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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Painting Chrome Car Interior Trim - Toyota Highlander

Some people may wonder why anyone would want to paint the nice shiny chrome car interior a flat black color. This seems like a really odd thing to do but the next time you are driving and the sun is glaring, blinding you from all directions, the answer will become obvious. For some reason I think that I am especially sensitive to this particularly when the glare is coming from inside my own car - it drives me nuts!
I decided to do something about the blinding light and paint some of the annoying shiny chrome in my Toyota Highlander a nice soothing flat black. This might seem like an easy thing to do but painting interior car trim chrome isn't that easy. First of all you have to find out if it's "real chrome" as in real metal or is it the fake plastic chrome that is so popular in cars these days. In this specific case I'm interested in painting the chrome cup holder trim in the center console of my Highlander. It turns out that these are real metal chrome that is over-molded onto fake plastic looking chrome.
2009 Toyota Highlander Center Console Cup Holder Trim
Here are the cup holders that I am talking about with one removed and flipped over so you can see it. These just snap in place and with a little careful prying they come right out. I think that Toyota used real metal here because of the wear they see with people putting cups, cans, bottles, spare change, ammo, cell phones and everything else in this convenient location.

A little odd when you think about it because right below that ring in the picture that is flipped over is a little door that opens and reveals 2 more cup holders. There is also one in each front door giving you a total of 6 official places to put stuff (cups). Anyway I decided that shiny chrome wasn't the right look for me and I pried those things off.
Once I realized that these had real metal in them and I realized that they are metal because of it's durability I started to wonder if I should really do this. Will paint hold up to the abuse that these things will see during normal use or will it wear off leaving a shiny chrome scratch on the otherwise black surface? This had me worried (and I still am worried) but I decided to go ahead and do it anyway.
The first step in painting is always the surface preparation and that is especially true when painting chrome. Chrome is really smooth and because of that paint doesn't stick to it too well. The first thing I did after removing the beauty rings was wash them with soapy water and dry them. Then I started sanding the metal surfaces with a 3M 100 sanding sponge. These abrasive sponges are good for this because they conform to the uneven surface.
Some of the stuff I used to paint the chrome
I sanded these things for quite some time until the copper under the chrome was showing through is many places. Then I dipped them into Muriatic Acid for a few minutes. Muriatic acid is a fancy name for diluted hydrochloric acid. You can get it at the hardware store in the pool supplies section. Folks use it to clean cement and to balance the pH in their pool water. It's nasty stuff and if you mess with it be sure to wear all the protective clothing, goggles gloves etc... and know what you are doing.
The acid cleans off everything (organic) that might be left on the parts but doesn't do much to the plastic or the metal really. Some people say it will eat away the chrome but I have never seen that happen. Anyway once I did that I rinsed them off with water and baking soda then finally alcohol. I have no real idea why I did all this I just wanted them to be as clean as possible before I painted them with the primer.
I gave them a couple of coats of primer letting them dry a day between coats and also lightly sanding them each time with 400 wet/dry sandpaper. I could have probably let them dry less time but I was painting them after work in the evening and it was cold so the more dry time the better. By the way if anyone has other (better) ways of painting interior car parts email me at or leave a comment!
Highlander Cup Holders Painted Flat Black
After a couple coats of primer and sanding I cleaned them with alcohol and  painted them with 2 coats of the flat black paint. Once the paint had dried I sanded very very lightly with the 400 grit paper under running water. This last sanding 'broke' what little shine the flat black paint had left (flat isn't flat enough!) and I cleaned them one last time with alcohol and a towel.
At this point I was really tired of sanding and painting and I couldn't think of anything else to do to these so I put them back in the car. I took a picture (above) of what they look like. In the second picture the center console looks like it's a different color because I took the first picture in the sunlight and the second one at night with a flash. They are the same color...

The only thing that I can think of doing at this point would be to put a semi clear coat of hard nail polish on to protect them from scratches and of course lightly sand the polish to make it dull too.


  1. Ummmm...ugly. I'll stick with my chrome. And...that will look horrible in a year or so with chips and scratches.

  2. Anonymous,

    I hear you, it might get chipped and scratched but I wanted to give it a try anyway. Especially considering it's the cup holder trim, things get put into and taken out of those a lot so scratches might be a problem. That is one reason I took great pains to prep the surface and get the paint to stick. So far it's held up pretty well all things considered... if it starts to look ugly I'll either repaint it or buy new chrome. Everyone has their own taste when it comes to things like this and lots of chrome is a bit much for me on a sunny day and glare is coming from all directions.

    Thanks for checking out my blog!

    - Otto