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Guide to Painting Plastic Car Parts

Updated on May 14, 2013

Intro

In this article, I will give you a short tutorial on the basics of painting plastic car parts. The information I'm passing on to you is a collaboration of information and knowledge I learned as I heavily researched the subject for my own needs. I thought that I would pass on what I have learned to you, so maybe you won't feel such a need to research so in depth!

Why I Know (Skip this section to get to instruction)

I own a black 2011 Mazda 3i Touring, and I really wanted to do something to make it stand out. When I was car shopping, Mazda's seemed almost a rarity to spot on the road. Not terribly uncommon, but still by no means anywhere near as frequently spotted as Toyota, Ford, Dodge, Subaru...etc. However, once I got my Mazda, it seemed like I was seeing them everywhere! Not just Mazda's in general, but 2011 mazda3's! I was hurt that my car wasn't quite as unique as I had originally thought. I then got to thinking of ways to fix that. I wanted something to make my car stand out, something where, if I pass someone I know on the road, I want them to know that it's me without question.

At that point I set to thinking, what can I do to add a little flare to my car? What can I do to stand out? I considered all options, from racing stripes to spoilers, but I decided to start elsewhere. On Mazda3's, there are 2 bumper inserts around the fog lights (or in my case where fog lights would go if I had them). I got to thinking, this is where I should start, I can paint these. Then it was on to the color selection process.. if you are like me, and you own a black car, you are both cursed and blessed when it comes to this. So many colors can go well with black! Blue, pink, orange, green, red, yellow... whatever you want, it can go on there and you can find a way to make it look good. I got it narrowed down to 3 colors, orange (also my college's color), green (a cool & unique look with black, and my high school's color), and red. I ended up going with the red, and I'm pretty happy about it! For those of you with cars that aren't black or white, and don't know what color to choose, head to your local Lowes, Home Depot, or other hardware store and go to the paint area. There are almost always large displays of little cards that have different paint colors displayed on them. Grab ones you think you like, then put them next to your car, and see how you like it! You always want to picture the finished project before you even start it.

Taken right after I put the final coat of clear coat on.
Taken right after I put the final coat of clear coat on. | Source
A look from the front with the red bumper inserts in (may be hard to see, sorry!)
A look from the front with the red bumper inserts in (may be hard to see, sorry!) | Source
A more clear look, you can really see the distinctive look the red gives it.  Now imagine it with red & black rims! =D
A more clear look, you can really see the distinctive look the red gives it. Now imagine it with red & black rims! =D | Source

Where to Start

Like me, you may have done some research already... or maybe I'm your first! Regardless, you're in good hands =). I've only painted two plastic car parts, but I did hours and hours of research before hand. I can tell you through experience the things I did right, as well as what I did wrong, so I can make sure you don't!

There are a few things you'll need to get started. You'll want paint, preferably plastic-specific paint (I used Krylon-fusion, I would highly suggest it). Krylon fusion is made specifically for plastic, and so it does not require priming. I went through about 2/3 of a can on the two inserts you see painted red here, so use you're best judgement.. and you can find Krylon fusion at your local Walmart, Lowe's, Home Depot... you get the idea. I would also very highly recommend getting the Krylon fusion 'clear coat'. Other thing's you may want are a very soft, fine grained sandpaper, and access to warm water and (preferably) car wash soap.

If you can, remove the plastic parts from you're car. Even better, you can do what I did: Buy replacement/duplicate parts. I bought a brand new set from an online auto-parts store. My reasoning was that if one day I wanted to sell my car back to a dealer, I didn't want painted parts to diminish the value, so now I can just put the original, unpainted pieces back in if need be. Doing this was also very beneficial because I didn't have to drive around with missing parts from my car while the painting process was under way. If you can't remove the parts from your vehicle, it's unfortunate but not unsolvable. Very carefully cover the ENTIRE surrounding area, and if you can put your car in a garage or somewhere out of the wind, do so.

Painting

Okay, so now it's on to the actual painting process. The first thing you need to do is thoroughly clean the plastic surface. I would suggest using hot water and car wash soap. Wait for the piece to dry.

