Painting Model Cars for Beginners

Painting model cars, both for beginners and advanced modelers, is a process of painting all the model’s different parts. This isn’t hard, but it becomes harder with very small or large parts and when painting intricate details. As a beginner, all you really have to worry about is getting the basic steps down correctly. Here, you’ll learn about painting model cars for beginners so you can master these basics. You can worry about advanced painting techniques later. Of course, you can apply the basics to painting any other type of model, not just model cars.

Enamel and acrylic paint are the two types of paint most commonly using in modeling. Which you use will change some aspects of the painting process, so before getting into how to paint, I’ll first talk about the paint itself.

 

Enamel Paint

Pros:

  • Doesn’t leave behind brush strokes as often as acrylic
  • Doesn’t require primer
  • Dries into a nice, hard-coat finish
  • Good for models that will be handled often
  • It holds color well, so it requires less coats

Cons:

  • Gives off toxic fumes, so ventilation is needed while painting
  • Being an oil-based paint, the oil can separate from the pigment over time, which will require you to mix it before painting
  • Cleaning off paint brushes and thinning paint requires enamel paint thinner
  • There are not as many colors available

 

Acrylic Paint

Pros:

  • Dries quickly (could be a con depending on what you want to accomplish)
  • Does not release toxic fumes, so ventilation is not required
  • Easy to clean and thin using just water (some acrylics may require a special thinner; read the label or any other documentation to know for sure)
  • More color options available

Cons:

  • Generally requires more coats than enamel
  • Primer may be required, depending on the application
  • Brush strokes can be much more visible
  • Does not dry into a hard-coat finish, so more susceptible to wear and peeling
  • Not good for models that will be handled often

No paint is necessarily better than the other. It will depend on your application and the tools available to you. With that said, acrylics are usually the best choice for beginners when painting model cars simply because the cleanup is easier and there aren’t as many safety concerns, but don’t let that deter you from using enamels if that’s what you want to do. Just don’t forget your paint thinner and don’t breathe in the fumes.

There are two basic methods for painting model cars for beginners, and you may end up using a combination of each depending on the equipment you have available to you, the part(s) you’re painting, and the effect you want.

 

Using a Paint Brush

Beginners painting model cars, or models in general, should start out with cheap brushes in case they get ruined during the painting and cleanup process.

 

With Enamel Paint

While you can easily paint small objects with enamel paint, it isn’t the best choice for beginners when brush painting larger surfaces, such as the bodies of model cars. It can be done, but it requires more patience and typically a paint conditioner to help brush strokes smooth out. Before doing anything, read through all of the following steps so that you have an idea of what to expect and so you’ll have everything you need ready.

  1. Before you start, look over your model car part and check for any defects left overt from the manufacturing process. Gently smooth the area down using a sharp knife or fine-grit sandpaper until the defect is gone. Don’t overdo this because you don’t want a plastic tab to turn into a gouge in the model.
  2. Before painting your part, clean it with soap and warm (not hot) water. Be sure to rinse off all soap and let the piece thoroughly dry. After drying, be careful when handling it because you don’t want to get oils from your hand onto the part. Enamel paints aren’t as susceptible to the problems that can be caused from painting over finger oils, but it’s still better to be safe than sorry.
  3. Pick a thinner that dries slowly, such as mineral spirits. Pour some of it into two separate containers. You’ll use this to clean your brush after painting.  A dirty paintbrush can contaminate your main supply.
  4. You generally want to thin your paint. Pour some of your paint into a separate container and begin experimenting with different amounts of thinner (including no thinner). Start with small amounts, test by painting on piece of scrap plastic (such as a plastic spoon), and add more until it’s the consistency you want. Before doing this, read step 5 so that you know how to prepare your paintbrush. Don’t be afraid to spend some time getting the right thinner-to-paint ratio figured out. Let the samples dry so you get an idea of drying times with different amounts of thinner and their corresponding finishes. If you’re going to attempt to paint a large surface, try adding paint conditioner, such as Penetrol, instead of thinner.
  5. Before painting, dip your paintbrush in clean thinner, being sure that the thinner covers every part of the brush. Then use a paper towel or cloth of some sort to wipe off excess thinner from the bristles of your brush. You can do this by lightly “painting” the cloth with the thinner. Don’t completely dry the brush and be sure to not kink the bristles as you do this. Now your brush will be easier to clean later.
  6. When you’re ready to paint, dip your brush no more than halfway into the paint. Completely immersing the paintbrush can make it difficult to clean later.
  7. As you paint, keep in mind that you want to use as little paint as possible while still creating a nice finish because you want to maintain surface details. For example, you don’t want your paint to completely fill in lines representing door or panel seems. Highly detailed, small parts, such as what might be used for engine components, are especially susceptible to this. For these smaller parts, a rigger or round paintbrush may be the best option. Larger parts are where you may want to use paint mixed with conditioner. Your experiment from step 4 should have determined for you whether or not you’ll do this.
  8. To clean the paintbrush, first dip it into the first container of paint thinner that you set aside in step 3. Gently swirl the brush around in the thinner without letting it contact the bottom or sides. As you do this, keep in mind that you don’t want to let the paint brush soak in the thinner because that can damage it. Now swirl the brush around in the second container of paint thinner. This container should completely clean the brush, but if it doesn’t, you may need a third. When the brush is clean, gently brush or wipe off the excess as you did in step 5, and let the brush air-dry.

