Introduction: Paint Your Engine

About: Avionics technician, home mechanic, furry, entrepreneur, and college student.

Looking for ways to make your car unique? Need to get your baby looking good for the car show next weekend? Detailing your car and trying to find that something extra to make it stand out?

Painting your engine may be just the thing you were looking for.

Whether you're a hardened pro or you just got your first car, painting your engine's valve cover is an excellent way to make your engine bay look fantastic without spending a lot of money. It also gives you the opportunity to become a little more familiar with your engine's valvetrain and it's a convenient opportunity to replace gaskets and spark plugs. This project doesn't actually require much mechanical skill and is easy enough for a novice to complete in a weekend. And when it's done, you'll get a grin on your face every time you pop the hood!

Disclaimer: Make sure you read the whole 'ible before attempting this project. I'm not responsible for anything you do based on my advice, you are. Please use your common sense and get help if you need it.

Step 1: Get a Car

First we need something to paint. This here is my 2008 Chevy Cobalt LT Sedan, in dark blue. Yes, I know I have steel wheels- engine paint is cheaper than a new set of rims and the stock ones look pretty good for steelies. I'm a student with no job, cut me a break. I've also installed a rubber shorty radio antenna, because I liked the look better and it'll be easier to cover with a car tarp in the winter.

You don't have to have a sportscar to paint the valve cover, just like you don't have to have fancy rims and a body kit to make 11 seconds in the quarter mile. An unassuming car (think '98 Toyota Camry) with a beautifully detailed engine bay would be a great thing to bring to a car show/meet, because no one would see it coming.

Step 2: Gather Your Tools

Here are some of the tools you'll need. The socket set is for removing the cover and related components in the engine compartment. The wire brushes are for cleaning and prepping the metal surface for paint. The paint is self-explanatory. I got a can of dark Ford blue for three reasons: because I interned at Ford all summer so my car will be a Ford at heart, because it's highly ironic, and because they were out of GM Blue Duplicolor at the local auto parts store. You need to use engine paint, brake caliper paint, or high temperature paint of some kind- Duplicolor is widely available and well reviewed, and I've also heard good things about VHT (didn't like their palette though). I picked this can up from my local store for about $8 USD. The engine shine is to make all the hoses and plastic bits in the engine compartment look nice when I'm all done detailing it, which will probably be well after I finish painting. The degreaser is to help clean all the oil and sludge off the valve cover- you will absolutely need this. Please, please go for a citrus based biodegradable VOC-free degreaser like this one from Gunk- the environment, your lungs, and your front lawn will thank you. I can personally say that this stuff works great. The newspaper will help you clean off parts, wrap things you'll put back in the car later, and mask off areas you don't want paint on. The shower mat is to provide a surface to paint on to keep paint off the driveway. The cassette player radio is for banging tunes, 90s style. The Schweppe's Tonic Water is actually filtered water- don't chug quinine on a hot summer day in the sun! But do drink plenty of water.

Not pictured but needed or good to have:

  • Good quality painter's tape for masking off surfaces you don't want painted
  • File for cleaning the cover and scraping paint off the logo for that two-tone import look
  • Razor blade, for removing the barcode from the cover as well as baked on crud
  • Hose, for intermittently rinsing your work
  • Rag(s) for wiping your hands and cleaning things up
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Pliers
  • Drill with wire wheel to make cleaning way easier
  • Pry bar for unsticking your valve cover if it hasn't been removed in 8 years like mine
  • Plastic bag or sheet to cover the engine while you have the cover off
  • First aid kit/waterproof adhesive bandages in case you nick yourself and your hands aren't practically made of calluses like mine are
  • Cool Summit Racing Equipment hat to keep the sun off
  • Knife, because there seems to always be something that needs cutting
  • Container to put bolts and bits in so they don't get lost
  • New valve cover gasket- this is a great time to do this as you've already got the cover off
  • New spark plugs- see above
  • House to run in to to get things, because even if you get every last thing on this list you'll still run into something else you need

Step 3: Prep for Removal

Now it's time to go to work. Pop your hood and survey your engine compartment (first picture). If your vehicle was made within the last decade and a half, it probably has a big dopey plastic cover on top of the engine. If you don't mind how that looks, you can paint that with normal spray paint and save yourself a lot of the work involved here. But I think those covers are silly looking and I know for a fact they are practically useless- they are heavy and usually filled with insulation, which may reduce engine noise in the cabin a bit at high RPMs but for the most part is just weighing you down. I got rid of mine already. Most of them are just snap fit and you can pull them off, on the Cobalt you need to remove the oil cap first, you may need to remove some small bolts or screws on your vehicle.

