How-To Repair Paint Chips & Deep Scratches

You’d be hard pressed to find a car on the road that does not have paint chips and parking lot scratches. While good detailing practices can’t prevent nicks and scratches, repairing them will restore your car’s “like new” appearance. In this section, we’ll demonstrate several methods you can use to repair chips and minor paint scratches.

DIY Paint Chip & Scratch Repair

Touching up small nicks and scratches is well within the skill level of most do-it-yourself car enthusiasts. Some nicks can be quickly repaired with a small dab of touch-up paint, while others will require more time, effort and skill. It’s important to know what you should and shouldn’t tackle, based on your knowledge of paint, tools, wet sanding and refinishing.

This is a medium scratch. You will be able to feel it with your fingernail, but it does not go through to the primer.

By far the easiest colors to repair are black and white. Black and white are very forgiving on shade variations. Conversely, metallic paints (those with metal flakes) can be difficult to match perfectly. You can do it if you follow the instructions below.

Before you get started repairing nicks and scratches, you should know what to expect. Small nicks are easy to repair by filling the nick with paint, leveling the filled area, and buffing the repair area to blend and restore the luster of the paint. Repairing small scratches, as from a key or shopping cart, is similar, but more time consuming.

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 discussion on Paintless Dent Repair for more information.

If you are repairing more than one or two paint chips or small scratches, polishing by hand is not practical. You will need a dual-action car polisher or a spot pad kit to use with your drill.

Deep scratches and chips that go through the color coat into the primer or down to the metal can only be repaired using touch-up paint.

Here are some other things you should know:

  • If you know your car’s factory paint code, you can purchase an exact color match touch-up paint from Automotive Touchup. If you don’t know the factory paint code, look in your owner’s manual for the location of the code, or ask your dealer.
  • If you buy a bottle of touch-up paint, use an artist’s paintbrush (#2 is ideal) or a plastic toothpick to apply the touch-up paint. You can also use a Touch-up Paint Pen. They take a few minutes of practice, but work great. The Turtle Wax Kit has everything you need if the repair does not 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 and free of wax, rust and oils. This requires the use of a prep solvent.
  • Don’t attempt a touch-up if the temperature is below 60 degrees (Fahrenheit).

Paint Chip and Scratch Touch-Up Supplies

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

  • Touch Up Primer (only required if you have exposed metal)
  • Color Matched Touch Up Paint
  • Touch Up Clearcoat
  • 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
  • Artist’s paintbrush (#2) and round toothpicks (plastic)
  • Lint-free cloths
  • Painter’s masking tape (easy-release type)

This is a typical paint chip that removed paint down to the primer layer. With care it can be fixed.

Paint Chip Preparation Process

Before applying primer or touch-up paint, you must prepare the chip or scratch area. Although paint may adhere for a while to a chip or scratch with rust, dirt or oil, eventually the repair will fail. The preparation process begins the day before you repair the paint chips and scratches.

The afternoon before starting your chip repairs, wash your car with Dawn dish-washing detergent to remove all wax and silicone from your paint. Dry your car thoroughly and put it away for the night.

To make a chip ready for touch-up paint, you must make sure it does not have loose edges, and then clean it. Use a toothpick to check the edges of a chip. If the edges are loose or lifted, use the toothpick to knock off the loose paint. To clean prior to applying paint, use Prepsol. Wipe the chip and the surrounding area well.

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 be enough to do the job.

The K-Tool International Sanding Pen is the best tool I have found for preparing scratches and paint chips.
If the chip has exposed bare metal, or if you can see rust forming, use the edge of the sanding pen to remove the rust. When you finish sanding the chip, spray it with Prepsol again and wipe it dry with a clean lint free towel.

How-to 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, as shown here. Notice that the chip area was pre-sanded with 1500 grit wet & dry sandpaper. This is not a clearcoat finish.

Once the damaged areas are cleaned and prepared, you can begin the touch-up itself. If a chip exposed bare metal, you must primer the chip before the color touch-up. After mixing thoroughly, use a clean toothpick or a small brush to apply the primer. The easy method is to dipping just the tip (2 to 3 mm) of a plastic toothpick into the primer and use capillary action to pull it off of the toothpick into the paint chip. If you get a blob on the toothpick, I wipe it back.

Next, touch the tip of the toothpick to the center of the chip and allow the paint to flow off of the toothpick into the chip. You will be amazed how well the capillary action works. If you prefer, you can use a #2 artist’s brush.

Do not allow the primer to overflow the sides of the chip!

This picture shows 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.

NOTE: This article was originally written in 2001. Since then the paint touch-up industry created and perfected paint touch-up pens. High-quality paint touch-up pens work like a toothpick, transferring paint by capillary action. They are easy to control and reasonably accurate. The secret is to get the flow going on a hard surface away from your vehicle first. Keep the tip clean by wiping it frequently with a lint-free cloth.

After applying the primer, allow it to dry for an hour or more. Do not touch the chips with your hands, as the oils from your skin will prevent the color coat from adhering properly.

