How To Lay Out Flames

How to Lay Out Flames

Text and images by Bruce Caldwell

Flames are as traditional as the hot rods they adorn. The variety of flame styles and variations is immense. The most traditional, old school flames are white/yellow/red (or yellow/orange/red), but after that the sky is the limit.

In recent years, flame creativity has really taken off. All types of colors, paints, sizes, and designs have been showing up. There are realistic flames, tribal flames, ripped flames, candy flames, metalflake flames, primered flames, pinstriped flames, and combinations of flames and scallops (sclames).

For all these different types of flames, there are two major subsets: good flames and not so good flames. Poorly done flames are painfully obvious. Good flames aren't so obvious, because they complement the vehicle, rather than stand out like some brightly-colored mistake.


Work With the Body

Good flames accentuate the car's natural lines. Bad flames fight the natural flow of the car. The goal is to enhance the body lines, not conflict with them. Some old school flames are simply massive arrays of bright colors. They almost overwhelm any body lines, but sparser, more stylized flames need to be carefully placed for best results. Even a wall of fire needs to pay attention to how fenders and hoods fit and how the flames look where they meet major body parts.

Many vehicles have awkward areas or trim items that can interrupt a flame job. It helps to work on these areas before laying out easier sections. Some painters like to sketch flames, but most people find it easier to grab a couple rolls of tape and experiment.

Remember that the tape your eyes see isn't the size of the finished flames. You typically perceive the outer edge of the tape as the flame size. The actual size is the area inside the tape. Pin striping can expand flames slightly, but not much. If you don't allow for this visual deception, the finished flames may not be the size you wanted.


Let it Flow

Besides proper placement, another key to great flame layout is flow. Flames are kinetic. They move, they dance, they flicker, so even though custom paint flames are a two-dimensional representation of real flames, they should still suggest motion. Flow gives motion.
By flow, we mean that the lines and curves should have a smoothness or rhythm. They should be fluid without any noticeable breaks. The flame licks should taper gracefully as they trail off toward their tips. The upper and lower edges should taper equally. One edge shouldn't be straight with the other edge slanting toward it.

Curves are critical to great flames. The inner curves should flow without interruption. These curved areas don't have to be perfectly round, but the style of curve should be consistent throughout the whole flame job.

The best way to understand the importance of flow is to study and photograph as many flame jobs as possible. Look for vehicles similar to yours in magazines and at car shows. Viewing real cars is best, because you can check out the flames from all angles.

To get the masking tape to flow from your hands takes practice. If you practice long enough, you'll eventually find your zone. The experience is similar to how it feels once you master downhill skiing or skateboarding where all of the sudden you and the equipment meld.


Tape, Tape, Tape

Great flames rarely happen the first time you apply tape to metal. Even the best, most experienced flame painters can go through many rolls of tape before they get a satisfactory design. Using lots of masking tape is an expected cost of painting flames, so plan on it. It's a minor expense compared to paint.

There are many sizes and types of masking and layout tape. The least expensive, old-fashioned crepe masking tape can be used for preliminary work. This tape is used to get the basic design in place. It doesn't have to stick past the design stage.

When it comes to final taping, always use the best and freshest tape. Good adhesion is imperative. Most painters use 3M blue vinyl Fine Line tape, because it is flexible for tight curves and easy to use. The thin Fine Line tape is overlapped with automotive grade (never use common household masking tape) tape. Large areas are filled in with wider tape and/or masking paper.


Symmetrical Flames

The easiest flames to lay out are totally random ones. Real fire is random, but hot rod flames tend to be more symmetrical. Even flames that aren't identical side to side generally work best if there isn't too much variation.

The easy way to get symmetrical flames is with a pattern. Flame painter extraordinaire Donn Trethewey demonstrated a tried-and-true technique for symmetrical flames on Jim Carr's chopped 1935 Chevy sedan.

Lay out one side until you're satisfied with the design. Donn uses regular


Published Dec 7th, 2015
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