Introduction: Paint Your Own Car for Under $200 (or How I Learned to Love Rustoleum)

Picture of Paint Your Own Car for Under $200 (or How I Learned to Love Rustoleum)

I have a 1971 VW Westfalia camper bus. It was in bad need of a paint job when I got it. Someone had painted it with what I believe to be house paint. No bueno :( I decided I had to take care of it. I figured I would do it cheaply, but I wanted it to not be an embarassment either. The reason I was so interested in d.i.y. and cheap is because I want to take it camping but not stress about scratches etc. I wasnt shooting for show-quality paint here.

After some googling I came across 2 really good articles on painting your own vehicle with "Rustoleum", so I figured I was game. The two sites are:

The $50 Paint Job 
A Cheapskate’s Paint Job 

I used the $50 paint job for reference and Cheapskate's for moral support.

Please keep in mind this did NOT cost $50. It ended up costing me about $175, and 2-3 weeks of "spare time". I wanted to do a 2-tone paint job, so my time investment was doubled.

Apologies, but I did not track individual material costs closely, only the total.


Two quarts of Glossy white Rustoleum
Two quarts of  Sunset red Rustoleum
4-6 high density foam rollers and handles
4-6 touch up brushes
2-4 paint tray inserts
1 gallon of mineral spirits.
A few tarps or drop-cloths
A small container to put brushes in
Automotive masking tape
Orbital Sander (or by hand if you're a masochist)
60-grit wet/dry sand-paper
80-grit wet/dry sand-paper
100-grit wet/dry sand-paper
220-grit wet/dry sand-paper
800-grit wet/dry sand-paper
Dust Mask
2 Tack cloths
10-12 paint stir sticks
Spray bottle

Step 1: Prep Work

Picture of Prep Work

Remove all of the trim pieces that you dont want to paint.

I decided for a bevvy of reasons that I was not going to do a lot of body work on it. Mostly for the same reasons I'm doing a cheap paint job: utility. Keep in mind, blemishes will show up quite nicely if you choose not to address them. Anyhow, with that being said, after you have the body in the shape you want, it's time to begin sanding off all of the old paint.

I began with some 60-grit paper and an orbital sander. MAKE SURE YOU WEAR YOUR DUST MASK.
It took me about 10 hours and 15 beers to get the paint off. After the 60-grit I went over it quickly with some 220-grit and it came out nicely.

(For what it's worth, I sanded out about 80% of the bondo that was already on it. Id rather have ugly and honest than a sculpture)

Next I did a small amount of bondo to clean up some pin-holes where I had some welding done, then cleaned the whole thing off with a tack cloth.

Step 2: Masking and Paint Prep

Picture of Masking and Paint Prep

Next, take some automotive tape, and mask off any rubber seals (if you left the windows in) or any other areas you dont want to paint (doorhandles etc)

To prepare my paint, I poured about a fist-sized amount of paint in a paint tray. I added approximately the same amount of mineral spirits to the paint tray and stirred it up. The consistency of the paint should go from very thick to about like watery milk. This will help the paint to level out and also it will go a little farther in surface area.

Step 3: First Coat

Picture of First Coat

Using a roller, load it up with your thinned-down Rustoleum. I would say to load it up about half-way if that makes sense. Too little paint and it won't really lay down a coat. Too much paint and you will have runs everywhere. Experiment with your roller a little until you get a feel for how much is a good amount. If you make mistakes, mineral spirits will take that off.

As mentioned in the "Cheapskate's" article, the scariest moment in the whole ordeal is the first roll of paint. It's going to look terrible.

Stay strong. Stay the course.

The first coat is thin and will not cover at all. The vertical surfaces are going to be difficult. Watch for runs and try to get the coverage even. The horizontal surfaces will be much easier in this regard, but still watch for runs.

After laying down a coat, let it dry for at least 8 hours (in warmer climates) before rolling another coat.

I did not start to see real coverage until 3 or 4 coats into the job.

Note in the photos that I painted the top (white) first, and did not work on the bottom (that comes later...)

The first few coats took me almost 2 hours each including cleanup. Later coats got down to about an hour.

