LAST UPDATED: May 28, 2019
Best Automotive Paints: Color Your Car Right
Choose the right paint color the first time with our top automotive paint picks
The Review Team
How We Decided
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PUBLISHED ON May 28, 2019
Does your vehicle have a signature look? With the right automotive paint, your ride will stand out from the crowd and make a powerful statement. If you’re looking into painting your own vehicle, check out our buying guide for the best automotive paint. Undertaking the painting process isn’t for the faint of heart, so we’ll give you a few tips along the way, too.
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All of our reviews are based on market research, expert input, or practical experience with most products we include. This way, we offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.
Benefits of Best Automotive Paint
- Choose your own paint color. You don’t have to stick with just factory finishes. Painting your own vehicle allows you to choose your own color and even—if you are skilled or know someone similarly skilled—your own paint scheme. The list of artistic possibilities is endless.
- Practice painting your own vehicle. Whether you keep it as a hobby or make a living via painting, practicing on your own vehicle is a great way to experiment and potentially learn a new skill.
- Determine whether or not you want to be an automotive painter. Just like any other profession, automotive painting takes knowledge, time, and practice. If you’re looking into becoming an automotive painter, the best way to know if it’s the right job for you is to give it a shot and assess.
- Restore your own DIY project. Whatever project you’ve been working on, one of the final stages is paint. And just like every other component, it’s incredibly important when it comes to the finished product. If you’re looking for a one-off paint job, spraying the layers yourself might just be the answer you’re looking for.
- Learn more about the automotive painting process. You may or may not end up painting your own vehicle but knowing about the process can be useful in a variety of situations. You really don’t even have to get that deep into the specifics to have a decent understanding of what’s involved.
Types of Best Automotive Paint
An inexpensive rubberized coating, Plasti Dip is a cheap alternative to traditional automotive paints. With enough coats, Plasti Dip can weather prolonged use relatively well, depending on where on the vehicle it is applied. However, excessive wear and tear can cause the Plasti Dip to deteriorate prematurely, requiring removal and reapplication. Plasti Dip can’t necessarily compete with the high gloss-finishes of higher-quality paints.
Also an inexpensive solution, spray paint is often seen as the shortcut to paying thousands of dollars for a factory-finish paint job. When compared to these professional masterpieces, spray paint wouldn’t win any beauty contests and, eventually, this paint will wear off. Spray paint is best for vehicles that aren’t necessarily going to enter any automotive shows in their lifetime.
Water-based paints only include a small amount of solvent used in the process of adhering to the vehicle. They’re not as toxic to work with and actually dry faster than solvent-based paints. You might think you’d need to apply more coats of a water-based paint than solvent-based paint, but that’s not the case. The water acts as a carrier and dissipates once the paint is applied, so you won’t get as many toxic chemicals off-gassing, even after the paint is cured.
When people typically think of automotive paint, solvent-based paints are what usually come to mind—or the nose. Solvent-based paints typically have higher amounts of toxic chemicals that make inhaling car paint such a bad thing. These types of paint can have lacquer, enamel, or urethane as a basis, each with their own pros and cons. These solvents act as a carrying agent and bring the paint molecules to the vehicle’s surface. Most solvent-based paints take longer to cure than water-based paints.
As you’ve probably deduced from the name, single-stage paints combine the basecoat and clear coat in one. There’s no activator necessary. Single-stage paints are easier to lay down on a vehicle because they simplify the process, but there’s a trade-off. These paints are much more susceptible to premature breakdown. You may still use a primer, but the topcoat layers are not protected by multiple layers of clear coat. Rather than stacking up layers on layers, single-stage paints combine them into fewer.
Two-stage paints are better at weathering harsh conditions than single-stage paints. On top of the primer coat, you’ll find anywhere from four to five topcoat layers, upon which will sit three or four layers of clear coat. Wearing away all those layers takes much more effort than the combination of layers found in single-stage paints. Two-stage paints do, however, take nearly twice as much time to lay down on a vehicle, since there are so many steps involved. An activator is also required for two-stage paints.
Sometimes you don’t want to paint your whole vehicle. Instead, you want to simply highlight a certain feature or improve the overall look of that area. You can use part-specific paints for things like brake calipers, wheels, engine blocks, and any other area that will take paint. Many engine-specific paints are high-heat, so they won’t flake and peel off due to the high temperatures an engine block emits.
