DIY Painting & Finishing

How To: Paint Stainless Steel

Try a fresh coat of color to salvage those pieces you’d rather not replace.
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How to Paint Stainless Steel Lockers

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Stainless steel is strong, durable, and easy-care, but aesthetically its high-tech, industrial vibe can leave you cold after a while. Luckily, you can bring warmth, color, and texture to everything from shelving and tables to cabinets and countertops—you can even redo that teakettle in a snazzy new shade—using oil-based paint. Once you clean, prep, and prime surfaces properly, choose an application technique for how to paint stainless steel—brush, roller, or sprayer—based on the results you hope to achieve. The best news? The more beat-up your stainless, the better it will take paint!

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Step 1

Protect floors and (if using a sprayer) walls and nearby furniture with drop cloths and/or plastic sheeting. Remove drawer pulls, hinges, or other hardware from the piece as necessary. Tape off any areas you want to remain free of paint.

Step 2

Unlike porous surfaces such as wood, metal must be abraded for paint to bond. If your stainless steel is already scuffed up thanks to years of use, simply scour it manually all over with a wire brush or steel wool to obtain necessary roughness. Newer, sleeker stainless steel will need a thorough going-over with an orbital hand sander (you can rent one from a home improvement store for about $16 a day). Don protective goggles and apply just enough pressure to keep the sander in contact with the surface. You’ll want to tackle every inch, but for best results, pause periodically to wipe away dust with a clean cloth.

Step 3

Clean the surface to further promote paint adherence. A water-based degreaser like Mothers (view on Amazon) should banish fingerprints, oil, grease, wax, soap, soil, and lotions; more stubborn stuff, like baked-on cooking grease, may require an ammonia-based degreaser (or a specialized stainless steel cleaner like Simple Green One-Step Cleaner and Polish, also available on Amazon. In any case, take care to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for application, dwell time, and safety. Let dry thoroughly.

Step 4

Apply a high quality primer rated for stainless steel that’s compatible with your choice of paint. Unless your finished product will be in a very dark color, white primer is your best bet. Apply with a brush, roller, or sprayer and allow to dry per manufacturer’s directions.

How to Paint Stainless Steel

Step 5

Decide on the effect you want for the finished piece. A brush lends a ridged, textured look that you can accentuate further by daubing or swiping with a rag or sponge. Use a roller for large surfaces and to gain a somewhat textured look. Apply with a sprayer for smooth results.

When using a sprayer:

  • Protect the surrounding area with drop cloths and/or plastic sheeting. If painting a small item, place it inside a box to contain splatter.
  • Wear eye protection and a paint respirator, and work in a ventilated area.
  • Hold the nozzle 12 to 18 inches away from the project.
  • Spray with a wide mist in one direction only so that the grain of the paint will look consistent.

Whatever technique you choose, apply two to three coats of paint to the stainless steel, allowing sufficient dry time in between.

Step 6

When the final coat is completely dry, finish with wax (car wax works fine!) or marine varnish. If you want to give it a natural sheen, apply a thin coat of wax to the entire surface with a sponge, letting it dry until it gains a hazy look; buff with a clean, dry cloth. For a “clear coat” look, opt for marine varnish.