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

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Step 1: 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

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

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

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

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

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


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!

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114 Discussions


4 years ago on Introduction

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.

4 replies

Reply 1 year ago

That was the best part of this whole article.


Reply 2 years ago

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


Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

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.


1 year ago on Step 7

Nice job. It would've been cool if you had re-painted that eagle on the front, I thought it added alot of character.


Question 1 year ago on Step 3

I guessing...on the trim around the windows that you used a brush?


1 year ago

Let the kids pay for the paint job whenever they grow up! Please keep that bus in the family, it’s a gem!


2 years ago

Thanks for tips.


3 years ago

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.


3 years ago

Nice! I love VW vans.


4 years ago

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.


4 years ago

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