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How to Paint Rusted Metal

Don't throw away that rusty metal patio furniture or medicine cabinet! Learn how to paint rusted metal and make it look like new again!

how to paint rusted metal with before and after photo

Are you afraid of what people will see when they open your medicine cabinet? No, not the anti-itch cream or the hair regrowth tonic. I'm talking about the gross rust that's eating away the metal like a cavity on a sweet tooth.

Or maybe your patio chairs have seen one too many rainstorms, and you're worried that the rusted metal surface will result in a trip to urgent care for an updated tetanus shot.

Luckily, it's easy to paint over rust and make metal look like new! Here's how!

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I'm using our rusty medicine cabinet as an example, but the same process works for any paintable surface. Sometimes small home improvement projects like this make a huge impact!

rusty metal medicine cabinet

Materials needed

Tips for painting rusted metal

Work in a well ventilated area

This project creates dust and loose rust, and oil based primer and paint is high in VOCs, so it's always best to work outdoors when possible. However, the screws holding this medicine cabinet to the wall were just as rusty as the rest of it, and were crumbling as I tried to remove them!

So I left it in place and I applied painter's tape to the tile and around the mirror frame. Then I ran the bathroom fan and wore a respirator to protect my lungs while I worked.

painter's tape around rusty metal medicine cabinet

Clean the rusted metal surface

The key to any good paint job is good surface preparation. You need to remove loose rust as well as any flaking or peeling paint. You don't need to get back to bare metal, but any flaking rust will prevent proper paint adhesion.

Start with a rust remover and inhibitor like this product from Krud Kutter. This stuff dissolves and removes rust and makes a smoother surface for painting.

Krud Kutter rust remover and inhibitor on rusted metal surface

Just apply it to the rusted area and allow it to soak in. Before it dries, use steel wool or a wire brush to remove any rust flakes. You don't need to remove all the rust, but there shouldn't be any loose rust or flakes.

For heavy rust, you may need to repeat the process several times and use a wire wheel attachment on your drill to properly prep the surface. You may want to sand the area smooth if the rust left a pitted surface on the metal.

Wipe up the mess with a damp soft cloth and allow it to dry completely before painting. Remember to clean the entire surface, not just the rusty spots, so the paint will adhere properly.

Apply metal primer

Metal primer will allow the old paint to adhere to the new paint, and protect the rusted surfaces from further corrosion. It comes as a spray paint or in a can, so you can choose the best one for your particular project.

applying primer to rusty metal medicine cabinet

I applied a thin coat of Rust-oleum Clean Metal Primer to the entire medicine cabinet. It's stinky stuff, so wear a respirator and open up the windows while you're working to vent the fumes.

Be aware that this oil-based primer takes a loooooong time to dry. I gave it about 12 hours between primer coats, and 24 hours before applying the final topcoat. Check the can for specific dry times.

Apply Metal Paint

Primer by itself isn't enough to protect the metal surface. Apply a top coat of paint to repel moisture and prevent it from rusting again. Check the label on your paint can to make sure that it will adhere to metal.

I went with Rust-oleum's protective enamel paint in gloss white. This will be the first line of defense against moisture, and the glossy surface will make cleaning easier.

Behold, the power of paint!

rusted metal medicine cabinet after painting

No embarrassing rust here! It looks like new!

rusty metal spot painted over with white gloss paint

I took this opportunity to clear out some unused makeup and multiple boxes of floss. Now the medicine cabinet is bright, clean, and organized!

painted metal medicine cabinet with toiletries

When I see the before next to the after, it really makes me wonder why I didn't do it sooner!

split screen of before and after painting rusted metal medicine cabinet

Frequently Asked Questions about painting rusty metal

Can you spray paint over rust?

Yes, once the loose flakes have been removed from the surface, you can spray paint over the rust. Use a spray primer specially formulated for rust first, then apply spray paint for metal on top.

Can you paint over rust without sanding?

You don't need to sand before painting over rust, but you should make sure that the surface is free of flakes and loose paint first. A wire brush can quickly remove the debris and prepare the rusted metal for paint.

What paint is best for rusted metal?

The paint you use depends on how much rust is on the surface. For light rust, Rust-Oleum's oil based protective enamel works great. For heavy rust, apply a coat of Rust-Oleum Automotive Rusty Metal Primer before the top coat for the best results.


Monday 31st of December 2018

I have the exact same cabinet and mine looks truly horrific. Time to stop saying I’ll “do it later” and actually get it done!


Monday 5th of November 2018

I just finished painting my old medicine cabinet (it’s EXACTLY like yours!!) per your instructions and it’s beautiful!! I’m so proud of myself & my husband is amazed!! Thank you!


Monday 5th of November 2018

That's great! I love hearing from readers who have done my projects. I'm so glad I could help! Enjoy your new/old medicine cabinet!


Saturday 27th of October 2018

Amazing transformation. Thank you for sharing at Party In Your PJs!


Thursday 25th of October 2018

Looks great, you weren't exaggerating - it really was horrific!!!


Monday 22nd of October 2018

Ew, Gross! This is exactly what mine looks like. I pack it full so you can't see the rust and continue to be in denial. That is why it has looked like this for 13 years. I'm inspired to clean it out and freshen it up. Thanks for sharing!

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