How to Paint a Motorcycle With Spray Paint and Get Great Results

The supplies I ended up using. I'd estimate all of it cost me about $150, far less than the almost $3,000 I was quoted by the pro shops.
The supplies I ended up using. I'd estimate all of it cost me about $150, far less than the almost $3,000 I was quoted by the pro shops.
Photo by Chris Lane

Several months ago I bought a used chopper from its original owner. Great bike, but it had a ridiculous-looking "Tribal tattoo" paint job that was pretty much the exact opposite of anything I would consider cool.

The hideous "Tribal Armband Tattoo" paint scheme I was getting rid of. It smelled of overcompensation and fail. The scent of 1000 "Tapout tee shirts drenched in Axe Body Spray." It had to go.
The hideous "Tribal Armband Tattoo" paint scheme I was getting rid of. It smelled of overcompensation and fail. The scent of 1000 "Tapout tee shirts drenched in Axe Body Spray." It had to go.
Photo by Chris Lane

I entertained getting a professional repaint done, figuring a realistic budget for a solid color might be around $600 - $800. I was wrong. Both places I contacted quoted me around $2,700, enough to buy another cheap bike.

No way I was going to pay that much.

The look on my face once I received two quotes of $2,700 to paint my bike.
The look on my face once I received two quotes of $2,700 to paint my bike.

So I did some research on various custom motorcycle forums, and there are lots of people doing great paint jobs with cans of automotive spray paint. The stuff you can buy at any auto supply store.

The horrible original tank. Black, red, chrome, and "Ace of Spades" with some guy inside it... Terrible. Plus it had a big dent on one side, and the gas cap was stuck. I bought a raw steel replacement on Ebay.
The horrible original tank. Black, red, chrome, and "Ace of Spades" with some guy inside it... Terrible. Plus it had a big dent on one side, and the gas cap was stuck. I bought a raw steel replacement on Ebay.
Photo by Chris Lane

You'll read scary warnings about how crappy spray can paint jobs will look, but don't believe that, those rumors are probably started by guys that paint motorcycles for a living. Any person willing to spend a few days doing prep work and taking their time can get great results. 

I did eight layers of base coat with Duplicolor auto spray laquer. I wet sanded between each layer, which made a huge difference in the end results.
I did eight layers of base coat with Duplicolor auto spray laquer. I wet sanded between each layer, which made a huge difference in the end results.

I took the bare metal tank I'd bought on eBay, and spray painted it with several light coats of metal etching primer, which I followed with a couple of coats of sandable filler primer, wet sanding in between layers. then I began the color coats.

The tank before clear coat.
The tank before clear coat.

The "secret weapon" I used to get a durable and good looking end result, is a relatively new two-part clear coat that comes in a spray can. It's called Spraymax 2K Clear, and is pretty much the same type of urethane clear coat a professional painter would use. Unlike the laquer clears that are available at auto supply stores, the 2K clear will withstand exposure to gasoline and other solvents. The two parts are mixed after the painter presses a button on the can.

After three coats, the tank was pretty much done.
After three coats, the tank was pretty much done.
Old and new.
Old and new.

 

I spent an hour or so masking off the bike with painters tape and Paper because I wasn't going to take the fenders off. A person could do that if he wanted to. Then it started to pour down rain...
I spent an hour or so masking off the bike with painters tape and Paper because I wasn't going to take the fenders off. A person could do that if he wanted to. Then it started to pour down rain...
After the rain subsided, I sanded the fenders lightly, to get through the existing clear coat, just enough to make the paint look dull.
After the rain subsided, I sanded the fenders lightly, to get through the existing clear coat, just enough to make the paint look dull.
After a couple of light coats of Duplicolor, the ugly tribal design began to slowly disappear.
After a couple of light coats of Duplicolor, the ugly tribal design began to slowly disappear.
Fading like a bad '90s tattoo...
Fading like a bad '90s tattoo...

 

The finished paintjob looking a lot less like an eyesore to me.
The finished paintjob looking a lot less like an eyesore to me.

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A few tips:

Warm your spray cans with hot water. It makes the paint flow more evenly. Buy one of those little spray can trigger/handle rigs. they're inexpensive and make it a lot nicer to spray.

Almost all spray paint is lacquer. Lacquer paints have solvents in them, and they dry as the solvents evaporate. they dry quickly and are easy to work with, but the downside is that if you rush things, the final product will look like crap, and any solvents that land on that paint will mess them up. Gasoline being a solvent, makes a lacquer painted motorcycle tank... Risky. Lacquer paints also tend to chip easily, and generally don't last a long time.

Fortunately, a few years ago the previously mentioned "2K" spray paint clear coats were developed. They are very durable, and the two-part chemical process begins as soon as the painter hits a button, and then they have around 48 hours to spray before the stuff hardens too much to spray.

I got great results with using the SprayMax 2K glossy clear coat applied over standard Rustoleum and Duplicolor rattlecan paint, and would use this process again before spending almost 3K on a basic paint job.

Is it perfect? No. But for a custom cycle with lots of personal touches and small imperfections already, it looks great.


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