Stripper Hell: Painting a Dirt Bike Frame the Old Fashioned Way

My 24 year-old Suzuki DR350 needed a paint job and some major refinishing. Granted, it took over two decades of abuse on the factory paint job like a champ, but the rust spots, corrosion and touch-ups had this dirt bike frame looking pretty worn. Nothing we can’t fix with some hard work and powerful chemicals though, right?

Most sane individuals would get the frame sandblasted, and ideally powder coated. I wanted to attempt a new paint job on my own and keep costs way down, so I opted for some hardcore spray-on paint stripper then lots of wire brushes & sandpaper.

The bike wasn’t looking too bad for 24 years, but it had a pretty shoddy touchup job at one point, a few dozen rust/corrosion spots and a lot of bare metal on one side of the frame from normal boot wear.

DR350 Factory Paint Job
Original paint job, plenty of rust spots & filth

Step One: Teardown & Prep

The first first was of course to break down the entire bike. Once I had all the obvious stuff taken off (and bagged, labelled & well-organized because I will forget where something goes), it became obvious there are a lot of miscellaneous screws, screw holes & other odds and ends to deal with. Not wanting to halfass it too badly, it was worth the extra time removing every last bolt.

When removing the oil plugs, I immediately plugged them with some paper towels & masking tape to prevent any foreign debris getting into the frame. This could be a disaster once it’s assembled again.

After teardown, the entire dirt bike frame was washed with soap & water and dried thoroughly. I then took a wire brush and cleaned up and stuck on debris, paint flakes, and cleaned out the screw holes as best possible.

DR350 dirt bike frame factory paint
All parts removed, note the bare steering stem

The steering stem was a bit of a challenge, as I didn’t want to get any paint down in the stem and potentially gum up the bearings. On the other hand, I didn’t want to tape off the entire top section or I would have a ring of yellow factory paint/rust, as the bearing seat is recessed in the steering stem.

The solution was to fill the steering stem with paper towels, then cut out two circles of thick foam (which I commandeered from a $15 Wal-Mart sleeping pad, and which I also used for plugging the 50+ screw holes on the bike). I then wedged the foam into the top and bottom of the steering stem. This worked out perfectly by sealing off the inner stem while leaving the entire top surface of the stem exposed.

Moving on to the myriad bolt and screw holes on the frame, I used the same thick foam sleeping pad and cut it into small “tubes” to fit each of the screw holes. It is fairly dense foam, and it once cut slightly larger than the diameter of the hole, could literally be screwed in until seated. It turned out, by the way, to work brilliantly and was significantly easier than trying to tape them off, or find matching screws to tape off, or any other such nonsense. It was also tremendously cheaper than my original idea, which was to use foam earplugs. $15 for a pack of 24 earplugs? Give me a break. This sleeping pad was enough to make 5,000 earplugs and I could each one to size.

Once all of the parts were removed and stored, the frame was thoroughly cleaned, and all of the various plugs, bolt holes and un-paintable areas were plugged, taped and masked off, it was time for chemicals.

Step Two: Stripping

I call this stripper hell, because this stuff is gnarly, potent, noxious stuff. Sure, I could have found some organic, farm-raised, environmentally friendly, edible paint stripper for $75/oz that may or may not have worked after soaking it for seven weeks; but I went for the heavy stuff. The get ‘er done stuff: Klean Strip Premium Stripper.

paint stripper
The gnarly stuff: Klean Strip Premium Stripper

This was however, and I cannot understate this, one of the most disgusting, pain-in-the-ass, miserable and painstaking jobs you can imagine.

The stripper is in a spray form. If you attempt this yourself, you do not want to breathe it in. If it contacts your flesh, you’ll know, because it immediately starts to burn. If you don’t wear protective goggles and cover every inch of your flesh, you are an idiot and probably deserve to be melted into a puddle. Okay, maybe not; but don’t be an idiot.

DR350 frame paint stripper
Pass #2 – still stripping

Oh, and you’re going to be using a lot of it. It took almost three full cans to do the frame, rear subframe and footpegs.

DR350 frame stripper
Snot. Really, it’s not enough it burns your eyes out, it also looks like mucus.

It’s extremely fast-acting, and the majority of the paint bubbles off within 10 minutes. I ended up doing two full passes of two sprays each. The general process went like this:

  1. Full spray in upright position
  2. Scrape down, wire brush, full cleanup
  3. Full spray in inverted position (upside down)
  4. Scrape down wire brush, full cleanup
  5. Full cleanup & wash, sanding, wire brush on details
  6. Repeat steps 1-5 in full
  7. Spot stripping the few remaining hard-to-reach areas
  8. Final wire brush, sanding, cleanup

The entire process was close to two weeks of spraying, waiting, wire brushing, gagging and cleaning up all the piles of disgusting, flesh burning chemically sauteed paint chips.

