So you've got a gas tank, old or new, and you want to give it a new look or fix it up yourself. Well, you've found the right article. I recently bought a 1982 Yamaha Seca 750XJ and the tank was rusted to hell, so I decided to take it upon myself to make it look good again.
Below, I'll tell you how to get the best results.
What You'll Need
- Sanding block and sandpaper (wet and dry, 100 grit and 800 grit)
- Paint thinner
- Automotive spray paint primer
- Automotive spray paint (colour of your choice; I prefer the metallic ones)
- Automotive spray paint clear coat
- Automotive wax/scratch remover and buffer cloth
- Patience and time (anywhere from 3 days to a week)
A Note Before You Begin
Now before I go on, I just want to address those of you out there who are about to start hating on me for the process I used. Please remember this is the cheapest and (in my opinion) most rewarding way to do it.
About the paint: You can use any paint you want, the process is still the same, but I personally prefer spray cans. Some believe they give a shoddy-looking effect but honestly, I can say I've tried a few different ways, and my favourite for ease of use and cost effectiveness is the spray can. Now I'm not talking any old spray paint—you need the automotive stuff that you can pick up at your local automotive hardware store. I couldn't find it in paint shops but may have just been my luck.
How to Paint a Gas Tank
Okay, here's how to do it to get pretty much the exact same results as a professional paint shop. (Again, don't be hating, I say this because my buddy got his tank done professionally, and it looked absolutely no different than mine. His cost $400, mine cost $40.)
- First things first you need to get your tank off the bike. Now you want to make sure you close off any valves and whatnot so that when you start taking it off, gas isn't leaking everywhere. It sounds like common sense, but a lot of people forget to do this. Every bike is different, but for the most part, you usually have to take off the seat first, then there is usually a large bolt you unscrew that's keeping your tank on the frame, and then of course close off the valves and undo them from the tank or the bike. If you're having trouble with this part, do a quick Google search on how to take off your bike's gas tank—there should be lots of how-tos online, or refer to your manual if you have one.
- Tank's off? Good. Now we need to get started with protecting any openings or parts that you don't want to be painted (gas cap, hoses, and whatever else). If there isn't a lot of gas in the tank, I prefer emptying it and just cleaning it out. If you do this, you may also want to inspect the inside for any rust. (Older and some newer bikes can get rust on the inside of the tank, and that will most definitely start to cause problems, so take a look and if there is... well, that's another article, but you'll have to deal with that as well!) Okay, so as I was saying, if you're unable to get some things off don't worry, you can just tape them off with some painter's tape or masking tape.
- Now you need to start getting the original paint off, or rust, or whatever is currently on the bike that you don't want there anymore. Get the sandpaper, get the sanding block, and get a bucket of water. To start, I'd go with the 80-200 grit. Put some water on the tank and start sanding. NOTE: This takes awhile. My first time, I spent at least 10 hours sanding the tank. So you're sanding most of the paint away, maybe starting to see some of that pretty silver of the metal tank— this is good. When you've sanded at least 90% of the tank, not down to the metal but have at least given most of the paint a good sand, this is where it can start to get a bit easier.
- Get some paint thinner. I recommend getting a spray can full of it from an automotive hardware store, but just paint thinner and a shop cloth will do. Spray or dab some paint thinner on to the cloth and wipe down the entire tank. Leave it for a minute, maybe give it another wipe down, and go and grab a drink. Come back to it, and you'll notice that a lot of the paint has started to crack and bubble up. Start sanding again and most of the paint should be coming off easily. If necessary, you can repeat, but you probably only have to do it once or twice. NOTE: Please make sure you're doing this in a well-ventilated area, and follow any and all instructions on the labels of what you use.
- So you've got a nice shiny metal gas tank now, right? Or at least most of the way there? Good, let's move on to the fun part. Here, you want to give it a nice wipe down to get rid of any grit or paint flakes and dry it off. Now it's time for the primer. Give it a nice coat all over. The trick here is thin layers. Be sure to hold the can 8-10 inches away; otherwise, you'll get drips and then you have to go back to sanding it down. The first sweep with the spray can might cover 30%— you don't have to really lather it on. The second, you'll want to be a bit more methodical, going back and forth, making sure to keep good lines. This time, you want to cover 90% of the tank. The third time you spray, you want to do the same methodical back-and-forth but make sure to cover the full 100% of the tank. Check out the video below.
- So the primer is on now. Let it dry for about an hour or less, depending on the weather and the type, but usually an hour is more than good. Get the automotive spray paint you bought, and start doing the same as before. For your first coat, you'll keep it thin and go over about three times, the first time getting a good base (about 30% of the tank covered) the second covering about 90%, and in the third, you want to make sure you've coated the entire tank. Let this sit for about half an hour and then repeat in the same fashion. Once done, let it sit somewhere to dry thoroughly. I've found that this usually needs about a day or two and honestly, after all the work you've done, it's kind of nice to just let it sit for a bit and forget about it.
