How to Paint your Mustang or other Classic Car on a budget
Can you get a good paint job from a low buck paint shop? Yes! Professional paint pros and high dollar restorers may scoff, but it’s very possible to get a good looking, long lasting paint job from a discount paint shop like Earl Scheib or Maaco. It’s not appropriate for every car. I wouldn’t hand them the keys to my Shelby GT500 or ’53 Corvette, but for those on a budget it’s a very good option. The key to a successful budget paint job is to prep the car yourself. Leave nothing to the shop except actually laying down the paint. (note: For purposes of discussion we’ll use a classic Mustang as the example, but this process holds true to really any older car)
Analyze your existing paint
The first step before determining if a budget paint job will work on your Mustang is to assess the current condition of the paint. In many cases you can prep and paint directly over an existing paint job, but only if it’s in solid shape.
Look for any signs of cracking, crazing, bubbling or peeling. This indicates that there’s a problem with the existing paint and it’s not adhering properly to the layer underneath. If this is the case you’ll need to sand through any existing layers of paint, down to solid, stable paint or primer. In some cases you’ll need to get all the way down to bare metal, but doing so increases your labor and costs.
Also, when checking the paint, be realistic and don’t ignore areas just for the sake of convenience. It will cost you more in time and money later. Typically if one area of the paint is cracked or peeling, then the paint on the entire car is suspect. Maybe the rest of the car just hasn’t quite reached that point of decay, but it will shortly. So if you only fix areas that look bad, you’ll likely find that you wasted a paint job when the other areas start to crack or peel in a year or two.
On the other hand, in some cases there are legitimate reasons for one area to be bad even if the rest of the paint is solid. If poor body work or rust repair was done in the past then maybe just that section of paint will need to be removed.
Bubbles in the existing paint are sure indications of rust below. These areas will require extra special attention. As you remove the bubbled paint you’ll inevitably find the cancer goes much further then it appeared on the surface. And unless you cut all the rust out it’s going to come back. There are chemical rust converters on the market, and some do a very good job. But understand that none will probably encapsulate rust forever. Be honest with yourself about how long you expect this paint job to last. If you expect to repaint the car in 5 years and you’re on an extremely tight budget, then rust converters may be the approach to take.
Basically what you’re looking for is a good, solid foundation of existing paint that is stable and still strongly bonded to the car. Many times an original factory paint job, even after decades will meet these criteria.
Do all your own body work
As mentioned earlier, the key to keeping your paint shop costs down is to do as much as possible before you take it to the shop. This includes body work, if you’ve got the skill, or the patience to learn the skill. Bodywork is time consuming. It requires several steps that must be done in the correct order, with the correct curing times in between. Shortcuts here will show up like a sore thumb in your new paint job, so don’t be tempted. If you don’t have the skill to tackle the body work yourself then it’s smarter to let the paint shop do it. Just understand that this raises the cost of your paint job significantly. Good body work takes hours upon hours and having a professional do it can easily exceed the cost of a cheap paint job.
If you decide to do your own body work discuss it with the paint shop first. They’ll probably have recommendations on the type of primer you use. Some brands will be more compatible with their primers or color coats. The rule of thumb is to stay within the same brand of paint, both for prep and color. Even the cheapest paint shops typically use a brand name on their intermediate and higher paint jobs. Find out what it is and use the same brand as your primer coat. This will ensure you don’t create adhesion problems for yourself down the road.
Stripping all the chrome
One of the single most important steps in saving money on a paint job is to strip your Mustang as much as possible yourself. This means taking off anything and everything that won’t be painted. The more you take off the less the painter has to mask around. Masking not only takes their time (which costs you money) but it also results in areas that simply can’t get a full coat of paint. If you take everything off, then the painters can simply scuff and spray, which will give you better and more consistent coverage.
At a minimum you want to remove all the chrome from the car. Take off both front and rear bumpers. If your Mustang has bumperettes that are body color be sure to bring them along so they can get sprayed at the same time as the rest of the car. Remove all rocker, hood and trunk molding. Same for wheel well molding and all emblems. This would be a good time to order some new emblems and attachment hardware. Also spend some time cleaning up all the chrome with #0000 steel wool. Nothing looks worse on a fresh paint job then faded emblems and corroded, cloudy chrome.
Take off the chrome molding around both the windshield and rear window. You can pick up a special tool at your local Mustang shop or by mail order that removes these quickly without scratching paint. Of course your paint is probably not in great shape at the moment, so a large flat screw driver will also do the trick. For some classic cars it makes sense to even remove the windshield, but classic Mustangs have chrome molding that will help cover any slight overspray.
Remove side view mirrors (unless they’re to be body color) as well as exterior door handles and locks. This will take some extra time because you need to remove the interior door panels to get these off, but it’s worth it. Head lights, tail lights, marker lights and license plates should come off too, but you’ll need them in place to drive to the paint shop. So bring some tools so you can quickly take these off once you arrive. Depending on the year Mustang you can just take off the chrome bezels or rings. The shop can then easily mask the headlight or tail light itself and still get plenty of paint around the edges.
If you have a vinyl top then remove the molding separating the vinyl and paint. Drip rail chrome really should be removed also, but can be extremely hard to take off undamaged. If you plan on buying all new drip molding then definitely remove the old for painting. But if you want to keep the originals then it might be better to leave them on and let the painter mask around. If you have hub caps it’s easy to just take them off. While the paint shop should completely mask all four tires, overspray can still find its way in. It’s sometimes better to play it safe and just remove wheel covers.
