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R/C Car Painting and Airbrushing
Section I: Equipment, Paint and Supplies

There are two good methods for painting your R/C car bodies, with spray cans and an airbrush. You can actually use a paint brush to apply some paint but I've never seen the results look good with few exceptions. If you are new to the R/C world, you may be wondering why get an airbrush? Good question. Hopefully, the following two paragraphs will help you understand each a bit better.


The biggest benefit to spraying your cars with canned paint is how quick and easy it is. Cans cover large areas quickly and there is no clean up, you just put the can away! While cans are often considered the tool of the newbie, that just simply isn't so. People believe that simply because you so often see one or two color cars done with them. Make no mistake, if you take your time with planning and masking, you can do some amazing things with canned paint.


An airbrush and a load of colors is the painters nirvana! If you enjoy the painting process, an airbrush will open new worlds to you in terms of the number of colors and types of paint you can use. While cans offer an array of nearly 50 to 60 colors, with an airbrush, you have access to hundreds of colors. If the color doesn't exist in a bottle, you can mix it! An airbrushes main benefit is that it gives you much more control over the spray pattern and paint flow. Where as a paint can is like a shot gun, a quality airbrush such as any in the Iwata Line, can be adjusted to spray like a laser, with nearly pencil thin lines, or up to a 44 magnum, with a fairly wide spray pattern.

A Quick Word on Health

I feel its import to quickly discuss the health issues around painting since it is so often ignored. Painting with any kind of paint, even non-toxic paints, can be dangerous if handled improperly. I know many who are reading this are thinking "yeah right, it's spray paint, not a handgun pal!" That's what I thought too. I'm 38 years old and started to feel some congestion a few months after I started painting frequently so I went to the Dr. to see why. He took an X-Ray of my chest and after looking at the results, he asked be the usual questions. I answered them and then thought about it and said, "I do airbrush and spray paint a lot." He said, "Do you wear a mask?" "Nope, why?" I said. He went on to tell me I have a streak of paint about an inch long in one of my lungs. It will never go away since the body can't process it out. It's given me a slight case of asthma. I wear a mask now and the paint can't enter my system and make it worse. The moral: Painting is safe when you handle it correctly. You should always paint in a well-ventilated area and you should always wear a mask. The Dr. gave me a bunch of surgical masks and they seem to work great. You don't need to spend a fortune for masks. Any of the masks available in paint stores should work well as long as they cover your mouth and nose completely.

Rules for Safe Painting
  1. Wear a mask at all times, even during quick backing coats.
  2. Spray in a well ventilated area.

The Two Biggest Tools of the Trade


Every craftsman and artist needs his tools, and in the case of airbrushing R/C car bodies, there are some basic tools you will need. First and foremost is an airbrush. Every painter has his own favorite airbrush. Until recently, I used a couple of Testors Aztek brushes. While being fine brushes, they aren't designed to spray at the intense PSI's we use with thicker R/C paints like Faskolor. Recently though, I have switched to the Iwata line of brushes for two simple reasons. 1.) I have never heard another painter say one bad thing about them which lead me to try them and 2.) Having tried them, they are simply superb airbrushes, capable of atomizing the thicker Faskolor water based paints finer, allowing for outstanding fades and smooth application. My main brush is the Iwata Eclipse and my back up brush is the Iwata Revolution. The differences between the two brushes are in the fineness of their spray pattern. Ultimately, you will want more then one airbrush since it will make it quicker to spray multiple colors and you can have different spray settings, one for tight pencil thin lines and another for broad areas. If you are on a budget, get the Revolution to start spraying today and save up for an Eclipse. If you can invest in only one, make the Eclipse. The street price between the two is only about $20 to $40 and if you can afford only one brush, the Eclipse will be more versatile.


As I mentioned, you will also want an air compressor. While most people start out with canned air, those cans of air will only spray about 1 body and at $10 a piece, they add up. Soon you will have gone through 5 or 6 cans and realized you'd be half way to a good compressor if you had just saved for one. When it comes to compressors, my personal advice is to stay away from most small hobby air compressors. You want a compressor able to produce between 25 and 70 psi because the newer water based paints such as Parma Faskolor require that much power to spray them. That usually means getting something in the HP range instead of the typical 1/8 HP most hobby compressors have. The air compressor I use is a Puma Tools hp airbrush compressor with a one gallon tank. That being said, were I to do it all over again, I would just go to Sears or Home Depot and get an all purpose air compressor, one that can fill car tires, drive a nail gun, etc. The good news is that these generic air compressors are more powerful then hobby compressors, cost less and with a $25.00 moisture trap and pressure regulator they spray just as nicely as any airbrush compressor, though they may be louder. You do need a moisture trap or moisture will accumulate in the compressor and spit out paint blobs! Many hobby air compressors do not come with a tank or reservoir, I highly recommend them because they even out the airflow and stop the spray from pulsing.

