How to Paint Graphic Flames

By Cecile Bukmeier

Have you ever wondered about the process of painting old school graphic flames? The kind that you see laid out across hot rods at classic car shows and on the covers of magazines. 

The main goal of any flame job is to accentuate the build-style of the hot rod, to give it a “wow” factor. A flame paint job is only as good as its design. It should have almost a natural flow across the body of the vehicle; selecting and understanding contrasting colours is crucial to making the flames really stand out. There is no perfect way to design and paint flames, it is important to be open to experimentation. The best way to learn is to fail a few times–that way, you will understand what will work for you and what won’t. 

I am writing this in hopes to share some tips and maybe even spark some inspiration on how to achieve a long-lasting, classic flame job. 

First, you need to start out with a suitable ground coat. It is important to consider what you are working on.  Is this a bare substrate; steel, aluminum, plastic? Is there existing paint on the surface? Has it been painted by a professional or a manufacturer? If so, what type of paint is it? Is it in good condition? It is important to be able to identify the overall condition and any defects in the paint surface. The paint that you apply will only be as good as the underlying layer. There are many different starting points you can face when you begin a flame paint job. I would like to stress the importance of technical data sheets. They are your instructions on how to properly prepare panels and apply the paint coatings. It is important to understand and follow these recommendations because if you are going to do all the work to paint the flames, you will want the job to last!

Selecting a flame style and flow can take a few hours and a lot of taping and re-taping. Without a beautiful design, a time-consuming paint job will be wasted. Flow of the flames is an important concept to understand, they should have a sense of motion—similar to the spontaneous nature of fire. Flames are meant to enhance the appearance of a vehicle. It is important to spend as much time and tape needed to get the design and layout you want. Several other factors combined with the placement of the flame licks, work together to produce an eye-catching design. The thickness of the tips, length, rate of taper and the direction of the flames all play an important role in designing. The ends can pass through or around trim components and overlap each other. There is an endless amount of variations to graphic flames; practice and inspiration are key to producing a successful design. 

Vinyl tape is used to mask off the initial design of the flames you have decided to produce. Vinyl tape is flexible and sticks to irregular surfaces with less distortion than traditional crepe making tape. Creating a good flame design takes more than a few rolls of tape, so make sure to grab more than you think you will need. During the initial taping layout, try not to press the tape down too much, just enough to have it stick, so it can be easily repositioned if needed. Repositioning the tape once or twice will be fine, but more than a few times could end up with the tape lifting while you are spraying, which could cause a blow-through, so use caution. While you are masking, it is common to have a lead of tape several inches from where you are placing the design. This will help with a smooth, continuous motion throughout the flame pattern. Once the initial design is laid out, stand back and evaluate your work. Be sure to look at the inside of the masking tape, do not get thrown off by looking at the outer edges—remember you are only painting the inside of the design. Look at the spacing of the flame licks and the inner curves of the flames. It should all look fairly even and flow together. It is common to do both symmetrical and asymmetrical flames across the body of a vehicle. If you want to achieve a symmetrical flame job, you will need to trace out one side and mirror it to the other. I like to use white masking paper; I place the paper over the flame design and tape it down, ensuring that folds and wrinkles in the paper are virtually non-existent. Mark out reference points of the vehicle on the masking paper with chalk. Then trace out the inside of the flame licks with chalk. Unmask carefully and flip the paper inside-out. Match the reference points you created on the paper to the other side of the vehicle and secure the paper in place. Trace out the flames. Once you lift the paper you will see the flame design in chalk on the vehicle. Follow the design with fine line tape to finish off the symmetrical flame look. Once you are happy with the vinyl tape design, it is time to mask off the flames and the rest of the vehicle with masking paper and crepe tape. Transfer tape is also available in small to large rolls to place over the entire flame job and then cut with a razor blade or X-ACTO knife along the vinyl tape lines. It is important to avoid over and under taping and wrinkles or pockets in the masking paper. Pockets can trap overspray and dust and when you pass air over them, the debris could land in the wet paint job. Make sure that every other part of the vehicle is also masked tightly to prevent getting paint overspray on any areas other than the flames. 

Now that the flames are ready to be sprayed. Depending on the color you selected, you may want to give a ground coat of an opaque color. In my example, I chose yellow, orange and red—which are very transparent colors—I gave the flames a white ground coat first, so I didn’t have to coat the flames 10 times with yellow to get complete coverage. After drying the white ground coat, I coated the flames in a yellow base coat and dried them. Then I loaded a mini spray gun with an orange base and reduced my spray pattern to about three-inch-length. I also turned down my fluid delivery knob on the paint gun, so I didn’t pile on the paint. I traced along the edges of my flame curves to give them some depth. I try to leave the bottom of the flames in a light-yellow colour to give them a cool fade. After drying the orange base coat, I went in with a red colour. I reduced my spray pattern even more, so it was about one inch. I traced the outer edges and licks of the flame again, keeping the red inside the orange base. Once I am satisfied with the look and fade of the colors inside the flames, I let the paint dry for about 20 minutes before beginning to unmask them.

Unmasking is just as important as masking the flames. All that hard work can easily be ruined by carelessly pulling off tape and paper. Make sure you remove the paper carefully, so it doesn’t stick to the fresh paint and when it comes time to lift the fine line, pay extra attention. If any paint has bridged over the vinyl tape, you may need to cut the edge so it doesn’t peel the paint when you lift the tape. Once all the masking is removed, check for any imperfections or paint blow-throughs. Now is the time to catch any mistakes and fix them by using masking paper to make a shield over completed areas and spraying base coat at very low pressures—or through an airbrush—to cover any paint blow-throughs.

Some painters will finish off the job by outlining the flames with a contrasting pinstriping paint color, to make the flames really stand out.  In the example, I outlined my flames with a light blue One-Shot paint. 

When you are ready to finish, select a quality clear within the same paint line as the basecoat. Give the vehicle two to three coats of clear coat, following the data sheets. It is common to sand the entire vehicle again after the clear has cured and give it another coat or two of clear coat. This is known as a ‘flow-coat’ and helps to minimize texture from the paint lines in the clear and will give the job an extra wet-look. Any dust nibs or runs can be sanded out after the clear has cured and then polished out to give the job a flawless, show-car finish. 

A quality flame paint job can be difficult to achieve, especially if you are new to it. Look online, in magazines and take photos at car shows to get ideas on different styles and executions of a flame paint job. With some practice you can create a wonderful piece yourself!




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