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How To Repair and Prevent Corrosion on Metal Surfaces using Primer and Paint

For all their toughness, metals are constantly subject to surface damage. Dents, holes, rust, and tarnish can blemish almost any metal. But with careful protection or simple repairs, you can retain or restore the original luster.

Atmosphere is the most common ravager of metal. Oxygen and airborne chemicals react with a metal's surface to turn its smoothness flaky. The most widespread form of corrosion is rust, the result of moist air interacting with iron and steel to form hydrated ferric oxide. Galvanized metals also rust, but they do so at a slow rate unless the galvanized coating has been damaged. Brass, silver, and bronze tarnish as they interact with the atmosphere. Aluminum oxidizes into a white powder, although the powder binds chemically to the metal beneath, blocking further corrosion.

Coating Metal Type
  Iron or Steel Galvanized Metal Aluminum Copper, Bronze, or Brass
Oil Primer X X* X  
Alkyd primer X X* X X
Latex primer X X* X  
Oil-cement primer X X    
Zinc-rich primer X X X X
Zinc-dust primer   X    
Aluminum paint X   X  
Combination primer and paint X      
Glossy oil paint X   X  
Glossy alkyd paint X   X  
Glossy latex paint     X  
Flat oil paint     X  
Flat alkyd paint     X  
Flat latex paint     X  
Epoxy paint X   X  
Urethane paint     X X
Epoxy varnish X   X X
Polyurethane varnish     X X
Acrylic lacquer X   X X
Mineral or linseed oil X   X  
Acrylic or paste wax       X
* Use a type formulated for galvanized metal.

To prevent iron railings, gutters, metal roofs, and the like from corroding, you must seal their surfaces from the air with protective coatings. Mainly these are paints and their primers, but you can also use waxes, oils, and lacquers.

Primers are special paints made to seal out air while serving as bridges to tougher, more durable finishing paints. Some have pigments ground so fine they actually penetrate into the metal. Others have additives for special situations or certain metals. Examples are an oil-based primer containing finely ground portland cement that protects iron and steel; a zinc-rich primer that, on bare metal, imitates the factory-applied protective zinc covering of galvanized steel; and a zinc-dust primer that serves as a bridge between the zinc of galvanized steel and the finishing coats on top.

The Right Coating for the Job

This chart pairs metals, listed horizontally, with compatible coatings, listed down the left column, progressing from primers to paints to clear finishes. When you buy oil, alkyd, or latex paints, choose one formulated especially for metal and, depending on the job, one specified for interior or exterior application. When you use primers with paints, choose a pair that are compatible. If you have doubts, ask your paint dealer.

Other Kinds of Protective Coatings for Metal

Manufacturers also make combination primer-finish paints, sometimes called metal paints, that you can use mainly on iron and steel. These paints combine a primer with a colored finish paint in one can, but they do not wear as well as regular paint applied over a primer.

Finish paints for metals come in the standard types — latex, oil, and alkyd. Make sure you use types specially formulated to include corrosion inhibitors. Avoid paints made for wood. You can also use urethane paints and epoxy paints — both highly resistant to chemicals and weather — on metal, although urethane vapors require caution. Of the epoxies, the toughest come in two containers, the resin in one and the hardener in the other. You mix them just before you begin painting. A good waterproofer is a paint with powdered aluminum added. You can use it on several metals including aluminum which you don't usually paint but which becomes pitted if you don't treat it.

Among clear finishes, epoxy and polyurethane varnishes provide particularly durable coatings. Manufacturers often apply lacquer on products such as door hardware. It is less durable, but you can easily remove the worn coating with lacquer thinner and apply a new coating. Oils are good coatings for tools, and although they wear away quickly, you can also reapply them quickly. You can use waxes, as well as lacquers and clear varnishes, on copper, brass, and bronze to prevent tarnishing. Acrylic waxes generally wear longer and remain clearer than paste waxes.

Preparing the Metal's Surface for Finishing

metal finish

To get the best protection from any coating, clean all rust, dirt, loose paint, or tarnish from the surface of the metal you are coating. Chemical strippers are good cleansing agents for silver and brass. On iron and steel, it may be faster to abrade the surface with a paint scraper, a wire brush, or sandpaper until the surface is clean. To apply coatings, you can use brushes, rollers, spray cans, spray guns, or cloths. For shaped iron railings, use plastic-lined mitten applicators, which you can dip directly into paint without soiling you hand.


Dents and holes also mar the surfaces of metal, but you can use simple techniques to repair the damage. You can usually hammer out dents in thin or decorative metals to the original shape. If bumps remain, you will need to reheat and reshape the metal in the damaged area.


You can fill depressions and holes in painted surfaces, usually iron and steel, with auto-body fillers, which are sold in kits containing applicators, fiberglass screening, and epoxy ingredients. Once you sand the metal, paint the filler with the same type of primer and paint used on the surrounding metal. For a large hole, a soldered-on metal patch is the best remedy.


Using an Electric Drill to Remove Rust and Dirt from Metal


Fit a wire-brush attachment to an electric drill and, wearing safety goggles, abrade the metal at high speed to dislodge rust and loose paint. Continue until the surface is smooth. You need not remove paint that is still well bonded. Use cup- or spindle-shaped wire-brush attachments (inset) for cleaning inside curves and other intricate metalwork. Once the metal is smooth, if you want it even smoother you can sand it with silicon-carbide sandpaper, grits 40 (coarse) to 320 (extra fine). Wipe the surface clean with a soft cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol, then apply the coating of your choice.