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How to Repaint Metal: Restoring and Painting a Rusted Metal Project

Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, kitchen, garden, and out fishing. Many of his DIY projects are featured in his yard.

Restored Metal Gas Tank

Restored Metal Gas Tank

Give New Life to an Old Metal Container With a Little Sandpaper and Fresh Paint

Old, rusted metal is easy to repaint and refinish, and there are many neglected metal objects out there that are worth saving with a little touch-up and a little paint.

A metal restoration project takes just a little effort, some sandpaper, and paint, and can extend the usefulness of many vintage items such as this fuel tank for a small outboard motor. The steps outlined here will work for restoring many different types of metal items, including old toys, outdoor chairs, tables, and garden benches.

The key to a good paint job lies in the preparation. Sanding off all of the old paint and rust is crucial to obtaining a smooth and professional-looking finish. With a little time and effort, repainting a used metal item saves money and gives new life to many old items.

The fuel tank for this project was faded from years spent outdoors, but the metal is sound, and the tank does not leak. Gasoline is highly flammable, so the tank was emptied, and the top was left open for several days to allow the fumes to disperse before beginning the metal restoration and repainting process.

This old fuel tank is a great candidate for a restoration and repainting project.

This old fuel tank is a great candidate for a restoration and repainting project.

Preparing the Old Metal

Using fine-grit sandpaper, lightly sand the entire surface of the metal to remove all of the loose paint, rust, and dirt. I used 150 grit sandpaper for this project. A wire brush would also work well to quickly remove rust and stubborn paint.

Wipe the container with paper towels or a rag soaked in Naphtha or a similar solvent cleaner. The solvent removes the fine particles left by the sanding, as well as any remaining grease and dirt. Allow the solvent to evaporate thoroughly, and dispose of the solvent-soaked rags properly.

Mask off the fuel gauge with tape to protect it from the spray paint.

The fuel gauge is taped off for priming the tank before spraying the finishing top coats of paint.

The fuel gauge is taped off for priming the tank before spraying the finishing top coats of paint.

The Primer Coat

Spray on a coat of primer paint using a quality metal paint primer. There are several brands available in spray cans and formulated specifically for exterior use on metal. When using a spray can of paint, spray in several light passes to avoid drips and runs. Complete coverage may require several light coats of paint.

The spray paint dries quickly, allowing the application of several coats of paint in a relatively short period of time. Paint the bottom of the fuel tank first. Allow the initial primer coat to dry before repositioning the container to paint the remaining surfaces. Paint the most visible section of the project last, in this case, the top of the tank.

Allow the primer coats to dry completely, and then sand lightly. I used 220 grit sandpaper between the primer coats. Wipe away any of the fine particles left by the sanding before applying the next coat of primer.

The old tank looks a lot better after a few coats of paint

The old tank looks a lot better after a few coats of paint

Painting Metal: The Color Coat

Spray on the color coat, following the same sequence and process used to paint the primer coats. Again, spray several light coats rather than one or two heavy coats to minimize drips and runs. After each coat dried, I used increasingly higher grits of wet/dry sandpaper to lightly smooth out the imperfections left by the aerosol paint. Keep the surface area wet and sand lightly to avoid cutting all of the way through the color coat.

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Allow the final color coat to dry thoroughly—at least overnight.

The repainted fuel tank looks fresh and new but a bit bland. To break up all of the red and to add a personal touch, apply decorative decals or stencils over the color coat. I made simple fish bones stencil that was inspired by a seafood takeout menu. The stencil was cut out and then taped into position along the top edge of the tank. I masked the tank with newspaper to prevent over-spray and then used a contrasting color to lightly spray paint over the stencil.

Allow the final paint coat to dry thoroughly before using the finished tank. Depending on the spray paint manufacturer, the freshly painted metal will take several days or longer to cure completely.

A fish stencil gives a unique and custom look to the paint finish for our fuel tank project.

A fish stencil gives a unique and custom look to the paint finish for our fuel tank project.

Make a Fish Bone Stencil

Stencils make it easy to paint images on many different surfaces, from walls to tee shirts and from toys to cars. Plastic reusable stencils are common for creating borders around windows or along ceiling lines, though pre-made patterns can be limiting and unimaginative. Making stencils from clip art or other sources is a simple process and allows much more flexibility and greater creativity.

This simple stencil project originated from an image found on a seafood restaurant's takeout menu and was used to decorate the fuel tank for my small fishing boat. Use the same process to customize a stencil for nearly any painting project.

Find a suitable image for the project. A combination of simple shapes works well, as demonstrated by the shapes representing the skeleton of the fish. Use an image from a web page, clip art, or even a kid's coloring book—just be sure to honor copyrights. Or draw your own unique image.

Positioning the fish stencil on the fuel tank.

Positioning the fish stencil on the fuel tank.

Size the Image

Except for large images, use a copy machine to re-size pre-printed objects. Applications such as PowerPoint can resize clip art and other online images into a variety of sizes.

Print the image onto standard bond paper. In most cases, standard copy paper works well enough for single-use stencils. If a sturdier stencil is needed for multiple applications, either print additional copies or transfer the printed image to a heavier medium such as a manila file folder using carbon paper.

Cut out the negative sections of the image using a sharp Exacto knife. The negative sections are the areas where paint is applied to create the image. Cutting paper dulls the blade quickly, tearing the paper rather than slicing through it cleanly, so change the blade as needed.

Position the stencil, and secure in place with blue painter's tape. The blue tape is less tacky than standard masking tape and is designed for removal without pulling off the painted surface underneath. Another option is to spray the back of the paper stencil lightly with a temporary spray adhesive.

Mask off the rest of the object with tape and newspaper to protect from overspray.

The refinished fuel take looks great, and is ready for many more years of use.

The refinished fuel take looks great, and is ready for many more years of use.

I sprayed the stencil using white aerosol spray paint. Spray lightly and directly at the stencil, applying enough paint to cover the area but without allowing excess paint to seep under the edges of the stencil. If using a brush, dab the paint into the stencil using a vertical stippling motion.

Allow the paint to set up before carefully peeling away the stencil to reveal the image.

This weekend metal restoration project turned out pretty well. The old fuel tank stayed out of the recycling bin and I didn't have to buy a replacement. And the unique fish stencil has drawn some smiles and positive comments from others at the boat ramp.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What did you use to wipe the fuel tank down before painting?

Answer: I used paper towels soaked in Naphtha to remove the fine particles left from sanding. Mineral spirits also works well to remove dirt, dust and grease.

Question: Is there a metal paint that doesn't come in the form of a spray?

Answer: Several manufacturers such as Rust-Oleum make metal paints that can be applied with a brush.

Question: Can I repaint my bike without scraping off the old paint? Can I skip using the primer paint on my bike?

Answer: Good preparation is key to a successful paint job. Depending on the condition of the metal and the remaining paint, you might get away with a light sanding to scuff up the surface and to remove any flaking paint. Some spray paints are formulated to include a primer and can produce an acceptable result.

© 2012 Anthony Altorenna

Tell Us About Your Restoration Project

Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on November 06, 2016:

All this is great information for the DYI'er. Just as an aside, you should check all rusted metal objects for putting or perforations. Pitting is easy as you can use Bondo, or better, a high solids primer. Holes and perforations are more tricky and may require some welding or brazing to fill in. Otherwise, a very stellar and detailed write up!

Pam Irie from Land of Aloha on April 13, 2013:

I use the wet sanding technique when I refinish metal. :)