Imagine spending hours detailing your ride, only to stumble across a series of scratches, some of which you may have just inflicted yourself. Oftentimes, discoveries such as these are accompanied by a few expletives, especially when the damage is deeper than expected, and no amount of buffing will dissolve the damage.

Minor scratches are really tough to avoid, too. Whether it’s a negligent driver dinging your door, or swirl marks from your kid’s “WASH ME” message on your pollen-coated rear hatch, minor scratches and imperfections in car paint can really screw-up a great looking ride.

Here at AvalonKing, our philosophy is to inform and empower people to the point where they have the confidence to complete tasks on their own. By eliminating the need for a professional “fix,” you not only save money, but retain full control over how the job is done. Which leads us to today’s topic: How to repair minor scratches on cars.

Luckily for you, there are a lot of amazing DIY solutions for fixing minor scratches on automobiles. In the information below, we’ll identify the top four types of paint scratches, as well as a few approaches to fixing them, along with some advice regarding when it might be best to toss in the towel.

A prime example of what light car paint surface scratches look like. Minor blemishes such as these can often be remedied with a bit of polishing and some elbow grease. Photo Credit: Micah Wright
A prime example of what light car paint surface scratches look like. Minor blemishes such as these can often be remedied with a bit of polishing and some elbow grease.
Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Is Removing Scratches From Car Paint Easy?

The only easy thing about this question is its answer: FUCK NO.

Every automotive paint scratch is unique in its own regard, and therefore requires varying levels of repair and prep care. In fact, even seemingly identical-looking scratches like swirl marks can have multiple grades of paint damage lurking beneath the surface.

Scratches can range from anywhere from light surface imperfections that are on the top layer of a clear coat, or tiny slivers in a coating of wax or paint sealant, to full-blown, metal gouges of catastrophic proportions. Resting somewhere in-between are spider webbing scratches, which are can oftentimes be found etched into the clear coat, with more extreme cases penetrating into the paint itself.

Being that scratches come in all shapes, sizes, and depths, assuming that they can all be removed or covered-up with the same methods can harm more than help, and here is why.

Tips for Identifying Car Paint Scratches

While the degree of automotive paint scratch will vary greatly depending upon the damage in question, there tends to be one consistent issue within all of this. Any time the exterior of an automobile is scratched, it is done so by a material that is harder or sharper than the area it is marring. While size and shape definitely have an impact on the level of repair required, it is the depth of the scratch itself that determines the fix.

For example, if you have a scratch that is on a headlight cover, it could have been caused by any number of outside influence. Unlike vehicles of yesteryear, modern headlight covers are no longer made from glass, but instead rely upon a polycarbonate plastic construction. This makes them incredibly resistant to cracking, but entirely susceptible to things like UV ray damage and scratches.

In comparison, a scratch on an unprotected layer of paint clear coat is not nearly as easy to create. The source of a paint surface scratch has to have one hell of a hardness level, whereas the average headlight lens merely requires a brush with a small tree branch or a poorly cleaned scrubbing mitt for it to look like shit.

To determine which individual repair option is best suited for the issue at hand, we have taken the time, and rounded-up the top four most common forms of paint scratch. Although all four forms of scrape and scuff listed below are repairable, keep in mind that the level of care that is required varies greatly upon the severity of the situation.

Quick Nerd Note: Paint scratches are different than faded paint, however, there are some repairs that work for fixing both. Either way, be prepared to invest a hefty amount of time, money, and energy into fixing the issue if you choose to tackle the repairs on your own.

A prime example of light “swirl marks” or ‘spider webbing” scratches. These are typically embedded within the top layer of the clear coating and are relatively easy to remove via polishing.

Scratch #1 – Clear Coat Scratch

The most commonplace, and easily fixed car exterior scratch, is the clear coat surface scratch, or “spider webbing.” These hairline blemishes don’t need much to form, and are commonly caused by things like low quality car washing and drying materials. Rough, or filth-filled sponges, mitts, and cloths can quickly turn washing and drying a vehicle into a massive mistake.

The average clear coat surface scratch will appear in a spider web, or circular pattern, hence them being called “spider webbing,” or “swirl marks.” This is why it is important to always use a super clean detailing cloth or wash mitt, and to never buy the cheapest thing on the shelf.