With over 60 years in the paint-correction business, Dupli-Color knows what it takes to create a like-new finish over those unsightly paint blemishes. Invest in the Automotive Primer Series Adhesion Promoter for a better final product. Dupli-Color serves the world market.
Dipping since 1972, the experts at Plasti Dip are headquartered in Minnesota. You can use Plasti Dip for a variety of projects and applications, but if you’re looking for a quick solution to your automotive paint woes, check out its Plasti Dip Rim Kit. Who says looking good has to be expensive?
Best Automotive Paint Pricing
- $10 or less: Most aerosolized paints will fall into this entry-level pricing category. Paints are typically packaged at or around 12 ounces and can be sprayed on car bodies or particular parts such as brake calipers, wheels, or even engine blocks.
- $15-$30: Depending on the paint manufacturer you choose, you should be able to pick up multiple units of automotive paint for around $20. Many will be aerosol paints, while you may be able to find a few liquid paints as well.
- $30-$50: Higher-priced and harder-to-find paints will cost you a bit more, even in quantity. Liquid automotive paint can be bought around this price point in pint-sized packaging, while spray cans are often available in multiples.
- $50-$90: If you’re looking for single-stage paint, you can pick up a gallon for under $100. At the same time, remember you’ll need a handful of gallons for a medium-sized vehicle. Basecoats/primers and clear coats should be available in this price range as well.
- $100 and up: Higher-quality, single-stage paints can be bought in gallon form for upwards of $100. If you’re opting for two-stage paint, you’ll likely spend over $100 for a base coat, top coat, and clear coat, in multiple varieties.
Besides color, the finish is usually number one on the list when it comes to picking out paint. Finishes can take a plain black color and turn it metallic with tiny flakes that reflect light for a high-end look. Or you might choose a matte finish for a sleeker style. Pearlescent paints look best on vehicles with lots of dynamic exterior curves, while chameleon paint turns even the most mundane car into exotic artwork.
Before you get your heart set on any shade, consider what type of paint will be best for your situation. Consult our paint type section above for reference. Will you be transporting the vehicle outside and in the elements for most of its life? You should probably choose a two-stage paint. If you want to stick to the original finish, single-stage will likely give you the results you’re looking for.
- Painting Space: If you plan on painting your vehicle yourself, having the space to do it is priority number one. Temporary paint booths work just as well as professional setups, but just remember the process that’s happening as you paint. For example, pulling your vehicle into your one- or even two-car garage and then proceeding to lay down some paint will create a whole lot of problems for you pretty quickly.
- Paint Preparation Process: On top of securing the space, you’ll want to make sure you understand the painting process from start to finish. Not only will this help you prepare mentally, but you’ll also be able to acquire the necessary materials so you won’t have a last-minute run to the store. Paint prep doesn’t stop at supplies either. Sanding, smoothing, and cleaning the surface of your vehicle isn’t something you should overlook.
- Repaint or Repair: There’s a huge difference between repainting your entire vehicle and simply touching up some scrapes on a single panel. You’ll still spend time in the paint booth either way, but the value of effort varies drastically in both cases. Repairing damaged paint could be a good first step for you if you’re not sure about the repainting process. After about 20 minutes of laying down paint, you’ll know if it’s for you or not.
- Paint Gun Settings and Setup: The method you use to paint with is just as important as the paint itself. Fine-tuning your spray setup can take some time, but it makes a huge difference when it comes to your final product. Having incorrect air pressure settings or even the wrong paint gun entirely can take your adventure into painting and turn it into your worst nightmare. Read up on what settings you should use before you begin.
Best Automotive Paint Reviews & Recommendations 2020
The biggest hassle we see in painting your own vehicle is matching the tones already present. Automotive manufacturers pride themselves on their paint schemes as much as the models that wear them, so it can often be hard to duplicate a factory finish without the correct shade. Dupli-Color’s Perfect Match system takes the guessing work out of the equation, allowing you to focus on more important things.
If you ask a random stranger on the street what the technical name is for their car’s paint color, we’d guess only a handful would be able to rattle off the correct answer. With Dupli-Color’s Perfect Match products, though, all you have to know is what brand your vehicle belongs to. Then, simply choose the color of your vehicle from the available selection. The Dupli-Color paint comes packaged in spray cans that make application as simple as pressing down a nozzle. Plus, you can apply the paint over existing coats if necessary.