Step 4: First Wet Sand

Picture of First Wet Sand

After 3-4 coats, it's time to wet-sand.

Make sure you work in sections (so you dont miss any), and be sure to take breaks, this is hard work.

Take your spray bottle and lay a fairly heavy mist of water on the surface, and rub it down with 220-grit paper.

Try to get out any runs or goobers you find at this stage. It will only be harder later as you progress to finer sand paper.

In the earlier wet sands I started with 220, and for the laters I used 800, and for final, 1500.

Step 5: Eight Coats

Picture of Eight Coats

I decided 8 coats of white was enough. It came out ok. It's not perfect, but this is a $175 paint job :)

Step 6: Red Paint

Picture of Red Paint

Next I began the bottom-half red paint, and wow.... After about 30 minutes I started thinking "I have totally screwed this up". I was mortified. Like the white's first coat, the coverage was poor but it was more obvious with the colored paint.

The first coat took me about 3 hours. In some of the shots the color looks orange, but that's just the lighting.

Step 7: Complete

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After 8 coats, I spent 6 hours buffing by hand.

Here's a tip for you: buffing by hand WILL NOT GET OUT ORANGE PEEL AND SWIRLS.

You need an electric buffer and lots of patience, and perhaps some polishing compound.

I decided to leave mine for the time being until I have a spare weekend to really buff it out. In the meantime, I am very pleased with the results. It's not perfect. It's not even fantastic, but it's about 1000x better than it was, and I wont cry if it gets scratched. 

Considering the cost: all-around win!


quratoffice (author)2017-01-31

Thanks for tips.

ChaoticScientist (author)2013-08-18

Good job! you might wanna change the symbol in front of your car thought... It's kind of misleading...

I think the logo is funny, it looks like something Jeremy Clarkson would come up with if he was asked to make a new badge for Volkswagen

Not misleading at all. A german emblem on a german bus....nothing wrong with it. I certainly was not mislead when I seen it.

RobDibble (author)WickedWrenches2015-01-26

It's not a german emblem. It is very specifically the symbol for the Nazi party.

AmyG10 (author)RobDibble2015-07-08

The volkswagen was part of the Nazi agenda. Same thing for most of the autobahn. It was heavily backed by Hitler, so it really is no mystery why there's a nazi symbol on a German car. Interestingly enough, before Hitler, most German's did not own cars simply because there weren't any roads. I can understand why people would be confused, though.

strychix (author)RobDibble2015-04-04

Who do you think invented the Volkswagon?

Qualy ArtP made it! (author)2016-10-07

Realizamos pintura residencial, empresa de pintura em são paulo, pintor, pintura em geral, pintor residencial, pintor comercial.

Farnhamassoc (author)2016-03-26

The good thing is rust oleum will protect your vw bus from rusting. The bad thing is that it will fade really quickly. I am talking less than a year it will turn chalky. A better alternative is to use single stage urethane. Glossier finish, two part paint so you can buff in 3 days automotive grade finish. There is one by Axis which is around 120 a gallon kit. There is one by valspar around the same. Also one by PCL. Just make sure you use fisheye preventer. If you want to roll or brush you can buy Matthews or spraylat or Axzonoble brush and roll additive. Check out my channel on utube to learn body work. Also you can buy a gravity feed hvlp spray gun from harbor freight tools.for about $10 on sale. Just make sure you are really far from anybody if you spray. The overspray floats really far. Hundreds of feet. Keep the air low around 8lbs.

WayneGrass (author)2016-01-25

Nice! I love VW vans.

smartrem (author)2015-10-12

I heard this trick from a painter. If you want to apply a dark colour on a light coloured surface, you can make your first layer in light gray, the result will be more even and coul save you one coat.

dpaxton (author)2015-06-09

Always good to see what others are doing to their vw' the "warbird" on the front...if anyone is into vws and go to dub shows, they seen plenty of them...trying to figure out what I wanna do on my 69 bug... Maaco paint job, plasti-dip job or leave it in primer :) good job

hirod3 (author)dpaxton2015-06-09

Thanks for the feedback. I'd love to see a plasti-dip beetle!!

