Jeep Wranglers are iconic off-road vehicles known for their rugged capabilities and customizable nature. Painting the hardtop is one of the most popular mods for any Jeep owner. Painting the hardtop allows you to change the color, refresh an aging finish, or match a new body paint job. It can give an older Jeep a brand new look.
While it may seem simple enough just to grab a few cans of spray paint and go wild, there is more precision required to get professional looking results that will hold up over time.
Painting a hardtop requires careful preparation, using automotive grade paints and primers, applying adequate coats, and allowing sufficient drying time between steps. Rushing through the process often leads to orange peel, drips, uneven coverage and other paint flaws.
Should You Paint the Hardtop?
Before deciding to paint, consider what you hope to achieve. Here are some of the most common reasons owners choose to paint their hardtops:
- Refresh the Finish – Painting can revive an aging, faded or scratched factory finish. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to make it look new again.
- Color Match the Body – Painting the top unifies the look if the body was repainted and no longer matches.
- Custom Color Choice – Paint allows choosing any color rather than relying on factory color options.
- Protect the Fiberglass – Paint and clear coat protect the vulnerable fiberglass material from sun damage and scratches.
If you choose the right paint and take time with the preparation, you can paint a hardtop with great results. Factory style textures and finishes can be replicated with some effort.
Painting vs Using Bedliner
A popular alternative to painting is using a bedliner type coating on the inside of the hardtop. Bedliner is rolled on and creates a rugged textured finish that protects the raw fiberglass. It comes in various colors like black or grey.
The downside to bedliner is that it does not give an ideal smooth finish if spraying the outside of the top. The texture is difficult to color match perfectly to the body paint as well. Bedliner works best when just coating the interior for protection and a finished look.
Traditional automotive paints are still the best option for exterior paint that matches the body. But bedliner is great for the inside if you don’t want to paint the full interior.
Factory Hardtop Paint Texture
An important thing to consider is the texture of the factory hardtop paint. Jeep does not paint the hardtops with a smooth glossy finish. The OEM hardtops have a lightly textured matte look from the production process.
If you sand the hardtop completely smooth before painting, it will have a more glossy appearance than stock. Some owners prefer this shiny look, while others want to match the rougher OEM texture.
To replicate the factory finish, don’t sand perfectly smooth. Some light orange peel texture is ideal. It helps the painted top match the body’s finish.
Prep Work – Cleaning and Sanding
Thorough prep work is absolutely vital for a paint job that will last. Any oil, wax, dirt or imperfections left on the surface can cause the new paint to peel or flake off. There are five key steps to prepare the hardtop:
1. Remove Hardware
Remove all latches, handles, washers and any other hardware attached to the roof. This allows you to sand and paint the bare fiberglass fully. Reinstall the hardware after painting.
2. Wash and Degrease
Use soap and water to clean the roof, and then wipe down with a degreasing cleaner like PRE Paint Prep. This removes all dirt, grease, oil and wax.
3. Scuff Sand
Use 180-220 grit sandpaper to scuff up the entire surface. This removes the gloss and roughs up the finish for paint adhesion.
4. Solvent Wipe
Wipe the entire top down with a solvent like PRE Paint Prep to remove any remaining contaminants.
5. Clean Fibreglass Dust
Use a tack cloth to remove all dust left from sanding before painting.
These steps are crucial for proper paint bonding. Any missed spots can cause flaws in the finished product.
How Much Sanding is Needed?
For minor restoration, scuff sanding the existing finish is often enough preparation. If the hardtop is in rough shape with lots of scratches, fading or clear coat damage, a deeper sanding is required.
Use caution when sanding to avoid removing too much material. The fiberglass hardtops are relatively thin. Aggressive sanding can damage the structure.
If repainting a top that’s already coated in bedliner, it must be taken down to the bare fiberglass for paint to adhere. This requires heavy sanding.
Spray Painting vs Brush Painting
Spraying automotive paints will always give the smoothest, most uniform finish. The fine mist lays down thin even coats. Brushing tends to leave thicker, uneven coats with more brush marks.
However, brush painting is a viable DIY option if you thoroughly prepare the surface. Use high quality brushing enamels and apply thin coats. Take your time brushing lightly in all directions to avoid heavy build up.
Spraying requires more supplies and experience but is worth learning.
Paint Products for Hardtops
Choosing quality paint designed specifically for automotive use is a must. General all-purpose spray paints like Rustoleum won’t last long on a hardtop. Instead, use UV resistant paints made for car and truck exteriors.
Here are the best paint options:
- Color Match Automotive Paint – For a factory quality finish, use a color-matched urethane paint from a supplier like autopaintsupply.com. Take a sample of your factory paint to get an exact match. Buy primer, color coats and clear.
- Primers – High build primers like U-Tech 2K fill scratches and create a strong base. Always prime before painting.
- Bedliner – As mentioned above, bedliner style roll-on coatings work great for interiors and a textured look.
- Enamels – Single stage automotive enamels provide good gloss and color if an exact match isn’t needed.
- Clear Coat – A clear coat over the color provides a glossy finish and protects from fading and damage. 2K urethane clear is extremely durable.
Avoid cheap spray bombs or hardware store enamel if you want a show quality finish. The results simply won’t compare to professional automotive paints.
