Giving Your Motorcycle Some Custom Color

Painting is more than just buying a can of Krylon

Face it, a bike isn't truly custom until it's been painted. Nothing short of changing the physical layout of a motorcycle affects its looks as much as custom paint. Look at any of the custom bikes on Cruiser and you'll see that the color scheme usually ties the whole bike together, providing the theme. A quality paint job can make an average bike exceptional. Poorly applied paint can, well, ruin a good bike.

Painting your motorcycle
Painting is more than just buying a can of Krylon.Photography by Dean Groover

With so much at stake, how can you assure that, when you lay down the cash for a custom paint job, you’ll be happy with the results? As with any project, the time spent in research and preparation pays off.

Many people find it hard to believe that painting motorcycles is more complicated than simply sanding the parts and spraying on a couple coats of their favorite color. While owners who clearly care about their motorcycles do this, a good-looking paint job requires a series of steps. For example, a simple two-tone scheme has a minimum of three different layers of material. This is not three coats of paint, each layer has multiple coats of that component. The paint you see on a bike (starting with the bare metal and moving out) consists of primer, color coats and clear coat. Add multiple layers of graphics, and custom painting can be very complicated.

Classic custom paint step 1 primed
Our Classic custom starts at Gerard Design as a set of Kawasaki’s new primed body work. Although Tatone felt the Kawasaki parts were well made and had quality primer (unlike some aftermarket parts that must be stripped), he still sanded and reprimed them to be certain the parts lived up to his high standards.Photography by Dean Groover

To give readers the inside skinny on painting, we enlisted two hot painters whose work has graced the pages of past print issues of Motorcycle Cruiser and other magazines. Jim Tatone, owner of Gerard Design, has had his designs featured in Motorcyclist, Sport Rider, Hot Rod Bikes, and on a Cruiser custom ACA Vulcan Classic. Tom Prewitt and Richard Perez, co-owners of Damons Motorcycle Creations, have had their handiwork on numerous Cobra and Time Machine bikes. Clearly, these guys know what they're doing.

Sandblasting before painting
Since the Valkyrie project at Damons was removed from a fully painted production bike, Prewitt stripped the parts down to the bare metal. Here, he sandblasts the paint from a dimple caused by a dropped disk lock.Photography by Dean Groover

When asked what someone should look for in a paint shop, both Tatone and Prewitt stressed the importance of going to a shop that specializes in motorcycles. Tatone warns readers away from auto body shop painters, saying they almost always offer the lowest bid, but often don’t know what they’re getting into with motorcycle paint. Once they realize the intricacy required, they either take a long time, return inferior work or both. However, don’t simply assume that someone who specializes in motorcycles will produce the quality work you want. Find out how long they’ve been painting motorcycles (Tatone and Prewitt have owned their businesses for seven and eight years, respectively), and ask to see some examples. Photos are a good way to see a wide variety of designs and get a feel for what you want your bike to look like, but the only way to truly gauge a painter’s ability is to see their work in the flesh. (A walk through either Damons or Gerard Design reveals not only the scope of their customer base but the quality of workmanship at every stage of the process.) Finally, ask for some references.

Removing badge glue for custom paint
To facilitate the pulling of the dent, a bar is spot-welded to the center of the impression. Note the residue left by the glue holding the Valkyrie badge to the tank. A chemical soak and lots of elbow grease are required to remove this stuff.Photography by Dean Groover

A great deal of trust is required when arranging to have your bike painted. Communicating what you want (unless you have drawings) can often be difficult. Ideally, you should be convinced that the painter understands the “feel” (not a very precise word but we deliberately didn’t give our painters very precise directions when we gave them our bodywork) of what you want, and you should be comfortable allowing your painter to use his or her artistic ability to expand your idea into something special.

Other customers’ experiences should be a good gauge of what you can expect, not just of quality of workmanship and communication skills, but also of the timeliness of the work’s completion. If you miss that big rally where you planned to unveil your dazzling new colors, you might not feel the paint job was a success no matter how great it looked. And we hear scores of tales of paint jobs that were delivered after the specified date, even from respected painters. Tell the painter up front if you need the bike by a certain date. In defense of the practitioners of the art of painting, many factors can delay their progress, most notably, weather. Using a spare set of bodywork—like Kawasaki’s primered pieces—can help here. Still, if a painter consistently doesn’t return your phone calls or fails to deliver estimates when promised, don’t expect his behavior to improve once your bodywork is in his possession.