A Brilliant No Compressor Option

Shawn (Shawn5) from the HPI board came up with a brilliant no compressor painting option and has been kind enough to share it! Shawn say's "I prefer the CO2 tank. I got mine at a local welding supply shop with a regulator for about $130. CO2 is anhydrous so you won't need a moisture trap. The tank is typically pressurized to 800+ psi and will last you through several bodies. I have to refill mine about every 6 months and it costs about $15 to refill my 15 lb tank. The tank is about 2 feet tall, 8 inches around and weighs about 30 lbs when filled. It is also silent, the only noise you have is the air escaping from the airbrush." This is a great alternative for someone needing to work in a quiet environment or who wants a mobile solution around the house since you don't need to worry about running extension cords.

Other Equipment and Tools

There are a few other items you'll need to complete your bodies during the painting process. An Xacto knife and fresh blades are a must for trimming the masks. For cutting out the wheel wells and trimming the bottom of the body, another must have is a pair of Lexan scissors. These are short strong curved scissors. Some people will tell you that you can just use the Xacto knife but I've found the scissors much faster. Once you use them, you'll never go back! You can also use an Olfa circle cutter to cut out perfectly round wheel wells and air holes in the front and rear windshields of your nitro cars and trucks. Another nice thing to have is a Sharpie marker for drawing your designs right on the body. I'll cover this in more detail shortly.

For cleaning the marker lines from your car, you'll need either Isopropyl Alcohol with a high (90+) alcohol content or a body wash. I use Bolink Body Wash because it's strong and removes paint if I've gotten some over spray on the car. During the past few weeks I've been using a new body wash since the smell of Bolink's is intense. It actually isn't a body wash at all. It's called PEC-12, and it is a photographic emulsion cleaner (a negative cleaner) and the stuff works great on Lexan bodies! I'm sure most well stocked camera stores have it. It cleans marker lines and dust as well as Bolink's but doesn't leave an oily film and it smells nice to boot! However, it will not clean off lacquer over spray the way Bolink's will, so I always keep a bottle of Bolink's around.

Tip: (multiple users) While I haven't used either, both Simple Green cleaner and Nitro fuel apparently clean Lexan bodies pretty well.

A Word on Paint

You can't use regular hobby paint on these car bodies since those paints have no sticking agent for Lexan. As a result, the paint will just peel and crack away from the body over time. Paints formulated for Lexan actually grip into and become a part of the car. There are basically 2 kinds of paints available for R/C cars: water based and lacquer based paints. Lacquers are, as the name implies, lacquer based, which means that lacquer is the main liquid carrying agent in the paint. You also use lacquer thinner to thin the paints prior to spraying them and to clean your airbrush afterwards. Acrylics are the new comers to R/C paints in the past few years, with Parma Fascolors being the most popular brand by far. Acrylics are water based, which means water is the main liquid carrying agent in the paint. I've found acrylics dry faster, which means you can move on to the next coat sooner, but lacquers cure quicker, meaning the paint is set and you can race the body. I have no actual data to prove that, its just my opinion.

Lacquer Based Paints
  • Spaz Stix - Spaz Stix is the new comer to R/C paints and breathed new life into the category with their line of Glow In the Dark Paints! They offer over 12 different colors between their Extreme Glow (bright) and Radioactive Glow (even brighter!) lines. They also make a line of true color change paints with up to 4 color changes per bottle as well as a new Liquid Metal paint. None of their paints require any thinning and should be sprayed straight from the bottle.

  • Alclad II Lacquer - Alclad realized a dream for thousands of R/C painters in 2001 when they released their new line of paint. For years, if you wanted chrome on your car, you had to either settle for silver or use modelers film. The first was a compromise, the second a pain. With Alclad II Chrome, you can spray a true chrome mirror finish! In addition to the their chrome, they offer a line of prismatic paints and just recently have released a line of tints for their chrome paints! None of their paints require any thinning and should be sprayed straight from the bottle.

  • Pactra Racing Colors - These are the grand daddy of all R/C paints, having been around forever. Available in both bottles for the airbrush artist and cans for the non-airbrush endowed, Pactra is available in a very wide range of colors with multiple reds, blues, pearls, metallics, etc. In the bottle they are not thinned so you will need to thin them before spraying. I recommend starting at with a 50/50 mixture of paint to Pactra thinner and a starting PSI of approximately 20.

