Become A Rattle Can Tintoretto And Paint Your Own Motorcycle

If you want to do a flattering paint job on your motorcycle, you can do it the hard (and undoubtedly correct and time-intensive) way. Get an HPLV sprayer, a compressor, take pains to mix up some expensive and beautiful PPG colors and put the paint on in a humidity-controlled spray booth.

Or not…

You can do a perfectly excellent job with a rattle can.

I know, a heresy of the highest order. No one can do a good job with a rattle can. Wrong.

You might not be able to achieve the kind of seamless perfection a real painter using real tools can, but you can sure as hell make a good job of it that stands up to sunlight and gawkers in the parking lot at your local watering hole.

Successful painting is all about correct preparation. It might well be 80% prep and 20% paint and polish. When you do your initial work on a tank or a fender, take the time to do the prep work likes it the most important step in the process, because it is the most important step in the process.

Your touch is your friend. The tip of your finger can detect a surface deviation of less than 2 μm, or micrometer, and that’s a mighty fine little distinction which is more than good enough to let you know if a surface is “smooth” enough to paint. If you don’t believe me, you can read Tactile Detection Thresholds for a Single Asperity on an Otherwise Smooth Surface, but I don’t recommend it if you’re not in the market for a quick nap.

When you’re doing your prep, start with some coarse material like 100 grit and take your time until you work your way down to a something really fine like the smoothest auto grade paper – and use it wet.

Once you start to paint, make sure the primer you use is compatible with the paint you are using as some paint formulations just plain don’t play nice together. Don’t make that mistake.

You’re going to need some rattle cans of your chosen color, clear coat (which of course will work with the paint you use),  some extra spray nozzles which fit the cans you’re using, a quart of paint thinner, fine and extra fine sanding sponges, a dish soap, some cheap rough paper towels or shop rags and some polishing compound.

The best advice I’ve ever heard or read on painting with a rattlecan can be found on this website, and unfortunately, I had to learn almost all these lessons on my own before I found this how-to masterpiece. I reprint it here and suggest that you visit this guy’s site and buy something from him for being such a sport and saving you a whole bunch of heartache and failure:

Ready to paint:

Assuming your surface is already clean and smooth. Fill up a paint can cap lid half way with thinner. Put your extra nozzles in there. Shake paint can violently while holding upside down for at least 3 minutes.

Put a practice surface directly below whatever you are to paint. Every time you go to paint your item, you must do 2 strokes on a practice surface. So keep the practice surface near the object you want to paint.. That’s because the first two sprays you ever do when painting usually spit out a small blob. The first blobby spray goes on the practice surface and then you work into what you are painting a second after.

Assuming you know how to paint (steady back and forth motions spraying ONLY when your arm is in fast motion from side to side. 8 inches away never slowing in motion.

Another tip: After about 5 strokes wipe the end of the nozzle because a blob of paint likes to cover the nozzle after a few sprays. Wipe and hit practice pad and fade into the object being painted.

BE PATIENT! The goal is to get the least amount of paint down while still covering the object. Example: 10-15 VERY LIGHT coats are better than 3-5 heavy coats. As a matter of fact, it may take you 3, 4, 5 coats before you blank out the sight of the primer/under paint.

The primer will bleed through for the first 3 or 4 coats. Don’t try to get greedy and cover it! Don’t concern yourself with covering anything. Just get uniform equal coats down.

You better follow these directions or your paint job will look stupid.

We want a thin uniform hard shell put on. When you paint you are painting so light that the paint dries seconds after you put it on. if you are putting paint on and it looks wet anywhere, you’re putting it on too thick. We just want to mist the thing all over about 20 times over a period of hours.

Get the idea? If you are done painting in an hour you have a serious problem with patience and following directions.


Make a rule that every twenty sprays you take the nozzle off and replace it with a clean one sitting in the thinner filled cap.

If you don’t have extra nozzles then soak that one for a few minutes while shaking.

BE PATIENT! After you change the nozzle reshake can another 3 minutes with can upside down.

Now, before you start painting again ALWAYS hit that practice surface next to the item you are painting a few sprays and then work into the item you are painting!

It says apply THIN COATS on the can, and for good reason. DO NOT GET GREEDY or you will pay the price with a run and a crummy looking paint job.

Put a light coat on…wait ten-20 minutes another coat and repeat till covered. Do not break your rules of cleaning nozzles every 20 strokes and the rule of always hitting the practice surface first and work into the object being painted!

If you do not do this like clockwork your end result will be a painted turd. I can’t stress these two things enough! And remember how far you hold the can from the object being painted is most important.

Too close and it gives an orange peel look. And too far away and the paint goes on rough and foggy. Let dry for days…Practice Practice. If you make a mistake wait to dry 2 days, sand mistake area and touch up.

Wet Sand:

You have your base coat down and it has dried for 2 days or more (more is always better). It looks good but it has orange peel and looks like a typical rattle can job.

Don’t worry, if it even looks that good you are in great shape.