After you have the useless plastic cover removed and far away from your car, you can evaluate what's in your way. In my case, the wiring harness and coil packs (the four black boxes) are on top of the engine and need to be removed, there's a fuel line that anchors to the valve cover with a little plastic clip (upper right, hard to see), and there's the PCV hose running to my aftermarket air intake. The coil packs will be in your way for any modern vehicle, but everything else will vary from car to car- just be careful and thorough when making sure you've moved or detached everything that was blocking you.

In the second photo, you can see I've begun this process, unplugging all four coils and removing the bolts securing them in place. I still need to remove the PCV hose and fuel line clip. The plugs for the coil packs have a locking mechanism, the light grey plastic part of the connector. Make sure you disengage these properly by sliding them back and pushing down on the middle so as not to damage the connector or the coil. After unbolting the coils, you can just pull them free- it may take a bit of force as they are made to seal against the engine to keep the spark plugs protected.

The third photo shows where I'm keeping my bolts and things, a plastic veggie tray that was convenient. These are great because you can sort things in the different compartments, but almost any other container will work.

Step 4: Removing the Valve Cover

Now it's finally time to pop the lid on that sweet little four banger. Grab your socket set and find the right socket for the bolts securing the valve cover to the head, pop it on your ratchet with a short extension, and unscrew all of them. On the Cobalt they were, predictably, 10mm- you can just about take this entire car apart with a 10mm socket, a screwdriver and some elbow grease. There are 11 bolts on the EcoTec and each one has a rubber grommet that seals the space around the bolt. The bolts aren't torqued on very tightly, but the grommets will be very hard to remove if your engine is as old as mine and they haven't been pulled before. This is where pliers were nice.

Once you have the bolts out and you're sure there's nothing in your way, you can take the cover off. It will likely be stuck on pretty well from the oil residue inside, and in my case, eight years of crud on the outside. You may need a friend for additional leverage, or if you're working alone, get help from your friend the prybar. Make sure you do have all the bolts removed before you try to pry it off, you don't want to damage anything. Once you've broken the seal on one side the rest should come up easily enough.

Ta-da! Now you know what your valvetrain looks like. For those who don't know already: The large gears on the left are the timing gears (most things in automotive are just called what they are, it's so nice having plain english naming for all the tools and parts!). They turn the camshafts, which are metal shafts that spin at a specific rate to get the correct valve timing. The camshafts have cams on them, and each cam or lobe pushes down on a valve once per rotation, opening it. By attaching the timing gears to the drive shaft (or crankshaft) with a precisely sized timing chain and sprocket, the camshafts turn at exactly the correct time to open and close all the intake and exhaust valves, keeping the engine running properly. In this case, the camshaft towards the front of the car is for the intake valves, and you can see that it's on the same side as the intake I installed. The rearward camshaft actuates the exhaust valves. On some vehicles, the reverse is true- for example, the Toyota engine in my Dad's Scion tC has the exhaust facing the front of the car and wrapping down under the engine to the back, while the intake wraps around the side of the engine from the front to the backside of it.

Obviously, you don't want any dirt or water or leaves or bugs to get into your engine while you work elsewhere, so cover the exposed valvetrain with a plastic bag or similar solution.

Step 5: Prepare for Painting!

Now you've got your cover off, great job! Next step is to get it ready to paint. This is going to be hard.

First thing to do is remove the gasket(s) from the cover (if it stuck to the engine and you don't plan to replace it, leave it there and cover it with your bag). There's usually one that goes the whole way around, and one string of connected gaskets that seal around each coil pack. On some engines (my Dad's Scion for example) these two have a strip connecting them so they can be made in one mold. If you're reusing the gaskets, carefully clean all the old oil off them and wrap them up in newspaper (first pic). Otherwise, dispose of them once you've checked your new gasket is the correct one.

