Top 4 Paint Scratches on Cars – Can You Fix Them Yourself?

  • Post Author:
Top 4 Paint Scratches on Cars – Can You Fix Them Yourself?

Imagine spending hours detailing your ride – only to stumble across a series of minor scratches. Typically, a few four-letter-words are uttered when this happens. And don’t kid yourself, it happens every day.

Minor scratches really suck. Whether it’s due to a negligent driver of another car that hits your door with theirs, or scratches like swirl marks, those minor scratches and imperfections in car paint can really screw up a great looking ride.

Our philosophy here at AvalonKing is to empower people to complete tasks themselves that otherwise would have to be completed by professionals. Which leads nicely into our next topic – how to repair minor scratches on cars.

There are a lot of great DIY solutions for fixing minor scratches. In the information below, we’ll identify the top 4 types of paint scratches and a few way to fix them. Some that work great, some that are not as effective.

Is there a Simple Way to Remove Light Scratches from Paint?

In short – no.

The main reason I can be rather clear with this answer is due to the reality that all scratches are unique. In fact, even “similar” scratches like swirl marks have multiple grades of paint damage.

Some are light surface imperfections that are on the top layer of a clear coat or even on a coat of wax or paint sealant. Then there are spider webbing scratches that are etched into the clear coat, and some that even penetrate in the paint itself.

The simple truth is that all scratches are unique – and assuming they are all the same or using the same methods for removing them can cause more harm than good.

Tips for Identifying Car Paint Scratches

So, what exactly is a scratch? Well, it’s basically any imperfection or damage done to a surface caused by a material that is harder or sharper than the areas it damages. The depth of that scratch determines the method of repairing.

For example, if you have a scratch that is on a headlight cover, it could be caused by multiple sources – since the headlight cover itself is soft material. A scratch on a clear coating is not as easy to create.

But, when you look at the source of scratches on the paint surface, the depth of the scratch is typically part-and-partial to the hardness of the source. Paint scratches are different than faded paint -- but -- there are some repairs that work for fixing both.

None-the-less, there are multiple types of car paint scratches out there – each with individual repair options. Here are the top four and most common paint scratches.

Scratch #1 -- Clear Coat Scratch

The most common is the clear coat surface scratch. This happens daily and is caused by multiple sources including using cheap washing and drying sponges, mitts or cloths. It can be caused by the method of washing and drying, such as the old Wax-On-Wax-Off circular method.

The left side of this car is 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 easy to remove with polishing.

Typically, the clear coat surface scratch appears like a spider web or in a circular pattern. Many detailing experts refer to this as swirl marks. In most situations, it is caused by car washing – when dirt or debris that is embedded in the cleaning materials.

When you wash or dry the vehicle with “stuff” on it, you’re applying pressure to the surface. And since most dirt is basically tiny particles of rock, or brake dust (metal), it’s easy to see how simple it is to scratch a clear coat.

Can You Remove Clear Coat Scratches?

Yes – this is the easiest of paint scratches to remove. It involves using a polishing method known as paint correction. Basically, you use a cutting compound that is applied via an electric orbital polisher and a microfiber buffing pad.

As the pad circulates, the compound (which is a certain grit depending on the depth of the scratch) cuts into the clear coat.

Polishing Paint For Beginners - Keep It Simple & Have Fun!

It levels out the clear coat until the surface scratch has been removed. Sometimes the scratch is filled by the polish or residual that is ‘burned’ off the clear coat itself. There are also some liquid ‘scratch’ removers that are applied by hand – but this method is not as longer lasting.

This is the type of scratch that most DIY’ers can do themselves – which we will address below.

Scratch #2 -- Embedded into the Paint

If the scratch penetrates the clear coat, it is embedded into the paint itself. This is the next level of scratch – and the one that typically removes DIY solutions from your repair options.

This happens when an aggressive substance (usually rocks or hard metal) hits the paint. As it impacts, it either damages the car part itself, or causes a deep scratch on the vehicle’s paint surface.

A classic example of a deep scratch into the paint or primer. The dreaded keying.

When you can see or feel the scratch, and still see a color pigment at the bottom of the scratch, that means it hasn’t penetrated to primer or the bare metal. Nonetheless, you still have this type of scratch repaired by a professional in most cases.

How can You Repair Scratches Past the Clear Coat?

When the scratch is deeper than the clear coat, your repair options are significantly reduced. This will require sanding the surface of the scratch down to the point where it’s leveled. In most cases, this will involve removing all the clear coat in the area and some paint.

If you determine that the scratch is deeper than the clear, its best to defer to a professional auto body or detailing expert. DIY repairs are outside the scope of realistic – especially if you want quality results.

Scratch #3 -- Deep into Primer

When the scratch goes deeper, it becomes even more difficult to repair. Most paint and body experts will treat these scratches like a touch-up paint repair. Some use a touch-up pen, which fills the scratch with paint that matches the color code.

This is pretty much where the DIY scratch repair ends. If it’s scratched deep into the surface, take it to the body shop.

It is possible to repair scratches like this by yourself. However, there are some risks, such as knowing how much time to wait to ‘smooth’ or ‘layer’ the repair to match the non-scratched sections.

Scratch #4 -- To Bare Metal

If you can see the bare metal from a scratch, it needs to be handled ASAP. When the metal is exposed, it begins to introduce contaminants that lead to oxidation – then rust. It’s quite common for DIY car owners to spray a clear coat on top of deep scratches (even if it’s just to the paint level).

This will help to protect the surface from exposure and potential damage. It won’t look pretty – but it’ll reduce further damage.

Why is it Important to Fix a Scratch?

As we stated directly above, when a scratch is deep, the lower surface material becomes exposed to water, oxygen and other contaminants. Eventually, all these materials combine, which produces oxidation, the first stage of rust.

Now, there are two ways to “FIX” a scratch. One is cosmetic – the other is protectant.

Protectant

If you notice that your car has been keyed, the worst thing you can do is just wait to have it fixed. The proactive measure is to find a way to protect that scratch from further exposure to the elements. There are two ways to accomplish this:

Spray a clear coat on top

The most common method is to buy a can of dual-purpose clear coat (meaning the clear and the hardener in one can) and spray it over the scratch.

How to Repair Damaged Clear Coat - Auto Body Repair Hacks Revealed

This will protect it from further damage until you can get it professionally repaired. Second is applying wax, paint sealant or another paint protection product that can harden.

Paint Correction

The second way to fix a scratch is via paint correction. We spoke about this method earlier above, where you use a polishing compound, orbital buffer and microfiber pad to “CUT” through the clear coat, level the scratch and clear till it’s gone.

Click the image to read the full article on DIY Paint Correction

If you’ve buffed or polished your car before, you can likely do this yourself. If you are not experienced with polishing, removing scratches this way is probably not the best idea.

We wrote an in-depth article that provides a step-by-step process for taking on a paint correction project that I’d recommend reading in detail.

Wrapping it Up

Believe it or not, some people are hell-bent on fixing small scratches by using toothpaste. Seriously – I wrote a blog about it which you can read here. When it comes to DIY repairs on scratches, it’s really all about the polishing. Later this summer, we’ll explore this topic in detail.

For now, if you’re prepping your car for a ceramic coating, and you don’t feel comfortable with DIY paint correction for fixing scratches – don’t do it. Shell out the extra few hundred dollars and have a professional mobile detailer come to your location to handle this task. In the end, your ceramic coating application will produce much higher quality results.

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.

Tim C

Tim is part of the AvalonKing team as a content editor. He is a 30-year automotive industry insider and accomplished publicist & columnist.