How to Spray Paint Metal

By: Contributors  | 
Teenage boy aiming a can of spray paint at the camera.
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From doorknobs, picture frames, and file cabinets, to old vehicles and patio furniture, most homes are overrun with items that sure could use a fresh paint job. Sadly, most people don't know how to spray paint metal well enough to tackle the project themselves.

In truth, you can achieve your desired finish with a little bit of preparation and a whole lot of masking tape. Read ahead to find out how to breathe new life in to the metal surface of your choice with a little bit of spray paint.


Safety First

Spray painting may be effective, but it isn't without it's health hazards. Fortunately, you can mitigate many of those risks by taking the proper precautions. Before you start spraying, ensure that you invest in the right personal protective equipment, including:

  • Respiratory protection: a well fitting respirator mask designed for paint fumes is essential [source: Noonan].
  • Eye protection: Protect your eyes with safety goggles.
  • Skin protection: Gloves, long sleeves, and long pants are always recommended when working with spray paint.
  • Ventilation: Work in a well-ventilated area to disperse fumes. Outdoor spaces are ideal, but if indoors, ensure cross-ventilation through windows and fans.

Things don't always work out according to plan. Even the most safety conscious spray painter can run in to trouble. If you feel dizzy at any time, move to fresh air and seek medical attention if your symptoms don't improve. You should also seek medical attention in the event of accidental ingestion, or if you're experiencing skin irritation.


Preparation is Key

The successful use of spray paints is as much about preparation as it is about the actual painting process. It's not hard to prepare properly either. It really is as easy as abiding by the following steps.

  • Protecting adjacent areas: Use masking tape or painters tape to protect areas of the surface that you don't want painted.
  • Drop cloths: Cover surroundings with drop cloths or old newspapers to protect them from overspray.
  • Surface cleaning and degreasing: Clean the surface to remove dirt and grease with warm water, a degreaser, or a specialized metal cleaner [source: Dahl].
  • Sanding and smoothing: Use sandpaper to lightly sand the surface, and use a wire brush, steel wool, or a natural bristle brush to remove rust and old paint.
  • Priming the surface: Invest in a quality metal primer to help the paint adhere to the surface. Be sure to apply the proper spray primer in thin, even coats, lightly sanding between coats.

All of the items mentioned above should be available at any hardware store, though there are affordable alternatives to most of them too. For harder to remove rust and loose paint may require paint thinner or a rust removal chemical.


Start Spraying

Spray paint where the temperature's between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit (10 and 32 degrees Celsius). This will provide the cleanest finish on your items. As well, don't spray paint when it's windy or dusty outside. The debris in the air will adhere to your newly painted objects and create a mess.

Practice spray painting on a plank of wood or a trial item that you don't use very often. Practicing with the can of paint will allow you learn how to gain control of the nozzle and manage the amount of spray spouting from the nozzle.


Hold the can of paint 10 to 14 inches (25 to 36 centimeters) away from the object. Hold the nozzle down lightly and spray across it in even movements without stopping. It's better to apply two thin coats than one heavy coat [source: Carter].

Maintenance and Aftercare

After successfully spray painting a metal surface, it’s crucial to focus on maintenance and aftercare to ensure the longevity and durability of the finish. Proper care not only enhances the appearance but also protects the metal underneath.

  • Regular cleaning: Cleaning the surface using a soft cloth or sponge and some soapy water will go along way in preserving that hard-earned finish. Be sure to to dry it completely to prevent rust and water spots.
  • Protection: Keep the surface away from direct sunlight and seal the entire surface with a UV-resistant coating, and regularly check it for rust.
  • Touching it up: Keep some of the original spray on-hand for the inevitable touch-up. When touching up, use fine grit sandpaper to sand the area around the chip before applying the paint.

By following these maintenance and aftercare tips, you can significantly extend the life of your spray painted metal surfaces, ensuring they look great and remain protected for years to come.


As Good As New

Spray painting metal doesn't have to be complicated. With the right tools, and some helpful tips, you can restore just about anything cheaply and effectively. Remember, the longevity and visual appeal of these surfaces is heavily dependent on consistent maintenance and aftercare. By staying on top of rust, and cleaning the surface as needed, you can prolong the lifecycle of the freshly-painted object for years to come.

Remember, the effort invested in maintenance not only preserves the beauty of the paintwork but also protects the underlying metal from deterioration. Whether it’s a piece of outdoor furniture, an artistic creation, or a functional tool, the care you provide post-painting plays a pivotal role in its lifespan.