 

With Acrylic Paint

Painting model cars with acrylic paint is much less involved for beginners than painting with enamel paint.

  1. Before you start, look over your model car part and check for any defects left over from the manufacturing process. As before, gently smooth the area down using a sharp knife or find-grit sandpaper until the defect is gone.
  2. Before painting your part, clean it with soap and warm (not hot) water. If you want, use a specialty product that is made specifically to clean parts before painting. Be sure to thoroughly rinse off all soap and dry the piece thoroughly. After drying, don’t get oils from your hand onto the part. Acrylic paints have a hard enough time adhering to plastic surfaces, so if that surface is dirty, there’s a much higher likelihood that your paint will start to peel once it’s dry.
  3. Set aside a container of water. You’ll use this to wet your paintbrush before painting.
  4. Acrylic paint for models doesn’t typically need thinning, though it depends on the application. If you feel the need to thin it or you want to experiment with thinning it, pour some of your paint into a separate container and begin experimenting by adding different amounts of water or acrylic paint thinner to your paint. Add a little bit, paint a scrap plastic surface (such as a plastic spoon) and let it dry to see the effect, and then add more water or paint thinner as desired. NOTE: When painting plastic with acrylic, you may need to use a primer, as detailed in step 5. Now would be a good time to experiment with and without a primer.
  5. The verdict is still out on whether or not to use primers. Their primary purpose is to provide a surface to which the acrylic paint can adhere. Generally, it’s a good idea to use them so that you have all of your bases covered, but if you’ve cleaned your model properly in step 2, then one may not be necessary. Primers also make surface flaws on your model more apparent, enabling you to locate and fix them. If you decide to use a primer, you need to decide if you’re going to spray or brush it on. Using a paintbrush to apply primer requires more care because you don’t want brush strokes to appear, but it can be done. If you want to use a spray primer, refer to my article 6 Tips for Spray Painting Models.
  6. Once you’ve applied your primer (or you’ve decided that you’re not going to), it’s time to start painting. You’ll want to move relatively quickly through the next few steps because acrylic paint can dry quickly. If you’ve never painted before, do a practice run. Start by pouring the acrylic paint from its container into another receptacle. You don’t want to dip the paint brush into the main container. This can contaminate it and, because acrylic paint dries quickly, you want to keep your main container sealed as much as possible.
  7. Now wet your paintbrush with water or with your acrylic thinner. Just dip the brush in water for a few seconds, take it out, and gently dry it on a towel. Don’t completely dry it.
  8. Dip your paintbrush no more than halfway into the paint. Begin to paint on your surface using as few strokes as possible and keeping them parallel. Try to not let the paint on your brush dry because it’ll be hard to clean if you do. If you need to let your paintbrush sit with paint on it, then set it in water or wrap the bristles with a wet towel. If you need to apply multiple coats, let each coat dry thoroughly before applying the next one.
  9. To clean your brush after use, run it under warm water and use a mild soap to gently clean the bristles. Remember to be thorough, but to be gentle. Massage soap into the brush to clean the inner bristles, and then rinse thoroughly. Gently dry off with a towel and let the brush air dry the rest of the way. If you need to clean dried acrylic paint, use rubbing alcohol. Swish the brush in the alcohol, rub it into the bristles with your fingers, and then rinse off with warm water and mild soap.