Car owners who purchase and use the Dupli-Color Perfect Match products may find the panels they paint differ in appearance from the rest of the vehicle. Essentially, you’ll find the painted panel looks like-new, while the rest of the panels weathered together to create a more unified look. This applies to dents and dings that are filled in or covered up as well. All the same, Dupli-Color makes it easy for anyone looking to touch-up their vehicle’s paint to bring a little life back to their ride’s exterior.
New paint jobs don’t have to be costly. We chose Plasti Dip’s aerosol rubber coating as our value pick because of the wide variety of available colors and affordable pricing, but most of all, the easy application and removal process. There’s a lot you can do with Plasti Dip beyond painting your vehicle as well. Let’s take a closer look at this versatile product.
Like most paint manufacturers, Plasti Dip offers customers a large palette to choose from. While most Plasti Dip colors are matte, you can choose from glossy and metallic coatings as well. The product we chose is an aerosol form of Plasti Dip, but you can also paint the product onto objects or dip them into Plasti Dip, too. It’s much easier to control the layering with Plasti Dip than your traditional spray paints, and the solution dries quickly. If you change your mind and don’t like the color you choose, you can simply remove the Plasti Dip and repeat the painting process again.
At the same time, Plasti Dip will not hold up over time as typical automotive paints tend to. There’s no thick layer of clear coat protecting your Plasti-Dipped surface, so excessive abrasion can wear away the coating fairly quickly. It’s also much harder to achieve a smooth, uniform finish with Plasti Dip, so your final results may not be able to compete with professional paint booth masterpieces.
The bane of every automobile’s existence is rust. It’s like moisture to books. It can slowly eat away at your vehicle over time until, finally, there’s nothing solid left. Rust-Oleum provides specially-formulated paints in a variety of shades to help prevent rust from not only spreading but from forming in the first place. That’s just one of the reasons we chose it as our honorable mention pick for the best automotive paint.
Beyond stopping rust in its tracks, Rust-Oleum’s automotive paint is easy to spray on, as it comes packaged in an aerosol can. The paint itself is UV and weather-resistant, so it’ll hold up against most anything the elements can throw its way. The long-lasting finish means you won’t have to worry about painting your vehicle again for a very long time, and if your car does end up sustaining a scratch here or there, you can use the Rust-Oleum spray as a touch-up solution as well. There are a variety of finishes available as well, so the options are nearly limitless.
Rust-Oleum probably isn’t your best solution if you do end up needing to paint your whole vehicle, at least in the spray can form. As with many sprays can applications, you could experience problems with the nozzle and your spray pattern—and, by extension, final results could be compromised. However, Rust-Oleum is a consumer-friendly product designed for the average car owner.
- Invest in and make use of proper safety equipment. That includes a disposable set of coveralls and a high-quality respirator. There’s a reason those painters on TV work in a well-ventilated area and wear this type of equipment. Painting chemicals are incredibly toxic, especially when you are around them for hours at a time.
- If you’re unsure about the painting process and want to practice before you use up your expensive paint, take a dry run with a test piece bought from a local junkyard. Perfect your technique and write down what works best for you so that you can use it come crunch time.
- Painting a vehicle requires a lot of time—a lot. Read the instructions on your chosen paint and work out the schedule. Setup will easily take an hour or two, after you’ve already prepped the car (which alone could take days). Factor in drying times and the maximum number of coats. That way, if you stop before those last few coats, you’re still on schedule.
- Speaking of prepping the car before painting, make sure you’re as thorough as possible. You may not be able to stand one more minute of sanding, but trust us when we say it will make a huge difference on the back end. Those clean, smooth lines don’t just happen overnight.
- Before you don your paint suit, go through the motions to determine what supplies you need, where to place them, how you’ll track the number of applied coats, etc. This includes planning out how you’ll spray the car as well. Will you move from the front to the back? Beginning and ending in the same spot each time ensures a better coating and a smoother finish as a result.
- Every painter has their own unique process. It’s like any artistic skill. At the same time, watching other painters can do a lot to help you not only understand the process but work out the kinks as well. Whether you incorporate some of their techniques or just wing it, having an idea in your head of what to do goes a long way in physically and mentally preparing yourself for the task ahead.
- Do yourself a favor and order a set of coveralls—one for you and one for a friend. Having a helping hand not attached to a spray gun can do a lot to make the painting process smoother overall. Hoses can catch on light fixtures; paint supplies can run out; or any number of potential mishaps can occur. Find someone to have your back when the paint starts flying.
