DIY Rust Removal: Make Your Beater Better!

By Ed (with intro by Robin)

We drive a beater and we're pretty proud of it.  Our ol' van is over ten years old, runs really well, and best of all, it's paid for!  For over a year we have had to make $0 in payments on our van.  That's money we've been able to direct toward things that are important to us.  Low on the list of what we value is having a shiny, impressive ride.  Our vehicle is just a tool to get us where we want to go.

There's a bit of a caveat though: while we see no shame in driving an old car, we feel tons of shame driving one with rust.  Rust is exactly where we draw the line.  An old van is fine, but please, let's not have it's rusty, brown roots showing.  

So, much like a good home hair dye job, we give our van a quick age masking at-home treatment.  It only takes Ed an afternoon and less than $40 in supplies.  With this small investment of time and money, our van goes from rusty eyesore, back to being virtually invisible in it's blandness.  Just the way we like it.

Here's Ed's rundown of the steps...

This isn't going to be pretty.

Rust? What rust. Oh that rust. I see it now.

First, I'll start this off by saying that the end product of this DIY isn't showroom pretty. It is a serviceable clean-up and paint job to coax a few more months/years out of a vehicle that is in otherwise good shape except for a rusty spot or two.

Yeah, there's no way this gets fixed in a driveway in an afternoon. But it can get cleaned up and hidden...

It will eventually wear off and the rust will push its way through, but this is true of pretty much every rust removal out there: it is all just a band-aid solution. Rust always wins. But our goal isn't to beat rust, it is simply to hold it off and drive our (paid for) vehicle for a little longer.


  • Paint "bomb".  Get a can of paint colour matched to your car.  You can get these either from an auto parts store or a body shop that will do custom paint matching. Our big can of custom paint cost about $28.
  • Rust-killer/primer. Again, do some hunting in the auto paint aisle and you'll likely find what I used. It is an all purpose rust killer and primer that you can spray onto bare metal/rust. 
  • Cleaning supplies.  Water bucket, scrub cloth, steel wool (if you're desperate).  I find those 3M scrub pads awesome.
  • Rubbing compound. My dad acquainted me with this amazing stuff - essentially car wax with a fine scrubbing compound in it. Works miracles at cleaning up rust stains and cloudy over-spray from amateur hour spray painting (i.e. the type of painting I do).


1.  Check the weather forecast. You don't want any rain while the paint it being applied.  Plan enough time for multiple layers with at least an hour or two curing between each.

2.   Clean up as much of the rust, rust stains and mess as you can with basic cleaning stuff. You'll be surprised at how much of what you thought was rust, was actually just the mess that rust makes. Some stuff, of course, is actually rust.

3.  Attack everything again with the rubbing compound. You'll find that it should get most of any rust stains and mess off that other cleaners miss.

The initial clean up makes a big difference. The rust stains are gone and you can actually see where the real damage is.

4. Clean off any and all soap, rubbing compound and rust mess. Dry with a cloth and leave things alone to air-dry for a while. You don't want to paint over wet metal.

5. Leap of faith time: Apply the primer. Your car will end up looking like all those cars you see up on blocks in the movies. It will get better. You may choose to tape off some areas (I did last year) but I've found that any build-up near the tape line tends to show up worse than the misty over-spray that untaped areas get. Really, everything you do will kinda suck a bit, so pick your poison.

For fun, call a friend or spouse out at this point and say, "All done, what do you think?"

6. You may want to do a second coat of primer to make sure the metal/rust is really covered. Be sure to wait until the paint is dry before painting again. Depending on the paint you buy and temperature, this may be one hour or many.

7.  You can now apply your colour matched topcoat.  Go easy. Once you start covering the primer and it starts looking normal again, the temptation will be to over-apply and get runs in the paint.

Be patient (I'm saying this as much to myself as to you, as I am writing this post between paint coats as a way to force myself to be patient). Many thin coats are better than 1 thick one (Yes, Dad, I heard and remembered what you said).

Perfect? No. Wife able to make eye contact with fellow employees in parking lot? Yes.

8. You are nearly done (in fact, some of you will say, "good enough" and actually be done). Others will want to go back with some rubbing compound after the paint has cured for a few days and give it a good buffing. This should help remove any over-spray haze that you get from shoddy spray can work. Again, not perfect, but done.

Our project this year represents the worst case scenario for salvaging a season of driving from a vehicle with some major rust spots. The next step - rusting completely through the door panel or fender - isn't far off. No amount of cleaning and painting can hide a physical hole.

It is possible your vehicle has smaller rust spots and these clean up much nicer.  Check out this comparison of the driver side sliding door. The small bit of surface rust and staining virtually disappear with a good cleaning and paint job.

So that's that, for at least another few months. Our next step may be to visit a wrecker and see about getting a matching driver's side door (as that is the worst spot). Anyone had any luck with that? I'm pretty sure it will cost more than $40.

Any questions?  Do you have an old vehicle you're nursing along?


  1. nice work! We drive beaters, too and have a similar outlook. While it is purely functional and I don't need the latest shiny showroom car, it does make it easier when it doesn't look like a rust bucket.

    1. I totally agree! I wish the rust didn't bug me, but it does. When Ed gives the van this little facelift, I stop looking at the car listings and go back to feeling ok about our ride. :)

  2. I have to say that I'm mighty impressed. The last time we had some rust fixed by a body shop it cost $100's and it was only a matter of time before it came back through. Kudos to the DIY method!

    1. Thanks Tina. I imagine your body shop repair was prettier and longer lasting than my driveway hack, but you point out the reality I've heard from others: rust always returns. I find that it gives me courage to try something like this knowing that even the pros have a limited lifespan on their work.
      Thanks for reading!

  3. My husband is a body man and said that you would get even better, more permanent results if you used a wet sanding method (fine grit paper, wet, wet surface) and then used the Scotch Brite on and passed the rusting area and then use these paints.
    You can permanently get rid of rust but that does require cutting the rust or and welding in new metal.

    1. I cringe to think what a real car guy things about my work, but I'm glad you shared his ideas. I have wet sanded before and will try it again in the sequence he suggested if our dear van makes it through the winter. Thanks for the comment and thank him for his expertise.

  4. This is the second DIY rust removal post I have read today and I have founded this one really amazing. I always love to read DIY posts and hoping to me read more of them.

  5. How long did this treatment last? We need to do this and just was curious as to how frequently it needed to be done.

    1. I'm sorry I missed your question, Lindsey! I'm not sure how that happened. This treatment lasted until we traded in the van - so until March 2014 - and maybe longer. :)

  6. Wait a minute, that's my van!

    1. Maybe you bought it - we traded it in in March 2014. ;)

  7. most of the time you can find some decent parts at a local junkyard if you want to replace a rusted part (they are usuallya lot cheaper alternative also)!


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