- Okay, so it's been a few days and the tank is looking good and dry. You want to get your sanding block out again and this time, fit on the 800 grit sandpaper. Start sanding again! Make sure you get the high and low spots (tiny dips in the tank that are almost invisible until you start sanding and notice there's a low spot). You don't want to be too aggressive on this as you're not trying to take the paint off, you're merely trying to flatten any dust or bugs that have gotten stuck to the paint while it was drying.
- After wiping it down with a wet cloth, you should be able to run your hand over it without feeling any tiny bumps. If you have over-sanded, you'll need to repeat the process with the paint, and then sand it again after it's dry (this time, with a lighter hand). Okay, so wipe off any dust with a wet cloth, dry it, and grab the clear coat. Spray on a clear coat the same way as before, three times, 1st time 30%, 2nd time 90%, and 3rd time 100% coverage. Let this dry and if you like, give it another coat. It doesn't necessarily need it, but I like giving it that extra protection. Once this is dry (which will take another day or so), grab that sand paper and block again, this is the last time I promise! Sand it with the 800 again, this time getting the whole tank but very lightly. Remember, this is only for dust and bugs that may have gotten stuck to the paint while drying.
- All done sanding?! Okay, you want to wipe it down again, making sure there is no dust or loose stuff on it, with a wet cloth is best, then dry it. Now grab some of that wax polish, put it on a soft cloth, and start buffering the tank. Rub it in nicely. I find this is where I start to really get some satisfaction as I can see the tank starting to shine and look really nice! Get the whole tank all waxed up and that's it.
- Now you can put it back on to your bike, take a step back, and look at the beauty of the freshly painted tank that you did yourself! Pat yourself on the back. Good job, mate!
- If you want designs on it or anything like that, before you put on the wax or the clear coat, you can tape off sections and do whatever you like. I've printed out designs and cut them out, then taped them on the tank, sprayed the cut-out and voila, you've got a design on there. Then just go back to step 8, put on the clear coat, and keep going.
Hope this helps you guys out. I know it's a bit long, but when I was doing it myself for the first time, I couldn't find anything that really gave all the instructions, just pieces here and there, so I wanted to be as in-depth as possible. Please feel free to give me feedback; I'm always open to constructive criticism! And if you have found a better way to do it let me know, I'd love to try it out!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
NadzPhotos (author) on May 03, 2020:
I’ve used rust-o-leum spray cans before.
If you have access to the spray gun and this access to paint that goes in it. And it’s the paint colour you want... I’d do that.
My post is more of a guide as I couldn’t find anything on the internet in one spot. And the spray cans I used were specific to getting the job done as cheap but as quality looking as possible.
So I’d use the paint gun if you can but the cans work too and may end up a cheaper option.
And no if you’re going for the matte look and it’s matte paint I believe they have their own protection. Is maybe do an additional layer or two to ensure it’s covered but probably not necessary
Alex on May 03, 2020:
Hey! Do you have a primer / paint you'd recommend? I'm hoping to do a matte black tank, but I have a few questions. Does it need a finishing coat since it's a matte color? Is it fine to use a spray can for painting it, or should I use the pneumatic spray gun I was planning on borrowing.
NadzPhotos (author) on November 20, 2019:
That sucks! I’d definitely suggest stop riding and fix it!
For the fix, If you’re adamant on DIY then I’d drain the tanks gas and start preparing it for a repaint of the gas cap/hole area.
I’d also suggest cleaning the carbs while you’ve got the tank off. With the paint going in there it’s probably not amazing and a clean would not only give you some great experience but a proudly running bike that’s got a piece of you in it. YouTube is where I got most of my info from for the carb clean. You really want to be careful with things but it’s more than doable!
If the carbs seem daunting it’s worth getting them cleaned and maybe just having a shop clean up everything for you.
Depending on the $ amount you’ve put into the bike already, I’d rather have spent a bit extra on having a professional do it than to lose out by doing nothing and ruin the bike.
If it’s a cost effective bike and you’re trying to keep costs low, I’d drain the tank, repaint the effected areas, but you’ll have to do a fade almost into the rest of the tank.
They have those tank zipper protectors. They’ve got some cool designs and that would be good to cover anything if it’s not quite perfect. OR take it as an opportunity to redo the whole tank if you want. Put your own design or spin on it.
Do you! Always be careful and if I’ve learned anything it’s that it’s more fun to do yourself but there’s no substitute for a professional when in need!
Terry Wood on November 20, 2019:
i just bought a beautiful Harley low rider. after 2 days of riding i realized that when the bike was painted they didnt tape of the tank where the cap goes and now flecks of paint are getting into the gas causing obstructions
in the carb. it wants to die on me and also shoots flames out the pipes. what do i do?
NadzPhotos (author) on April 09, 2018:
Oh rough. I’m sorry to hear. What clear coat did you use? The gas tank hole can be a super tricky area. If it’s not really well set or the clear coat isn’t quite right in many ways, this ends up a possibility. Good luck. Be careful and triple check the gas tank hole. Also ensure the paint you’re using is made for vehicles. If it is, just triple checking. Same with the clear coat.