When you wash or dry a vehicle with filth or debris still on the surface, you’re applying pressure to a potentially abrasive substance. Dirt and sand are almost akin to tiny rock particles, road salt is both coarse and corrosive, and brake dust is little more than pulverized metallic compounds and various man-made, mortar-like materials. Once applied to a painted surface, and then swirled around under pressure, it becomes easy to see why this microscopic stuff scratches clear coats.

A series of scratches and scuffs, that have been forcefully drawn across the surface, and are deeply embedded within the paint itself.

Scratch #2 – Paint Embedded

If the scratch penetrates the clear coat, it more than likely has also embedded into the paint. This level of scratch is the one that typically begins to remove DIY solutions from the equation, as it cannot be buffed out.

Scratches of this caliber often happen when something like another car bumper, guard rail, or heaven forbid, your malicious ex’s car keys come into contact with the vehicle’s paint surface.

Determining whether your vehicle has a paint embedded scratch is as easy as looking at the damaged area. If you can still see color within the scratch, the gouge was unable to reach neither primer nor bare metal.

A classic example of a deep scratch that goes beyond the clear coat, and eats into the paint and/or primer.

Scratch #3 – Primer Deep

When the scratch goes past the paint, it becomes extremely difficult to repair. While treating these scratches with a quick touch-up paint repair solutions like a “touch-up pen” may sound tempting, the depth of scratches of this nature will often remain visible, even after filling them with color-matched paint. Even if you may not be able to notice the paint-filled scratch at first glance, chances are you will still be able to feel it.

While it is possible to repair scratches like this on your own, there are some risks involved with this sort of fix. Things like high-build primer and body filler must often be used on deeper gouges, and so having some familiarity with automotive body work is crucial for getting the repaired scratch to blend in seamlessly with the non-scratched areas around it.

A 1937 C.O.E. Hauler with paint and body scratches so deep that they have pierced the metal on the body panels. Photo Credit: Micah Wright
A 1937 C.O.E. Hauler with paint and body scratches so deep that they have pierced the metal on the body panels.
Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Scratch #4 – Bare Metal

If you can see the bare metal after receiving a scratch, it’s probably time to visit a body repair shop… ASAP. When metal is exposed, contaminants that lead to corrosion and oxidation begin to form, especially when moisture joins the party. These party crashers eventually invite nefarious characters like rust to come over for a visit.

Quick Tip: If you notice a metal-deep scratch on your car, a quick DIY fix can help hold-off the formation of rust via the use of a clear coat spray. While should by no means be considered a permanent fix, this method will help lock-out most contaminants, as well as any moisture in the atmosphere, and won’t impact the level of repair required by the body shop. It probably won’t look pretty, but at least it will help reduce further damage from occurring until you can get some shop time scheduled.


Paint POLISHING tutorial for BEGINNERS !!

Can You Remove Clear Coat Scratches?

Fortunately for most of us, clear coat scratches tend to be the most common paint scrape on the planet, and are by far the easiest to remove. In order to eliminate this form of paint marring, a polishing method known as paint correction must be implemented, which sounds a lot more intimidating than it actually is.

Paint correction typically involves applying a cutting/polishing compound to a surface area via the use of an electric orbital polisher and a microfiber buffing pad. As the pad circulates, the varying levels of compound cut into the clear coat, and layer after lay, slowly polish away the surface scratch.

This process not only levels out the clear coat, but it carefully lifts any smudges or paint on the surface as well, until all sign of the damage has been removed. Clear coat scratches are easily the most DIY friendly surface scuff, a topic that we will address here shortly.

Quick Nerd Note: Due to being advertised as an “apply and walk away solution,” liquid scratch removers remain a temptingly convenient, hassle-free solution. But rarely do these products last very long, and when applied in excess, a liquid scratch remover will stand out like a turd in a punch bowl.

Repairing Deep Scratches Past the Clear Coat

When the scratch is deeper than the clear coat, your repair options are significantly reduced. Oftentimes, this means sanding the surface of the scratch down to the point where it’s fully level with the surface area surrounding it. In most cases, this process involves removing all of the clear coat around the scratch, as well as any portions of surrounding paint.