Also, in addition to the frame the rear subframe and pegs needed to be stripped & cleaned fully.

Just to demonstrate how strong this stuff is – a tiny (~1mm) chunk of paint which had been soaked in stripper was stuck on my goggles. Within 10 minutes it had melted all the way into the lens and is now a permanent part of my safety goggles.

In retrospect, this was a messy experience, but it was much more efficient than attempting to sand factory paint off a 24-year-old dirt bike frame. There was simply no way to brush & sand in most of the hard-to-reach places. In the end, it was far more affordable than sandblasting and I was able to ensure that there was no foreign debris in the frame, that all the sensitive parts were properly sealed and masked, and most importantly I was able to do every step of it myself without special tools.

With this vile stage complete, I was able to move into the third and final stage (what an effing relief!)

Step Three: Prep & Painting

Once the frame was completely bare, I gave it a good wash with soap & water, hosed it down, dried it thoroughly and cleaned every nook & cranny with the air compressor.

I then sanded all of the larger, flat surfaces with 400 grit wet/dry, as it was tremendously slick after the paint stripper did it’s job (that’s right, no pitting or damage to the metal at all, thankfully).

After another final cleanup & blast of air, I painted the frame in 3 steps:

  1. Two coats of Rustoleum automotive primer (dark grey)
  2. Two coats of Rustoleum metallic (dark grey)
  3. Two coats of Rustoleum automotive clear high gloss

This was definitely the easiest and funnest part of the job. Apart from the fact that I love the smell of spray paint (and Xylene, but then what sane man doesn’t love the smell of xylene for crying out loud??), it was like a walk in the park compared the prep process.

dirt bike frame primer
Primer & metallic paint in progress

The painting process was pretty straight and forward. Proper ventilation, gloves, dust-free and close inspection the entire time for debris or running.

Primer in progress… getting there…

Since I was using metallic paint & a high gloss finish, I did not sand at any step during the process. Ideally, I would sanded after the primer coats, but the frame is such an awkward, complex bunch of shapes and angles that I just didn’t have the patience. The metallic paint also settles very smoothly and the primer went on nice and clean without any weirdness to clean up.

dirt bike frame painted
Final coat & gloss
dirt bike frame metallic coat
So sherrrny

After letting the paint dry for a solid ten days, I used needle pliers to extract the 56 or so foam inserts that I fabricated. They came out like butter with a counterclockwise twist and did a superb job of protecting the screwholes while letting the paint seep right into the edges. That foam pad was definitely one of the best investments for such a project!

Step Four: There Is No Step Four

One might say this is more of a conclusion and review than a step. But looking back at the project, I’m quite happy with the results. Will I ever do it again? No effing way. It was labor intensive, but most of all the stripper was just messy to work with. It looks just like spit. So for two weeks, you’re drowning in flesh-searing mucus, and it’s just not fun.

Would I recommend it for anyone else? Sure! If you aren’t afraid of some hard work and want the job to get done right, it was a super affordable way of completely refinishing a dirt bike frame. All materials came out to around $50, and you could probably do less if you shopped around or purchased the stripper in a larger quantity. 3 cans @ $8 per can was a big chunk of the budget.

I was fortunate that I didn’t get any runs, sags or light spots whatsoever. The entire thing came out looking much better than I hoped. You might argue that dark grey is a pretty boring color, and it definitely doesn’t have that bling factor, but then again I hate the word bling to begin with and it’s actually really sharp looking with the metallic coat, and will serve as an excellent base for the rest of bike, which will eventually be mostly blacked out (with a few accents, as hopefully you will see here on the site in the not-so-distant future).

On the downside, I started reassembling after about 10 days, and chipped the paint in two spots. Easily touched up, but still very concerning that it chipped so easily. I could pound on the factory paint with a hammer and it wouldn’t chip.

I’m worried that the frame wasn’t washed & prepped thoroughly enough, as I was pretty impatient by that point. If I did have to do it over, I’d have washed the frame at least twice before painting, with some serious hot water & suds, and probably a good degreaser before that. I also would have spent more time sanding and prepping the metal so it had a good surface to stick to.

That all being said, there are six coats of paint on a freshly cleaned frame and it will probably take several weeks to fully cure. I didn’t leave much time in between coats, and chipping is to be expected before the paint has fully cured. I’m going to touch up the few tiny chipped areas and just hope that it toughens up with time. I think it will. For now, I’m pretty excited to have the job finished and turning my attention back to the motor & carb rebuild, painting the rest of the body & parts and installing the street kit.