More sanding for custom paint
Once the dent has been pulled out, the bar is cut off and ground flush to the tank’s surface. Any remaining imperfections will be repaired with filler and more sanding.Photography by Dean Groover

Prewitt and Tatone differed slightly when discussing what was required to paint your own bike at home. Prewitt has tried to help people with the prep work and painting, but new tougher EPA restrictions are just around the corner. Where formerly only professional paint shops were required to use volatile organic compound (VOC) compliant paints, manufacturers will soon be restricted from selling non-VOC-compliant paints —such as lacquers—to anyone. The days of the backyard painter may soon be a thing of the past. Tatone points out that any savings of doing it yourself will be minimal because colors cost around $40–80 a quart (with some colors as high as $150) and you still face the expense of renting the appropriate equipment (compressor, hoses, gun, regulators and booth). Tatone also warned of the dangerous nature of most of the chemicals used in paints, even today’s eco-friendly paints. Simply put, if used incorrectly, the chemicals found in paint fumes can make you sick or kill you. Finally, Tatone pointed out that only paint shops have the ability to create the dust-free environment necessary for quality painting. Most paint booths draw air through walls of filter material. Large fans create a vacuum which moves air from the front of the booth to the rear. The moving air collects atomized paint and fumes and carries them out through exit filters.

Priming fender
Here Tatone applies the primer to the Classic’s fender. Today’s HVLP paint guns produce so little overspray that it’s difficult for an observer to see the paint in the air.Photography by Dean Groover

Since painters are hired for jobs varying from matching OEM paints on damaged bikes to creating traffic-stopping show bikes, we asked Damons and Gerard Design to complete two projects each. Gerard Design agreed to paint our long-term Vulcan Classic. Our only requests were that the colors should be creme and burgundy and the layout reflect an understated traditional look. Gerard Design’s second project was a custom-painted helmet, which would be a “painter’s choice” in a cruiser theme. Tatone decided to design a scalloped paint scheme for the Classic and suggested that we use a white background instead of creme.

Sanding primed parts
A Damons technician block sands the primed parts before any colors are applied. The sanding block is a thin piece of rubber that the sandpaper is wrapped around to conform to the shape of the part. The black buildup on the Valkyrie’s fender comes from the guide coat that painters apply to assist them in finding small surface imperfections. Any guide coat remaining marks indentations in the part’s surface that require filling.Photography by Dean Groover

Damons' two projects were full-on custom paint for our long-term Valkyrie, and color-matching the Marauder's OEM paint on the stock chromed plastic side panels. Prewitt conducted an interview-style meeting about the Valkyrie's paint. Going through his photo albums, he asked what appealed to us as he took notes. At the end of the meeting he said the Valkyrie's paint would be a light background color with multicolored 3-D graphic treatments (with one of the colors matching the violet we'd chosen for anodizing the Valkyrie's fork).

Laying down the first coats of paint
Here Tatone applies the first of four coats of the base color to the Classic’s fender. The four coats of paint ensure uniform color coverage of the base coat color without the risk of paint running.Photography by Dean Groover

Paint needs a couple things to do its job. The first and possibly most important of which is a good surface to adhere to. Old paint needs to be stripped off. Some shops use chemical strippers, but Prewitt recommends sand-blasting. The old paint gets removed and the metal is left with a surface rough enough for paint to adhere to. Imperfections, such as dents or waves in the metal, need to be filled and block sanded to keep the part’s clean lines.

Taping graphics for custom paint
All paint designs require a good eye and a steady hand while taping the graphics. To ensure clean lines, the graphic is first laid out with striping tape for the hard edge. The base coat must be allowed to dry completely (preferably overnight) before tape is applied or the tape may damage the base coat.Photography by Dean Groover

Next, primer’s tenacious nature makes it grab on the bare metal and filler, and it also fills in the ultrafine scratches on the metal’s surface. However, the primer isn’t just one coat that gets slapped on. Two coats of etching primer are applied to thoroughly coat the part’s bare metal. After drying overnight, primer/surfacer covers and fills any small surface imperfections. A guide coat of a contrasting primer color gets spattered over the fill coat to assist the painter in a final check of the surface smoothness. Once it has been sanded perfectly smooth, the sealer prepares the primer to receive the color coats by providing the base coat with a surface conducive to adhesion.

Masking tape outlining for custom paint
Masking tape fills in the smaller spaces left by the striping tape, followed by thicker masking tape and masking paper.Photography by Dean Groover
Multicolored graphics for custom paint
Multicolored graphics require masking for each layer of color. The violet and silver graphic can be seen under the tape.Photography by Dean Groover

Changes in paint and painting technology have swept through the industry in the last 10 years, spurred partly by the EPA, OSHA and partly by painter’s desire to create the best-looking paint jobs possible with a minimum exposure to hazardous chemicals. Today’s paints are blessed with both superior shine and durability, which is achieved by separating the paint’s color coats from the clear, shiny, protective coat. Today’s paints are better and less toxic than they ever have been and are continually improving.

