How to Swirl Paint

Alright so today I will show you step-by-step on how to swirl paint. Now this is a really cool technique that allows you to get a totally unique and custom look to any project. We will be using the Borax method for this swirl paint, so let’s go over everything you will need.

What You Need

Let’s Get Started

Once you have all your supplies, the first thing you want to do is mask your object. Mask off any areas that you do not want swirled with your painter’s tape. You can see in the above video that I have masked off all the holes to prevent paint from entering inside the enclosure.

Another good idea is to make some sort of handle for your object. I used a clothes hanger taped to the inside of the enclosure. This will allow me to slowly dip the enclosure into the swirl paint with a controlled fashion.

After preparing your object, go ahead and spray your primer coat. You can pretty much use any primer that you like but make sure that it has a flat surface. You do not want any glossy finish on your primer coat. The purpose of the primer is to easily allow the swirl paint to stick to the surface of your object.

Prepare Your Water Bucket

Now is a good time to prepare your water bucket while you let your primer coat dry. Any size bucket will work as long as you can fully submerge your object under water without it touching the sides or the bottom of the bucket.

As you can see in the video, I like to line my bucket with a trash bag. This is completely optional but it does make clean up a tad bit easier.  You also want to accurately measure how much water you have filled inside the bucket.

Once you have your bucket filled, you can now submerge the water tank heater into the water. Follow the manufacturer’s directions on how to operate the heater. The perfect water temperature for swirl painting is around 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mixing in the Borax

The Borax detergent booster is used to help the Humbrol paints float on the surface of the water. You want to ensure that you have the proper water to Borax mixture.

To do this, use a small microwavable container and scoop out some of the water that is currently in the bucket. You want to then heat up the water in the microwave for about 30 seconds. The water needs to be warm but not boil. This will allow the Borax to evenly dissolve in the water.

Next add 1 ½ tablespoons of Borax per gallon of water used to fill the bucket. You may need to do some math and conversions for this step. Since everyone reading this will probably have different measurements of water used, I will not go into mathematical details.

After dissolving the Borax, pour that mixture back into the water bucket. Take your stir stick and slowly mix it in with the water inside the bucket. The water may appear cloudy at first but just let the mixture sit for a few minutes and everything should clear up.

Let’s Start Swirling

Remove the water heater once the water is up to temperature and when you are ready to swirl.

Again, we will be using Humbrol enamel paints for the swirling. Humbrol paints is ideal because most colors do not require and thinning before using. These paints should be ready to swirl straight out of the container.

I will be applying these paints to the water with plastic pipettes. Typically, you should always apply the darkest color first, then follow with lighter colors. So in the video above, you can see that I start with black, orange, and then white paint.

Slowly add the paint to the surface of the water. Be sure to apply the paint slowly and as close to the water as possible. You do not want drop the paint far above the water because this will cause the paint to break the surface of the water and sink to the bottom of the bucket.

Please watch the video for a better visual explanation of this process.

Slowly start layering in additional colors one after another. You should see the paint floating above the water and spreading throughout the bucket.

When you are happy with the paint mixture, you can now take your stir stick and start moving the paint around. This part will take some practice to achieve exactly the look you want. It is difficult to predict the swirl pattern that you will get but that’s the fun part of swirling.

All you have to do now is dip your object into the water bucket. When you are submerging your object, you want to ensure that there is not flat surfaces directly going into the water. With the object that I used, I started to dip it into the water at an angle.

Another technique that you can utilize is to move your object side to side as you slowly lower it into the water. This will give you a greater swirl pattern.

When your object is fully submerged, take your stir stick and move all the extra paint off to the side. You want to make sure that no paint will touch your object as you lift it out of the water. Go ahead and lift the object up once everything is clear.

Protecting Your Swirl Paint

You should now have a really cool swirl paint finish on your project object. You will want to hang the object out to dry for at least 24 hours. This time frame can vary based on your location and weather. Enamel paint was used for this swirl so you have to make sure that it is fully dried before applying any type of clear coat.

However once the paint is dry, you can go ahead and spray on your protective clear coat. I personally like to use automotive clear coat because this provides and glossy and durable finish. You can even get a professional paint finish by wet sanding in between coats.

I won’t go over finishing techniques but there are many great tutorials that can be found online.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, you get a very nice custom finish to your projects. No two swirls will be 100% identical, so your finish will be completely unique.

You can swirl paint almost anything you want as long as you can submerge it under water. Overall, this is a very simple and fun technique that you can attempt on your next project.

Hopefully this tutorial has helped you out. Happy swirling!

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  1. hey fred,so I’ve decided to do swirl paint.the object that i chose to use is a danelectro guitar pedal.i primed it,dried it for 2days,and the paint just doesn’t stick to it.i used the right amount of borax,bought a tank heater,used that,and nothing.i’m using folkart enamel paint.but it just usnt sticking to it.what am i doing made it look so easy.PLEASE HELP!!!

    • I know you have probably figured this out by now but just incase, I too had tried folkart enamel. The problem I have found with this paint is that it is way to thick and even when you try and use thinner, it does not take to it very well and will instead start to clump or remain thicker than your borax/water mixture, therefore remain clumped in the water or simply sink to the bottom. Humbrol enamel paint as described in his video works a lot better as most colors are already at the right consistantsy for swirling. Hope this helps.

    • folkart enamal paint isn’t really enamel! i bought that too at hobby lobby but turns out its actually water based acrylic. not sure why its called enamel

  2. Hey I was going to paint my xbox 360 elite and I wanted to do the swirl paint job black,white,bright green I just wanted some information like what kind of base of paint I should use and do u really need the water tank heater.

    Please get back to me thanks

  3. Hi Fred,

    I seen your vedio how to swril paint.
    I have a question
    That can I use a simple primer like metal primer and water color as substitute of paints.

    My next question is can you tell me about activator ingredients used in hydro printing.

    Please indox me these questions aunswer.
    I will very great full to you.

  4. Do you know of any books that cover ruby scripting in Sketchup? I do a lot of motouonons drafting and would like to automate some of it. Most of the beginner guides I have found on the internet seem to be beginners guides for computer science majors. Maybe this would make a good tutorial?

  5. Great thorough video. I followed Fred’s instructions for the water, borax etc. I wasn’t able to find Humbrol so used testers paint instead. My experience was that the paint skinned over almost immediately in the water and would then not “mix”. Perhaps I’ll try again with the Humbrol paint to see if that makes a diff. But for me Testers paint was a bust.

  6. hi fred i just wanted to say i did my own custom made guitar and decided to swirl paint it. i wanted to say thank you for this helpful info

  7. Hey I’m trying to dip a helmet ,it went ok pattern wise but I keep getting water spots showing up . I didn’t see any in your swirl job not sure what I’m missing…

  8. What do I do if my paints keep solidifying on the surface of the water before I can achieve as swirl pattern?

  9. Great video but I can’t seem to swirl the paints once inside the bucket because it dries too fast. I made sure to follow your all your instructions. Any suggestions or am I doing something incorrect? Does the surrounding temperature make a difference? Also any ideas on how to swirl a sphere? Any help or suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

  10. Fred, I would like to try this technique on a Tabouret Gunmetal 60-inch Indoor Bench that I found on Overstock. This bench will be used as a coffee table in a public library teen area. Any suggestions on how do do such a large project? Really looking forward to hearing from you. Any advise or suggestions will be greatly appreciated!