Adding Custom Stripes to Your Hot Rod or Classic Car

Thanks to iconic race cars like the Ford GT40, Shelby 427 Cobra, and Trans Am machines of the musclecar era, onlookers naturally associate custom stripes with performance. Consequently, one of the best ways to add some visual pop to your musclecar or restoration project is by laying down a set of racing stripes. Since blindly jumping into such a project is a recipe for disaster, proper measurements and application technique will ensure that your stripes look proportioned and straight. We’ve seen it time and time again when people try to paint their own stripes only to mess up their dimensions, layout, and sizing. Fortunately, with a few simple techniques and the right materials, you can paint straight, professional-looking stripes all on your own.


We recently had to opportunity to design a custom stripe package for a 1987 full-size Chevy truck with a cowl-induction hood. The truck was being shot with Honda Laguna blue (code B-545P) and we altered the color slightly to suit our customer’s taste. To add a nice bit of contrast, we chose GM Ermine White for the stripes. Since we didn’t want to darken the overall paint scheme with a darker-colored stripe, the white stripe complemented the bright blue paint perfectly. White and black are the most common color choices for stripes, and either will work well depending on personal preference.


We started off by spraying the entire hood with the basecoat blue. There is no need to try to keep the paint thin underneath the stripes, since the amount of material you will save by doing so will be minimal. Likewise, applying even coats will give you a good foundation for your second color. Before any masking can begin, the basecoat blue must dry completely. Most base coats have a 24-hour window before you must res-cuff the top coat, so the safest bet is letting your basecoat dry overnight. With some heavy metallics and pearls, a coat of clear basecoat can be applied to the original base. This will lock down the pearls and metallic, and prevent the tape from pulling and dragging them.

 custom hot rod stripes 3M

There are four essential materials to have when laying out stripes:


1)    A good seamstress tape measure. This tape is flexible and hugs the body lines and curves.

2)     A roll of fine-line stripe tape. The best option for this is 3M’s Vinyl Tape 471+. We used part number 06405 for the ¼-inch tracer along the border of our stripe design. 

3)    A roll of 1.5-inch masking tape. We recommend Scotch Green Performance, part number 26338. This is for the wider area in the center of the hood where masking paper is too bulky to use.

4)     A roll of ¾-inch masking tape, part number 26334. This will be used for measuring and masking around curves.


The first step in laying out your stripes is to find the center of the hood. Not only do you want to find the center on the front and back of the hood, you will also want to find the center in at least two other areas toward the middle. Mark these spots with the ¾-inch tape by using a pencil or pen to pinpoint the center. If the peak of the hood isn’t centered, which is sometimes the case with aftermarket hoods, use the center peak as your reference point. 

custom hot rod stripes 3M 

Next, you will want to find the position of the inside edge of your stripe. This measurement can be personal preference, but on some vehicles with original stripes, refer to your assembly manual for stripe widths and measurements. I suggest playing around with the inside edge positioning, and finding a point that gives you the look you want by placing some ¾-inch tape at the point you want your stripe to begin. The center width should be somewhere between three- to six inches depending on the shape of the hood. Once you have found this location, take a measurement from the rear center marking. If using ¼-inch fine line tape, add ¼ inch to your measurement.


Mark the inside stripe with the ¼-inch added measurement using a small piece of ¾-inch masking tape and a straight-edge. Starting at the rear of the hood, lightly set the fine line tape in place. Pull the tape from the front to the back, pulling the tape taut while being careful not to stretch it. Using your eyes as a guide, lay the tape down by holding the roll. Lay the tape in a smooth motion, watching for any waves, wrinkles or curves. Make sure you run the tape past the point of where you want your stripe to end.


Don’t push the tape down by running your fingers along it, as this will cause the tape to want to move and shift. Instead, use straight downward pressure to push the tape into place. This piece will be the guide for your inside stripe. After you have laid the guide piece in place, pull up the marked piece of ¾-inch tape. Now you will run another piece of fine line tape on each edge of the first one, making sure not to overlap or create gaps between them. Once the two pieces have been set in place, remove the center tape. Now you have the gap in place for your tracer stripe.

custom hot rod stripes           

For the outside edge of the stripe, the same techniques apply, but you will want to use an outer body line or accent line as your guide. Measure off the body line or the side of the hood.  Depending on your vehicle’s body lines, it might be necessary to add ¼ inch when laying your guide stripe. Now lay pieces on each side and remove the center tape.


The radius on the front of the strip is a matter of personal preference. I like to use the approximate radius of a spray can to use as a reference. As you lay the stripe around the radius, slowly curve the tape while sticking it to the panel in a smooth motion. The tape can be pulled up and re-done if necessary to achieve the correct curve, but this can only be a done a couple times before you have to start over. The front edge of the stripe should run straight with the front edge of the hood, then mate up with the inside stripe. The tape lines should come together and overlap.  Use a razor blade and very light hand pressure to trim the excess tape within the tracer stripe. Use your fingernails to press the overlap together in order to keep the tape sealed tight.


At this point, you can see the shape and size of your stripes. All that is left to do is mask the areas that will remain the same color, in our case blue. Use the wider 1.5-inch tape to mask in between the stripes, and use smaller pieces of ¾-inch tape around the corners. Next, lay your masking paper over the rest, making sure there are no holes or seams the overspray can get to.


You should now be ready to spray. Apply only enough paint to cover the base color. If too many coats are applied, the paint buildup will not allow you to sand and buff the clearcoat flat, creating a noticeably raised section along the perimeter of the stripe. After spraying the color of the stripes and letting the new color flash dry, remove the masked area and apply some clearcoat. Be sure to try to apply an extra coat of clear, as this will allow for the stripes to be sanded and buffed flat.

custom hot rod stripes 

Ultimately, the finished look of your stripes depend their on sizing and scale in relation to the hood or deck lid. Getting the proportions correct will keep them from overpowering the look of your car. The tracer look is very tasteful, but all of the same procedures apply to stripes that don’t incorporate a tracer as well. The key is to take your time and to step back from time to time to gauge your progress. Getting your stripes straight and even is everything.