The next step has a lot more debate surrounding it. The step I took was to very lightly sand the plastic, making sure to cover all to-be painted areas evenly. The purpose of this was to create increased surface area for the paint to adhere to. Some people are very adamant not to sand plastic, saying it causes the the sanding lines to show up through the paint.. however that was not the case with my experience. Once just the first coat was applied, all signs of the sanding disappeared for me, but there could be differences between materials and finishes. So if your shaky on this, the safe course of action would be to skip sanding. If you choose to go ahead and sand, was the surface once again afterwards, and again allow it to dry (use a fan to speed up the process).

Once dry, its time to paint! Again, I would really suggest Krylon Fusion, I had phenomenal results with it, and it doesn't require a primer. Shake the can for the directed time on the label, and follow the instructions for painting. Cover the entire area in a uniform layer, never pausing in one area too long. Make sure the paint doesn't begin to pool, remember there are still more coats to be put on so it doesn't have to be perfect. Again, follow the directions on the can, and apply a few more coats. I put 4 coats on and it worked well, but you can stop wherever feels right.

When the color paint is dry, it's time for the clear coat. The clear coat adds a layer of protection that will block the forces that will act against your paint job like dirt, dust, rain, etc. I put as many clear coats on as I did color coats. Allow a full week for proper drying... and then that's it! You're done, enjoy you're unique addition to you're vehicle!


Some Things to Consider

There are a few other thing's you might want to consider looking into. When I was looking into different suggestions of this process, there was some talk of using an anti-static cleaner. I was a little pressed for time and couldn't find one that looked appealing... and to be honest I wasn't sold on its necessity. The anti-static cleaner is meant to prevent dust from clinging to the plastic. There definitely won't be a down side to using one, so by all means go for it, but I have been shown no reason to regret my decision not to use an anti-static cleaner.

As I mentioned previously, I made a couple mistakes in my process. My first mistake was not making sure the bumper insert's came all the way out easily. I bought replacement pieces of my bumper inserts and painted those, planning to swap them out with the original inserts once I was done painting the new ones. When it came time to make the swap, it turned out that the inserts were much, much harder to get out then it had seemed, and it was no easy task getting the new ones in either. If you plan to do what I did, and get a whole new part(s) and paint those and swap later, make absolutely certain you can make the swap. I was able to pull it off without causing serious damage, but maybe I got lucky.

The other big mistake I made was due to impatience. When I finished the last step, the last clear coat, I wanted nothing more than to see these things on my car. I waited 2 days before giving in to my impatience... if you were paying attention, you'll remember that you're supposed to allow 7 days for proper drying. I was stupid and impatient, I thought that was an unnecessarily lengthy amount of time, after all it seemed pretty dry after 2 days. Well as it turns out, 7 days would have been preferable. I set one of my painted peaces down on the driveway, didn't drag it or treat it roughly in any way, but when I picked it up, some of the paint had completely worn away right down to the black plastic! Luckily it was a small spot, and is very unnoticeable until you look very close. I don't know for a fact that 5 more days of waiting would have prevented this, but I'm inclined to believe it would have.

So that's it! I hope you're painting experience goes well!

Any comments, questions, suggestions, input...etc. is welcome! I'll be actively monitoring the page, so I should be able to get back to you quickly if need be! Good luck!

Also, it's always nice to hear contributing opinions.. if you want to bounce a color scheme or whatever off of me, send me a message! Or if you want any help or ideas on things you could paint, designs to do, etc on your car, let me know the make, model & color of your car and I'll come up with some things! Let's make the roads more interesting!

Updates...

Just thought I'd put these pictures on too, since I wrote this hub I went through the same painting process on the mazda emblem to make it the same color red (again with the krylon fusion paint)... and added seat covers (I know, that's unrelated....)
Just thought I'd put these pictures on too, since I wrote this hub I went through the same painting process on the mazda emblem to make it the same color red (again with the krylon fusion paint)... and added seat covers (I know, that's unrelated....)
This isn't anything to do with plastic painting, but here's where I'm at with the car right now.  Recent additions are the thin red pinstripe on the doors, and the black/chrome red rims.  What do you think?
This isn't anything to do with plastic painting, but here's where I'm at with the car right now. Recent additions are the thin red pinstripe on the doors, and the black/chrome red rims. What do you think?
A few more looks at the car
A few more looks at the car

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