NewY1 (author)2015-05-10

FYI: You need one of these if you ever try the spray can route. This will take loads of pain from your fingers away and you won't have color matching fingers either.

hirod3 (author)NewY12015-05-11


tammy.clyburn (author)2015-04-27

sooo lame

tammy.clyburn (author)2015-04-27

so u must be full of it just a bunch of product endorsers

tammy.clyburn (author)2015-04-27

bumper not the same

tammy.clyburn (author)2015-04-27

RobDibble (author)2015-01-26

Interesting, only one comment on here about the eagle symbol for the Nazi party on the front of the car? No, it's not a generic German symbol.

You are forgetting the important part, a swastika bro.

hirod3 (author)doug.kerstetter2015-04-03

doug.kerstetter (author)hirod32015-04-03

Yeah Rob, get you some of that bruh.

nhankins3 (author)2015-02-07

This may be a very late comment on a post like this but please reply if possible, I have a 1996 Dodge Ram and I'd like to reprint but I'm on a budget, may you please help with the specific type of paint to look for? There is like several different types of paints. Do I want the acrylic finish or te gloss stuff you have? When i was doing research, I never saw gloss that isn't black or white? So please reply to this post as soon as you can. I think that the paint job is very cool!

nhankins3 (author)nhankins32015-02-07

Re paint*

nhagy (author)2014-07-08

What kind of paint ?
Interior? exterior ?

farmsteader (author)2012-12-15

That is Great, i wonder if spraying or applying a simple clear coat would really liven up the paint shine. All these paint shops want 1500 + and i started painting with Rustoleum on our ol' 95' Caravan to keep the bad original paint which these are known for , from rusting through. It works and looks a hell of a lot better. Thanks for sharing this, it will help us and many others save money!

tioshrek (author)2012-07-29

excellent!!! dont have to be rich to make it rigth!! I mean... if you know how to doit and have the time... always is fun to make it DIY

frisbeechamp1983 (author)2012-07-19

Is the title a play on Dr. Strangelove?

hirod3 (author)frisbeechamp19832012-07-19

yes :)

ka1dza (author)2012-07-01

If I drank 15 beers I wouldn't be able to get anything done!!! LOL. I'm cheap drunk.

Nice job on the Westy. I' in the process of restoring mine.


hirod3 (author)ka1dza2012-07-01

Thanks bob! I spread those beers out :-)

tinker234 (author)2012-04-11

i read mneral spirts gets rid of the paint faster

Sculturo (author)2012-01-04

great job...but...whats with the rusty bumper? All that work and u left the easiest piece unpainted?am I seeing things?

jarikcbol (author)Sculturo2012-03-31

I saw that to. Totally need to take that off, sand it down to bare, and then drop the cash to get it re-chromed. would look so good, you'd slap your momma.

hirod3 (author)jarikcbol2012-03-31

LOL! You're right! I stated in the article that I left it that way on purpose. Since this paint job, I've been romping this thing in the desert, and it gets plenty dinged. Not just the bumper but the paint too. That's why I painted it this way instead of a show-quality paint job. You're right though, it would be amazing all cherried out :)

But what fun is that?

danzo321 (author)2012-02-26

Main suggestion would be, as soon as a spot is sanded to bare metal, hit it with spraycan of primer. Not sure you saved much not buying Rustoleum in spraycans anyway. Wetsanding.. normally you go in more gradual steps and they should go pretty fast. My own experience? prepping a Fiat Spyder which was then quickly sprayed and baked by a shop.

hirod3 (author)danzo3212012-02-27

Thanks for the tips!

SIRJAMES09 (author)2012-01-08

personally, I would have spent the $1200 -$3000 it would have taken to do it right the first time...

This is NOT just a camper van, this is a classic!! and it is more than worthy of a real paint job...a cheapy paint job is what you do to a chevy Nova...or a ford escort wagon....but that's just me.

Once a hippie always a hippie....and this is a hippie's van.

I would love to have one of these!! It would be babied like crazy!!

But I have to say that even if you did things the cheap way, your basics were good...

hirod3 (author)SIRJAMES092012-01-08

Thanks for the feedback! :) I sort of alluded to my reasons for this paint-job in the article (aside from cost). I have 3 young children. One way that we like to get away is to go camping. I'm not sure if you've ever been camping in the desert, but I've picked up plenty of Arizona Pinstriping. Given the cost and ease of the paint-job, I have no qualms whatsoever about romping my bus through the desert on an adventure. 