Scuff for paint
Once your Mustang is totally stripped of exterior chrome it’s time to scuff up the existing paint. The paint shop should do this also, but on the lower end paint packages they won’t spend much time here. It’s better for you to do it so you know it’s done thoroughly.
You scuff up existing paint for two reasons. First, you want to get rid of any oil, grease or dirt trapped in the top layer of paint. This is the stuff that cleaners and degreasers can’t get off. The second reason to scuff is to set up a physical bond for the new primer and paint to adhere to. You want to give the old paint some tooth so the new sticks better.
Start with a thorough cleaning with a good degreaser. This isn’t typically something you’re going to find at the local chain parts store. Find an automotive paint supplier near you and spring the extra cash for the good stuff. Remember, this is the foundation you’re laying for the new paint and the better you do, the better it will look. After degreasing start scuffing with 240-360 grit wet sand paper. Dry sanding using grit this fine will clog the sand paper in short order and frustrate you to no end. Use a bucket and sponge or a spray bottle to keep the area wet while sanding.
Always use a sanding block for flat surfaces. Just your hand behind a thin piece of sand paper can leave grooves and low spots. It’s also easier on your hands. For inside curves try wrapping the sand paper around a short section of garden or heater hose. This will help approximate the concave curve and help stay away from sanding through hard edges. On hard edges, like the top ridge of a fender or leading edge of a hood, you need to do this by hand. A sanding block will quickly dig right through the paint on a hard edge and take you down to bare metal. This means primer and more sanding.
You’re not looking for perfection here, but you do want to eliminate every shiny spot of paint. When properly scuffed the paint should have a smooth, but dull matte finish.
If you’re keeping your Mustang the same color it is now then things stay pretty simple. Areas like the door jambs and inside of the trunk are probably still in good shape since they aren’t exposed to the weather and you won’t have to worry about repainting them. But if you’re changing colors these extra areas will cost you. Be sure the price quote you get from the paint shop includes these extra areas. If you wait until the day you pull up with your Mustang prepped for paint you could be surprised by this extra cost.
And if you are changing colors be sure you and the paint shop are crystal clear on what color they’re going to spray. Never just describe the color. You won’t get what you want. Guaranteed. If you’re not using a factory original color then find out what kind of car the color you want came on. Give the shop a year, model and paint name and then insist on seeing a paint chip. Take the chip outside to see it in the sun light and verify that it’s what you want. There’s nothing more disappointing then spending all these hours and money only to watch your car come out of the shop the wrong color.
Selecting a Shop
You should always get quotes from at least 2-3 different shops near you. This will give you a chance to not only compare prices, but to also check out the quality of work each shop has done. Ask to see cars they’ve just painted. Look for orange peel or excessive overspray. Do they mostly do insurance work or do they paint entire cars also? What types of cars are they working on? A shop that sprays nothing but old beaters probably doesn’t inspire as much confidence as one that does insurance work for the local Lexus or Mercedes dealer.
Spend some time talking to the shop manager. He should have the time to thoroughly go over your options and explain their service and pricing. Be clear on what they’re doing exactly. Will they scuff your existing paint? Will they be spraying primer? Are they OK painting any loose parts like bumper-ettes? If you’re changing colors be sure to discuss the door jambs, trunk area and underside of the hood. Also, get instructions from the shop in writing for proper care of your fresh paint. It will include the number of paint curing days before you can wash it, wax it or let it sit out in the weather.
If you didn’t do all your own body work be sure to get a clear price quote from the shop on how much time and money it will cost them to do the repairs. Remember, this can add up quickly, so if you can do the work yourself it’s better on your wallet. Finally, discuss timing. Most high volume shops will want you in and out in a few days.
Cheaper then doing it yourself
Some would argue that if you’re going to all the trouble to fully prep the car yourself, then why not just shoot the paint as well? Why get a shop involved? The answer is simply that you’ll get a better job and for less money. Some would argue with this, but the fact is that if you’ve never sprayed a car before then your first car will have a steep, and expensive learning curve. Laying down an even, consistent coat of paint takes considerable practice. Also, paint and equipment is not cheap. You’ll need to buy primer, color coat, clear coat, reducers & catalysts. None of these are inexpensive and you can easily spend as much in paint materials alone as the cheapest paint job at Maaco or similar shop.
You’ll need a large compressor, not just the typical 20 gallon variety most of us have. This is a 60 gallon, vertical compressor with typically a 5+ hp motor. Then you’ll need a decent paint gun (possibly 2; one for primer and one for color) which again is an expense. Then there’s the question of where you’ll paint the car. Renting a paint booth is best, but can be expensive and hard to find. You can always seal up your garage or shoot out in the wetted down driveway, but you’ll inevitably get dirt and moisture into the paint.
The reality is that the guys shooting paint, even at the cheapest shops, know how to do it. They spray a dozen cars a week and have plenty of practice laying down smooth, consistent coats of paint. They work quickly and efficiently because they have to or they don’t make money. They don’t really make their money on shooting paint. They profit from body work because it takes time and insurance work because it pays well.
By doing most of the time consuming and tedious tasks yourself, you save money. Bring a fully prepped Mustang in to your local discount paint shop and you’ll be well ahead of their typical customer. Do your homework and select a good shop and you should end up with a great paint job for a great price.