Now you'll see that both sides of the valve cover are filthy- one with years of baked on oil sludge, the other with years of baked on dirt and oil residue. Whether you clean the inside/bottom is up to you, as that's a big project with little discernible benefit, but you'll need to scour the outside thoroughly. You can see though that we still have some bits to take off. On our cover, we have the two small brackets that supported the fuel line, the oil cap, and the stud in the corner that the plastic engine wrapper clipped on to. Pull all these and anything like them off your cover. Don't bother replacing the stud if you're leaving the plastic hunk off (like me), and don't bother replacing the fuel line brackets if you're going to reroute the line to a more aesthetically pleasing location (like me). If you haven't already removed it, there will be a slightly angled black plastic neck between your oil cap and the valve cover. It's there so that the oil cap pokes up from the plastic engine shroud. This actually attaches with the exact same interface as the cap- it will probably need a bit more force to remove though, as it's likely never been off before. A pair of rib-joint pliers was very useful for me when I did this.

Once you've got all that pulled off, it's time to clean clean clean. If your cover has a rock-hard barcode label like mine, get a razor blade and scrape it away. Then get your engine cleaner and steel brushes/wire wheel and go to town. I recommend doing this on the lawn or somewhere where making a mess won't matter. Spray degreaser on the surface, scour it with the brushes till it's covered in grey foamy sludge and you're just pushing oil around instead of removing it, and then either add more degreaser or rinse and add more. Repeat this process, all over the valve cover, in every nook and cranny. If you have a drill with wire wheel, you can save yourself time and arm strength by using it for the larger more exposed sections- you may wish to do this dry without degreaser first to pick up more dirt without it sticking from the moisture. Once you've gotten those large areas with a large steel brush or wire wheel, use a smaller brush to get in all the nooks and crannies. Make sure you get everywhere- anywhere you leave dirt and oil, the paint won't stick, ruining your hard work. Prep work is everything in painting and this is especially true in a high temperature environment. The advantage of using wire brushes to clean is that it roughs up the surface for you, meaning you won't have to sand it to get a good painting surface. Alternatively, some people forgo paint entirely, and use a series of sandpapers and polishing compounds to make their valve cover mirror smooth and shiny. That option is usually more work but it looks pretty great when finished.

It's up to you when you're done- the more you do, the better the final product will end up looking and lasting. I spent more than an hour scouring mine. Make sure you've got some music or a good podcast to listen to while you work. I set my radio to one of the local classic rock stations. This was highly enjoyable, as they were doing several song blocks of different bands and played Pink Floyd, Rush, and Black Sabbath among others while I was working. Thanks 106.7!

Step 6: Final Prep Work

Once you're all done, hose your cover off liberally. Do it over the grass so the water isn't wasted. Make sure you really did get all of the surfaces clean, and fix it if you didn't. Hang it up to dry (or lean it on something). The sun was setting on me at this point so I decided I'd finish it tomorrow. Here's a couple pictures of the nice relatively clean cover.

Step 7: Actual Final Prep Work

You thought you were done prepping the cover? You were wrong!

Time to get back to work. First things first, soak the valve cover in degreaser to make sure you've completely removed all contamination. Let it sit and try not to touch it for about 10 minutes so the degreaser can eat away any oil deposits or grime left. If you see any spots you missed, now is the time to clean them. Once the cover has soaked, rinse it liberally, being sure to remove all traces of the solvent so it doesn't mess up your paint. Try to do all of this somewhere where you won't have to touch it and it can dry quickly. Because I'm using a biodegradable degreaser and the cover is relatively clean already, I put it on some blocks on a sunny patch of the lawn.

