What’s the Best Way to Repair Your Car’s Paint?

Color isn’t the only thing your car paint is good for. It’s a key component in protecting the body from rust. And, just like any other component, it can be damaged, even from something like a car wash or bug splatter. But scratches and chips can be repaired. In fact, a lot of car paint repair can be done without getting a body shop involved.   

Minor car scratch repair

Mazda Soul Red Crystal car paint structure
Mazda Soul Red Crystal car paint structure | Mazda

Car paint repair starts with knowing how deep the damage goes. Your car’s paint isn’t a singular homogenous mass. It starts with a primer on top of the rust-preventing electro-coat, followed by the base and mid coats, which add the color. Then the clear coat, which provides the reflective shine as well as physical and UV protection, goes on top.

Some damage stops at the clear coat, which simplifies the car paint and scratch repair. Much like with headlight restoration, the basic process involves smoothing out and filling in the imperfections, Popular Mechanics explains. And, for safety, it’s best done in an open and ventilated area.

After washing and masking off the area, use 800-grit sandpaper to sand down the rough area, Advance Auto Parts explains. Then wipe it clean with isopropyl alcohol and a microfiber towel. After that, spray clear coat—which can be purchased in aerosol spray cans—over it repeatedly. Then, once it’s dried completely, use 2000-grit sandpaper to wet-sand the area.

Some car paint repair is less about fixing scratches and more about restoration and correction. Removing very minor scratches, swirl marks, orange peel, and so on. For that, The Drive recommends using polishing kits, which usually come with several buffing pads and compounds. 3M, Chemical Guys, Meguiars, and Automotive Touchup are some of the best-known brands.

 These are basically specially-formulated abrasives, which remove the surface imperfections. And after using them, just like with the clear coat repair, it’s best to apply wax for maximum future protection.

Toothpaste is sometimes cited as an inexpensive alternative DIY method of car paint repair, Autoblog reports. However, although it is technically an abrasive, as Donut Media shows above, it’s not really very effective.

Car paint repair with touch-up paint

Deeper scratches, ones that go past the clear coat, require additional repair steps. If the chip or scratch is fairly small, you can use touch-up paint pens or brush kits, The Drive reports.

To start, you’ll have to check what your car’s paint color code is. This is usually found on a sticker in one of your door jambs, Popular Mechanics reports. Once you have your touch-up pen or brush kit, the next step is thoroughly cleaning and de-greasing the damaged area. Then, simply apply the paint as directed, and let it dry.

There are some downsides to using touch-up paint pens for car paint repair, though. For one, many don’t come with a sprayable clear coat. You’ll have to purchase that separately to make sure your car paint repair is protected. Secondly, as Badell’s Collision explains, it’s really best-suited for temporary repairs, especially if you don’t clear-coat it.

And, as stated previously, touch-up paint only works on relatively small scratches. What happens if, say, you hit your bumper on a brick wall accidentally?

Deep and wide scratches

That was the question I asked myself when I did just that behind the wheel of my NB Miata. Luckily, there are car paint repair methods for deep and spread-out scratches.

Blue 1999 Mazda Miata shown before and after the car paint and scratched bumper were repaired
1999 Mazda Miata car paint repair after (top) and before | Matthew Skwarczek

If you’re repairing plastic bodywork on top of the paint, you’ll need a kit with putty to fill in the gouges. I used Robert’s Paint Care. But the rest of the repair is basically the same. Wash and mask off the area, then sand down the rough edges. After that, wipe down the area, apply the putty, wait for it to dry, then sand it smooth.

If you’re doing car paint repair that extends down to the bodywork, you’ll need to have a primer in addition to the base and clear coats. For extensive damage, as on my NB, aerosol works better than pens or brush kits. As with the touch-up paint, you’ll need to know your car’s paint code for accurate color-matching. And the repair process will likely require spraying multiple layers of paint.


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This same basic car paint repair process also works if you need to remove and paint-over rust, The Drive reports. Just sand the rust away, clean the area, then add putty and the requisite paint layers. If you find you can’t remove all the rust, The Drive recommends rust converters or reformers. These turn the rust into a paintable surface and prevent it from spreading.

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