Rick Harrison on April 08, 2018:
I did what the forums said to do on clear coats on my gas tanks on the bike ! 3 coats looked great for 4 weeks !! Gas up at the Shell station and over filled it spilt gas down the side of the left tank, in 10 seconds while wiping off the gas the clear coat streaked really bad ! So today I’m reclear coating the tank and on the 3 rd layer a big ass bug landed on the wet clear coat. Tried to fix that area with no success! Now I get to start over the 4 th try. WTF.
NadzPhotos (author) on April 01, 2017:
@Trevor - for the metal scratch send me a photo if you can and I'll help you out if it hasn't been sorted yet.
@Richard I'm glad you enjoyed.
I'm glad everyone has enjoyed this. I've written a few other posts on finnance funny enough and this motorcycle tank post has been a HUGE hit helping tons of people. I'm really happy you're all enjoying and finding use from it!
@Will - it spends on the paint you've got. A lot of write ups or instructions advise you to wait. It can be a bit of a trial and error thing. I originally tried waiting a few hours between coats and found I could go almost 15 minutes or less and start a new coat. I've tried this with other spray cans though and it ends up clumping and becoming quite blotchy. Which then creates more work as you have to sand it more and then wipe down.
To answer your question, check the tank and see if it's still shiny wet or shiny/dull dry. Once you notice it's more on the dry side you can re-coat.
Just be careful and read the paint instructions for a good base guide on how long to wait.
Will on April 01, 2017:
Do you wait for it to dry between coats?
Richard on December 25, 2016:
I followed your instructions an I was dumbfounded how great my tank looks. So I did the whole bike. What a fun relaxing project
Trevor on October 02, 2016:
Great write up. i will b following it. my question is i have a bad 7" scratch and its fairly deep. into metal. could you do a write up on applying bondo or all metal. also. i need to fix the left side of tank.
thanks for sharing your time and effort if you email me i can shoot you a picture if what im working with.
Mike on August 04, 2016:
You cannot use any off the shelf spray paint or clear that won't be affected by any fuel spilled or splashed on the paint. I did the rattle can and it looked like I paid a professional painter to do it. Once fuel got spilled or any splashed from filling up dulled the area and it won't buff out. At the very least a 2 part clear will help.
NadzPhotos (author) on June 09, 2016:
@Trung Ha - I can't recall the name at this moment but it was a rustoleum product. I decided to just stick with one company and see how it went. But I don't think it made a huge difference.
@Sandy - I found that after the spraying and sanding process with both primer and paint by the final paint everything was filled evenly. If you find yourself running into an issue where the tank is still rough to touch or you're seeing holes I would suggest trying finer sandpaper and then lightly costing it the tank over and repeating. This helped me.
Good luck and thanks for reading.
sandy on June 09, 2016:
Buddy its a good article but... I think U have forgotten to write about fillers to cover the holes n to ensure smooth surface before primary paint on...
Trung Ha on May 21, 2016:
May I ask, what primer did you use?
Matt on February 01, 2015:
Great stuff! Thanks bud, this really helped me out.
Shamim on September 08, 2014:
Wow! Thanks for this info, man! Worked like a charm.
chainsaw on August 26, 2014:
NEVER paint the sealing surface of the cap bung. The fuel fumes WILL get under the paint and it will peal off. I've even seen House of Color paints on $1000+ paint jobs do it. Guarantee an el cheapo rattle can job will too.
NadzPhotos (author) on July 22, 2014:
I used/use Rustoleum. I've found them to be pretty good. And I used for this project Maguiars polish to finish the tank off with a nice shine.
I suggest tryingn a few out and going with what you like best.
I'm glad so many people enjoyed my hub!
Jelle on July 21, 2014:
You got any good paint brands like for example what you used?
Steve fox on April 11, 2014:
Thanks for the great article and a much needed confidence boost.
Seth on March 03, 2013:
I just finished the painting. I'm afraid I'll have to do it again as I can see some parts where the old primer didn't come completely off.
Jane Katigbak from Philippines on March 03, 2013:
Informative. Now I can paint my father's bike for the sake of art and practicing what I've learned...soon! Thanks!
michael on December 04, 2012:
use paint stripper to remove the paint, much easier than sanding!
Janhorner on June 05, 2012:
Well, I'm not a biker or even into bikes but you have written a really good article on painting the tank! There will be loads of bikers out there very grateful for the money you are going to save them and I was very impressed with the information and your relaxed style which is exactly what I think makes a writer shine.
Your article took me back years to my middle son Justin, he loves cars, bikes anything with a motor! Brilliant mechanic now. However,at this particular time he was around 8 years old and had already started his own little show by mending his mates push bikes. He did a spray job in dark red on one and I went out to get my washing in to a red lawn! It stayed that way for ages.