How to Repair Paint Chips & Deep Scratches

You’d be hard pressed to find a car on the road that doesn’t have paint chips.

Parking lot scratches too!

Unfortunately, good detailing practices can’t prevent nicks and scratches.

So frustrating!

Take solace in something: There are good methods for repairing chips and minor paint scratches.

You can restore your car’s “like new” appearance!

DIY Paint Chip and Scratch Repair

Fixing small nicks and scratches is a realistic job for most car enthusiasts.

Not difficult!

Many nicks can be quickly repaired. It usually takes a carefully applied small dab of touch-up paint.

Others do require more time, effort and skill.

Here’s the thing!

It’s important to know what you should and shouldn’t tackle.

What’s your knowledge of paint, tools, wet sanding and refinishing?

This is a medium scratch. At this depth, you’ll feel it with your fingernail. But it doesn’t go through to the primer.

If you don’t know much, don’t worry!

I’m here to help.

You can learn a lot here.

First off, the easiest colors to repair are black and white.

You see, both black and white are very forgiving.

Have a metallic paint with metal flakes? That can be difficult to perfectly match.

But don’t let that discourage you.

You can do it. You just have to closely follow the instructions below.

But I want you to know what to expect. That’s important.

Again, small nicks are generally easy to repair.

It’s a matter of filling the nick with paint, leveling the filled area. Then it’s on to buffing.

You see, you have to blend and restore the paint’s luster.

Some jobs are more time consuming.

An example?

Repairing certain types of small scratches, like from a key or shopping cart.

The thing is…

Fixing a ding (a small dent which may or may not have put a nick in the paint) is not usually a do-it-yourself task.

See our page on Paintless Dent Repair for more information.


I want to make things easier for you.

Polishing by hand isn’t very practical. This is especially true when repairing multiple paint chips or small scratches.

You will need a dual-action car polisher or a spot pad kit for your drill.

This is a view of a deep scratch. It’s through the color coat as well as the primer. It can only be repaired with touch-up paint.

Other things to consider:

  • If possible, get an exact color match touch-up paint. Look in your owner’s manual for the exact code, or ask your dealer.
  • Use an artist’s paintbrush (#2 is ideal) or a plastic toothpick to apply touch-up paint. A Touch-up Paint Pen is good too.

FYI: The 3M Scratch & Scuff Removal Kit has everything you need if the repair doesn’t need a color touch-up.

  • Always test the touch-up paint for color matching in an inconspicuous area.
  • The area to be repaired must be perfectly clean. This means free of wax, rust and oils. Use a prep solvent for this.
  • Do not attempt a touch-up if the temperature is below 60 degrees (Fahrenheit).

Paint Chip & Scratch Touch-Up Supplies

Here’s what you’ll need to repair nicks and scratches:

  • Touch Up Primer (only required if you have exposed metal)
  • Color Matched Touch Up Paint
  • Touch Up Clearcoat
  • Assorted wet sandpaper from 320 to 1500 grit
  • Sanding block (a rectangular rubber school eraser makes a good sanding block for small touch-ups)
  • Artist’s paintbrush (#2) and round toothpicks (plastic)
  • Lint-free cloths
  • Painter’s masking tape (easy-release type)
This is a typical paint chip. See how the primer layer is exposed? It can be fixed.

Paint Chip Preparation Process

Prepare the chip or scratched area before applying primer or touch-up paint.

Don’t jump the gun!

Sure, paint may seem to adhere to a chip or scratch that has rust, dirt or oil.

Eventually the repair will fail. Trust me!

Guys, I want to stress preparation.

It actually begins the day before you repair paint chips and scratches.

Wash your car with Dawn dish-washing detergent. It will remove any wax and silicone from the paint.

Do this the afternoon, before starting your chip repairs.

Then, dry your car thoroughly and put it away for the night…

Do you want the best results?

You must make sure the chip does not have loose edges. If it does, it’s not ready for touch-up.

Of course, you’ve got to clean it as well.

Use a toothpick for this. Examine the edges of that chip. If necessary, the toothpick can knock off any loose paint.

Another aspect you can’t skip:

Prior to applying paint, clean with Prep Spray.

Also, wipe the chip and the surrounding area well.


You are making progress!

Next, use a sanding pen to prepare the chip and feather out the edges.

Simply rotate the sanding pen over the chip.

