How to Paint RC Car Bodies

How to Paint RC Car Bodies
Back in the day, just about every RC car kit came with a clear polycarbonate body that required many hours to trim, mask, detail and paint before it could actually be used. With the advent of ready to run RC cars, which usually come with pre-painted bodies, custom body painting seems to have become somewhat of a lost art form. But there is no need to fear this aspect of our great hobby. With a little time, patience and know-how, you too can be popping a completely unique body on your latest ride, making it the envy of all your friends and competitors. To get you started, we'll teach you everything you need to know to paint a body of your very own. For this article we'll be painting a Pro-Line Jeep Wrangler body thanks to our friends over at A-Main Hobbies. However, these how-to instructions can be used to paint anything from a tiny body for a Losi Micro-T to a giant lid for the Losi 5IVE, and everything in between.

Things to Know
Before we get started, there are a few things you should know. This article is aimed at RC car hobbyists who are looking to paint RC car body made of polycarbonate or Lexan. Those are the bodies that are constructed of a flexible clear plastic, not the bodies that are made of a hard white or black plastic. Many of the steps included here will help with the painting of hard bodies but there are some distinct differences. For one, polycarbonate bodies are painted from the inside, while hard bodies are painted from the outside. Also, hard bodies can be painted with your run of the mill hardware store spray paint, but polycaronate bodies require a special paint that is designed specifically for them. You definitely don't want to use regular spray paint on these bodies as it will begin to flake off after the first hard hit the body takes.
Lexan compatible paints
Lexan compatible paints
For those wondering, Lexan and polycarbonate are the same thing. Polycarbonate is a type of flexible thermoplastic. Lexan is the brand name of the polycarbonate sold by General Electric. When looking for paint for these bodies, just make sure it's advertised for use with Lexan or polycarbonate. Either will work.

Triming and Mounting
Before you start prepping the body for paint, you need to decide whether you want to trim and mount the body before or after painting. Some guys like to do their trimming last, but I prefer to do it first. I've found it to be much easier to get the body mounted straight and the wheel wells lined up correctly while the body is clear. You're also less likely to scratch the paint if you do your trimming before painting.
Supplies needed to trim and paint an RC car body
Supplies needed to trim and paint an RC car body
There are a few ways to trim a Lexan RC car body. When I first started in this hobby, I used nothing more than a small pair of scissors to cut everything out. It was time consuming and frustrating, but if that's all you've got, it can be done. Since then I've learned some of the tricks of the trade that can make things much easier that I'd like to pass along. The easiest way I've found to trim these bodies is to use a razor blade or xacto knife to very carefully score the body along the desired trim lines. Then all you have to do is bend the plastic back away from the scored line and the plastic will split cleanly.
Scoring the rc car body with an xacto knife
Scoring the body with an xacto knife
Bending back against the rc car body score line
Bending back against the score line
A nice clean line from the score and bend method
A nice clean line from the score and bend method
This technique works best along straight lines but it can also be used around wheel wells. The trick here is to make a cut with a small pair of scissors up the center of the wheel well so you can bend each half of the wheel well back against its scored line. Many companies such as Tamiya, Duratrax and Dubro also make small curved scissors that are designed for this task. They won't do you much good on straight cuts, but they'll definitely make cutting intricate curved sections much easier.
Curved RC body scissors make things much easier
Curved RC body scissors make things much easier
Once you've got the body trimmed neatly, you'll want to mark the holes for your body mounts with a marker. To cut the holes you can use an ordinary drill bit or a special tool that is made for the job. Many of the same companies that make curved body scissors also make a tool called a "body reamer" which allows you to carefully drill body mounting holes to the perfect size.
Finishing things up with a dremel
Finishing things up with a dremel
Prep Work
Ask anyone auto body painter what the most important part of a paint job is and they'll tell you it's all in the prep work. It doesn't matter if you have the most expensive paint or the best airbrush, if the body isn't prepped correctly the final product won't look good. Since RC car bodies are thermoformed over a mold, they usually have some small amount of mold release left on them from the factory. To remove this you need to thoroughly clean the inside of the body with dish detergent and warm (notice I didn't say HOT) water. Then make sure to completely dry it with a lint free cloth.
Clean the body thoroughly with dish soap
Clean the body thoroughly with dish soap
This is usually the most prep you'll need but some people also recommend lightly scuffing up the inside of the body with a scotchbrite pad or fine sandpaper to give the paint more "tooth" to stick to. While I usually skip this step, I'm mentioning it for those who want to go that extra mile and to give a few tips on the subject. First off, if you are going to scuff up the body, make sure you don't do it over the windows or any other place you want to keep clear. This scuffed surface won't be noticeable once paint is applied but it'll definitely make your windows look foggy. Also, you don't want to scuff surfaces that you are planning to paint chrome as it will give it a scratchy brushed aluminum look.

