Top 5 things I learned painting my car at home

It was challenging. It was rewarding. It was heartbreaking.

During the month of March I tackled what I consider to be the pinnacle of a car restoration — the paint.

When this project began in August of 2017, the 1967 Mercury Cougar arrived wearing dull white paint. I actually wasn’t sure if it was primer or a topcoat. There was overspray on most of the trim, rust was bubbling up on the doors and quarters, and the body panels looked as if someone had played bumper cars in a parking lot full of shopping carts.

Almost four years later, I finally finished the mechanical and interior refurbishment, and I was ready to tackle the paint and body. Here’s the most important things I learned during the process.

Number One: Don’t buy your paint online

I had a white Mustang in high school, and I know white is a popular color for Cougars, but I just wasn’t feeling it. To be honest, if I was building the perfect Cougar it would be Hunter Green with a Saddle Leather interior. However, I ended up with a white Cougar with red interior that originally was Onyx black. I decided to take it back to black, but with a metallic paint. Like many others, I’ve gotten in the bad habit of just ordering things online instead of getting out to a store to see what I’m buying. I ordered all my paint from Eastwood.com. I lucked out with their Epoxy Primer. It sprays really well. The 2k High Build — not so much, but if you dilute it enough it’s ok. The real problem was the Midnight Metallic Black.

The Eastwood base colors mix 4:1, so while it’s $185 per gallon, you’re actually only getting 5 quarts. By comparison the PPG Shopline paint mixes 1:1 at $205 per gallon, so you’re getting 8 quarts. Even with slow reducer I suffered solvent popping in the Midnight Metallic Black, which left dotted lines on the roof and trunk lid of the car. I also screwed up and accidentally drug my air hose along the edge of the roofline. There was nothing to do except sand it all down and start over. I needed more paint. Unfortunately, Eastwood had a big message on their site saying they were out of stock until May. I took a trip to my local Tasco where I should have gone in the first place. They gave me a handful of color chips to pick out exactly what kind of metallic black I wanted and then mixed me up two gallons. Their low-end Shopline paint sprayed better than the Eastwood, and by choosing Ford Tuxedo Black, future color match is easy. I can get touch up paint at any auto parts store.

Number Two: You need good lighting in your work area

I have fluorescent shop lights hanging in half my garage, but the other side is really dark. There is a noticeable difference in the paint work done on the bright side of the garage versus the dark side of the garage. Good light helps you see the wet edge, the extent of coverage, whether or not you’re running the paint, and if you have solvent popping or other issues happening. If I was going to paint more cars in my garage I’d add lighting to the other side of the ceiling or at least set up some shop lights on that side.

Number Three: Sanding is tedious and messier than spraying

Sanding cars is incredibly tedious and messy. I was expecting the spray mess, but being covered in enough poly primer powder that I looked like a ghost was a new experience. The powder gets into the air and settles on everything. It got tracked all over the house. Having a clean area is really important for a good paint job, and it took days of cleaning and washing out the garage to remove enough dust to spray again. Also, use blocks to sand, not your fingers. If you sand without a block you’ll end up with a sad, wavy finish. 2k is the only layer that will hide a few of the issues you don’t spend time sanding before you apply it. Every other layer is going to show everything, so spend the time sanding. But yes, it is really tedious.

Number Four: Carefully read your paint data sheets

Yes, the data sheets show mix ratios, but many of them also specify gun pressure and tip sizes. More importantly, it lets you know how soon you can spray your next layer. For instance, the epoxy primer I used took three days to cure enough for sanding. Three days is a long time to wait for the next coat when you’re trying to fit a paint job into vacation time. However, you could overcoat the epoxy primer with 2k primer after 30 minutes, but if you waited more than six hours, you were stuck waiting the full three days. Once the 2k was on the epoxy, you could sand it within an hour. The clear coat also has to go onto the base coat within a certain number of hours or you have to scuff and spray another layer of base before you can clear. Each paint is slightly different, so always ask for the data sheet when you’re buying the paint.

Number Five: The cut and polish process is a completely different skill set

I was aware that I knew nothing about painting cars, so I invested in a weekend seminar to learn the basics long before I bought any equipment. We spent lots of time spraying, but the cut and polish process was just a PowerPoint slide with a quick demonstration. I was woefully unprepared to polish paint, and the Meguiars paste and $29 buffer from O’Reilly’s weren’t helping the situation. My first attempt wet sanding left too much orange peel. (By the way, did I mention sanding it incredibly tedious?) My second attempt was better, but after the cutting compound, you could still see swirl marks in the paint. My third attempt finally ruined the paint on the hood. After many, many hours I finally have a handle on wet sanding. A friend from the Cougar Club loaned me a professional polisher, and I bought some quality cutting compound and polish. The results are better, but if I could do it all again, I would have spent a long time practicing these processes on a car with bad paint, not the car I spent four weeks painting. Yes, when I mentioned heartbreak in the introduction, this is what I was talking about. There are definitely sections of the car I will have to paint again due to my own incompetence when trying to polish it. The wet sanding, cut and polish is not quick. It’s another job in itself, and it will make or break a paint job.

I know, there are no mind-blowing epiphanies here, but if anyone out there is debating whether or not to paint their car, I hope this helps.