How Much Paint to Paint a Car? Types, Finishes, and More

Although it is often considered the job for a professional, re-painting a car is a job that many choose to undertake themselves, mostly due to cost. Initially, it is useful to know how much paint you need to paint a car, what type of paint, and how long it might take.

Why Paint Your Car

man painting car fender

Paintwork can get chipped, oxidize, or fade over time, depending on the conditions and climate of where it is driven. You may just fancy a change, a freshen up, or a completely new color; a respray is much cheaper option than buying a new car.

Types of Auto Paint

Although it is known as a respray, spray paint is not advisable for painting an entire vehicle. It might do for a small touch-up or adding a decal but if you were to use it to spray the whole vehicle you would need at least 40-cans – and that is just for the first coat.

Also, for the best-finished results, paint should be applied to the car using a spraying machine; it is impossible to decant from spray paint cans into the reservoir of a spray gun.

Similarly, household paint is a definite no-no. General use paint isn't designed to stick to metal surfaces, and, even if you applied it, you wouldn't be left with a very pleasant finish.

Cars should be sleek and shiny, offering protection against the sun's harmful UV rays. Household paint offers little resistance and would be matte and dull.

There are four types of paint recommended for painting vehicles:

Acrylic Lacquer Based Paint

Up until the late 1970s, this was the most popular types of auto paint – it is cheap and applies with ease. Many states have outlawed it in recent years. It gives the car a nice shine but tends to chip easily. It is fine for use in a spray gun although there are much better modern techniques available.

Enamel Paint

Often used in professional shops as it needs to be baked-on in a large oven or heating system. It dries to a tough shell with a high sheen.

It is difficult for a novice user to apply, often resembling an 'orange peel' finish. Enamels usually require a top coat which creates more work.

Urethane Paint

More expensive than enamel paint but lays down with the ease of lacquers. It needs to be applied in 3 stages, 1- color, 2- thinners, 3- a catalyst to speed up the drying process.

This is often the best choice for home resprays as less equipment is required and a good standard of finish is achievable. Urethane paint also benefits from a topcoat for added protection.

Water-based Paint

Non-toxic paint is the newest on the market and gaining momentum. It is versatile and safe. It can be sprayed directly onto metal, onto primer, or over existing paint. Once completed, it also requires a 3-stage clear urethane topcoat.

How Much Paint is Needed to Paint a Car

paint requirement

Paint quantity will vary depending on the size of the vehicle and the type of paint you choose. There are general rules of thumb:

  • Small cars should require 2 quarts of paint to provide sufficient cover, 2/3 coats. If attempting to cover a dark color with a light one, purchase an extra quart.
  • Medium-sized cars should use around a gallon of paint or 1.5-2 gallons for a color change.
  • Large cars and trucks will need 2 - 2.5 gallons for a color change.

If you are going to paint the door jambs and the underside of the hood and trunk, buy an extra half a gallon to ensure it is sufficient for total coverage.

It is always best to buy extra paint and have some remaining once the job is complete. Too little could result in an incomplete job which might spoil whilst you fetch more paint.

What is Primer and Does my Car Need It?

Think of primer as an undercoat. You wouldn't paint directly onto new plaster at home and expect a perfect finish, would you? In the same way, the primer acts as an enduring base that ensures the paint sticks.

It has other features:

  • It adds a further layer to protect the car from corrosion and rust
  • It is easy to sand to a smooth surface
  • Paint won't soak in and result in a dull finish
  • It is dry enough to sand within 30-minutes
  • It is a bonding agent to give the colored paint the optimum surface to adhere to

Clear Coat


Think of the protective layer varnish gives your wooden furniture, then think about your car. The primer and paint protect the metal, what protects the paint? That is one of the jobs of a clear coat.

Other features:

  • Flawless depth of color
  • Provides glossiness
  • Protects against UV damage
  • Protects against chips and peeling paintwork

How Much Clear Coat Does a Car Need?

It is always advisable to buy a gallon of clear coat at a time. That is more than enough to protect one vehicle and the remainder can be safely stored until next required.

Auto-Paint Finishes

There are four-main types of finish that paint supplies, some of which are too difficult to achieve by a novice sprayer.

Solid Paint

Most cars have a solid paint finish, it is the cheapest option available to the manufacturers. There aren't usually many colors available, but each color will have multiple shade options so there is bound to be a color for you.

It is usually applied in three layers: primer, paint, then lacquer. Although some brands make ready-mixed paint and lacquer mixture to save time and money.

Solid paint finishes are easy to touch-up, respray, and maintain.

Metallic Paint

The bright and shiny finish is achieved by mixing aluminum specks in with the paint. Light reflects against it to make it gleam. Available in a wide variety of colors, metallic paint is harder to maintain as it shows dirt and marks.

Getting an even match is difficult, making it harder to repair.

Pearlescent Paint

This style of paint has a much brighter shine, with deeper and iridescent colors. Ceramic crystals mixed with the paint make the light both reflect and refract and under bright light, the colors appear to change.

The paint is very expensive and is susceptible to getting marked quickly. It is difficult to repair and resprays should not be undertaken by a novice.

Matte Paint

This seems to become more popular in recent years, but only on high-end cars as it is so expensive.

The car becomes exceptionally high-maintenance and applying a matte finish is best done by a professional.

Things to Consider Before Painting a Car

Is it worth it? Check the market value of your car and weigh that up against the cost of the paint job, whether that be DIY or professional done. Does the cost of the car warrant spending so much money?

Color change? Changing the color of your car is a huge undertaking. It is much more complex as all of the painted interior components also need to be changed. Think of those fiddly door trims and window sills. Maybe a car wrap is a better investment?

Do you have the time? You will undoubtedly be without your car for a few days. Each layer needs the correct time and temperature to cure correctly in order to avoid the dreaded 'orange-peel' finish.

It is vitally important to have somewhere safe to paint your car. You need a very large space that is well-ventilated. The car must have somewhere free from draughts for the paint to be able to set, but there must be ventilation for the harmful paint fumes to escape.

The more prepared you are, the better job you should expect to make of the respray. Once you know how much paint you will need to paint your car, you gather materials: clear coats and primers, along with sanders, and a compressed air spray gun.

Gloves, goggles, and a ventilating face mask are an absolute must. Remember to leave the room at regular intervals to get away from the harmful fumes and get some fresh air.

Final Thoughts

Painting a vehicle is difficult to perfect. If you're going ahead with it, watch as many YouTube guidance videos as possible and practice using the gun until you get the feel for it.

Knowing how much paint you need and then learning how to apply that paint is half the job. The rest requires a whole heap of sanding, an even bigger heap of patience, and a ton of small strokes of the spray gun, all in the same direction.

Richard Reed
I've been a General Manager of a moving company and I've also been a Professional Mover for over 30 years. I've driven flat beds, reefers, dropdecks, moving vans, heavy machinery, etc. In my time as a Mover I've driven over 1,000,000 safe miles. My days of moving and driving truck are past me but The Vehicle Lab allows me to share the knowledge I've gained over the past 40 years.
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