Once you have the body cleaned you'll want to be careful not to touch the inside of it with your fingers from this point on. Believe it or not, the oil from your fingers will prevent the paint from sticking and can give you fingerprints in the paint. If you absolutely must touch the inside of the body, use a pair of powder free rubber gloves.

Masking and Design
Now that we've got the body ready for paint, we need to think of what we want it to look like. If it's going to be one solid color then all you have to worry about is masking the windows. This is usually pretty simple since almost every RC car body sold these days, like our Pro-Line, includes pre-cut window masks. Just don't make the rookie mistake of placing them on the outside of the body. 😂
Applying the window masks
Applying the window masks
Window masks applied
Window masks applied
If the paint job is going to be more complex you'll need to decide the order of your paint. Since most paint colors aren't completely opaque you have to do your best to paint darker colors first and lighter colors last. If you don't, that bright yellow might turn into an ugly dark green after you back it with black. Just remember, always paint the darks first and lights last. As you can see I'm following this rule by masking the lighter colored logos off so I can lay down some dark blue on the main body. Also, most opaque colors will be fine if backed with the next lighter color in your paint scheme, but transparent paints like florescent and candies are designed to be backed with white or silver paint. Not only does this prevent the next color from bleeding through, it also makes those colors pop!
Some custom cut logos to spice things up
Some custom cut logos to spice things up
When it comes to masking materials, it's all personal preference. Some guys like to use liquid mask while others prefer ordinary masking tape. For this body I'm using a combination of blue masking tape and vinyl that I cut on my plotter. If you are using liquid mask you'll want to follow the manufacturer's directions for applying it. It's usually sprayed or brushed on in a heavy fashion so you can easily cut and peel it later on.
Ordinary paper works great for masking larger areas
Ordinary paper works great for masking larger areas
Whether you plan to use liquid mask or masking tape, you'll eventually need to mark where your design will be. The easiest method is to use a sharpie marker to draw the design on the outside of the body. You can use this time to test multiple designs and remove those you don't like with denatured alcohol. Any left over lines will come off with the protective film later on. Once you have your design laid out, you can cut it out with an xacto knife. The trick here is to barely cut through the tape or liquid mask, without cutting deeply into the body itself.

Painting
Now that everything is masked off, it's time to begin painting the body. When it comes to painting RC car bodies, there are three main ways to apply the paint. Those include using an ordinary paint brush, spraying it on with a can of spray paint, and using an air brush. Paint brushes give you direct control over how the paint is applied but they make it hard to get a nice even coverage of paint. Spray paint is super easy to use and lays down paint evenly but it doesn't give you a lot of control. Airbrushes sit somewhere in the middle with a lot more control than spray paint and a nice even coverage. For this body I'll be using a combination of spray paint for the main body and an airbrush for the smaller details such as the logos.
Keep that nozzle about 12 inches away from the body while spraying
Keep that nozzle about 12 inches away from the body while spraying
Regardless of which method you use, be sure to apply the paint in thin even coats. This is especially true for the first coat as too heavy an application can cause the paint to leak under your masking tape. It might take longer to apply multiple thin coats than one thick one but you'll be rewarded for your patience. If you're really impatient you can use a hair dryer or heat gun to help each coat of paint dry a bit quicker. Just use the lowest heat setting, keep the gun at least 12" from the surface, and keep it moving at all times. After all, you wouldn't want that new body melting into a giant lump of plastic, would you?
Always make that first coat of paint super thin
Always make that first coat of paint super thin
A few coats later and we're ready to spray the black on the roof
A few coats later and we're ready to spray the black on the roof
Finishing Things Up
Now that you've got your body painted it's time to finish things up. The first things you'll want to do is remove the window masks and protective film. This is where the body really comes to life. The majority of the time the protective film will have prevented any overspray from getting on the outside of the body but for those few times paint still gets on the body you can use a little denatured alcohol to remove it. Be 100% sure you've removed the overspray film from your body before going onto the next step.
Removing rc car body window masks
Removing window masks
Gotta love pulling that protective film off!
Gotta love pulling that protective film off!
Cutting out RC car decals with an xacto
Cutting out RC car decals with an xacto
Applying the decals
Applying the decals
The final step is to apply your decals. Most decal sheets that are included with RC car bodies require you to cut around each decal with an xacto knife or razor blade. It's time consuming but if you have a steady hand it isn't too hard do. For added help you can use a ruler to guide your knife along the straight edges of each decal to get a nice clean line. Once you have your decals applied your body is ready to rock and roll. Congrats on painting your first RC car body!

Now if only we had a wicked ride to put this body on...
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