Custom Paint 101 – Part I

Choosing your color and design is the first step

Words and photos by JoAnn Bortles

Custom paint on your motorcycle can be a wonderfully satisfying experience … or a super hassle. Being an informed consumer often makes all the difference.

I’ve been painting motorcycles for 40 years and have encountered just about every type of situation that’s likely to come up. Some clients know exactly what they want in terms of color and design, while others have not a clue.

To start with, think about what kind of paint job you want for your bike. There are lots of options: total repaints, fresh paint with custom graphics or artwork, simple touch-ups, etc. A great idea during this initial stage is to find and collect examples you like and save them. When you see a paint job you like at a show or event, whether a color or design, snap a photo of it – or click and save to a folder if you’re surfing the web. Then, when you meet with your painter, you have specific ideas or directions to show him or her. A good painter will be able to take your ideas and design a paint job that incorporates them.

If a client comes to me and wants flames, for example, I find out what kind flames they want. A single layer or multiple layers of flames? Do the flames overlap? If you’re interested in a specific style of paint job or design, find versions of that style, or ask your painter to show you some different variations. Chances are they’ve seen or done it before.

Color seems like a simple enough concept, but can be plenty confusing. Reds, blues, oranges and blacks are the most requested colors in my experience. Sometimes, a color is so distinctive and powerful – I’m thinking Lime Green Candy here – that it doesn’t really need any artwork or striping…which can be a smart choice if there’s a limited budget. Above all, don’t rush your color decision. No matter how many different colors a client is thinking of, there’s always one they keep coming back to. And there’s a reason for that. Finally, when picking colors at your painter’s place, do it on a sunny day. A color that looks great indoors might look boring in the sun, or vice versa. You want to see the color in various environments.

And then there’s the budget factor, of course. The more complex your paint choice or design is, the more hours of labor it will require. Going in, have an idea of what you can realistically spend. The average flame paint job with a total repaint of the basecoat can range anywhere from $1200 to $2500 for a tank and two fenders. When it comes to cruisers with bags and fairings, the hours spent prepping and painting all that surface area adds up to even higher dollar amounts. Also, quality paint products like PPG and House of Kolor aren’t cheap. So, bottom line? Be wary of budget painters or budget quotes. There’s usually a hitch. Paint, remember, is the most visible thing you can do to your motorcycle. People readily spend big bucks on wheels and chrome but often ignore this most basic aesthetic element. Don’t shortchange yourself on paint. A poor quality or badly designed paint job is one of the worst mistakes people make with their rides, and a lot of this is because paint is usually the last thing they consider with their project. Most of the money has already been spent on the engine, drivetrain, chassis and wheels. So, at the start of your project, figure out your paint budget and don’t skimp! You will not regret the decision.

Finally, think hard about whether you’re going to keep the bike in question – or are likely to sell it. A motorcycle with highly personalized paint is typically harder to sell. A sexy mural of your spouse might be something you admire, but it can limit the future salability of your ride. And if you get divorced, well, that’s another thing entirely! A lot of folks end up buying and selling motorcycles, so if you’re one of those, find a color and design with wide appeal. If you’re gonna keep it forever, feel free to go crazy! A chopper or bobber with classic flake paint is always popular. A Softail with simple flames or a dresser with sleek graphics that makes the bike look long and lean will attract buyers.

Next time we’ll discuss finding and working with a painter. Local verses long distance, questions to ask, how to communicate effectively and what you should expect. Here’s to a great custom paint experience!

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