Piston Slap: Straight talk on flat paint jobs


Hagerty Community member snailish writes:

Good day Sajeev,

Paint formulas have changed and availability varies by area due to legislation, making internet information hard to follow on this topic. What I am interested in discussing is flat paint jobs for a car, but not just a spray can of Rust-Oleum to do a headlight bucket. Let’s say I want to paint my car a color that isn’t flat black or white. Maybe I want to take short cuts because it is a Model A jalopy or a military-inspired bush truck. You could spell it out something like this (No, you get all the credit for this. – SM) in order of complexity and cost:

    1. Spray cans at hardware stores: Alkyd-based paints don’t sand well, so you will be using paint stripper if you want to paint the part “properly” later. Results over large panels can be uneven. (Fades in sun, but you wanted flat anyways, right?)
    2. Rust-Oleum by the gallon: Can be thinned with darn near anything, and the folks at my local hardware store say they can tint their house brand of rust/metal paint. And it can be applied with a brush if you want that original 1908 Oldsmobile look.
    3. Tractor paint:  Thins like Rust-Oleum, but you use hardener. Circa 2011, the internet is all over this option in various car forums.
    4. Automotive paint systems: Like any other color, but you add flattener. However the cost is the same or more as other modern options (maybe cheaper than two-stage with clear).
    5. Are there other options I am not aware of? 

Obviously you’d have to add the safety disclaimer about PPE, as most paints are very bad to breathe in any quantity. No matter. I guess I want to know what you can tell me about flat paint options for the do-it-yourselfer, circa 2023? I just wanted to provide detail to give context.

Sajeev answers:

Did you ever provide great context, @snailish! Thank you for laying it all out, as there are many options to getting a flat paint job. All are valid, depending on the owner’s tastes and budget: I won’t knock someone for putting tractor paint on a vehicle, that’s for sure. I think the flat paint job options you list are a function of personal ability and accessibility, much like how I suggested zip codes change the answer to your last question. That’s because where you live defines what you can afford, the size of your workspace, and the amount of tools/equipment you can collect. So let me take your bullet points and apply each to specific situations:

      1. Spray cans at hardware stores: This is easy, cheap, and can be done just about anywhere. I’ve seen impressive rattle can paint jobs over the years as a judge in the 24 Hours of Lemons, so I will recommend this to most people, especially newbies to the painting game.
      2. Rust-oleum by the gallon: If you have access to equipment like spray guns, a compressed air tank, etc., and the skills to make it work, this is potentially a huge upgrade over the aerosol cans.
      3. Tractor paint: Provided you have the equipment mentioned in #2, this stuff might be better for the rough work experienced by race cars, off-road vehicles, etc. And if you live near a Tractor Supply Co. and their credit card is appealing for other reasons, well, you go right ahead and get tractor paint to reach your purchasing goals.
      4. Automotive paint systems: If you’ve advanced your career/hobby to the point where spending a few grand on a paint job isn’t a big deal, this still can’t be beat.
      5. Other options: Vinyl wrap it. It’s affordable, requires modest body prep, and is safe for your lungs. The learning curve looks pretty shallow, and there are plenty of flat-toned vinyls out there.

For me, I think the vast majority of flat paint jobs should be performed using 1, 2, or 4. But learning vinyl wrapping looks like a trade on par with laying down pinstripes and airbrushing custom flames, making for a good side hustle these days. But again, it all depends on the person paying for the privilege of this paint job.

My preferred method? Scuffing the paint a bit and doing Option #1 from the list. That will work for many applications, short of the fancy pants, late model cars like the Ford GT above.

Have a question you’d like answered on Piston Slap? Send your queries to pistonslap@hagerty.comgive us as much detail as possible so we can help! Keep in mind this is a weekly column, so if you need an expedited answer, please tell me in your email.




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    Thank Sajeev!

    I look forward to others chiming in as well.

    Enjoyed the Rustoleum link telling us not to thin it with gasoline as we might blow up, but not actually saying it couldn’t technically thin it ***not something I would be trying myself…

    That sounds as bad of idea as using propane as a refrigerant in air conditioning systems. I’ve heard its very effective, but I question the, ahem, safety of having that circulate inside a single family home.

    Great topic and with as many flat-paint jobs as I see out there these days, it seems most timely. I’ve never done anything beyond #1 – and that only on small jobs (like hood panels or a 2-tone below the beltline), never an entire vehicle, so I won’t spout off as any sort of expert, but I agree with Sajeev that some of the expected “cons” to rattle can painting are not as bad as they seem (with some practice) and some of the modern paints flow nicely, dry quickly, and make it a lot easier than the older stuff.
    I have a friend who bought a ’32 full-fender Ford coupe from another local guy, and it was painted with a pale green from Tractor Supply, It had a few dings and nicks, so my friend went to the store and bought a quart of the color. He went over his “fixes” with an air brush, and it blended in PERFECTLY with the 5-year-old paint! You cannot tell where the fresh stuff is – very impressive.
    I know another guy who wrapped a ’50’s Nash in flat, and it really looks great. However, it was nearly as expensive as paint, so not really sure he gained anything.

