How To Turn Your Home Shop Into An Easy-To-Use Paint Booth

Like many of you, when I was a kid, I loved reading car magazines. Any magazine that had an article about painting, definitely came home with me. My absolute favorite articles were about painting at home in your garage or driveway. But, what is the reality of painting at home? Can the average enthusiast get good results painting a car in their garage? The answer is yes.

Thanks to advances in paint and equipment technology, painting is easier than ever. That is, if you follow some basic rules. More about the rules later. First, let’s talk about setting up your home shop for paint and body.

Yes, it is possible to get smooth, clean clearcoat in your home shop. This 1967 Firebird was not painted in a professional paint booth.

Clean And Organize Your Shop

It can’t be stressed enough that you need to start off with a clean shop, but why clean it, only to cover all that neatness with bodywork and paint dust? Starting with a clean shop makes it easier to keep it clean throughout the process. You should clean the shop every day, but because you’re only cleaning up after that day’s work, the cleaning is easier and goes faster. It is a lot of work, but will make all the difference in your paint job. Start by taking everything you can move, out of the shop (i.e. those crates of greasy parts, the clutter of old parts laying under the bench or stacked in the corners, etc).

Next, sweep and vacuum every inch of the shop. Make sure to get all those spiderwebs in the corners of the ceiling. Any clutter on the workbench(es) needs to be boxed up. Label the boxes, so you’ll later be able to find that “special” bolt that you left by the vise. Wipe down all surfaces of the shop: toolbox, bench, refrigerator, and walls. Invest in a few rolls of heavy-duty painter’s plastic to wrap the boxes and any large parts. Try and stack everything neatly in out-of-the-way places in the shop.

Here, I’m spraying clearcoat on the Firebird in my homemade “paint booth.”

Create a “Clean” Atmosphere

Body-filler dust and over spray will accumulate everywhere during the bodywork and paint process. Cover all equipment, like welders or engine hoists, and things like shop fridges with the plastic. For example, that place under the workbench where you store things? Tape a piece of plastic along the edge of the workbench, creating a curtain that drapes to the floor. If need be, cut a slot in the plastic to reach things. A few pieces of well-placed tape can act as closures.

While you’re working, use a fan (or fans) to move the dust and over spray in the air, out of the shop. Never blow the sanding dust out of the shop with compressed air. It will go everywhere. Take the time to gently sweep or wipe it up and dispose of it.

Clean Up Your Air System

Anyone who has used an air tool, like a Dual-Action Sander (DA) or die grinder, for extended periods of time has experienced water coming out of the air hose. It’s simple to help keep your air system clean and dry, as there are several low-cost remedies.

Here’s a low-cost way to help keep water out of your air tool or spray gun. Attach a 25-foot air hose to the outlet on the compressor and loop it several times. Attach the loops to the wall next to the compressor. By running the hot air of the compressor through this, it gives the air a chance to cool off, and most of the condensation stays in the loops. That means less water gets into the shop’s air lines.

Ever see someone mount a water separator right after their compressor? That’s not a good idea. The air coming out of the compressor is hot, and as the air cools in the air lines (after the separator), condensation forms. One way to make a low-tech air drier is to connect a 25-foot air hose to the compressor, roll it up, and attach it to the wall. Then, hook another hose to it. This rolled hose will give the air a chance to cool, and the condensation remains in the coils.

Some shops have hard lines with water separators at the air outlets, and some will have a single air hose that goes directly from the compressor to the spray gun or air tool. If your shop is like the latter, then take the time to hook up a water separator to that air hose. Attach a separator to the wall, then run a second air hose from the separator to the tool or spray gun. This will help keep the water from getting into your paint. If you still have water coming out of the end of the air hose, a simple, inexpensive inline water filter should do the trick. They mount directly to the end of your air tool or spray gun. You can buy them at a home improvement store for less than $15. Always make sure to drain the water of out of your air compressor on a weekly basis.

This diagram shows the standard air line set up for the average shop. By keeping the level of the shop’s air lines a little higher than the air outlet for the compressor, it helps keep the water at the compressor end of the lines.

