How to paint a motorcycle frame without having to remove the engine

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After restoring the first motorcycles I owned, I decided that I had to completely remove the engine from the bike and take apart every part.  

It was a mistake. For daily driving motorcycles, it is acceptable to leave both the engine and most of the motorcycle assemble to paint the frame.

How do you paint a motorcycle frame while keeping the engine in place? Carefully tape off all aluminum engine parts, bolt heads, and anything you don’t want over spray on.  Sand any rough areas on the frame. Wipe the entire frame with wax or grease remover. Then spray light coats primer and paint all over the frame.  

My motorcycle frames are always painted black, because I love the look.  Because almost all frames are black, it is easy to blend them.

This job is easy and can be completed by anyone with no painting experience.  Don’t be stressed out by messing up, but at the same time be careful and take your time.  

Do not try to finish your motorcycle in the fastest time possible. It is okay to take things slower than planned. And make sure that you finish the job correctly the first time.

Preparation

Preparation is key to any painting job..  I’ll walk you through the steps of how to prep correctly so your frame looks great for decades to come.  

1. Remove the gas tank.  Each tank is unique, so be sure to know the location of all bolts.  There will be one bolt between the tank’s bottom and the seat. While some tanks may have several bolts, most tanks only have one bolt.  

After the bolt is removed, gently wiggle the tank’s front and slide it off of the rubber mounts attached to the frame. Don’t pull it up hard, it should come fairly easily.  I’ve pulled too hard several times and it gives suddenly and smacks into the handlebar clamp and puts a dent or scratches on the tank.

Don’t scratch up the tank taking it off the frame, you’ll just be making more work for yourself in the long run.

2. Remove the instrument cluster, handlebars, oil tank (if it has one), headlight, and other parts that you’re going to be replacing throughout the build.  

The paint job will be easier if you get rid of as much clutter as possible. If you plan on just painting a very small part of your frame that is pretty accessible then don’t worry about this, keep everything on.

3. Use a wire brush/sandpaper/scraper to take off chunks of dirt, mud, grease, etc.  Take out all of the heavy stuff. You will find years, or even decades, of grease and grime.  You must remove all grease and grime completely before you start to paint.

Don’t cut corners on the preparation. Balance the motorcycle by taking the front and rear wheels off.  The wheels can be removed to access some places that are difficult to reach, such as the rear swing arm and underside of the frame (where many rock chips have occurred over the years), and the front forks.

I want to add a safety precaution.  Anytime you’re doing sanding on these old motorcycle frames or tanks make sure you have a respirator, not a cheap dust mask from the hardware store, an actual respirator.  A lot of these foreign motorcycles had high amounts of lead and other harmful chemicals in the paint, so protect yourself first. Your health is more important than any other thing.

4. To remove any rust spots from the frame, use a heavy-grit sandpaper.  If there is any rust at all and you paint over it, the rust will continue to grow and spread underneath the new coat of paint.  

Sand the entire metal. You can even sand through a thin layer of metal if necessary. Just make sure there is absolutely no rust. Use 80 grit sandpaper or sand by hand. A wire wheel attachment for a drill is also useful.  If the metal is rusted to the point of being able to see through the frame, you will need to have a new patch welded.

Don’t leave holes in the frame, it’s dangerous and irresponsible.  I can’t stress the point enough to get all the rust fixed! After removing the rust, sand the metal using 150 grit sandpaper. Next, use 300 grit to finish the metal prep.

5. If there are large sections of the frame that don’t have imperfections and just need a brighter coat of paint then just use 300 grit sandpaper or a scotch-brite pad to scuff up the surface of the paint.  

All paint has to be scuffed before trying to adhere new primer or paint or else the new chemicals won’t adhere properly, after a while it will flake and chip off, exposing old sections of paint. It is common to believe that the entire frame must be sanded to bare metal to allow paint to adhere.  You need a good smooth base, it doesn’t matter whether that base is bare metal or painted.

6. After all grease, rust, and other imperfections are removed, use wax and grease remover on an absorbent cloth to wipe the entire frame.  Your rag should be black the first time you wipe the frame.

If it doesn’t turn black at first then you probably have a crappy grease remover that isn’t doing anything. You should wipe it well several times.  Your rag will start to come clean after you’ve wiped it multiple times. Once you’re not getting any more residual dust then you know the frame is ready for primer.

Remember, after you’ve rubbed the whole frame with wax and grease remover don’t touch any of the metal with your bare hands.  The natural oils in your hands can bubble paint and cause problems.

7. Use newspaper and masking tape to cover all bolt heads, engine brackets and shiny parts.  Overspray will go everywhere when you paint the frame, so cover everything on the motorcycle that you don’t want to be black.