    DB6 hinted at the right thing, and it has been done many times…Don’t paint it- wrap it.
    Looks good and is easily removable when you get tired of it (probably soon).

    I have never painted an entire car with rattle-cans, but I have painted enough of cars with rattle-cans to know that you will probably get off cheaper spraying gallon rustoleum than attempting to rattle-can an entire car, and it will probably save you from carpal tunnel syndrome

    So here’s my question… I have a 65 Impala that I have had to do way more body work to than I bargained for. I paid 2 grand for the car, probably have about that wrapped up in the drivetrain and brakes, and close to half that in body panels. One thing I am not terribly interested in doing is spending 5 grand plus on a paint job. I have been kicking around the idea of spraying it in non-flat gallon rustoleum (I have seen a number of examples of this that came out great) … but as I have been priming it, I am kind of liking the look of the flat black primer. Any experience or cons of leaving primer as your finish coat?

    I am certainly not an expert, but my limited research on that has led me to believe that primer is not impervious to water and has no (or very little) UV protection. So, it’s not a permanent solution by any means.

    Yeah, I once had the rustiest primered ’56 Chevy in town. You can get the same look with a flat-coat of gray (or just about ANY color that primer comes in). Go that extra mile, David.

    Primer won’t last very long at all when exposed to the elements. You’ll have to paint it with a top coat. If you go rattle can, it’s very easy to do once you have a gun attachment: https://www.walmart.com/c/kp/spray-can-gun

    The perk to a rattle can is that you don’t need to buy, store, and maintain the equipment needed to apply the gallon jug of Rustoleum. I don’t have that stuff, I don’t think I want them, so the rattle cans are good enough for me. (unless I want to spend big money to get a pro to spray it)

    I actually have spray equipment fortunately and am not entirely incompetent with it… so looks like gallon Rustoleum unless someone talks some sense into me… Bear in mind this car will be a regular driver (as all mine are) which is among the reasons why a perfect glossy car show paint job is not on the table

    Flat paints today are like the crazy paint jobs of the 80’s that did not age well.

    Those who pain their cars flat colors will find they are like a Tattoo and it will be a Permanente reminder of a temporary feeling.

    Wraps will save many when they tire of the fad.

    True Satin paint is really a pain to care for too.

    I totally agree with you. Wrap it instead of painting.

    Another suggestion is take it Maaco and have them spray it. I had a car done in single stage for $1200 (it was ready to paint) a couple of years ago and they did a great job.

    The problem with spray cans is the pattern: they tend to “tiger stripe”. With wraps, things like stone chips tend to show up through the material. Flat paints may not stand up to bird droppings or UV light. The best topcoat for a flat/matte finish is flattened clearcoat, which is admittedly spendy. You really have to decide what level of quality & finish you find acceptable, of course, and what looks good on TV usually isn’t so nice in real life.

    My brother paid $99 (many) years ago to have a VW bug shot at Earl Sheib. The good old days. Just had to make sure you masked it off good. They’d paint over the chrome and windows otherwise

    I love flat colors and have owned three very different flat black vehicles. One was a #1 from the list, one was a #4, and one was a combination of the two.

    The first was my 1980 Scirocco that (like all VWs of the time) had the clear coat lifting from all surfaces facing upward. The car was less than two years old at the time – Grrr… So I borrowed a DA and scuffed in the whole car. I then taped everything off and rattle-canned everything – all in a buddy’s garage. Between that and the darkly-tinted windows, you would not believe how many times I was asked if this was Darth Vader’s car… Ha-ha!

    The second is my ’94 Sportster. Maybe twelve years ago, a friend with a body shop told me I could have the last inch or so of “Hotrod Black” he had left in the bottom of a can from a customer car. So I pulled the gas tank, fenders, oil tank, and anything else I thought should be black. Also took the opportunity to bob the fenders with my friend’s whiz-wheel. After a few hours of sanding, everything was smooth so I shot the pieces using a real gun, paint booth, etc. It turned out amazingly well considering I’m no painter. Still looks good all these years later.

    The third one was my ’33 Ford 5-Window Hiboy coupe. This one was already flat black when I acquired it. I don’t remember what the P.O. said he had used to paint it, but I’m sure it was done in a booth. He did say that Rustoleum flat black was a perfect match. He was right. I sanded off and then painted over some questionable graphics the day after I brought it home – perfect match. I then touched up rock chips for 8 or 9 years after that. Just recently traded it for something different with shiny paint.

    So for now, my flat vehicles are limited to my good old Sporty. (the red & white pin-striping is glossy, though…)

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