Much like glass, plastic provides you with a smooth, non-porous painting surface that can allow you to really push the boundaries with your work. And whether you’re creating art or updating plastic décor for your home, it’s a creative way to get new life out of plastic products—and much easier to do than you might think.
Plastic gets a bad rap as being somewhat difficult to paint. We get it, too, since without proper technique your paint is almost guaranteed to drip, peel, and pool. But if you take your time and follow best practices for how to prep plastic for paint and the type of plastic paint you should be using, you should have no trouble creating stunning—and durable—plastic art.
Here’s how to make it happen.
How to Paint Plastic: What You Need to Know to Get Started
As with any painting project, the best place to start is always with the basics. This includes gathering all of your supplies right at the outset, particularly when it comes to choosing plastic paint that won’t be a pain to apply (and that will actually stick).
What Kind of Paint Will Stick to Plastic?
Can you use acrylic paint on plastic? Are brush-on paints okay? The answer to both of these questions is yes, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the ideal way to go.
The best paint for plastic is almost always going to be a spray-on variety, specifically one that is designated for use on plastic surfaces. The reason this type of paint for plastic is preferred is because it offers light and even coverage in a unique formula that’s uniquely intended to adhere to plastic’s ultra-smooth exterior. Do avoid general purpose spray paints, however, since plastic painting isn’t their primary purpose.
As for using a brush-on paint for plastic vs. spray paint for plastic, while it’s true that there are brush-on paints designed for the purpose, they do come with some drawbacks. Namely: visible brush strokes, as well as a higher likelihood of drips. Aside from fine detailing, the best paint for plastic is always going to be spray varieties, and it’s just a bonus that they’re a cinch to use, too.
Supplies for Painting Plastic
Gather the following supplies for your plastic painting project:
- Dish soap
- Water container
- Clean rags (2)
- Mineral spirits or isopropyl alcohol
- Fine-grit sandpaper
- Plastic spray paint(s)
Most of these supplies are geared toward how to prep plastic for paint, but they’re an important part of the process so make sure to grab all of them instead of skipping any necessary steps.
How to Paint on Plastic in 2 Easy Steps
Follow these instructions to get stunning results on plastic painting projects, including tips on how to spray paint plastic and—equally important—how to remove paint from plastic.
First, a couple of FAQs:
Do you need to prime plastic before painting? It depends. If you’re using a spray paint for plastic then you can skip the priming step. But if you’re using regular old spray paint (which isn’t recommended, but we get that sometimes it’s just what you have), then definitely use a plastic primer spray first.
Are the steps for how to paint ABS plastic different than the steps for painting traditional plastic? Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS plastic, is a common plastic used in 3D printing, as well as on computer keyboards and many pipe fittings, housing parts, and auto parts. And while it is a bit different than standard plastic, you can follow the same steps below for your project.
Now that we’ve got that covered, here’s how to get to work.
Step 1: Prep Your Plastic Surface
Similar to painting glass, wood, and other non-traditional (or at least, non-canvas) surfaces, you’ll need to prep your plastic surface before you paint it.
So, how do you prep plastic for painting? These are the three things you need to do:
Fill a container with warm water and some gentle dish soap. Using a clean rag, scrub the entire plastic item to remove any dirt or other leftover debris. Some items may only require one scrub down, but if the item has been outside, it’s probably going to need a couple rounds of heavy scrubbing. When it looks as clean as it’s going to get, rinse thoroughly with cool water.
A little bit of surface texture will help your paint adhere. Take a fine-grit sandpaper (180 to 220 grit is the way to go) and lightly sand the entire surface you intend to paint. Keep your movements gentle, since too much heat and friction can degrade the plastic past the point of no return.
Apply mineral spirits or isopropyl alcohol
The last step of prepping plastic for painting is to apply a coat of mineral spirits or isopropyl alcohol, which will remove any lingering dust from sanding and give the plastic item a final cleaning for optimal results. To do it, simply dip a clean rag in whichever substance you’ve chosen to go with and rub the item down until all of the dust is taken care of. This step is best done outside, especially if you’re using mineral spirits. If outdoors isn’t an option, open windows and use a box fan or two to circulate air.
Step 2: Get to Painting
Our number one tip for how to spray paint plastic: take your time.
Due to plastic’s non-porous surface, you’re likely going to need to apply quite a few coats before you achieve full coverage. On top of that, you’ll need to spray slow and steady, and allow enough time for the paint to fully dry in between each coat. All of this means that painting plastic isn’t always a quick project—though it’s worth going slow if you end up with a better finished product.
As with any time you spray paint, spray from about 8” to 12” away from the surface while holding the can at a 45 degree angle. Don’t spray straight on, as you’ll end up with air bubbles and streaking. Also be sure not to spray from too far away, since then you’ll end up with a grainy finish.
Give each coat at least two hours to dry before moving on to the next one, and plan to do a minimum of three coats total—or to keep going until you get the look that you want.
What About Removing Paint from Plastic?
As for how to remove paint from plastic, if you’ve made a mistake and need to start over or if you’re repainting a piece of plastic that’s already been painted before, you can gently scrape away the layers using a plastic scraper or putty knife and some vegetable oil. Once you’re done, go through the steps listed above to paint anew, including the full round of prep work.
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