Again, don’t cut corners and try to save time doing important jobs.  Do it correctly the first time so you won’t have to do it again for a long time.

Priming

Priming is the next step after the metal prep has been completed.  Primer acts as a chemical adhesive agent between paint and bare metal.  Without it, the paint will not adhere correctly to the metal and the life of your paint job will be drastically decreased.  Check out my recommendation for motorcycle upgrades.

It is not necessary to prime the whole frame. Only spots that are bare must be primed. You can purchase the self-etching Duplicolor primer at your local auto parts store.  

Epoxy primer and self-etching primer are two different products that have different uses.  Use self-etching primer when you sand any metal to the bare metal.  

The self-etching primer consists of a mixture of phosphoric and zinc, along with a few other bits. What I understand is that the phosphoric acid forces the zinc into contact with the bare metal which helps inhibit rust growth, which is why there can’t be any finger smudges or oils on the frame before you prime.  They will cause problems by getting between the primer and the bare steel.

Make sure that any tape or masking that was used previously is still intact before you start priming.  The primer primer spray will splash all over the surface, so be sure to cover it all.

Again, make sure you’re wearing your mask when you start priming, the vapors are terrible for your lungs.

For your first coat, you should only apply a thin coat of paint to the metal spots.  The first coat isn’t going to cover much at all and you’ll still be able to see the metal color shining through.  You have applied too much green if you completely cover the entire area. A three-layered approach is better than one heavy coat.  Allow the layers to dry for 10 minutes.

You should not spray too much or you will get a run. Let it sit for 30 mins.  Don’t try to wipe it off, that will make a bigger mess and more work for yourself. It is best to let it dry and then sand it once it has dried.

To smoothen the run, sand it with 150 grit sandpaper. Next, sand it with 300 grit. You can wipe the area with wax or grease remover. After drying, re-prime.

Painting

The frame is ready to be painted once the primer has dried for between 20 and 30 minutes.  The primer should feel dry to the touch, without wet spots. Wait another 30 minutes if there are any wet spots.  For best results, refer to the instructions on the back.

Dupli-color semigloss black or gloss black paint is what I prefer to use for my frames. Click here to view the Duplicolor spray I use on all my frames. Duplicolor’s spray nozzles have a great quality and are easy to clean.  

Cheap cans have bad nozzles and they shoot paint spatter, which is extremely frustrating after you’ve just spent hours prepping the frame and then you have to sand the spatter off and paint it again.

Paint the entire frame with 2-3 thin coats.  As a reminder, you should not paint the entire frame with one coat.  Through the first coat of paint, you should still be able see green primer. Spray lightly to make sure you don’t get any runs and wait 10-15 minutes between coats.  

After I had finished painting the frame, and after I put on the wheels, my Yamaha XS850.

The whole process of priming and painting should take only a few hours due to the waiting time between coats.  Preparation time is the true beast of this project. Good prepping = great painting.

Once your last coat is dry, you should remove any tape or masking you used to cover it. If the paint is still wet, it will be less likely that you pull up paint sections as you peel back the tape. Allow the paint to dry for several hours before attempting to reinstall parts.

If you don’t like the look of your front forks you can also paint those as well during this whole process since the front wheel is already off.  This was something I did on several of my motorcycles. It gave my grey front forks some life.

Paint the forks in the same way as the frame.

People often ask me why I paint my frames rather than powder coating them.  To properly powder coat a frame, you must remove all of its components.

Powder coating a frame is usually several hundred dollars as well, and I’m trying to teach you how to rebuild a motorcycle on a budget. Painting is quicker, less expensive, and, if done right, looks just as good as any powder coating job.  Powder coating is more durable, but the time and work necessary to do it correctly isn’t worth it to me.

And powder coating a frame isn’t something you can do at home either, you need an industrial sized oven to fit it in.

An entire video series has been created about how to repair a motorcycle. The series includes detailed tutorials about how to paint a motorcycle frame, without having to take out the engine. This will make your bike look like new. Also included in the series are restoration tips and tricks you won’t find anywhere else online as well as other hard to tackle components such as carb rebuilds and electrical. Click here for more information if you’re interested in restoring or building your dream motorcycle!

Similar Questions

Are my wheels powder-coated or painted? Your motorcycle wheels can be powder coated or painted. Both have their pros and cons depending on what you are looking for. Check out my list of pros and cons about powder coating vs. painting motorcycle wheels.

Where is the best place to register a motorcycle? 

  • Below the seat
  • Side bag
  • A magnetic stash box
  • Inside your helmet
  • Your jacket
  • In a keychain accessory
  • Behind the license plates
  • Attached to the canister
  • Inside your phone case

Click here for our article. Learn how to store important documents on your motorcycle, even if you have limited space.

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