What Kind of Paint Do You Use on Metal Surfaces?

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Metal decor items or outdoor metal furniture require one of two kinds of paint when you want to give them new life, cover rusted spots, or change their color. You can use either a water-based acrylic paint or an oil-based paint, as long as the container identifies "for metal" somewhere on its labeling.

Oil-based paints take much longer to dry, and they need a high-quality paintbrush that doesn't shed during application. Acrylic metal paints are available for paint-on application or in spray cans, which can shorten painting time significantly. As with all metal-painting projects, proper preparation makes the difference between a quality paint job and how well the newly painted item will stand up to age and weathering, especially when the metal is used outdoors.



The Right Prep Work

As long as you do the right prep work, you may even get away with a paint that doesn't specifically say it's for metal as long as it is acrylic paint. Whether the metal you want to paint is iron, aluminum or has a galvanized surface, you need to remove all the rust before you paint. If you don't remove the rust, the paint won't stick. Aluminum and galvanized metals also require scratching up the surface a bit to allow the primer and paint to adhere. Wash newly purchased galvanized items in a soapy water to remove the oil coating. If the oil coating has oxidized on the metal, use a wire brush or sandpaper to remove the residue.


Metal Primer Prep

  1. Apply a wire brush and scraper combo to the metal first to remove all loose paint and rust or to scuff up the surface of aluminum or galvanized metal.
  2. After removing loose paint, first apply an orbital sander using 60-grit sandpaper, working up to 100-grit sandpaper for a smooth finish.
  3. Wipe the metal clean with a damp cloth or sponge to remove all rust debris and paint dust, and check for any remaining rust.
  4. Repeat as necessary to remove all the rust before priming.
  5. Allow the metal primer to dry the allotted time as stated on the labeling.

Painting the Metal

One of the easiest ways to paint metal -- after completing the needed prep work -- is to use a can of spray paint designated for metal. You can purchase paint products that also help to protect against rust or offer a primer and paint in one application.


  1. Shake the can thoroughly to mix up the paint inside.
  2. Hold the can 8 to 10 inches away from the item, keeping it in motion and making horizontal or vertical sweeps to avoid drips.
  3. Use multiple light coats with the recommended drying time between each layer of paint form a better covering than one thick coat that may run.



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