I'm a VW enthusiast, and have had many Type 1s (and a couple of show trophies to go with them), but I don't regret the day I gave up my gorgeous 1961 Type 1 for this bus. I would trade all the good times I had in that bug for the first 5 minutes in the bus with the kids :)

We plan on having many more adventures in the bus for many more years :)

Thanks again for the feedback Sir James!

SIRJAMES09 (author)hirod32012-01-08

any time Sir, Any time.

I started drooling when I saw your

I went camping in the desert 1 time....let's just say it was a learning experience & leave it at that.

Spent 10 days in the hospital after that trip. :(

When I go camping, I head for the forest, that is where I feel at home. I know how to survive in the forest, get me in the desert & I'm not worth spit....

tinker234 (author)SIRJAMES092012-02-18

same here that car is a classic but it is in the dessert so evantully it will need to be fixed my sister wants the same car so its nice to know that i can do that if she gets one

pfred2 (author)hirod32012-02-14

You know, there are some automotive finishes that are so tough you can literally spray a piece of aluminum foil, crumple it up, then smooth it out, and it is undamaged.

Cost and ease? You spent how long to do it? A good spray job you spray and walk away.

SeanDieselBirger (author)2012-02-10

Wow, I had to go back and re-read that you did that with a roller!?!? I can't believe how well that turned out.

But you could save yourself a ton of time if you buy a cheap paint sprayer. I think mine was 50 bucks from one of those cheap tool catalogs. Then you could do this in a weekend rather than three weeks, a LOT less buffing too.

ravyn57 (author)2012-01-31

wow been wondering what to do about getting my 68 bug and 67 bus painted. ive wanted to paint my bus w a hippy flair now i know thanks for the info ill post pics when im done :-}

Palanthas (author)2012-01-29

Considering doing this with my old truck... Looks great! Kinda thinking the same idea as $50's car with the stripe... We'll see if it happens or not.

Thanks for posting!

stoneyone (author)2012-01-21

im sorry man but if i was going waste time sanding it down that well i would have used spray cans or went to tractor supply and got a gallon of paint and used a spray gun i painted my truck for $75 bucks with tractor paint and it looks great but thats just me it seems like a lot of sanding work just to roll it on again im sorry if i seem rude dude.

n1zw (author)2012-01-06

I think the paint looks awesome besides saving you some time and major money. I have 1993 Chevy Astro Van that I am planning on doing something very similar too. Living on a fixed income and having most of the tools for sanding, cutting and riveting nee metal where needed It would most certainly save money and I would enjoy doing my self. Great Job.

ezagent (author)2012-01-03

This is a hoopty paint job, something I specialize in, making an old vehicle presentable. I use cans of spray paint with an accessory trigger handle to prevent hand cramping, emery cloth to roughen up the surface of the paint, masking tape and rolls of brown kraft paper available in the painting section of Home Depot.

Texturized paint is one of my favorites. I address dings and dents, but not with bondo, I camoflage or enhance to turn the damage into an artistic feature. Rustoleum has a black spray paint called Rust Converter, that's my biggest prep step.

Where your job literally took days, I can mask off large sections, prep with a quick sand to roughen the paint, put down rust converter where necessary, spray, add design and be done well before the sun goes down.

On top of the sprayed paint I've done designs with templates cut from manila folders. One design on an old van was a template cut into the shape of a tapering rectangle to resemble a flag repeated in a tapering pattern. I hope you can imagine it.

If the image uploaded successfully you'll see that I like white roofs and racing stripes. Craft stores sell stick on doodads like stars and colorful artistic designs in plastic and foam that can be used to turn dings and dents into features. If I do a design on one side I generally replicate on the other for symmetry.

profpat (author)2012-01-02

i like it, very instructable! great savings on the color job!

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More by hirod3:Paracord Shoelaces with agletsAlternator Replacement - Volkswagen Upright (Type I) MotorPaint your own car for under $200 (or how I learned to love Rustoleum)
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