Keep the area you sand as small as possible. Rotating the sanding pen back and forth (in your fingers) 8 to 10 times should do it.

K-Tool KTI Sanding Pen is great for preparing scratches and paint chips.

Use it for exposed bare metal, rust in particular.

It’s easy. The edge of the sanding pen can remove any rust.

Looking better?

Spray it with your Prepsol again. Wipe it dry with a clean lint free towel.

How to Best Apply Touch-up Paint

There are several good ways to apply touch-up paint. You can use a plastic tooth pick, an artist paint brush, or a pin striping brush (shown here). This chip was pre-sanded with 1500 grit wet & dry sandpaper. Note: This is not a clearcoat finish.

When can you actually begin the touch-up itself?

Once the damaged areas are fully cleaned and prepared.

But wait. I cannot stress enough…

You must use primer before color touch-up IF a chip has exposed bare metal.

If you need to do this, listen up:

Mix thoroughly. Use a clean toothpick or a small brush to apply the primer.

There’s an easy method for this.

Dip only the tip (2 to 3 mm) of a plastic toothpick into your primer. Use capillary action to pull it off the toothpick into the chip.

Next…

Touch the tip of the toothpick to the center of the chip. Let the paint flow off of the toothpick into the nick.

Let me tell you!

You will be amazed how well the capillary action works.

But, if you prefer, you can use a #2 artist’s brush.

Just don’t allow the primer to overflow the sides of the chip!


IMPORTANT NOTE: The detailing industry has pretty much perfected paint touch-up pens.

So, you may want to go the touch-up pen route instead.

It’s up to you!

High-quality paint touch-up pens work like a toothpick, transferring paint by capillary action.


More on Paint Touch-Up Pens

Pain touch-up pens are known to be easy to control and are reasonably accurate.

That’s true.

It’s a preference, really. Some people like the old school way.

In any case…

The secret is to get the flow going on a hard surface.

Be smart. Do it away from your vehicle first!

You may need to keep the tip clean a few times. Wipe it frequently with a lint-free cloth.

The actual technique is not that different:

Touch the touch-up pen to the center of the chip. Again, allow capillary action to pull the paint into the chip.

Apply a small dab at a time, and allow each coat to dry.

For best results, apply 2 applications of color. Leave nearly half of the chip depth to be filled with clear coat.

In other words, it needs to go on thin.

An easy way to know it’s complete?

When you’ve applied enough color coat to fully hide the primer. There’s nothing new under the sun my friends!

Here’s a clearcoat touch-up pen being used to fill a small surface scratch. After it dries, the touch-up will be sanded and re-polished for a perfect repair.

 

A close-up of a scratch after being repaired with touch-up paint. The touch-up creates a raised surface. The raised touch-up paint must be leveled. I will use 1500-grit sandpaper for this step. If you are new to wet sanding, use 2000- or 2500-grit paper.

The Clear Need for ClearCoat

You are doing great!

Now you want to starting thinking about one or more coats of clear.

The goal with this application is to apply enough to clearcoat to overflow the chip area (e.g., with a “blob”).

No need to be perfect here. The area can be leveled and re-polished to blend the repair.

You might be wondering if it’s really necessary to apply clear.

The answer is YES.

The touch-up will not match without it. Metallic finish? Forget it!

Of course, you can and should skip it if your car doesn’t have a clearcoat.

Instead, do this:

Apply more color-matched paint until you have over-filled the area to create a blob.

Level & Polish The Touch-up Paint

This picture shows the repair area after a couple of passes with 1500-grit wet and dry sand paper. The scratch touch-up is almost level. You can clearly see surface scratches (micro marring).

At this point, all you’ll have is an ugly looking blob…

That is…

Until you level paint touch-up to the same plane as the original paint.

Leveling the paint repair is easily done. Use a small sanding block and 1500- to 2000-girt wet and dry sand paper.

TIP: Use a 1″ by 2″ rubber erasure as a sanding block.

Why?

This will allow you to level touch-up repairs with surgical precision.

Don’t forget to soak your sand paper for at least 20 to 30 minutes before use. Follow the directions.

First wet the area to be sanded. That’s how you level a paint chip.

Next, use your sanding block and sandpaper to mill the high spot.

Sand in a straight line. Go with the length of the car.

Never in a circle!

Keep the area you’re sanding well lubricated with water.

