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How to Paint Plastic Toys

By Shea Laverty ; Updated April 18, 2017

Whether its for restoration or customization, painting toys requires considerable patience and understanding of the materials you're working with. Plastic toys in particular can prove troublesome, as small moving parts and delicate PVC can turn a simple spray-and-brush job into a serious, potentially frustrating undertaking. Before you get started, make sure you have a well-ventilated work area, some newspapers and all the paints and brushes you'll need for the project.

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Choose the Right Paint

For plastic and wooden toys, your best bet is either hobby-based acrylic paint or lacquer paint. Oil paint can cause the vinyl in plastic toys to deteriorate over time and is generally better suited to metal components, while enamel is rarely a good choice because it tends to not fully dry when used on plastic, resulting in the paint being sticky to the touch. Latex presents some durability issues over the life of the piece and is not recommended.

Regardless of the type of paint you purchase, always test your paint on an unseen area of the figure first to make sure its compatible.

Prepare the Piece

Before you begin painting, clean the toy thoroughly with soapy water, then let it dry completely. You should be very careful if you decide to use a solvent to strip off the original paint, as this solvent may itself damage the toy's plastic components. Remove old decals by gently scrubbing or scraping them off -- they can be replaced with decals from a replacement sheet.

If your toy has moving parts, carefully disassemble them first. Otherwise, you risk sealing the joints when you paint the toy, rendering them immobile. Pieces with moving parts that can't be disassembled without damaging them must be handled with extreme care to prevent sealing.

Apply Basecoat

If you're going to fully repaint a toy, you should begin with a basecoat. For a toy with a dark color scheme, use a black basecoat; if the toy is lighter, use a white basecoat.

For toys using one solid color with no moving parts or disassembled pieces, using acrylic spray paint saves a lot of time. Otherwise, a few careful thinned down layers with a brush should be sufficient.

Always use matte colors as opposed to glossy to prevent issues with the finish. Allow all painted pieces to dry completely before you move forward; in general, 24 to 48 hours is a sufficient enough drying period.

Paint Details

Before you begin painting the details, thin down your paint with water to keep it from blobbing onto the toy in a big, goopy mess. Instead, apply several thin layers atop one another, using smooth, gentle brush strokes.

To create shading and highlighting effects, "drybrush" areas of raised detail. Wipe most of the paint off the tip of your brush, then run it gently over the surface of the toy so that the paint highlights the raised areas. Be patient and take your time, allowing the piece to dry after each layer is applied.

Clear Coat and Dry

A layer of clear coat spray can protect the piece from damage to the paint. Clear coat is best used in spray form, but keep in mind it can make your piece look a little shinier than the original figure, which means that it's not always the best choice for aesthetic reasons. However, this sealant should keep the piece from flaking, cracking or scratching. Don't reassemble the toy until after the clear coat has completely dried. Once everything is dried, reassemble the piece and admire your handiwork.

Keep your custom painted figure away from areas of extreme heat or cold, away from direct sunlight and try not to handle it to often. If you do handle it, do so with clean hands and be gentle so you do not ruin the paint job.

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