Once you determine that the scratch is indeed deeper than the clear coat, it’s probably best to hand the job over to a professional auto body or detailing expert. Quality results for fixes of this caliber require years of practice, specialized auto body tools, and a fair amount of knowledge on the subject.

Unless you are going for the whole "rusted-out" hot rod look, it's probably best to stick with fixing those paint scratches sooner than later. Photo Credit: Micah Wright
Unless you are going for the whole “rusted-out” hot rod look, it’s probably best to stick with fixing those paint scratches sooner than later.
Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Why It’s Important to Fix a Scratch

As we stated earlier, when a scratch on a car’s painted surface is super deep, lower levels of material become exposed to water, oxygen, and various contaminants. And while many modern vehicles are constructed from various forms of plastic, things like car doors, hoods, fenders, and quarter panels are still being built out of metal. So unless you’ve got a car that’s made from carbon fiber and titanium, chances are that deep gouge is going to become a breeding ground for rust in no time.

For most DIY devotees, the following two methods of “fixing” a scratch the gold standard, with one being cosmetic in nature, and the other being more of a protectant.

Protectant

If you notice that your car has been scratched in some way, one of the worst things you can do is just wait to have it fixed. Taking a proactive stance means finding a way to protect that scratch from the elements, and in order to successfully do so, you have to choose from one of two methods.

Option #1: Spray a Clear Coat

The most common method, requires buying a can of dual-purpose clear coat (all-in-one clear and hardener in one), and then spraying it over the scratch. Taping-off the area around the scratch is also highly recommended, as it will reduce the risk of overspray.

By adding a spritz of clear coat, you will be able to protect the scratch from the elements until it can receive professional attention. Applying a wax, paint sealant, or some other form of paint protection product that hardens is another option, just be remember to not add too much. If the scratch is super small, consider applying the product with a toothpick if necessary.

Option #2: Paint Correction

The other form of fixing a superficial paint scratch is via paint correction. We spoke about this method earlier, where a polishing compound, orbital buffer, and a microfiber pad are put to work in order to “cut” through the clear coat, thus leveling the scratch to the point where it’s been eliminated.

If you’ve buffed or polished your car before, you are likely quite familiar with this process. However, if you are not a polishing pro, or even an intermediate-level novice, removing scratches via paint correction is probably not the best approach.

To determine whether or not paint correction is right for you and your car’s scratches, please reference our in-depth blog article on the subject. It contains step-by-step instructions, fanciful illustrations and imagery, and cunning lyrical shenanigans for all you humor snobs. With this badass blog at your disposal, taking on a paint correction project will quickly go from bad to rad in an afternoon. Just throw a cold six-pack, along with some 80s hair metal into the mix and you’ll be set.

A prime example of what a deep scratch looks like, and why taking the vehicle to a professional is highly recommended at this point. Photo Credit: Micah Wright
A prime example of what a deep scratch looks like, and why taking the vehicle to a professional is highly recommended at this point.
Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Parting Shots

Believe it or not, some people are hell-bent on fixing small scratches with household items like toothpaste. This dumbass DIY method is so commonplace that we even felt inclined to write a blog entry on the subject, just to dissuade people from attempting it.

For now, if you’re prepping your car for a ceramic coating, and discover a few scratches, don’t panic. If you don’t feel comfortable with a DIY paint correction approach, don’t do it. Shell out the extra few hundred bucks, and have a professional detailer or auto body specialist handle the job. It may be pricey, but at the the end of the day, the damage done by a novice attempting to cover-up a scratch will likely be far more expensive.

Any expert worth a damn will tell you that the cheapest and greatest scratch remover, is also the most simple: Prevention begins with protection. By routinely shampooing, drying, and clay barring your vehicle, you are removing the risk things like swirl marks from forming. Applying a 9H-rated nano ceramic coating product to the vehicle’s exterior will take things even further, as it prevents things like scratches from forming in the first place.

If you enjoyed this article, then you'll love AvalonKing's automotive care products for Do-It-Yourselfers. We create "No B.S. products" for an affordable price. And the best part, we treat our customers like family, so if you have any questions or just looking to chat about cars, we're only an email or call away. Check out our homepage here.