How To: Painting Retro DIY Metal Word Signs

Retro Staff |  2 Comments
Finished signs: Painted by Rebecca.

Rebecca walks you through prepping and painting Retro Planet’s DIY typography signs.

Retro Planet’s new line of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) typography signs are definitely unique. These original signs bear words like “kitchen,” “bath,” “cupcakes,” and “laundry”, and are great for do-it-yourselfers and creative people. You can paint a sign to match existing decor or just go wild with patterns and custom techniques.

Crafty person that I am, I took four signs home with me:

I then experimented on how to get the best results. Note that I don’t have much experience with spray paint, so there was definitely a learning curve.

The Process…

Unsure of the challenges I would encounter, I erred on the side of caution and loaded up on supplies.

Here’s what I started with:

  • Spray paint in assorted colors: I used Rust-Oleum Gloss Protective Enamel in Seafoam Green, Rust-Oleum High Performance Enamel in Regal Red, and Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch Gloss in Spa Blue and Berry Pink.
  • Rust-Oleum Clean Metal Primer
  • Klean-Strip Green Lacquer Thinner, 1 Quart
  • HDX All Purpose Degreaser
  • Sandpaper – 320 Grit
  • 3-Pack of Oatey Paste Flux Brushes
  • Latex gloves
  • Rags

The two most important things to consider when spray painting are temperature and ventilation.  It was about 30 degrees outside, which is balmy for midwinter in New Hampshire, but not conducive to spray painting.  Ideally, you should paint when it’s over 50 degrees out, but since I’m impatient I borrowed my cousin’s heated garage (thanks, Jamey!).  The garage was also big enough to ensure that we wouldn’t asphyxiate or otherwise poison ourselves with all the chemicals we were throwing around.  That being said, I would strongly recommend doing this outside if at all possible because the fumes were less than pleasant and I coughed like a chain smoker the next day.

Hang signs with hooks or cords.

Even with the heat on it was still pretty nippy in the garage so we opted to hang the signs right in line with the heating vents. If you’re doing this project outside on a warm day, it would be much easier to lay them on a piece of scrap plywood or a drop cloth.


The first order of business was to clean the signs.  I eyeballed them for any rough edges or imperfections and found none, so I didn’t have to use the sandpaper.  I wasn’t sure if lacquer thinner or degreaser would work better, so I cleaned the Cupcakes sign with lacquer thinner, the Bath sign with degreaser, the Laundry sign with both, and I left the Kitchen sign untouched.  I’d initially thought that the flux brushes would come in handy for applying the lacquer thinner, but ultimately it was a lot easier just to wear gloves (lacquer thinner can irritate your skin) and use a rag – just remember, a little lacquer thinner goes a long way.


Next, I primed the signs.  Out of curiosity, I left the sign I hadn’t cleaned unprimed. Short, even bursts worked best for priming, though I went a little heavy on the first sign and the paint wound up pooling a bit.

Spray priming the signs.

When priming, wear gloves and use short, even bursts.

This is how I learned that lacquer thinner also strips paint with ease.  My second try was much more successful.

Closeup shot of primed sign.

Close-up of primed Cupcakes sign.



I waited until the primed signs were completely dry (about 10 minutes) before I started painting.  As with priming, short, light, even bursts worked the best for painting the signs.

Spray painting signs.

Just like with priming, using short, even bursts works best to apply the spray paint evenly.

Most of the signs took between 2 and 3 coats, and I let the paint dry fully between coats (about 10-15 minutes). The results were much more professional-looking.  I left them hanging in the garage overnight and went to get some fresh air.

Painted Cupcakes sign.

Patience counts. By applying 2-3 light, even coats you’ll get a more professional look.


I love the signs, but I definitely learned some valuable lessons. Here’s my breakdown of the results, with some up-close and personal pics:

Kitchen Sign: I left his one uncleaned and unprimed, and painted it Regal Red. The paint took, but it scratches if you so much as look at it, and it looks slightly duller than the rest.  I recommend priming and cleaning before applying the paint.

Kitchen Sign - Scratches and Scuffing

You can clearly see the scuffing and scratches from even minimal handling in the K and the bottom of the T. This is a result of not cleaning and priming first.

Bath Sign: This one was cleaned with degreaser, primed, and painted Seaform Green. It took the longest amount a time to completely dry (it was still tacky after 24 hours) and had the most uneven finish.

Bath Sign shows bubbles

The Bath sign is bubbled. The missing step on this one (based on the others below) was the lacquer thinner.

Laundry Sign: This sign was cleaned with both degreaser and lacquer thinner, primed and painted in Spa Blue. The result was beautiful.

Cupcakes Sign: On this sign I skipped the degreaser. The result was still quite stunning.

Completed Laundry and Cupcakes signs.

Both these signs were cleaned, primed and painted. I skipped the degreaser on the Cupcakes sign and there was no real noticeable difference.


For best results, head to the hardware store and pick up a small can of lacquer thinner, a can of primer, and a can of spray paint.  I don’t think the degreaser is necessary at all.  It will cost you around $15 for all of this, and the lacquer thinner comes in handy if you make a mistake and have to strip the paint.

Shot of all painted signs

Mistakes aside, all the signs look just fine when you’re not an inch away from them, so don’t fret if you’ve got limited painting experience.

Fumes aside, I had a blast painting these signs and I’d love to experiment on them with various techniques and finishes when it’s warmer out.  I’ll be sure to update you when I do!  In the meantime, what do you think of these new DIY signs?  What colors would you choose?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Last updated: Mar 11, 2013
Filed under: DIY & Upcycling, Retro Decorating Ideas, Retro Design Tagged with: 1950s Decor, DIY, wall decor