- Keep track of the number of coats you apply via a large poster or piece of paper. You can either write down the coats as you apply them, check them off as you go, or even write down the times a coat was applied to determine drying periods. Make sure you differentiate between basecoats, topcoats, and clear coats if necessary.
- Maintaining your paint job is just as important as the process itself. Though it might be tempting, wait at least a month before waxing your vehicle or taking the buffer to it with gusto. This allows the paint enough drying and setting time to adhere to itself and the layers below it. Ideally, you’ll want to keep the car beneath a roof during this month for best results.
Q: How much paint will I need for my car?
A: This depends on the size of your vehicle and what type of paint you’re using. Vehicles smaller than or equal to the size of a typical four-door sedan will likely need at least 2 to 3 gallons of single-stage paint, in addition to a gallon of primer. Two-stage paints require 1 to 2 gallons of primer, 4 or 5 gallons of topcoat, and just as many gallons of clear coat for a similarly-sized vehicle.
Q: How do I know when I’ve put enough paint down on the surface I’m covering?
A: The best way to determine this is to consult the manufacturer’s guidelines as to how many coats are necessary for a solid finish. The difference between too-thin paint and thick paint layers can be seen in the texture of the paint once it’s dry. Thick layers will look like the peel of an orange, with small ridges alternating between valleys. It’s better to go thicker because it can be sanded down, however.
Q: What’s the best air gun to use for painting vehicles?
A: Really, there’s enough to be said about air guns that it could comprise an entire guide in itself. At the same time, the best one is going to be one you feel comfortable using that’s also in your price range. Like many things, it’s better to invest in a higher-end air gun. Research before you buy and ask local painters what they use.
Q: Are there alternatives to completely painting my entire vehicle when it comes to repairing auto paint blemishes?
A: There are a few alternate routes, depending on the extent of the damage. Scratches can likely be taken out by your local automotive detail expert. More extensive damage may require an auto body shop to fix the metal or plastic beneath the paint before repainting can occur. Touch-up paint can be a quick, cheaper alternative, but there are techniques for proper application as well.
Q: How much does it typically cost to paint/repaint a car?
A: Hypothetically speaking, it can be cheaper to paint your own car than to bring it to a professional paint shop or big-name company. However, the quality of said paint job should be high on your priority list if you’re investing a lot of time and/or money into the process. That being said, it may cost less to paint your car yourself, but you may be able to get a better finish from paying someone to do it.
Q: Can I buy my vehicle’s specific paint from the dealership or manufacturer directly?
A: Touch-up paint can typically be bought from a dealership or even online. Beyond these small amounts, however, your specific paint may not necessarily be available in larger quantities. A call to your local dealership is the best way to answer this question.
Q: Can I paint over my car’s existing paint job?
A: Yes and no. Painting over the existing finish will inhibit the topcoat from adhering to the vehicle’s body and could cause flaking and disrepair. It’s always best to sand down the vehicle’s exterior to bare metal so that the primer and subsequent coats have the chance to create a solid bond. These paint jobs typically last longer than those painted over existing topcoats.
Q: How big does my paint booth need to be?
A: You want the area to be big enough to maneuver comfortably around the car, especially because you’ll likely be two or even three feet away at times from the surface of the vehicle. You may also need room for lighting equipment and tables to hold your supplies. The best way to determine if your space is big enough is to act out the painting process and adjust accordingly.
Q: What other painting supplies should I invest in?
A: Choosing your paint color is the easy part. Making sure you have all you need before you enter the paint booth is another story. On your shopping list, you should include (multiple) paint cups, paint sticks for stirring, disposable coveralls, gloves, tarps (removable, disposable flooring), paint strainers, a paint respirator with refill cartridges, and a lined trash can. Timers and scratch paper will help in determining drying time and a number of coats applied.
Q: What's the difference between acrylic paints, urethane paints, and lacquer paints?
A: Lacquer paint is reserved mostly for vehicles meant solely for show. Extremely demanding when it comes to caring, lacquer paints are less and less popular these days, due in part to their high toxicity. Urethane paints are more common in the automotive world, as they tend to be more durable. Though, they are harder to spray than acrylic paints. Acrylic is just another type of resin used to deliver the paint to your vehicle’s surface.
We chose the Dupli-Color Perfect Match system for our best automotive paint pick since you can simply select your vehicle’s exact paint color. There’s no guessing or matching necessary.
The Performix Plasti Dip Multi-Purpose Rubber Coating Aerosol product was hands-down the best value due to its forgiving nature and easy application.