How to Paint Gauge Needles

Ultimate car detailing!

Ultimate car detailing!

I receive this same question quite often, “How do I get red needles for my gauges?” And about a paragraph of text explains the process quite well. It’s really not very hard. But after typing out the same thing for the 50th time, I decided I could do better. So here ya go! How to paint gauge needles. It’s not tricky, but it is a bit tedious.

Remove the White Paint

I scrape it off with an X-acto knife.

I scrape it off with an X-acto knife.

Yeah. That’s right. I’m advising you to take a knife to your delicate needles. Really, it’s quite safe. Just scrape very carefully. Use the edge of the blade rather than the point. Do not gouge the plastic. If you make a gouge, you will need to sand it out with some 800-1000 grit sandpaper.

For the blade, I like a #2 straight edge blade. It’s long and sharp. Perfect for removing paint. You can usually find X-acto knives near the models in your local hobby store.

Remove ALL of the white paint. Even the stuff under the black center.

Remove ALL of the white paint. Even the stuff under the black center.

Everything has to go. All traces of white must be removed. You will be able to see the white paint under the needle center. It’s funny how the angles work.

One transparent needle. Hardly any effort!

One transparent needle. Hardly any effort!

Not too bad eh? A needle can be done in about 5 minutes. Just scrape softly. Nothing to it. Now repeat for the other 4 needles.

Painting the Needles

Art supplies.

Art supplies.

Supplies you will need:

  • Model paint.
  • A fine art brush.

Treat yourself. Spend $10 on this project. You’re going to be looking at these needles for a long time, possibly. You want to do it right. Don’t settle for the old and crusty model paint in your drawer. Also, you deserve better than one of those horrible white-handled Testors brushes. A good brush and fresh paint will make this a 30 minute project. A poor brush will make this a 4 hour pain-fest.

Good brushes can be found in the art section in your local hobby store. This is usually a few aisles over from where they keep the model paint. The one I used for this tutorial is a 3/0 spotter. It is fine, but not too pointy. Just perfect for this project.

Use good art brushes. Leave the crappy ones in a drawer.

Use good art brushes. Leave the crappy ones in a drawer.

This is the difference between a good brush and a poor one. The ones on the top are good art brushes and cost about $3-5 each. The wide one is about 5 years old. It still paints a fine line and isn’t shedding. The ones on the bottom are not good brushes. They cost about $2-3 each.

Testors Model Master Acryl in Guard Red. My favorite.

Testors Model Master Acryl in Guard Red. My favorite.

This stuff is easy to find, works well on most plastics, and covers well. And the red color is just about perfect. A bottle should be under $2. And you can wash acrylic out your brush in the sink. I sometimes use rubbing alcohol to get brushes completely clean.

And so begins the delicate painting process.

And so begins the delicate painting process.

Go slow. Don’t glob the paint on. But at the same time, don’t paint too thin a coat. You want 2-3 fairly thick coats. That way it will look opaque when viewed from the front.

While painting, keep checking your work from the front. Pay close attention to the edges. If you make a mistake, you can wipe the paint off before it dries and start again.

First coat complete.

First coat complete.

There’s one coat. Not too thick, not gloppy, and not thin. From the front, there are some thin spots visible. They will be taken care of by a 2nd coat of paint. And once that 2nd coat is dry, you can fix any small imperfections in the edges.

2 coats of paint on each one.  Nice and even.

2 coats of paint on each one. Nice and even.

Smooth and even. That's what you're shooting for.

Smooth and even. That’s what you’re shooting for.

Ta-da! Nothing to it. Really, this is a 30 minute job. It might take a bit longer due to paint drying time, but it shouldn’t be that much effort. Not a tricky job at all. Just a little careful work and you too can have red gauge needles.

Needles in Action

Can you imagine this with a white needle?

Can you imagine this with a white needle?

Purple lighting, white LEDs, and red needles.

Purple lighting, white LEDs, and red needles.

If you get stuck or have any questions about the process, just leave a comment below. I’ll try to help in any way I can.

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  • Lance simpson says:

    pure dash art.

  • iscariot says:

    I went a little bit more lowtech but I’m equally happy with the results. I used acetone on a napkin to remove the old paint, being careful to not puddle any acetone on plastic (basically just wiping). Comes off in a cinch. Then I used fingernail paint (cheap, plenty of color options). Took a couple of tries to get it nice and even – if I had thinned it out a little it would have helped – but hey, more acetone and it wipes right off when wet.

