How to Paint Metal Surfaces That Won’t Peel or Chip

Paige Bennett
Written by Paige Bennett
Updated October 11, 2021
Terrace with metal table and chairs
Andreas von Einsiedel/Corbis Documentary via Getty Images

Your next metal-painting project will last longer this time around

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Maybe your hand-me-down patio furniture needs a facelift, or the rusting vintage sconces you scored at a flea market don’t match your bedroom decor as much as you’d hoped. Applying a quick coat of paint is a relatively quick fix. However, painting metal surfaces require a unique technique, so follow these tips for how to paint metal surfaces that last.

1. Remove Rust

Rust can prevent fresh paint from sticking properly to the metal surface, which leads to flaking or peeling paint. Rid your object of rust before slathering on any paint. Depending on how stubborn your spots are, you may need one or more of these rust removal tools.

  • A wire brush for everyday surface rust

  • A wire brush drill attachment for larger areas of caked-on rust

  • A liquid rust remover for soaking and removing the most stubborn rust spots

2. Scrape Off or Sand Peeling Paint

Previous paint material that’s left on your metal object will make it harder for new paint to adhere to the surface. Use a wire brush, sandpaper, or a scraper to remove the loose paint from anything that has been painted before, like a door or patio furniture.

3. Clean and Prep The Surface

Once the rust and peeling paint are gone, you can clean the surface with mineral spirits—not water—to help the new paint stick to the surface of the metal. Using water to clean just leads to more rust over time. For painted metal, you’ll need to sand the surface to remove the excess paint before applying mineral spirits.

Then, prep the surface with a scuffing pad. This will create tiny etches all over the metal for the primer to latch onto.

4. Apply the Right Primer for the Job

Like any proper paint job, you’ll want to start with a primer. The best primer for your project depends on the type of metal you’re painting and whether your decor is an indoor or outdoor piece.

Skip latex-based primers that are prone to flaking and chipping and opt for oil-based primers instead. In some cases, particularly for indoor objects that don’t get hot, you may also use water-based acrylic paint, just be sure to check the label and confirm the paint will work for metal.

Here are some primer options based on the type of metal want to paint.

  • Exterior metal or metals exposed to moisture: Rust-converting or rust-inhibiting primers help prevent rust from forming (and recurring) on metal.

  • Rusted metal: Zinc chromate primer is formulated to cover rust for a smoother application, perfect for when you can’t completely remove all the rust from your surface.

  • Smooth metals (such as aluminum, steel, or copper): Galvanized metal primers are suited for smooth metals that paints have a hard time sticking to, like aluminum. You can also use self-etching primers, which will stick to the metal you scuffed in step three.

5. Choose Water- or Oil-Based Paint

Hand holding brush painting iron fence
dontree_m/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Once you have the best primer for the job, you’ll need to choose the right paint for your metal surface.

  • Water-based paint: Use water-based paint for indoor projects only, as it tends to chip faster than oil-based paints.

  • Oil-based paint: Oil-based paint is more durable than water-based paint and is the best paint for outdoor metal pieces. Just plan for longer drying times and maybe wear a mask to combat those stronger fumes.

  • High-heat paint: Look for high-heat aerosol enamel paint or a high-heat oil-based paint to refresh and protect objects that get really hot, like radiators, grills, or fireplace surrounds.

6. Use the Right Tool

Man spray painting metal furniture
AleksandarNakic/E+ via Getty Images

Knowing which tool to use for the job will also help ensure your paint lasts. Should you use a brush, roller, or spray paint? There are pros and cons to both, but your choice will ultimately depend on what, specifically, you plan to paint.

  • Spray paint: Best for getting an even coating (no brush strokes) on irregularly shaped objects with lots of nooks and crannies. This method is your quickest, fastest-drying option for painting metal, but because it sprays a thinner coat, the paint won’t last as long.

  • Brush or roller: Best if used on windy days for more control over where your paint lands. Though this method takes longer, it applies a thicker coat on outdoor items that need greater protection from wind, sun, and rain.

7. Seal the Paint

To prevent chipping, rusting, or fading, you should spread a clear-coated sealer over the paint layer. Just remember to let the paint cure for up to 48 hours before applying the sealer. 

Be sure to choose a sealant that is meant for painted metal, as some sealers are made only for bare metal. You can apply sealer with a sprayer, roller, or paintbrush.

8. Consider Electrostatic Painting

Electrostatic painting is a specialized process that uses an electrical current to transfer paint to a metal surface with minimal overspray, resulting in the smoothest, longest-lasting paint application. 

A project like this requires an electrostatic painting professional, but the results typically include a warranty and offer the best look compared to DIY painting methods.

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