 

Airbrushing

See my article 6 Tips for Spray Painting Models to see how to use spray paint cans and prepare the area for spray painting. Here, I’ll cover how to use airbrush, but the general principles from the spray painting article still apply here. The difficulty you have with an airbrush and the associated effect on your model can depend on your airbrushes’ quality. Typically, if you have a higher quality spray gun, it’ll be easier to use, but it’ll probably be more expensive. If you’ve never used an airbrush before but you want to start, it’s fine to start with a cheap one. I did and it served me well for quite a while. When painting a model, cars or otherwise, beginners shouldn’t start out with expensive equipment anyway. With all this said, this article is about general technique and preparation, not about how to setup or choose an airbrush specifically. To hook yours up to air, what air pressure to use, how to disassemble it, what specific paint to use, etc. are things that I’ll leave up to you to learn for your specific airbrush. For that reason, this section will be relatively short. Do not proceed until you know how to properly operate your airbrush.

No matter which type of paint you use in your airbrush, make sure you’ll be airbrushing during a time when you won’t be interrupted. Don’t leave your airbrush aside without cleaning it because cleaning dried paint out of an airbrush is a hassle.

As before, make sure you read through all of these steps before proceeding so you’ll know what to expect and have everything at hand so you can proceed quickly through the process.

 

With Enamel Paint

  1. The first step is to thin your enamel paint using an enamel paint thinner. The general rule of thumb is to thin your paint until it’s the consistency of milk. This is not a hard-and-fast rule and it can depend on the type of paint used (e.g. matte versus glossy), so leave some room and time for experimentation. When you mix the paint, pour it into a separate container and add the thinner, but start with small quantities. It’s easy to prepare too much paint, especially as a beginner. Be cognizant of the size of the piece you’re painting and the size of the paint reservoir in your spray gun. Again, the more you experiment and learn, the better your final paintjob will be.
  2. When you want to change colors or you’re done painting your piece, it’s time to clean the airbrush. To do so, run some of your enamel thinner through the airbrush in lieu of paint. After you pour the thinner into the paint cup, use a paint brush or cotton swab (such as a Q-tip®) to clean paint off the sides of the cup. Spray the thinner out into a cleaning pot or onto scrap of some sort, continuing to add thinner and spray until the spray comes out clear. Use a cheaper thinner and save your expensive stuff for thinning the paint itself. Now disassemble the airbrush (refer to your user manual) and clean the individual parts because spraying thinner through the spray gun won’t always do a thorough cleaning job. Thoroughly dry each part after cleaning. Be careful with your airbrush parts because they can be delicate.

 

With Acrylic Paint

  1. Airbrushing with acrylic paint is fundamentally the same as airbrushing with enamel. Again, thin the acrylic paint—this time using water or a specific acrylic paint thinner if you want—until the paint has about the same consistency as milk. Experiment by thinning your paint in a separate container and running it through the airbrush and painting onto different scrap surfaces until you’re getting the consistency you want.
  2. When it’s time to change colors or stop painting for the day, clean your airbrush by first pouring some water into your paint reservoir and using a cotton swab or a paint brush to clean out the paint cup as you did with enamel paint. Spray the water out of the spray gun onto a scrap surface or into a cleaning pot. Keep adding water and keep spraying until the water comes out clear. Now disassemble your airbrush and thoroughly clean each part using ammonia (using Windex® should be fine), denatured alcohol, or lacquer thinner. Be sure to thoroughly rinse off whatever cleaning agent you used and to dry your pieces thoroughly.

 

This article was an overview of general painting tips and techniques for model cars for beginners using a paintbrush or an airbrush with enamel or acrylic paint. As with everything, the key takeaway is to move slowly and observe closely as you learn. But with that said, once you’ve learned these basics, painting model cars is not difficult for beginners. Have fun and enjoy your handiwork.