Painting a Black Hardtop
Black paint is especially popular for Jeep hardtops, but also more challenging to work with. Black requires many coats to achieve full coverage and uniform coloring.
If the hardtop was originally black, be sure to coat it with a dark tinted primer first. This prevents the original color showing through. 3-5 coats of primer may be needed to block out black.
Applying high build primer also helps fill in any light scratches and debris in the fiberglass. Follow with 2-3 coats of black urethane for best results.
Using Mopar Jeep Touch Up Paint
For minor paint repairs, you can closely match the factory colors using Mopar touch up paint pens. Mopar offers exact match colors for all Jeep models. Just input your VIN at a dealer to get the paint code.
For example, the stock Surf Blue on a 2012 JKU has paint pen code PX8. This tiny pen can cover rock chips and light scratches. Use it sparingly as touch ups stand out from fresh paint.
You’ll need standard paint in quarts or gallons for large surfaces like a full top. But touch up pens are ideal for small flaws.
Painting the Inside of a Hardtop
While exterior paint quality is crucial, don’t neglect the interior. The inside can be painted as well for a complete finish. Paint protects the bare fiberglass from sun damage and prevents dulling.
For interiors, using a bedliner type coating or roll-on truck bed coating works well. These adhere to the textured fiberglass and leave a semi-textured protected finish.
You can also spray or roll on automotive paint. Enamels are easier for DIY spraying inside the confined space. Use solvent resistant coatings made for automotive interiors.
Once you have prepped the surface and have your paint materials ready, follow these steps:
1. Apply Primer
Apply 2-3 medium coats of primer, allowing proper flash time between coats. High build primer fills imperfections.
2. Sand Primer
After 24 hours drying time, wet sand the primer using 600 grit paper. This smoothes the surface for paint.
3. Clean and Dry
Wipe with a tack cloth after wet sanding to remove all dust.
4. Apply Paint
Apply 3-5 thin coats of color matched paint, allowing 15 minutes between coats. Spray light even coats.
5. Allow to Cure
Give the paint 24-48 hours to fully cure before handling the top or installing.
6. Wet Sand Paint
Lightly sand again with 1000 grit paper to smooth the paint if needed. Clean and dry.
7. Apply Clear Coat
Spray 2-3 coats of clear coat, waiting 10 minutes between coats. Clear protects the paint.
Once fully cured after a few days, reinstall all hardware and gaskets.
Take your time with each stage for best results. Rushing leads to mistakes like runs or drips in the paint. Proper flash times are essential.
Drying times between coats are crucial to avoid paint flaws. Here are some general guidelines:
- Primer coats – 10-15 minutes between coats
- Paint coats – 15-20 minutes between coats
- Clear coat – 10 minutes between coats
- Air dry primer before sanding – 24 hours
- Air dry paint before clearing – 24 hours
- Air dry clear before handling – 48 hours
- Air dry before installing – 1 week
These times allow each layer to set up before adding more. The longer you can wait before assembly, the harder the paint will be.
Painting a TJ Hard Top
The painting process is essentially the same for any Jeep hardtop including older models like the Wrangler TJ from 1997-2006. Just as with newer JK models, TJ hardtops are made from fiberglass.
Thoroughly sand the original finish to rough up the surface and follow with a coat of primer before painting. Scuff the primer before spraying color.
Use 2-3 coats of color matched automotive paint to match the factory color or a custom color of your choosing. Finish with a clear coat for protection.
The TJ roof can also be painted on the inside, just like newer models. Use good cleaning and prep along with automotive grade paints suited for interiors.
Painting vs Replacing with Aftermarket
Some owners purchase an aftermarket replacement top rather than painting a worn factory hardtop. Brands like Bestop and Smittybilt sell replacement tops in various colors and materials.
The main advantage to replacing is getting a perfect new finish without doing the painting work. You also have more color options beyond factory colors.
However, replacement tops don’t offer an exact OEM match in terms of fit and finish. And good quality replacements are expensive. Painting the original can be done for half the cost in many cases.
So weigh the pros and cons of each option for your needs. DIY painting is a great option for a nearly new factory finish on the original top.
Hiring a Professional vs DIY
While painting your own hardtop can save money, the results depend heavily on your skill level. Professionals with paint booths and professional equipment will always achieve a higher quality paint job.
Hiring a body shop is worth the extra cost for a flawless show car quality finish. Experienced painters know all the proper techniques to avoid paint flaws. The prep work and materials used are top-notch.
But with the right guidance, products and patience, DIY Jeep owners can also paint a hardtop with good results. If you don’t expect perfection, painting it yourself can still significantly improve the look at a fraction of the cost.
How much does it cost to paint a hardtop?
- Professional shop cost – $500-1000
- DIY cost – Under $200
Can I use spray paint?
- Use automotive paint for best durability and finish. General spray paint won’t last.
Should I take it to a shop or paint myself?
- Shops offer flawless results but cost more. DIY saves money but requires skill.
How long does the paint last?
- With proper preparation and coats, it can last 5-10 years before needing a refresh.
What about line-x or bedliner?
- Great for interior use but not ideal for smooth exterior finish matching the body.
Painting your Jeep hardtop allows customizing your Wrangler and giving it a brand new OEM-quality appearance. While proper paint prep and application take effort, the results are well worth it. With some guidance and patience, you can change the look of your Jeep for a relatively low cost.