Level up: How to spraypaint well

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Spray Cans © by cronkiteschool, used under Creative Commons license.

You have to practice spray painting. This came as a surprise to me, my sophomore year of college, my first year of art school, when I was trying to spray paint my Piet Mondrian-inspired birdhouse for Intro to 3D Design on the sidewalk outside my dorm during a very cold March. I guess I thought spray paint was magic — that it automated the process of painting — but I found out that wasn’t true, and that I didn’t know how to use spray paint at all.

Many projects later, I am a master spraypainter. I paint coatracks and shoes and art work and bones, and I really think this is one of the most valuable DIY skills I have. Being able to finish up a spray paint job with no drips or ripples can make the difference between a ruined project and one I LOVE. Having a good grasp of this skill means anything in my house can be ANY EFFING COLOR I WANT.

Let me teach you the right way to use a can of spray paint.

How to use a can of spray paint

  1. Buy a good brand. The least expensive brands of paint start at $.99, but these paints have less pigment and the one dollar can of paint will never give the same rosbust finish as a $3 can. My favorite brands are Rustoleum and Montana, and I’d recommend against using Krylon paint. Seriously, this is the most important step in the tutorial.
  2. Keep your distance. The most rookie mistake in spray painting is holding the can too close to the canvas. Always keep your can 12-18 inches away from the surface which you are painting, to prevent paint from pooling and dripping.
  3. Move with care. The way you move your can is important, too. It affects the surface of your piece, like a brush stroke. Move the can in fairly slow, even strokes. Do one coat horizontally, one vertically, and so on.
  4. Mind the weather. Spray paint is best applied outdoors, when the wind is calm, not too humid, and between 50-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures above and below that range can result in poor binding of paint to substrate and slow drying.
  5. Don’t try to cover it all in one coat. The VERY best way to spray paint is to apply light dustings of paint in several layers until the surface is covered. Luckily, two coats are enough in most cases, as long as you play by the rules and ESPECIALLY if you’re using good paint. Now, it’s important to note that if you cannot apply a second coat within 60 minutes of laying down the first coat, you should wait 24 hours for that first coat to finish setting. If you apply during the middle ground — more than 60 minutes and less than 24 hours later — the paint often looks uneven or remains tacky because the new coat and old coat do not bond correctly.
  6. Prime. Always use primer. Use a good primer. You may only skip primer IF you’re out of primer and you are using Montana paints, and even then — primer is better.

Follow these steps and you’ll find your spray painted projects come out shinier, more durable, and looking sleek every time.

Go. Buy your paints. Next week I’m posting a tutorial you’ll want to use your newfound skillz on.

Comments on Level up: How to spraypaint well

  1. Great article! Depending on how close people will be getting to particular project, I find myself doing 3 or 4 super light coats.

    Also, I will totally admit that I was feeling cheap the other day and bought a .99 can of spray paint. I was basically spraying water into the air. Lesson learned. /shame

  2. What kind of paint would you recommend for plastic outdoor furniture? We inherited two faded old green Rubbermade chairs from our home’s former owners and I want to spray paint them and our metal patio furniture the same color. But I’m concerned about how spray paint and plastic get along. Wisdom, please?

  3. I would also recommend skipping primer if you are painting UNfinished wood and would like the grain/texture to show through. Make sure you use an extra coat or a finishing coat/sealant though!

  4. I frequently check out the Younghouselove blog, and she’s always spray painting stuff that turns out really cool. She buys the craziest tacky yard sale stuff and spray paints it a wild color. Something I’d never think of. So creative.

  5. Perfect timing! I found an ugly ceramic elephant at the op shop and I want to turn it… lime green? I also have a bunch of mismatched picture frames that I need to unify with a single colour. Spray paint, here I come!

  6. My dad taught me to spray paint when we were building furniture for my first solo apartment. Amazing father-daughter bonding moment. We took two chrome shelving units bought at a “going out of business” sale, and turned them into a two seater kitchen set with storage for my efficiency apt. It was a perfect way of “segregating” the kitchenette, without wasting space and clogging up the room. We suspended a piece of dunnage countertop (with black formica finish) between the shelving units, (which were placed facing each other) using the provided shelf brackets. Then we took plain unfinished wood shelves and spray painted them gloss black to go the rest of the way up and down the units.

    Thanks for reminding me that I have this awesome skill…I haven’t used it in years, and really need to. Also I have mad “contact paper” skills, which my grandma taught me. I need to use those more often too! You can buy marble finish contact paper and cover a dunnage door and create an awesome corner table, that everyone will believe cost you a fortune!

  7. Also, SAND!!!
    If you are spraying something that already has a finish, like existing wood furniture, it really helps the paint to stick if you rough up the finish first. It doesn’t have to be a terrible job… using a squishy sanding block or some medium coarseness steel wool does the trick in no time and is comfy on your hands.
    A fine steel wool (#0000) is great for sanding between coats to fix raised grains, fingerprints or scuffs too!

  8. I have a dark and foreboding Ikea Expedit that I’m wanting to liven up (had planned to paint before assembly but my husband didn’t realize and nicely put it together for me). I’m thinking I may attempt spray paint! I suspect that’s an advanced project so I think I’ll look for something smaller to start on…

  9. The other day I had a big snafoo painting a metal mirror… I used a rust oleum primer..let it dry over night, then the next day spray painted a rust oleum metallic shade over the primer, immediately after one coat it bubbled up and peeled off!! Primer and all, what did I do wrong?

  10. Wish I’d had this article before my wedding because I spray painted my veil, assuming it was going to be easy, and realized quickly that I was holding my can WAY too close. I ended up having to cover a lot of the splotches with stick-on rhinestones, but wish I’d thought to look up a tutorial.

  11. Thnx! I was wondering: when spraying a layer do you add paint until you see kind of a liquid layer on your project, or do you stop when it has this kind of dusty look and add more after it dries?..

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