Next, mix your color-matched paint thoroughly. As with the primer, use a clean toothpick or #2 artist’s brush (or touch-up pen) to apply the color coat. Touch the toothpick, brush or touch-up pen to the center of the chip, and 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 two applications of color, leaving about half of the depth of the chip to be filled with the clear coat. In other words, it needs to go on thin. The color touch-up portion of the process is complete when you have applied enough color coat to hide the primer.

Here is a close-up picture of a scratch after it has been repaired with touch-up paint. The touch-up creates a raised surface. In order to perfect the repair, the raised touch-up paint must be leveled. I will use 1500-grit sandpaper to level the repair. If you are new to wet sanding, use 2000- or 2500-grit paper.

The final step is to apply 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”) so that the repair area can be leveled and re-polished to blend the repair.

You might be wondering if it’s really necessary to apply clear over paint chip and scratch repairs. The answer is yes. In particular, if your paint is a metallic finish, the touch-up will not match if the clear top coat is not applied.

Of course, if your car does not have a clearcoat finish then you should not apply clear. Instead, 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, and you can clearly see the surface scratches (micro marring) I put in the paint surface.

Until you level paint touch-up to the same plane as the original paint, all you’ll have is an ugly looking blob. Leveling the paint repair is easily done using 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. 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, as the directions indicate.

To level your paint chips, first wet the area to be sanded. Next, use your sanding block and sandpaper to mill the high spot off of the chip repair. Sand in a straight line, with the length of the car, never in a circle. Keep the area you’re sanding well lubricated with water. Check your work often by 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.

Wet sanding will dull the paint. Don’t worry, you’ll use a fine-cut compound to remove the sanding scratches and restore a high-gloss finish. When the surface looks level, dry it with a clean towel and inspect with your fingertips. If you can feel a high spot, it needs more work.

The final step is to buff out the repair with a good fine-cut compound. I recommend Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound. Apply the compound to a clean foam applicator pad or polishing cloth and rub the repair area using a short back-and-forth motion (not in circles), and then buff out with a clean microfiber towel. Tada! The blemish is gone. The job is much faster if you use a dual-action car polisher.

Repairing Deep Scratches

If someone keyed your car or it was otherwise damaged over a large area, you might be able to repair the damage yourself. The determining factor is the depth of the scratches. If you can clearly see that the scratches penetrate the color coat or the primer, the best course of action is your local paint and body shop.

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

A good way to understand if you can repair the scratches on your car is to use two sheets of copy/laser printer paper. Put the paper on the body of your car next to the scratch. Next, run your fingernail across the paper onto the paint surface a couple of time to feel the thickness.

Now run your fingernail over the edge of the paint scratch. If the paint scratch feels significantly deeper than the thickness of the two sheets of paper, a complete repair will be difficult. If it’s not as deep, you can make the repair.

If the scratch in your clearcoat feels less than a single sheet of paper (your fingernail will not catch on the scratch if it’s shallow), then you can make the repair by wet sanding and polishing. For best results, wet sand with 1500 grit wet and dry sand paper to remove the scratch, then follow with 3000 grit wet and dry sandpaper to remove the 1500 grit scratches. Restore the paint finish gloss using Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound with your dual-action car polisher or the orange foam pad from your spot pad kit.

Feel the scratch with your fingernail. If your fingernail catches on the scratch you need to fill it with clearcoat touch-up.

To remove deeper scratches in your clearcoat, you will need the following:

  • 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)
  • Dual-action car polisher or a spot pad kit and cordless drill
  • Fine cut rubbing compound, such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound
  • Lint-free microfiber cloths

The repair procedure is as follows:

  1. Soak a 4″ by 4″ piece of 1500 grit wet and dry sand paper in a bucket of water.
  2. Wash and dry the vehicle.
  3. Use Prepsol and a microfiber cloth to wipe down the scratch area.
  4. Using a sanding block, wet sand the scratch area to remove the glaze on the clearcoat. Eight to ten strokes is generally enough.
  5. Dry the area and wipe down with Prepsol again using a clean, dry microfiber cloth.
  6. Follow instructions provided with the clearcoat pen to mix and start the paint flow.
  7. Use the clearcoat pen to trace along the path of the scratch. The clearcoat paint should easily flow into the groove of the scratch.
  8. 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.
  9. Allow the clearcoat to dry. Follow the instructions provided with the product for drying time before proceeding.
  10. After the clearcoat is dry, inspect it closely. If the scratch is not completely filled, repeat steps 7-9.
  11. Using a sanding block, gently wet sand the scratch area with 1500 grit sand paper to level the repair. Dry the surface and check your work often. Do not over sand!
  12. After leveling, use 3000 grit wet and dry sand paper to remove the 1500 grit sanding scratches.
  13. Use Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound with your dual-action car polisher or spot pad and cordless drill to restore the gloss.

3M SCRATCH REMOVAL SYSTEM

For minor clearcoat scratches that have not penetrated the color coat layer, 3M offers the best DIY fix-it kit available. The 3M Scratch Removal System is a complete kit that includes 3000 grit sandpaper, two grades of foam polishing discs, a backup plate for your drill, and two grades of car polish to make a perfect repair.

Quixx Paint Scratch Remover

If you don’t own an electric drill, here’s an alternative that you can apply by hand. It’s the Quixx Paint Scratch Remover system, and it works like a charm. The kit contains everything you need.

Good luck with your repairs!

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