Take that fine sanding sponge with a LITTLE soap and water mix and sand that whole object lightly and evenly.

Yes I know its going to scratch the hell out of the whole thing and make it foggy. We want this. Just sand evenly and lightly. We are doing this too smooth out the top thin coat only so don’t sand through. I said lightly and evenly! And not for too long, just enough to cover it all with a few strokes of the soapy wet fine grit sponge to fog it over a bit.

Watch the corners or curves, they’re the easiest to sand too much.

Final Base Coat:

Now take some of those cheap paper towels and moisten them with some water. Clean up the area you are painting. Then take some dry ones and aggressively remove all moisture. Now go back and put another light coat of color on. Or should I say very light coat?

And make sure you are still following the directions above with the nozzles and test pad and shaking. One slip up now and you are toast. Don’t put enough on to make it a light coat like you did above. Just enough to barely cover the fog you created by the sanding and buffing with rough towels. When doing this light coat you want to pay special attention to not have the can far away.

This coat will be very light and just barely cover the fog but the closer the can is the more gloss it produces (but don’t make it wet). Don’t make it run and don’t worry about getting it all perfect. Just get it done without a run or first spray blob. Let dry a day or two, or three. It all depends on the humidity and other factors. The longer you wait the better.


Now that you are finished with the base color, get your FINE sanding sponge and a pan of water and some dish soap (I use Dawn).

Mix some dish soap in the water and soak the sponge in the suds. Pour a little on the object you painted. Now take the sponge and apply some raw dish soap to the gritty area. Now LIGHTLY sand the entire area of the object. Keep the soap and water going. Don’t even come close to running dry. Don’t take too long sanding one area and get the whole job done quick. Don’t loaf by sanding it all too much, just get it even and done.

Then dry it off with the rough dry paper towels lightly. It should look a little better than the last time you sanded but don’t expect a shine yet we are far from done.

Clear Coat:

Get your clear coat out and paint just like you did above. Follow all the rules above! That means you still have to put the nozzle in thinner every 15-20 strokes, you still have to use the test pad and drift into what you are painting, and you still have to do several light coats.

The distance you hold the can away from the painted object is still critical if not more. Keep it close to keep that gloss up but do it extra light and quick so there is no chance of a run.

But don’t try to make it gloss with healthy sprays, a shiny surface now has little to do with the finished product.

Keep that patience going. Put 4-5 light coats on. Just get it done, do not try to overdo or under do it just keep to the rules. When painting be patient in between coats and 15 minutes has to be better than 5 as far as drying time is concerned, but with clear coat application don’t wait over 30 minutes between coats.

YOU ARE NOW DONE PAINTING. Let the item dry for a day or 2 or 3 or more days.

Final Wet Sanding:

Get out your dish soap and water and EXTRA FINE sanding sponge and do like you did above but, keep that pure dish soap on the sponge and on the painted object.

Besides being wet we want the object being sanded coated with a heavy coat of raw dish soap. More than you used above that is for sure.


Go very light on the pressure! What you will be sanding is not visible by eye so a light touch is needed. But don’t just glide the sponge over the soap. Like above don’t spend all day sanding it, just make sure all areas are hit with a more than a few good strokes and call it good.

Rubbing It Out:

Make sure you don’t try to polish a painted item unless its dried for a week or so at least. Depending on weather, humidity etc…

You want it to shine?

Get the rubbing compound and a very soft cloth and follow directions on the can. This usually involves making the cloth damp. Guess what? You are going to have to rub and polish this thing at least 15 times to get a killer shine going.

Apply rubbing compound over the surface with a flat hand. Don’t rub one specific area with single finger pressure. Keep it flat. Keeping in mind if we had a buffer and a thirty dollar bottle of professional polishing compound formula 21 or whatever it is, it just wouldn’t be a cheap DIY rattle can project would it.

This is DIY for 10 bucks. But it would sure help matters.

You should be looking at a damn quality paint job if you followed all the directions to a T.

I have done this like 10 times already and it keeps looking better every time. It looks a lot closer to a professional paint job then any rattle can job you will ever see.

You know you are getting good when the finished product is clear like glass and the clear coat has the illusion that it is half an inch thick.

One last tip? Do motorcycle wheels with “refrigerator paint”. It’s not quite as smooth and tough as the coating on the old icebox, but it’s close. Some people think this result was achieved by powder coating.

It’s called “Plastikote refrigerator paint.”

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2 Responses

  1. Eric says:

    My advice. If you are going to rattle can the gas tank. Use a urethane based clearcoat. It is hard to find and expensive compared to other rattle cans. But very worth it. A two part urethane clear makes all the difference in the world once you get a few drops of gasoline on it. The urethane clear does not bubble up or run or get soggy with gasoline once its fully cured unlike other rattle can paint. The two part urethane spray cans have a limited shelf life once activated. Spray Max is one manufacturer of 2 part rattle can clears. Just thought I’d share. The first time I painted my tank with cheap clear it looked great….until I put gas in the bike. 🙁