How to Paint a Car With a Bucket of Rust-Oleum and a Roller

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald | Jul 14, 2015

A couple of years ago, a reader named Karen wrote in to Car Talk's newspaper column, asking if there was a solution to peeling paint on her Toyota, which had been suffering from a condition called "delamination," which is kind of like mange for cars. "The paint is coming off and it looks horrible. What is an economical way to get it painted?"

Car Talk's answer: "Have you ever heard of Rust-Oleum, Karen?"

It may have been a joke, but I took it as a personal challenge. I had heard of Rust-Oleum, and I was bound and determined to paint my car with it.

Or rather, my truck. It's a 1979 Chevrolet Blazer that I bought from a friend as a winter project a few years ago. It only has 60,000 miles on it, but it had suffered through 35 New England winters as a plow truck. To take care of the rust, I took a night class at Assabet Valley Vocational High School where I replaced a door, the inner and outer fenders, the rusty rocker panels and some minor rust in the rear quarters.

(Craig Fitzgerald)

My hope was that I was going to have time to roll it into the school's fancy-pants Devilbiss downdraft spray booth, but I ran out of time before the 12-week class was over. I looked into getting it painted at one of the franchised "I'll paint that car for $99.95 joints," but I learned quickly that the price was a lot closer to $1,000, and that the $99.95 price was reserved for cars about the size of the Cozy Coupe my son was running around the front yard in.

So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had read a story a long time ago in Hot Rod magazine about painting a car with Rust-Oleum and a foam roller. I also spent a lot of time reading "The $50 Paint Job" at RickWrench.com, in which he painted a Corvair using the same method.

Here's the deal with paint quality circa 1979, when some dope was spraying single-stage black on my Blazer: It was non-existent. These trucks rusted the the moment that they came in contact with oxygen for two reasons: They were made of steel that had the quality of hardened cheese, and the only place they painted was the outside, and even then the primer was showing through in spots. Entire swaths of the inside of the doors, rocker panels and underside had never received any paint whatsoever.

(Craig Fitzgerald)

So my thought was if I rolled five coats of Rust-Oleum on it, it certainly couldn't be any WORSE than how Chevy painted it when Jimmy Carter was still in office. And if it WAS worse, I could just sand it down and pay Earl Schieb to squirt it later on.

With that in mind, I headed off to Lowe's for supplies.

I primed the entire truck with one coat of Rust-Oleum Rusty Metal Primer, and then a second coat of Rust-Oleum High Perfomance Primer. Both primers are oil-based and nasty. I bought a roller cage and a whole bunch of four-inch foam rollers, and a ton of those foam paint brushes in various sizes to get into the nooks and crannies.

(Craig Fitzgerald)

The nice part about priming was that I could see how the whole process was going to work with the finish coats later on. I took my time and I could get two coats of primer on in a day in my garage.

(Craig Fitzgerald)

Then I blocksanded the truck for about the time it took the Egyptians to build the pyramids. Getting that surface as smooth as humanly possible is what's going to result in a decent paint job. The best advice I ever heard was "When you think you're done sanding, sand for another day." In retrospect, I should've done exactly that, but I got the surface pretty smooth with 600 grit paper.

(Craig Fitzgerald)

With the primer sanding out of the way, I was ready to roll on the color.

Rust-Oleum Oil-Based Protective Enamel is pretty awesome stuff. It's relatively inexpensive, it will take a bullet, and it's avaialble at any hardware store in America. About the only limitation is that it only comes in limited colors, and that selection gets even more limited at Lowe's on a Sunday morning. Gloss Black is pretty much available everywhere, though, so I was in good shape.

I had some internal debates about whether I should thin the paint or not. After watching more YouTube videos than any 47-year-old should watch in a lifetime, I opted to thin the paint with mineral spirits. Some YouTubers were recommending acetone, which works, too, but it seemed to "flash" or dry out a little quicker than I liked.

Lowe's has paint measuring cups in the paint aisle, but I wouldn't recommend measuring using the graduations on the side of the cup. Instead, you're looking for a certain consistency of paint that allows the roller to do its job, and then allows the paint to flow out a bit. Pour some paint in the cup (maybe a half pint) and then add four capfuls of mineral spirits.

At this point, you need to stir the mixture for a good long time to make sure the paint and the mineral spirits are well-incorporated. I used a plastic spoon, but you can use a paint stirring stick, a popsicle stick, your kid's Lincoln Logs, whatever is available close by.

Now the important part: Pull the spoon out of the paint and watch it flow. You're looking for a consistency that allows the paint to flow off the spoon in a steady stream for about four seconds before it turns to drips. With that consistency, the paint still has enough tension to keep it from pouring off any vertical surfaces, but it can also flow out a bit and get rid of most of the texture the roller is going to want to put in it.

This guy's video was really helpful in understanding how to mix the paint:

Just before I started to paint, I wiped the entire truck down with a tack rag and then mineral spirits -- or prep solvent, if you have a good auto body supply store nearby - to get rid of any dust and oil from my fingers.

(Craig Fitzgerald)

Then it was just a matter of rolling the paint on. It goes on surprisingly well. People warned me that the first coat was going to look lousy, but honestly, I was blown away by how good it looked from the first coat. I used the foam brushes to get into places that I would've had a tough time using a roller. Because I'd thinned it out, the paint just flowed out even when using the foam brush.

If you're doing multiple coats, you're going to want to do them six hours later. That way you won't have to sand between coats. If you're waiting longer, the paint completely cures and you'll need to sand it to allow the subsequent coats to have something to attach to.

I ended up putting five coats on the truck, which was frankly too many. I could've really gotten away with two, I think, but I was experimenting. I wetsanded the whole truck from 1000 to 2000 grit paper, and then buffed it at the end with a machine buffer. That was my one extravagance in the whole project, and it cost me about $100 at Lowe's. Well worth it, because you can use it to apply wax on all your other cars, too.

(Craig Fitzgerald)

The result? It's pretty darn good. You can see a complete photo gallery at BestRide.com. It's not a show truck by any stretch of the imagination, but for something that cost me about $200 to paint, it looks phenomenal. I've driven it through rain and a bit of snow in the last year, and the paint has held up extremely well. I even painted the white bumpers with Rust-Oleum Appliance White.

If I was going to do it again, I probably wouldn't paint a truck black, because black shows every single imperfection. If it was a white truck, it'd look as good as if it came out of a spray booth.

It took time to roll those coats on, but not a lot more than it would've taken to spray it. And what time I expended rolling, I more than made up for in not having to mask much of anything. I taped the door handles and the windshield gasket, and that was pretty much it. By the time I finished at got confident, I wasn't even covering the wheels with a sheet.

Depending on the project, I'd paint a car this way again in a heartbeat. All joking aside, it's a way to get color on a car in a home garage for less than half what it would cost the cheapest body shop to spray it.


Get the Car Talk Newsletter



Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One