Removing the masking to reveal custom paint
The moment of truth. The masking reveals the final look of the Classic’s tank. All that remains is clear coat, color-sanding and buffing. With round two of the Valkyrie graphics dry, the tape comes off exposing new details.Photography by Dean Groover
Gaps will be filled with pinstriping
The slight gap between the two colors on the right side will be covered by pinstriping.Photography by Dean Groover

After the two coats of the base color have dried, the painstaking process of taping the outline of the graphic begins and is repeated for every layer in the graphic. Tatone believes that the attention to detail in the masking process is what separates good from great paint jobs. Striping tape gives the graphic a clean line but must be pressed down firmly to set it in place to guarantee that no paint blossoms underneath leaving a rough edge that will be difficult to hide, even with pinstriping. All areas that should not receive the graphic color must be securely covered or they may be marred with overspray. Fortunately, the EPA-mandated technology changes have resulted in today’s high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) spray guns which minimize overspray. The days of the painter working inside a cloud of paint are gone. Still, wearing a respirator and goggles is a necessity for anyone working in a paint booth.

Graphics complete for a custom paint job. Placed in drying room
After the graphics are complete, the parts are clear-coated and placed in a heated drying room to cure for three days. The Damons’ drying room shows the signs of a busy shop—lots of parts at different stages of the painting process. Note the paint on the frame below the Valkyrie parts.Photography by Dean Groover

Before the painted graphic is completely dry the masking must be removed. If the painter waits too long, the tape may pull chunks of paint from the graphic’s edge, resulting in a jagged line. The paint must then dry completely before the next layer can be masked off and the process can repeat itself. Prewitt recommends letting the paint dry overnight when absolute perfection is required of the paint job.

Pinstriping adds a finished touch to a custom paint
Pinstriping adds a finishing touch to a paint job by cleaning up the lines and highlighting the graphics. Often, custom lettering would be added at this point.Photography by Dean Groover

Since color coats dry to a matte finish that looks nothing like the finished product’s brilliance, Prewitt says that when customers come to see a work in progress, they often comment on how disappointed they are at the dullness of the colors. To assure nervous customers that the paint will be as saturated as they envisioned, Prewitt will wipe a clean wet rag on the paint, bringing out the wet look the cleared colors will ultimately have. Once the graphics have been completed, the parts receive their first two to three clear coats and are left to dry overnight. Next, the clear-coated parts get color-sanded. Similar to block-sanding, color-sanding removes any imperfections, such as the slight rise in the paint at seams between the graphic layers, from the paint’s finish. Dust and other debris are also removed by color-sanding. The super high gloss found in show quality paint jobs comes from extensive color-sanding and clear-coating. If any pinstriping, air brushing or custom lettering will be added to the paint scheme, it will be applied after color-sanding but prior to the second clear coat. Finally, after three days to a week of drying the final clear coat, the parts are buffed to the highest luster possible.

Air brushing shadows under graphics on custom paint
Air brushing shadows under graphics makes them appear to float over the part they’re painted on, giving an already complex design a 3-D effect.Photography by Dean Groover

According to Prewitt, top-notch, show-quality paint jobs differ from merely good paint in two noticeable ways. The first is the range of paints used. More colors require more masking and much more labor. The Valkyrie’s paint job had no less than eight colors carefully laid on it. He also states that painters need to stay in step with current technology. For example, Damons uses only DeVilbiss paint guns and is in the process of moving up to the new top-of- the-line gun featured in this article’s opening photo. However, he stresses that the most important difference in a show finish is that it has more clear coats, color sanding and rub-outs, giving an almost liquid look. If two bikes were given the same paint scheme but one had the show-clear treatment, the other would look the same from 10 feet away but close up the lines between the graphics could be seen and felt. Both of the painters delivered the absolutely seamless paint we expected thanks to their attention to detail and use of state-of-the-art equipment.

Clear coat for a custom paint job
The final clear coat assures that the paint has a strong protective cover over it and intensifies the wet look of the paint.Photography by Dean Groover

Even though we were present for every step of the painting process on both bikes, we weren’t prepared for the result. Gerard Design’s treatment of the Vulcan Classic gives a subtle look of distinction to the bike. While not eye-poppingly wild, the bike distinguishes itself from stock bikes—just the way we wanted it to. Tatone says the price for this stately paint job would be $1200 and would take two to four weeks turn around. The Damons Valkyrie paint scheme is designed to be an attention-getter. With this look, the bike can’t cut a low-profile. Prewitt places an $1800 price tag and a three- to four-week wait on the whiplash-inducing finish on the Valkyrie. Both Tatone and Prewitt stressed that the pricing of paint jobs varies with the complexity of the color scheme. Paint schemes can be molded to fit a budget. Gerard Design will paint your bike with prices ranging from $750 on up, depending on the design required. Similarly, Prewitt says Damons paint jobs average between $1000 and $2000. While a top-quality paint job isn’t cheap, having a motorcycle that looks the way you want, instead of the way the factory mandated, is worth every penny. Look for us out on the boulevard showing off our new colors.

Final buffing on custom paint
Prior to being shipped back to the customer, the pristine parts undergo a final buffing to complete the mirror finish that should result from a high-quality paint job.Photography by Dean Groover
Final product after custom paint
The final product will turn heads.Photography by Dean Groover