    • revlimiter says:

      I’m glad it worked for you, but that is not something I’d ever recommend to anyone. Acetone melts clear plastic. Let me say that again…

      Acetone MELTS clear plastic. Do not use it on your gauge needles.

      I know this from years of experience modifying small, plastic, transforming robots. That is maybe the lamest thing one could ever boast about, but it has taught me a lot. And one thing I have learned is how aggressive acetone is. Did you know that a few hours of soaking will remove ALL the paint from a Hot Wheels car? Yup. And a single swipe on a plastic toy jet canopy will assure that it is never translucent again. It becomes opaque.

      So. You got very lucky. Glad it worked for ya. But acetone and clear plastic should never be mixed.

  • Rob R says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been thinking about doing this for ages…
    By the way, if you still have the needles off, would you be able to give the length and width of the pin the needle attaches with? I’m the proud new owner of a 3D printer and I’m trying to print up a set of custom needles to mimic the centerless ones found in a Ferrari 328. If I’m sucessful, I’ll send you a few if you want 🙂

    • revlimiter says:

      Sorry for not getting back to you right away. I meant to and then got busy with gauge orders.

      For the little center stub that the needle connects with:

      NA 3.75mm diameter and about 5mm length.
      And note that the tach and speedo center pins are different diameters. The studs in the needles are the same though, one just has a bigger hole than the other.

      NB: 3mm diameter and 9mm length.

  • Ed B says:

    When putting back the needle does the car have to be running so the setting (RPM, Oil pressure and Temp) are accurate? Thanks

  • Khanh says:

    I’ve read on Miata.net that the white paint on the back of the needles is necessary to reflect/carry the light through the needles for proper illumination. Earlier I decided to just try it with several coats of red Sharpie ink, installed it, and the needles didn’t illuminate at all. So what I’m left wondering is: would the white paint have helped? Or should I really just get the model paint and brush it on?

    • Adam says:

      You really do need actual paint. Red paint will illuminate just as you see in the photos above. I didn’t create those with photoshop or anything.

      Red Sharpie… that’s not really paint. It’s more like dye. That doesn’t give light much to bounce off of. You need a layer of paint.

      And you need to apply the paint to the back. Painting the front and sides will result in invisible needles. The needles are clear plastic. The light shines down the shaft and bounces off the painted surface on the back.

      It’s like $8 worth of stuff – $3 for the paint and 5 for the brush. Worth it.

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  • ZDS says:

    Would rubbing alcohol work to remove the original paint from the needles? Also, does anyone have any experience with changing the color of the actual gauge faces? I’ve seen other places that rubbing alcohol can be used to get the original gel colors off of the back but I want some more info if anyone knows anything.

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  • truckjunkie says:

    I have an aftermarket oil pressure gauge and tachometer I need to paint the needles on. My needles are white,which is fine in daylight,but at night they disappear. My problem is getting TO the needles;they’re sealed inside the gauges with crimped bezels. Anyone know of an easy way to do this?

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  • E350 says:

    Thank you for posting this. As far as my application goes, just looking at them from inside the cab, the gauge needles in my 1995 Ford Bronco are four edged clear plastic with fluorescent paint on the top edge and clear on the bottom? So how do I keep the paint off the sides and keep it on the top edge?

  • FRANK CARR says:

    Since I want to change the needles from red to white (actually they will be white with red tips) can I deduce that the paint procedure described above will work for me? I just ordered the Fighter series for my 2004. I can’t wait to get rid of the white faces and the glow red at night feature. I am looking forward to the installation, your instructions seem foolproof, and I be the fool now and then. I am still toying with the idea to keep my low fuel lite and maybe find a new spot for the high beam lite. Thanks for listening.

    Frank Carr

  • Andy Aguayo says:

    The Mazdaspeed version of this car has different needles, how does one remove the red paint under the black cap? It’s sealed from the back and there’s no way to reach the red paint, I’m going for white needles, but it looks like I’ll end up having red around the needle cap…. Anyone tried this on the MSM?

    • revlimiter says:

      The best way is to source a 99-00 cluster. Those came with white needles and they’re the most produced NB gauge cluster. You can probably find one on ebay for under $50 shipped.

      Hope that helps!

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