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How to Color Metal

By Jim Dugan
Professional Contractor & DIY Expert

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There are a number of ways you can color metal; however, each requires specific preparation procedures critical to promoting lasting results. Before you attempt to alter the appearance of any type of metallic object, learn how to condition the surface, or you will ultimately end up with disappointing results that won't last very long.

What do You Want to Do?

Before you settle on a plan, you first need to determine what kind of color you're looking for. Do you want to add a dull, attractive patina color? To do this, you'll need to encourage natural corrosion or oxidation. Learn how to patina metal and intentionally rust metal in one of these other KingofHowTo articles. If you're more interested in adding a colorful finish to a metallic surface, read on.

Preparing the Metal

Metallic surfaces are horrible candidates for any sort of colorful finish, because they are hard, nonporous and resist adhesion. Before doing anything else, wash the metal with a degreasing cleanser. Once the surface is thoroughly cleaned and rinse, you'll need to add an etching agent that will slightly roughen the metal to encourage adhesion. Though you can use an acid wash; it's potentially dangerous and could lead to dangerous burns. Instead, opt for a metal-etching primer, specifically made for promoting paint adhesion on metal.

Adding a Colored Finish

Once you've added an etching primer, you can apply a colorful paint. Choose an oil-based enamel that will dry hard and resist flaking and chipping. Colorful enamels work well on all sorts of properly-prepared metallic surfaces, including steel, aluminum, wrought iron fences, gates, Christmas ornaments, door knobs, faucets, fixtures, decorations, switchplates, pull handles, door stops, etc.


Because metal is so smooth, it is prone to streaky finishes. For best results, spray the etching primer and enamel onto the surface. Wear goggles and a respirator if you're working indoors. Hold approximately 8-inches between the metallic surface and spraying nozzle tip to prevent runs.

Other Options

Some companies sell chemical dips and other decorative coatings specifically made for metallic objects. If you choose one of these, follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter, or you could suffer dangerous consequences.