace. Spray painting can be messy! Your best bet is to find a spot outdoors, or at the very least, in a garage or basement with the windows and doors open. Just make sure there's good lighting. You'll want proper ventilation for larger projects, for sure. In any case, you may want to wear a protective mask. Beware of overspray. That is, don't spray too close to your car or anything else of value; give yourself plenty of space. Cover your work space with newspaper or an old sheet, and if possible, elevate it on a sawhorse or workbench so you don't kill your back bending over. Bringing your project up to eye level helps you see if you've missed a spot, too. Consider wearing gloves if you're really concerned about getting paint on your hands and/or don't want to ruin your manicure. (I don't do this, though, because it compromises my control of the nozzle.) Finally, for an object that won't stand up on its own (e.g. a doorknob that you'd have to lay on its side, which would impair your ability to paint all of it), I've found that a piece of floral foam or a sponge makes an excellent "holder." I use this for screw heads that will be exposed, too. 
  6. Use proper technique. A good rule of thumb is to hold the can about 8 inches away from your project, and move it back and forth at a moderate pace. Opt for several light coats rather than one or two heavy ones. This will reduce your risk of drips, which are hard to fix. For greater control, consider purchasing a spray paint trigger. It helps depress the nozzle more consistently than your finger would, which gives a smoother finish. It also really helps with finger-fatigue. (Yes, that's a real thing.) 
  7. Be mindful of the time. Wait the recommended dry-time (printed on the can) before applying a second coat. Usually, manufacturers suggest 10 minutes or so. But if you miss that window, you'll need to wait at least 24 hours to apply a second coat. This is because as the paint cures, it gives off gas. A second coat can trap that gas between layers of paint, which causes bubbles to form. 
  8. Be patient. Finally, wait at least 24 hours before using your project. Although it may seem dry to the touch a lot sooner than that, the paint needs to cure, or harden.