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How to Restore Old License Plates

License plates may be restored for classic cars.
headlight on old auto image by jimcox40 from Fotolia.com

For owners of classic cars, nothing completes the look of an old car like an authentic license plate. Securing an old license plate doesn’t require a trip to the DMV, and it doesn’t have to be difficult. Usually these items can be found at local car shows or flea markets. While some may be found in almost pristine shape, many are not. However, it’s not difficult to restore these old plates so that they look like they did when they were new.

Restoring Old License Plates

Do your research to determine what tags of that era looked like. You can go with slightly newer tags, but for authenticity avoid tags that were made before the car was.

Go to a local car show or flea market and find your tags. You can also try online auction sites or the classifieds.

Put on the gloves to prepare to strip the license plate.

Clean and strip the tags of any old paint and rust using a paint stripper. It is possible to use a sandblaster to remove paint and rust, but it’s not recommended. The tags were made of thin metal and the sandblasting might damage them.

Straighten the plate out if it has been bent. Usually these can be straightened by hand because of the thinness of the metal. For deep creases, you can try pounding laying the plate on another piece of metal or stone and pounding it with a flat hammer.

Put down some newspapers to protect your work surface from the painting process.

Applying an etching primer. This ensures that the new paint will stick ones it’s applied.

Lay down a powder based paint as a base coat. Do two or three coats. This paint will stick to the lacquered paints you’ll be using for the lettering.

Make a rest for your arm. Artists often do a variation this when creating a painting so that their arms won’t touch the paint. A two by four placed over two bricks with enough space for the plate to slide under should be sufficient.

Mix your lettering paint with a little thinner so that it spreads more easily. Use a soft brush for easy application as well.

Fix any paint drips by applying the base paint to places where the lettering paint has run over. These plates normally have raised letters and numbers. Paint may run down the sides a bit.

Things You'll Need:

  • Paint stripper
  • Thick rubber gloves
  • Old work rags
  • Newspapers
  • Two by four
  • 2 bricks
  • Paint
  • Paint brushes


In the old days, this process was done by roller instead of paint brush. With the paint brush method it is difficult to get the paint to look exactly perfect; there will usually be some squiggly lines. However, from far away, this method holds up very well.

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