BodyShop Business
Pinstriping and Lettering: The Lost Art

When someone mentions pinstriping, most of the time you think of vinyl on a car. But the art of hand-painted pinstriping is still alive and well.

People such as Von Dutch and Ed Roth were the founding fathers of the symmetrical art that was normally seen on hot rods and motorcycles in the 1960s and ’70s. If you had a hot rod, you had to have it “striped,” and that still holds true today. It was used on everything from cars and boats to horsedrawn buggies. It was very finely detailed, sometimes containing characters, and only a handful of people could do it.

Got Style?

The art form and the way it’s done today is the same as it was back in the day, but everyone has added their own twist and style to it.

Every striper has his or her own style: old school, new school, tribal, scroll style, gold leaf, etc. Most of the time, the client doesn’t know what they want, and they’ll say, “You’re the artist. Just do whatever looks good, but treat it as if it was yours.” Some people like graphics, which involves lots of taping or airbrushing – but that’s another story.

One of the trademarks of my style is signing my nickname, “Hivoltz,” on all my work. This is not uncommon, as most of the time you’ll see a signature of some kind on handpainted art. The reason is because artists are proud of their work, and that includes me.

Practice Makes Perfect

I started striping in 2006. I was at a friend’s tattoo shop, and I noticed a tutorial on pinstriping on the back of an airbrush magazine he was reading. I told him that I wanted to try that, and he said, “Yeah, right! It takes guys years to master that art form!”

I went to the bookstore the next day and purchased a selection called “How to Pinstripe” by Alan Johnson, a well known New Jersey pinstriping and graphic artist.

The first page read that if you have the will and desire to pinstripe, buy a gallon of paint and a brush and when you get to the bottom of the can, you’ll know how to do it. I know that’s a lot of paint, but I followed his advice and started practicing for hours on end, day after day. I would go to bed, get up at 4 a.m. and start practicing again just to stay sharp. It’s like anything else: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Six months later, I got good enough that my friend let me stripe his truck.

Practice alone does not make a good pinstriper. There’s also the research it takes to become familiar with the products that are available and figuring out what to do and what not to do. Experience plays a big part in it, but ultimately you have to remember that it’s paint and you will mess up, and that’s the name of the game. But so what? You wipe it off and go on.


a good pinstriper has to have a trusty set of paint, hardeners, reducers and brushes.
A good pinstriper has to have a trusty set of paint, hardeners, reducers and brushes.
Let’s talk a little about products. Whether I pinstripe a car, bike or some kind of panel art, I use a good wax and grease remover to clean the surface and follow that up with Windex. A clean surface will make or break you.

As for paint, hardener and reducers, I use 1 Shot products. A lot of people will tell you that you can use regular thinner to thin your paint, and that may be your preference, but 1 Shot makes a reducer that works great with their paint. As added insurance, never use the thinner or reducer you clean your brushes with because it could have oils in it and leave you with fisheyes. The end result is you wiping off your work and starting over. In time, you’ll learn that, as with anything, practice is the key to quality pinstriping.

Pricing and Brushes

You would be surprised at the reasonable cost of these products. As for what to charge, it’s up to you. Everyone isn’t doing this art form, but everyone wants it, so do the math.

Brushes are something else to consider. When I started, I had to have one of everything out there. And believe me, everyone has their own brush. I prefer a Mack 00 Series 20 automotive touch-up brush, but it’s up to the individual artist. Again, practicing and experimentation are key. The 20 Series will cost you about $9 apiece. Some guys like the 10 Series, which are made with different hair and cost twice as much. Do your research and try some different ones out there.

Brush care is easy – just clean your brushes with mineral spirits and make sure you oil them. As for lettering brushes, do your research and try what’s out there. Hand lettering is not for everyone, so I would advise sticking to pinstriping because that will keep you busy enough.

The people I try to target as potential customers are hotrodders, bikers and tractor trailer drivers. Others will do a lot of panel and garage art and sell it on eBay. There’s money to be made, but again, research is key. Canvass your local and out-of-town car shows; the best way to get your work out there is through word of mouth.

Step by Step

Let’s go through a project step-by-step to give you an idea of how striping works. First, let’s look at the products I’ll use:

● Paint thinner (for cleaning brushes only)
● 1-Shot reducer
● 1-Shot hardener
● 1-Shot lettering enamel, white-bright red
● Wax and grease remover (but none for this project because the panel is clean enough)
● Windex
● Mack 00 20 Series pinstriping brush
● Small lettering quill

photo 1
Photo 1
1. I start by getting my center line on the panel and making a pattern from my vinyl plotter (or by hand, if you wish) (Photo 1).

photo 2
Photo 2
photo 3
Photo 3
2. I transfer my pattern onto the panel using saral transfer paper (Photos 2-3).

photo 4
Photo 4
3. As you can see, I’m only using a Dixie cup to hold my paint, as it only takes a little to do an entire job. I start out with the lettering. It’s very important to do this first if you’re outlining the lettering because you want to give the paint time to dry. You definitely don’t want to work over wet paint (Photo 4).

photo 5
Photo 5
4. After filling in all the lettering, I take my fine line tape and, as before, get my center line for the design. I like to do my designs freehand, but you can draw them out and transfer them, too. Some jobs require you to do this, but you end up doing the job three times (Photo 5).

photo 6
Photo 6
photo 7
Photo 7
5. Next, I use my Mack 00 Series 20 striping brush. After I clean it, I dip it in the paint and pallet the brush back and forth to make sure I get the paint up in the ferrel of the brush for proper flow. Palletting back and forth, adding reducer for proper consistency, you want it to feel somewhere between melting ice cream and syrup. In other words, you want the paint to have some drag to it. Again: practice, practice, practice (Photos 6-7).

photo 8
Photo 8
6. I start by pulling lines on each side of the tape until I get my center. Once I have that, I fill out the design, trying to be symmetrical and adding balance to the design without getting carried away. Trust me, less is more; it’s easy to overdo it (Photo 8).

7. I use a compass to get my perfect circles. Keep in mind these designs will get easier as you practice and develop your own style.

photo 9
Photo 9
8. Once I finish the design, I add a border to it and maybe some more red (Photo 9).

photo 10
Photo 10
9. I start with adding my outline to the lettering. This takes some time and a lot of practice, but it’s a lot of fun and it adds to the panel (Photo 10).

photo 11
Photo 11
10. Once I finish outlining, I start adding some white to the design for balance, trying not to get too carried away. When using red and white, the white can kill the red if you’re not careful (Photo 11).

photo 12
Photo 12
Photo 13
Photo 13
11. I add just enough white to balance it out. Then, I will add a white border to match the red (Photos 12-13).

Have Fun

Remember that pinstriping should be fun, but be careful: it can also be addictive! Whether you want to make it an add-on business at your body shop or just do it as a hobby, it’s a wonderful art that has been around for years and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. So grab a brush and a can of paint and get to practicing! You won’t regret it.

David “Hivoltz” Richards is a self-taught pinstriping artist who signs his nickname to all of his work, which can be viewed at He can be reached at (540) 293-9980 or [email protected].


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