General Rules for Spraying Lacquer

When spraying lacquers, keep your PSI between 15 and 25 PSI. Any more and you risk the paint drying in the air or in the airbrush, making clean up a nightmare. Any less and you risk the paint spattering. Remember to flush your brush clean in between coats of paint with lacquer thinner to keep the paint from drying in the brush.

Water Based Paints
  • Parma Faskolors - When Parma introduced these paints a few years back, they changed the R/C painting world. For the first time, people had an alternative to lacquers with these water based paints. They provide excellent coverage, are non-toxic and clean up easily with just water! Parma is constantly expanding their line and have recently introduced a Glow In The Dark paint and a more intense color change paint. They also have a great line of FasGlitter paints that I like a LOT!. There is a section on those further into the article. Faskolors rarely require any thinning and should be sprayed straight from the bottle, on the off chance the paint is to thick, thin it with water, about a tablespoon per bottle.

  • Pactra Acryl - These are Testors response to Parma FasKolor! They offer an extensive range of colors and spray beautifully. None of their paints require any thinning and should be sprayed straight from the bottle.

General Rules for Spraying Acrylics

When spraying acrylics, keep your PSI between 25 and 80 PSI. As mentioned, there is usually no need to thin water based paints. As I said, on those rare occasions where you do need to thin them, use water. Remember to flush your brush clean in between coats of paint with warm water to keep the paint from drying in the brush.

Tip: Cheap Paint Mix Bottles - Eventually you will want to mix your own paints. I just discovered these recently when I went to Michael's craft store. I found an almost identical bottle that Parma uses, except they were empty and they were 69 cents apiece. I asked the clerk and she said some times they are 2 for a buck. Parma finally has these and their 2 for $3.00!!!


If you want to do multi color designs, you'll need some sort of masking material. Masks block off the areas of the car you don't want paint on at that particular stage is spraying. Masks can be made from masking tape (used straight from the roll for straight lines or laid down and cut into shapes) or from vinyl sheets or liquid rubber. I find masking tape allows the paint to bleed too often. That is just my experience; some of the best painters I know use masking tape exclusively. Rather then using masking tape, I prefer electrical tape. It lays down cleanly, conforms to the body and holds a straight line very nicely.

Precut masks are masks cut into different shapes such as skulls, flames, tribal patterns, etc. and are available from a few different companies, but the most popular are far and away XXX Main and Parma. XXX Main has the most extensive line of masks and includes transfer tape with the mask. I highly recommend you start painting with precut masks if for no other reason then to eliminate having to cut your own when you are just starting painting. For flames, I nearly always use XXX Main masks because they have so many varieties, I am almost always able to find one in the style I need.

Precut Masks

There are two ways to use precut masks, the amateurs way or the professional way. The amateur way is to pull them off the sheet and simply slap them down on the body in places you think look good and spray around them. The professional way takes more effort but the results will yield professional looking results, even from the newly initiated into the painting world.

How To Apply Precut Masks Like A Pro

This section is contributed courtesy of XXX Main:

Weed all of the unusable portions of the mask. It helps to have a sharp hobby knife handy. After the weeding process you should be left with the paint masks only.
Apply the provided transfer tape to the portion of the mask that will be applied first and rub down the transfer tape (A plastic card works well). Remove the paint mask and transfer tape from the mask backing and prepare to apply the mask to the lexan body.
Apply the mask to the body. Apply the mask pressing down from one end to the other. Ensure that the mask is pressed well into all of the body's contours by using your fingernail and repeatedly rubbing the paint mask down. Peel away the transfer tape but don't throw it away as it can be reused to apply the other pieces of mask. HauntedMyst Tip: When working with masks where it is critical to line them up with some symmetry, I will draw a center line down on the outside of the body on the top, and one down each of the sides.Then I will draw reference lines across the masks or transfer tape to line up with the lines I put on the body.
Use a high quality masking tape or some of the unused parts of the paint mask to extend the paint design into the neutral areas of the body such as the wheel wells, windows or below the body cut lines. At this point you should also apply masking tape to any other parts of the body that you do not want painted.
Just before painting make sure that all of the edges of the mask are firmly pressed down to avoid "paint bleed". The use of some sort of heat source such as a hair dryer makes it easier to press the paint mask firmly against the body. You are now ready to paint the body. Try to paint the dark colors first, followed by the lighter colors. If this is not possible with the paint scheme you have designed be sure to "back" the light colors with white or silver paint before applying the dark colors on top of them.
When pulling off the paint mask after painting, be sure to pull the mask parallel to the lines in the mask to ensure a clean edge. Also, allow sufficient time for the paint to dry to ensure a clean paint edge. You may use a heat source such as a hair dryer to accelerate the paint drying process. Once the paint mask is removed you are now ready to apply the next color of paint.
Allow the paint to dry, cut out the body, apply the stickers and you are finished!