Now that you've done your final clean, be very careful not to get your hands all over the cover, as your skin oils and whatever other grease or dirt you have on them can prevent the paint from sticking properly and reduce the durability of your work. Now is the time to mask the parts of the cover you don't want painted. I wasn't worried about a perfect straight line edge on the oil fill or spark plug holes as they will be covered anyways, so I plugged them with balls of newspaper instead of meticulously taping them. Note that I did tape off the barb for the PCV valve (the thing sticking out in the bottom left)- that way there is no risk of getting paint flakes in the PCV hose that attaches there, and the seal with the hose remains the same.

If you want to do a design using multiple coats of paint or by simply masking off areas to be left bare metal, use your chosen tape to do so. I decided to make a relatively simple pattern with two stripes of exposed metal, one vertical line meeting up with a horizontal one that runs along the back side over the exhaust camshaft. You can see I've carefully laid down my tape and smoothed it out so that the edges are clean and flush with the corners and contours of the cover. Make sure you either cut the ends of your tape with a sharp knife to get clean edges, or have your tape go all the way down the side and up under the valve cover. I did this on the front and right side, and the left side of the horizontal stripe I cut at an angle to match the edge of the raised portion of the cover that goes over the timing gears.

Once you're sure everything is properly clean and masked, move your cover onto a surface you can paint on top of (in my case the old shower curtain). Make sure the surface is clean and there isn't anything nearby that couldn't be accidentally hit with a bit of paint (like your car). Duplicolor warns not to paint in direct sunlight so I've moved it to the shade- you should generally do this where possible to get the best results. Also make sure you don't have excessive wind or trees overhead as you don't want anything blowing or falling onto your valve cover when it is coated in wet paint. You should now be good to get spraying!

Step 8: The Part You've All Been Waiting For... Not

Finally it's time to paint the valve cover! You've got everything prepped and ready to go. Now get the engine paint you chose (In my case, Duplicolor's Ford dark blue) and double check the instructions to make sure you're ready. If you're not using Duplicolor, the timing and coats may differ- always go by the label on your can, engine paint has to stand up to very high temperatures and if you don't apply it as intended it may not last very long, which would be a shame. You're going to want to paint earlier in the day so you can give it an hour or two to dry before installing it. Start shaking the can, make sure you shake it for a full minute if it's a new can so you can get the most even spray.

Aaaaand... stop.

I know you really want to paint the darn thing already, but it's a really good idea to test out the spray on a random object like this plastic tub. This will also show you what the paint will look like when finished and give you good practice holding the can at the right angle and distance, and it will get you used to how thick and wide the spray from your can is. The finish looked great after ten or fifteen minutes, and the tape made clean edges when pulled up. Doing this really helps you get a feel for what you need to do and will absolutely get you a better finished product. Time to do it for real!

Step 9: First Coat

Set your cover in the middle of your paint surface and make sure the area is clear of things you don't want turned blue (or whichever color you use). When you're ready to go, give the can the requisite shaking and start painting. The first coat should be really light- just take it easy and don't worry if you miss a spot. Start spraying before the edge, sweep the can across the piece, and stop spraying after you're past the edge. This will keep the paint from being thicker where you start and stop spraying on the sides. Get light, even coverage from all sides. Remember less is more, a small gap is far better than drips or runs. The above pictures were right after the first coat of paint- it already looks loads better than it did before!

Step 10: Second Coat

Wait at least ten minutes before the second coat and put it on just like the first. Light, even strokes. Be careful, now that the workpiece is the same color you're painting it, it will be harder to tell how much you've covered. Rely on what looks wet or dry, and err on the side of less paint. Now that there's a second coat, the minor imperfections in the surface will be less noticeable. Make sure you hit any spots you may have missed in the first coat, I found some of the edges right near the ground were a little sparse.

Step 11: Third Coat

Now for the last coat. Wait another ten minutes before painting this one. I gave it a bit of extra time to be sure it would go on well. According to Duplicolor, this coat should be medium rather than light. Take a little longer on each pass and make sure you cover all the nooks and crannies well. Paint it from all four sides and from above as needed to get into the corners. Be sure you hold the can far enough away that your paint doesn't run. It should look pretty good when you're done. Resist the urge to over paint it- it's done when it's done. Leave it to dry for at least an hour before handling it. Make sure it's not in sun or anywhere where things could fall on it.

