Contributing Writer: Craig Fitzgerald
The worst part of owning a new vehicle is the first scratch. You went into the store for a bag of ice and came out to find that some clod had scuffed your bumper cover when leaving his parking spot. The question is, will it buff out? Can you remedy a scratch without resorting to paint work?
Modern Automotive Basecoat/Clearcoat Urethane Paint
Prior to the 1980s, cars were painted in a single coat, typically using enamel paint. “Single Stage” paint like this gets the name because it’s applied in one step and comprises both the vehicle’s color and its shine. Cars haven’t been painted this way for fifty years now.
Since the 1980s, every vehicle has been painted using a basecoat – the color and any metallic flake the paint might have – and a clearcoat, which provides the shine and also protects the underlying color from fading.
While early basecoat/clearcoat paint systems were problematic (you only need to look at the hood and roof of a GM car from the 1990s to understand just HOW problematic) modern basecoat/clearcoat paint is durable and offers a lot of advantages over single stage enamel.
First off, these paints are urethane based and provide better UV protection than lacquer or enamel. Single stage paints will dull and lose their shine over time, whereupon they need to be cut and buffed, removing a layer of oxidized paint and revealing the shiny paint below. Modern urethane paint is UV resistant and not as likely to fade just from exposure to the sun.
Urethane paint is also more resistant to scratches and swirl marks. It WILL get fine line scratches over time, but those scratches are typically restricted to the clearcoat and not the color beneath.
What Kind of Paint Damage Can Be Easily Repaired?
Minor scratches are easy to remedy. We’re talking about fine line scratches that you can’t feel with a fingernail. These kinds of scratches generally occur after years of use and mostly appear after the vehicle has been washed for many years either using automatic car washes or hand washing without first removing all of the surface contaminants on the paint.
Deeper scratches can still be remedied without paint, provided that the scratch hasn’t gone through the clearcoat and into the basecoat underneath. They may not be perfect when you’re finished, but it would take a trained eye to see the issue.
Any kind of paint damage that has caused the paint to crack is not going to be completely repaired using detailing techniques. A dent, ding, or scratch that has penetrated through the clearcoat and the substrate underneath needs to be repaired with paintwork, whether it’s just a touchup or repainting an entire panel.
How To Repair Fine Line Scratches
Clean the Paint Surface
The first step is to get the panel that contains the offending scratch as free of contaminants as possible. That starts with a wash, using plenty of auto-specific car wash soap and water, and a clean car wash mitt or cloth.
The second step in cleaning is to use some kind of ultra-mild abrasive to remove any surface contaminants. The most user-friendly way to do this is with a clay bar. Clay bars have a microscopic abrasive that will remove things like pine sap, insect waste and environmental contaminants. A clay bar kit typically comes with a lump of clay and a bottle of exterior detailer to use as a lubricant. Spray the lubricant on the surface and wipe the surface with the clay, and you’ll be shocked at how much dirt comes off a freshly cleaned vehicle.
Use a Paint Compound
The next step is to use a compound. Meguiar’s sells a version of this called Ultimate Compound. It’s a liquid with an ultra-fine abrasive that helps to remove very fine scratches in the finish, restoring the clearcoat to a mirror-like shine. With a product like this, you apply it in a circular motion, then buff the surface with a clean cloth.
You can apply it to small areas by hand, but if your clearcoat has a uniform haze of fine line scratches, you’ll want to pick up a random orbital polisher to make the job a whole lot easier. Used with the proper pads, a random orbital polisher is virtually foolproof, with no risk of damaging the paint.
Once you’re satisfied with the shine of the paint, you can go further with the even finer grade of abrasive in a finishing polish. This is applied and removed the same way compound is, but with a slightly less aggressive pad on the polisher.
Finally, a coat of wax will protect the finish underneath.
How to Repair Deeper Scratches
As we mentioned, a scratch that goes past the clearcoat into the basecoat is typically something that is going to require professional paint repair to completely cure. But compound and finishing polish can go a long way toward masking a deeper scratch.
If the scratch is deep enough to feel with a fingernail but isn’t past the clearcoat into the substrate, you may have to resort to wet sanding.
WARNING: Wet sanding is much more aggressive than using clay bars, compounds, and polishes. While those materials can also damage paint, wet sanding can most certainly remove the clearcoat completely, so use caution and practice in an area that isn’t quite so obvious before you go at a scratch in a visible place.
Wet sanding uses special sandpaper in increasingly fine grades to remove surface scratches and paint imperfections like “orange peel.” Because the grit of wet sanding paper is so fine (typically starting at 600 and going all the way up to 3M Trizact sanding medium at 5000 grit), the paper and sanding surface is kept wet to keep the paper from loading up with sanded material.
Starting with a grade of 800 grit, you’ll be shocked to notice that the clearcoat will be left hazy. That’s the paper doing its job. As you increase in grades of paper, all the way up to 2000 and beyond, that haze will disappear, and the scratch and the surrounding surface will be perfectly smooth. The final steps are to compound, polish, and wax as described above.
When To Call the Pros
Whenever paint is cracked, flaked, or severely dented, you’ll need to call the pros in for a consultation. A good paintless dent removal tech can get rid of some serious dings, and a good detailer can often remedy some bad scratches left behind. But once the paint is cracked, it really requires either a spot repair or the repainting of the entire panel.
For more tips on keeping your car clean and free of scratches, visit our beginner’s guide to cleaning your car.
Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.