For the love of spray paint: the $4 home customization hack

Guest post by Tabatha Muntzinger

Yup, I spray painted this mirror.
I honestly have no idea where I’d be in my home renovation journey without spray paint.

I’ve taken a can to nearly every surface in my house. From funky mirrors, ceiling medallions and unfinished wood to a yard sale cradle and antique claw feet for a cast iron tub, chances are if there’s something mildly awesome in my house, I spray painted it.

It began honestly, simply, with a cheap clear plastic chandelier that came with our 100+ year old house. It was missing an arm and full of dead flies, but I couldn’t just pitch it. There was something about a classic chandelier that spoke to me, if only I could make it more presentable, more my aesthetic.

On a whim, I bought some silver spray paint, disassembled the beast, and three days later an obsession was born.

Okay, are you ready to paint? Good. Here’s how:

One of the best ways to practice your spray paint skills without, say, ruining an heirloom, is to get frames from the thrift store (bonus points for mirrors) and some painter’s tape. And, of course, spray paint colors of your choice, plus primer and a topcoat if you’re feeling fancy. This way you spend very little on materials, so if you end up hating it you won’t feel like your dead great-grandmother will haunt you in your sleep, but if you love it, well, now you have a new bragging point!

Look for whatever catches your eye when you go to the thrift store. I personally dig very traditional pieces in very pop-art bright colors. Sure, I can go to Target or HomeGoods and pay a darling sum for a replica piece, but I’d rather get my hands a little dirty and make something custom for my home that reflects me and not mass-produced taste.

Once you find your 99 cent victim, er, next masterpiece, think about where you want it to be in your home and what purpose you want it to serve. I have frames for a gallery wall for my kids’ art — when I painted those, I knew I wouldn’t need the glass, so I took it all out and recycled it. But when I picked up a mirror to repaint for my daughter’s bedroom, I knew I wanted the mirror in tact. This is where your painter’s tape will come in handy. If you can disassemble the frame without damaging it, pat yourself on the back for unintentionally saving yourself a lot of busy work. If not, get a good, sharp pair of scissors and cover your not-to-be-painted surface with painter’s tape. If your frame is too large, use a grocery bag cut open and taped to the edges, or newspaper can work too. Whatever you do, make sure you overlap the edges so you don’t get paint lines a la tiger stripes on your finished product, but don’t cover any part you want to paint. It’s okay if you do, though — most spray paint does remove fairly simply with a box cutter or straight razor blade.

Once you’ve taped off your no-paint zone, give your frame a good wipe down with some cleaner, making sure to try and get the gunk out of any crevices or scroll work or what-have-you — this way the paint won’t fill in too much of any detail work you may have.

Get yourself to a well-ventilated space without a bunch of dust or hair or debris floating about. Also, have mineral spirits on hand for any clean up as well as safety glasses, gloves, facial respirators, and drop cloths to protect whatever surfaces you feel the need to guard from the eruption of color you’re about to unleash on your newfound treasure.

Old stuff is porous as all get out and will suck up coats upon coats of paint if you don’t properly prime it first, making it splotchy and sad. But it’s cool, primer comes in spray paint form too. For bright or light colors pick a white primer, or for rich or dark colors try to get a grey primer. Just trust me on this — eighteen coats of black over white primer and noticing you STILL missed a spot will drive you CRAZYPANTS and that’s not the goal here, pretty stuff for your house is.

The primer won’t take but ten minutes (in ideal conditions) to dry, so have your color(s) of choice ready.

Keep that nozzle a foot away from your project. I’m impatient as crap and am so guilty of getting right up on something and blasting paint into oblivion all over things, but I can tell you I’m never very happy with the results. They get all drippy and uneven and when working with specialty finished like metallic or high gloss, they could up. So as mind-numbing as it is, follow the directions on the can and do light, short, even coats from a foot away. Don’t worry — that paint will set within 15 minutes or so, so you can come right back and do it again (and again, and again) no problem.

Or you decide this was a terrible idea and start anew. Don’t forget to check from all angles — the front may look awesome but if you forgot the sides, you’ll notice as soon as you go to hang that badboy up. You can also add a topcoat here to seal in the final color, add a protective finish, or just amp it up a notch. Your house, your decor, your call.

Or you will mess up the paint and want to kick yourself. Give it a good couple of hours, if not a whole day, before you move it. Or at least paint it on a surface you can move to a safe place if, say, you can’t leave it unattended due to children/animals/partners/neighborhood rapscallions, like a piece of cardboard.

Hang up your new bit of awesome, set it out on a shelf, whatever floats your boat. Or, if you aren’t so thrilled with the end result, you can always paint it again or call it a loss and head back to the thrift store to find a new piece to practice on.

Once you get pretty confident in your spray paint skills, you really can transform nearly any surface in your house. I just tackled a damaged antique side table passed to me from my mom by coating it in robin’s egg blue for my daughter’s room and I still feel all proud every time I look at it.

Now go forth, and customize your home one $4 can of paint at a time!

Comments on For the love of spray paint: the $4 home customization hack

  1. Yes! Spray paint! Can’t tell you how many times this conversation has taken place:

    Person: How did you get that to look like that?
    Me: Spray paint.
    Person: Nu-unh…seriously, how did you get it to look like that?
    Me: SPRAY PAINT!!!!

    It can change your life!

  2. just was needing this! I have 9 picture frames I bought and am sanding them so I can paint them gold and I was wondering if I really truly needed primer or if it was a ploy for more of my money. thanks for the tips! quick question (well 2): to get all sides of a frame is it best to hang it and spray or lay it down and just try to get everywhere? and any way to better guesstimate how many cans a project will take?

    • Heya! As for frames, I typically lay them on a flat surface and rotate as needed. I just try to think about what parts are going to show and which aren’t, mostly. As for how much, I think you can get a good three or four average sized projects from a can of paint, but some larger items can take two cans. I typically over-buy paint because chances are I’ll use the color again. 🙂

  3. Perfect timing. I just bought a really (heavy) old medical filing cabinet thing. My biggest problem is..I live on a third floor apartment. Getting it up the stairs was a..challenge. I can use the parking lot behind my friend’s building (four doors away) to paint..but..I’m pretty nervous about drying time/moving it back without screwing up the paint. I just saw it in the window of Goodwill yesterday and had to get it!

  4. I once spray-painted my shoes. Some old, pale pink Converse that were dirty-beyond-the-help-of-detergent. Taped over the white rubber, stuffed with plastic bags, and went after them with lime green spray paint. Turned out awesome. 🙂 (They were a bit stiff with the paint, but I got another year of use out of something that I probably would have just thrown away.)

  5. Fab! Just had our car vandalised (grr), so have been thinking about spray painting it with some funky patterns to cover up the wiggly brown line that our artistically challenged neighbourhood rapscallions left on the poor little machine…

  6. Any advice for someone who gets overuse injury from spray-painting? I loved doing stuff like this, but holding the can for more than a few minutes with my finger pressed down kills my arm, and I’m not coordinated enough to aim with my left hand. :-/

  7. Dumb-ish question: Any advice on where to spray paint if you live in an apartment building? I mean I’ve got a parking lot, but what if the wind picks up and I spray paint a neighbors car or something? How do you avoid ruining everything with spray paint?

    • Not dumb! I’ll say it depends on the space you’ve got to work with. My apartment complex has a yard that’s just big enough to spray paint in. I often put stuff in a deep cardboard box that’s on its side, open side facing into the wind. If you’ve got a balcony, cover the entire thing–as high up as you can–with drop cloths, cardboard and painters’ tape. And do your spray painting while your neighbors aren’t home.

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