Step 12: Clean It Up

Now that your cover is dry enough to handle without damaging the paint, it's time to clean up your paint job. Carefully remove all the masking you had on the engine. If you wait longer, you'll get cleaner lines- make sure it's adequately dry first by removing one of the newspaper balls and checking the edge. The layer of paint closest to the engine may still be tacky and if you remove the tape at that point the edges will come up with it and leave lines that aren't clean.

Once you've got the tape and newspaper off, admire your work- then realize you can make it look even better! Go grab a flat file or rasp. If you want to go professional style, get a set of varying coarseness files so you can get a really fine finish. I decided I liked the rougher textured finish just fine. Being very, very, very careful not to scratch the rest of the cover, start gently scraping the paint away from the raised logo on your engine. It won't come off very evenly at first and the edges will look rough, this is fine. Get the bulk of the paint off of it. Blow away the paint dust regularly as you go, or blot it up with a damp rag- don't wipe it up or you'll scratch the paint with the fine metal particles in the dust.

When you've gotten most of the paint off and it looks similar to the third picture, clean the file out. Then go back at it and start filing down the whole surface of the logo. Try to take off less than half a millimeter of metal so it's still nice and raised from the rest of the cover. Clean away the dust regularly. Make sure you get the edges well so that there are clean lines between the exposed metal and the paint. Note in the above picture that my lines around my letters were irregular- I didn't wait long enough for the paint to dry before filing so the paint stuck to itself too well and came off in larger chunks. If you wait longer you may get better lines.

Now that you're done, take a look at it and make sure there's nothing else you missed. Looks pretty good, huh? Feel proud of yourself. (Note that these pictures were taken before I'd finished filing the logo. It doesn't look the greatest and I only realized after taking these and forgot to retake them. Later pictures of it on the engine show the finished logo.)

Step 13: Fit and Finish

Now it's time to put it back on the car! If you're reusing your gaskets, clean them carefully and coat them in a light layer of oil before pressing them back into the valve cover. If you're using new gaskets, follow manufacturer recommendations for installing them. Now you can put all your parts back on the engine- in the first picture, I've set the cover on top of the engine without bolting anything on to see what it'll look like. Pretty good! Start putting everything back like it was before, minus anything you've gotten rid of. I left the stud from the plastic engine cover and one of the fuel line mounts off the engine because they were unnecessary and looked bad. Make sure you install all of the bolts to the valve cover and if you have a torque wrench, torque them to specification- otherwise just put them back on about as tightly as they were when you removed them. On my engine they weren't all that tight to begin with- and you don't want to really crank down and overtighten them, because having a bolt get stuck in an engine block is no fun at all and you will be cursing yourself down the road if you do. Installation for the coil packs is likewise. This is a good time to check your coils, plugs, and wires for moisture or damage. Replace anything that's needing replacing. Even if it still works, replacing a damaged part will help prevent future failure and improve current performance. If you have oil down around the plug, it's a good sign that the gasket on your valve cover needed to be replaced. Hopefully you were smart and did that (you should have read the whole guide before starting the project, so if you didn't don't blame me). If you have water around your plug, it's a good sign you were a doofus and washed the engine with a hose without pulling the coil packs out and letting the plug wells dry (hiiii, don't be dumb like me). In either case, carefully poke a rag around down there with a screwdriver to get the water or oil out.

Once you've got everything bolted on and plugged in, double check all of it. Starting your car and panicking because it's not running right only to realize many agonizing minutes later that you forgot to plug stuff back in is no fun. Follow the wiring harness from the source and check each connection. You can see in the second two pictures what it looked like with everything installed. The sun was setting so they're a bit dim.

Step 14: Enjoy!

And you're done! Sit back and enjoy your beverage of choice, or go for a ride with your newly awesome engine! These pictures are about a month after the cover was painted.

Step 15: BONUS: Before/After

I decided to take another shot from the same angle as my pre-project one so I could do a before/after. It's a little far back so you can't see the details great but you get the point. I've re-sleeved some of the wiring harness and tore out the hood insulation, I'll be replacing it with a nice pad of reflective fiberglass aftermarket stuff that won't be as grungy and heavy.