Help Me, Rhonda! Motorcycle Painting

A professional painter and paint-company rep tells how to find a painter for your custom motorcycle. By Evans Brasfield.

Want to know? Ask a pro. Ever since I wrote the custom paint article for the April '97 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser I've been interested in what painters have to say about their craft. When I met Rhonda Hoffman, then a professional bike painter and former rep for a paint company, at Daytona Bike Week 1997, the conversation naturally turned to how she thought cruisers should approach choosing painters for their custom motorcycles.

Being a professional, Rhonda felt that cruisers should not choose a painter for their motorcycles based on price alone. Instead, she has devised a five-point system to assist people looking for the right painter for their situation.

First, select a shop that specializes in motorcycles. Second, find a shop whose style is appealing. Third, look for a warranty. Fourth, does the shop use current equipment? Fifth, is the cost of the paint scheme in the right price range? Why this system in this order? Painters are artists working in a technical medium. Compromising or ignoring one of these steps could lead to less than desirable results.

Shops specializing in motorcycles know what they're getting. Motorcycle parts require more hand preparation than autos. Also, the varied substances bike parts are made out of require different stripping and priming techniques. This not only affects the paint's durability, but also, the look of certain paints may not be the same on metal and plastic. Motorcycle painters need to use specialized jigs to hold the parts in position during painting. Small parts require special equipment to insure proper coverage. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, motorcycle painters know how bikes look when they're assembled. Who wants a paint scheme where the stripes on the front and rear fenders point in different directions?

Good painters want to show their work. Most motorcycle painters have a bike or two around for customers to view. Ask to see their photo album. Study the painter's style. "Some painters do only pictures, some graphics, some trick paint," says Hoffman. "Also, all custom painters have their 'look.' For instance, some have long, flowing flames while some have short, heavy flames." Matching the painter's style to the envisioned scheme pays dividends. Remember, a painter's book is his or her audition. Check several shops before bringing in bodywork. Be sure to ask for references, too.

Since she spent time working for a paint distributor, Rhonda suggests a shop that offers a warranty. Warranties can be either from the paint manufacturer or from the shop itself. If a manufacturer's warranty is offered, the shop will display a sign outlining the terms. Manufacturers who issue warranties usually require that the painter be trained and tested for certification. Before a shop qualifies for a manufacturer's warranty, the facility will also be inspected. Finally, manufacturer's warranties require that only one brand of paint be used. Hoffman stresses that "mixing brands of today's paint could compromise the durability of the final product." She suggests that customers ask what brand of paint the shop will apply to be certain only one will be used.

As far as what type of paint works best, Hoffman recommends urethane or epoxy and warns against lacquer (unless it is a "trick" paint that is only available in lacquer), which may not hold up well against exposure to gas. Lacquer's vulnerability to fuel comes from its reversibility. Lacquer, when it dries, is still lacquer and can still be thinned by a solvent or thinner. Since gas can act as a solvent, carelessness at the fuel pump can damage lacquer paints. Products like urethane or epoxy, which mix two or three parts to form a new compound that cannot be reversed, provide a more durable finish. Remember, shops that offer their own warranty are confident enough in the quality of their work and materials to back up their craftsmanship with a contract.

One way to investigate if a shop is keeping up with current paint technology is to look at its equipment. Spray booths are a must—both for a dust-free work area and for the filtration necessary to minimize harm to the environment. Up-to-date shops won't reek of fumes. Painters should use HVLP (high-volume, low-pressure) gravity-feed spray guns, operating on compressed air that is filtered with a refrigerant dryer system. The dryer assures that the air lines contain no moisture that can mix with the paint and cause premature paint failure. HVLP guns put the paint on the parts, not in the air.

While current paint and hardware technology improve the look and durability of custom schemes, some people are still envious of the $200 paint jobs available for cars—even though those paint jobs sometimes don't last as long as a good coat of wax. Hoffman cautions, "Don't let price be your first priority. If you can't afford what you want, wait or cut back on the detail. It costs more to fix bad work than to do it right the first time." What should cruisers expect? Reasonable turnaround time, although more complicated designs do take longer. A shiny, dust-free surface is the advantage of hiring an expert painter with top-notch equipment. Unless you have access to proper facilities, Hoffman feels people should not paint their own bikes. A multicolored paint scheme could cost the non-professional painter as much as having a pro handle the project. Aside from the quality and cost concerns, do-it-yourselfers may expose themselves to toxic fumes.

With a little research, choosing the right painter and—as a direct result—obtaining a paint scheme that will make any cruiser stand out, can be both fun and easy. Ignoring one of Rhonda Hoffman's five steps could lead to a disappointing finish.

To learn more about author Evans Brasfield, Motorcycle Cruiser's former associate editor, visit his website.

For more articles on how to customize and modify your motorcycle, see the Custom section of

For more articles on how to maintain and modify your motorcycle, see the Tech section of

_We met Rhonda Hoffman at Daytona Bike Week in 1997, when we photographed her traffic-stopping customized Honda Magna. She created the custom motorcycle's stunning design using "prism" paint, which changes color depending on how the light hits it. You can see this effect at the rear of the tank. At the time, she was custom-painting motorcycles full time, and had previously been a paint manufacturer's rep and trouble-shooter. When this article was written, Hoffman was running Planet Cruiser. More recently her custom Ducati Monster won the 2006 DC round of Ducati's Monster Challenge. _Photography by fabulous Fran Kuhn.
If the right shop quotes a price that isn't within the scope of your budget, consider a paint job with less detail.