Check your work often! I recommend repeatedly drying off and visually inspecting.

As you can see, the repair and paint finish turned out to be quite beautiful. There are no visible surface marks in the paint, and the touch-up cannot be detected.

Another thing to consider:

Wet sanding will dull the paint.

Don’t worry.

You’ll use a fine-cut compound to remove sanding scratches and restore a high-gloss finish.

Dry it with a clean towel when the surface looks level. Inspect with your fingertips.

Can you feel a high spot? It needs more work.

The final step is to buff out the repair. Use a good fine-cut compound.

Go with Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound.

Apply the compound to a clean foam applicator pad or polishing cloth.

Here’s what you do:

Rub the repair area using a short back-and-forth motion. Again, no circles.

Then, buff out with a clean microfiber towel.

Tada! The blemish is gone.

Of course, the job is much faster if you use a dual-action car polisher.

Repairing Those Deep Scratches

Has someone keyed your car? You may be able to repair the damage yourself.

What’s the determining factor? You guessed it!

The depth of the scratches.

It’s all about scratch penetration, or lack of, into the color coat or the primer.

Reality: You can’t fix everything.

Sometimes the best course of action is to visit your local paint and body shop.

This is a typical key scratch on a clearcoat finish that can be repaired at home.

I’ll let you in on a cool technique…

2 sheets of copy/laser printer paper can help you judge whether certain scratches can be repaired or not.

Put the paper on the body of your car next to the scratch.

Next, run your fingernail across the paper onto the paint surface. Do it a couple of times to feel the thickness.

Now run your fingernail over the edge of the paint scratch.

A complete repair will be difficult if the scratch feels deeper than the paper thickness.

On the other hand, if it’s not as deep, you can make the repair.

Bottom Line:

You can make the repair by wet sanding and polishing if the scratch feel less than a single sheet of paper.

Using Wet and Dry Sand Paper

Do a wet sand.

Use 1500 grit wet and dry sand paper to remove a scratch for best results.

Then, follow with 3000 grit wet and dry sandpaper to remove 1500 grit scratches.

Restore the paint finish gloss using Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound. Pull out your dual-action car polisher.

Or go with the orange foam pad from your spot pad kit.

Feel the scratch with your fingernail. Fill it with clearcoat touch-up if your fingernail catches on the scratch.

The following tools greatly help to remove deeper scratches in your clearcoat:

  • Touch Up Clearcoat Pen
  • Prep Solvent (Prepsol)
  • Assorted wet sandpaper from 320 to 1500 grit
  • Sanding pen (or other spot prep tool)
  • Sanding block (a rectangular rubber school eraser makes a good sanding block for small touch-ups)
  • Fine cut rubbing compound, such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound

The repair procedure is as follows:

  • Soak a 4″ by 4″ piece of 1500 grit wet and dry sand paper in a bucket of water.
  • Wash and dry the vehicle.
  • Use Prepsol and a microfiber cloth to wipe down the scratch area.
  • Using a sanding block, wet sand the scratch area to remove the glaze on the clearcoat. Eight to ten strokes is generally enough.
  • Dry the area and wipe down with Prepsol again using a clean, dry microfiber cloth.
  • Follow instructions provided with the clearcoat pen to mix and start the paint flow.
  • Use the clearcoat pen to trace along the path of the scratch. The clearcoat paint should easily flow into the groove of the scratch.
  • If you get a paint run, use your Prepsol cloth to wipe away the paint run, but do not wipe over the scratch. A little overlap of the clearcoat is desired. You will sand away the excess.
  • Allow the clearcoat to dry. Follow the instructions provided with the product for drying time before proceeding.
  • Inspect closely after the clearcoat is dry.
  • Using a sanding block, gently wet sand the scratch area with 1500 grit sand paper to level the repair. Dry the surface. Check your work often. Do not over sand!
  • After leveling, use 3000 grit wet and dry sand paper to remove the 1500 grit sanding scratches.

The 3M Scratch Removal System

3M has the best DIY fix-it kit available.

It’s awesome.

That’s your weapon against minor clearcoat scratches (that haven’t penetrated the color coat layer).

You get 3000 grit sandpaper, rubbing compound, scratch remover, abrasive square and a foam pad to make a perfect repair.

Next in our Paint Repair Clinic Series: How-to Restore Dull, Oxidized Paint!