You can also check out all of the XXX Main Paint Masks.

Here are some other bodies painted with XXX Main paint masks:

Liquid Mask

My hands down favorite type of masking material for making my own designs is liquid mask. With liquid mask, you paint it on to the inside of your car with 4 thick coats. When it dries, it dries as a rubbery coating and then you simply cut out the design you want in it with a Xacto knife and peel that section out. I find being able to cut my own designs right on the car to be not only a real time saver, but also a great help in design. If some thing is too big, I simply trim it down. Over the past few months I thought I'd try a few of the liquid masks out there. Here are my impressions:

  • Parma: I tried this first because my LHS had it. At $3.99 a bottle, you get one or two ounces and it's enough to do one car. It becomes brittle and if you don't put on 5 or 6 coats, it doesn't peel up nicely and becomes crumbly. I've tried a dozen bottles of this stuff. I can't stand it and don't find it up to Parma's normally high standards.

  • Hobbico Master Mask: Excellent! Goes on very nicely in 4 coats and maintains a nice rubber texture that is easy to cut and pull off. I've only ever seen it in a tub about 4 times the size of the Parma bottle for $3.99. Over all it's an excellent mask and I thought it was a good value until...

  • Bob Dively: Excellent! I tried this because I visited another LHS and they were out of Hobbico. The bottle saying it should be sprayed put me off. I bought it since I have some bodies to practice on and brushed it on in 4 thick coats. That was 5 days ago and I just painted a body with it tonight. It remained nice and rubbery. It cut well and was easy to pull off, never crumbling and making me scrape it off like the Parma. The nicest part is, it comes in 4oz, 16oz and 32oz bottles for $4.99, $12.95 and $19.95 respectively. I bought the 16oz bottle, did 4 bodies and still had 2/3's of a bottle yet. This is the hands-down winner in terms or performance and value. It is the only liquid mask I use.
Tip: When using liquid mask, use a regular paintbrush, not a cheap foam brush. The foam brushes are too smooth; you actually want the small ridges the paintbrush leaves for the liquid mask to build up the proper thickness.

Tip: Straight Lines - I learned this tip from Bob Hastings. When you want to try to get the straightest lines on liquid mask or masking tape, instead of acting like gorilla and choking down on the Xacto knife, do the exact opposite and hold it by the end and lightly draw the knife back slowly, it will want to track straight.

A Word on Bodies

Buying the body may seem fairly straight forward, but it does require some thought. When you are picking out a body, consider what comes with it. Believe it or not, some companies still don't include such things as window masks, decals, and wing-mounting screws and over spray film! All of these extras make spraying the body much much easier for you and I. Window masks are vinyl sheet precut to the shape of the windows to keep them clear and are a great time saver. No longer do you have to put masking tape around the windows and trim it away. Over spray film is just that, a thin film put on the body to protect the outside body from getting paint on it. Once you are done painting, simply pull the film off and you have a nice shiny body. Screws to mount the wing might seem like a small thing, but wait until you buy a body without them and have to go squirreling around your toolbox to find a pair that both match and fit so you can actually run your new body.

Both Proline/Protoform and HPI bodies include all of those and are still reasonably priced. Both Tamiya and Kyosho include all those items but are insanely price between $35 and $60 for what is basically melted plastic. Note: when I spray a Proline/Protoform or HPI body (or any body with over spray film) I cut out the body BEFORE I spray it. Why? Simple, when you cut out the body, you risk scratching the paint job. Cutting it out before hand eliminates the risk of scratching it and since the over spray film doesn't peel off in the cutting process, you still get its protective benefits.

While neither Dahms nor Hot Bodies include over spray film or a large array of decals, I find many of their bodies to be a refreshing change of pace. Dahms is one of those companies that include nothing but the body and some decals but I still like them for several reasons. The first is that they are a small family owned business that has been serving the R/C industry for years and have several championship winning bodies. They sell direct to the customer from their website at and offer a toll free number. Their customer service is absolutely first rate and when you call someone actually answers the phone. Secondly, while they don't have window masks and frankly, their stickers are not up to those of companies like HPI's, they do have some very unique and funky bodies available to make your car look different from the crowd. I like stadium trucks but hate truck bodies and Dahm's makes some cool alternatives like the Cyberbuggsy. Lastly, they make both light bodies for racing and heavy or thicker bodies that are more durable for bashers. I don't know about you, but bodies are expensive to me when you go through them at the rate I do. It's nice to have a durable body to play with that you don't need to worry about breaking every day. Their thick bodies are tough!

Continue on to Section II: Painting Basics

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