Lighting Your Paint Area

If you’ve been waiting to add more lights to your shop, this is the perfect time. For the perfect paint job, your going to need not only lights on the ceiling, but also, on the walls of the shop. It’s low cost and easy to create your own “booth” lights. Using an LED light fixture (about $20 each at the home improvement store), you can stand it on end and add 2x4s to create a base. You will have portable lighting that will illuminate the sides of the car. You can move these lights to wherever you need them in the shop. For around $125 you can fabricate four of these lights.

This is an old “paint booth” light I made 20 years ago. All that’s needed is 4 to 6 LED shop-light fixtures and some 2x4s. Measure and cut a 2×4 to fit on the back of the light fixture, fabricate a base and attach it to the end of the light. These can be moved where ever they’re needed. Single-LED work lights can also come in handy lighting up dark areas in the shop.

Create A Curtain Wall

You’ll want to save this step until you’ve completed the bodywork and priming, and are ready for color. To create a temporary curtain wall or makeshift spray booth, you’ll need a 100-foot roll of 4- to 6-mil plastic. Using a staple gun, cover the ceiling of the shop. If you have hanging lights, take them down and clean them. Run the plastic over the ceiling, then reinstall the lights. If you have lights directly mounted to the ceiling, run the plastic over the light fixtures. Only do this with fluorescent or LED lights.

Next, decide how much working room you’ll need around the car to paint. Run a plastic curtain along that measurement, stapling the top of the curtain to the ceiling. Cut off any excess that lays on the floor. Make sure to leave a gap along the floor in the front and in the back of your “room” to allow for air flow.

Here’s a view of the plastic curtain walls I hung in my shop. The floor is also covered with plastic, as the over spray can land on the floor. If you have a nice epoxy coating on the floor, you might want to consider protecting it like I did here. An advantage of creating a plastic sheeting curtain-wall paint area, is you can make it as big as your garage if you want. Here we had plenty of room to arrange all the parts of the car.

The Rules

The above steps are sure to help you put together a temporary paint booth so you can paint at home. If you follow the above steps, you should be able to get the quality results you are looking to achieve. Remember the “rules” I mentioned at the beginning? Below are some simple rules that can certainly help you achieve great results.

  • Keep it clean. Any dust or dirt that is on a surface of the shop might get into the paint.
  • Silicone and oil are the enemies of paint. Never spray things like WD40 or tire shine in or around your shop while there’s any kind of bodywork or paint going on. One time a friend was spraying tire shine outside my shop. It drifted in through the door and landed on the surface of the car and ruined the paint! Think of your shop as a “silicone-free” zone from the start of bodywork until the last coat of clear is sprayed.
  • Don’t cheap-out when it comes to bodywork and paint products. You don’t have to use the most expensive products, but do the research and find good-quality products to use. Your paintjob is only as good as the products used.
  • Make sure to invest in several disposable paint suits with hoods. Wear one when priming to protect you from the paint. Save the other for the base and clearcoat. Most of the dust that will get into a paintjob will come from the painter.
  • Wear the proper respirator and keep it in a zipped plastic bag when not using it.
  • To save your hands, pick up a box of Nitrile gloves. Use them whenever you are using chemicals like thinner, and mixing or spraying paint. I even wear them when doing bodywork to save my hands and to keep oil from my hands from getting on the paint surface.
  • Be aware of any HOA or zoning rules in your area about painting at home. The last thing you want to see is a town official pulling up because your neighbor complained about paint fumes coming from your garage.

Chances are those plastic curtain-walls will be up for a while. You’re going to get tired of them. I sure did. The paint process for the Firebird lasted two weeks, as I had to paint Real Fire flames on the car. A quick solution was to take down the curtain wall on the side of the garage that had the toolboxes and work bench, leaving the plastic hanging on the ceiling and the other three sides. Once the artwork was complete, it was easy to hang up a new curtain wall on that one side and clearcoat over the artwork, finishing the paint process.

Now that your shop is ready for bodywork and paint, always remember the best tool in the shop is common sense. Think your way through the process. The bodywork and paint phase of a car build is not the time to be impatient or spontaneous. Good Luck with all your painting projects!

About the author

JoAnn Bortles

JoAnn Bortles is an award winning custom automotive painter, airbrush artist, certified welder/fabricator, author, and photo journalist with over 30 years of experience in the automotive industry.
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