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How to Fix Scratches: A DIY Guide To Car Paint Repair

How to Fix Scratches

If you own a car, chances are you know that moment of deep angst when you first spot a scratch. Even the most careful drivers eventually fall victim to these small but infuriating impurities that seem to mock you every time you pass by. Luckily, depending on the scratch, you shouldn’t have to shell out for a whole new paint job — you can fix it yourself!

There is a lot of advice out there about how to fix scratches, from bogus to bona fide. Here are a few strategies that work.

Understanding Scratches

There are four layers at play here, from inside to out: steel, primer, color and clear coat. Together they form a surprisingly strong exterior that helps protect your frame from the elements, prevent rust and keep your car looking like new. Your first step should be assessing the damage by determining how deep the scratch is and which layers are affected.

Scratch or Scuff?How to Fix Scratches

A lot of times what first looks like a scratch is just a scuff, and very easy to deal with. Scuffs happen when the hardened clear coat exterior comes into contact with something softer that leaves something behind, a kind of chalky or gooey residue. A good way to deal with this is to buffer it out with a bit of Soft Scrub or Goo Gone and old fashioned elbow grease. There are those who swear WD-40 works, but it’s not listed under the manufacturer’s recommended uses.

If you run your fingernail over the mark and feel a slight indent, you have an actual scratch. If, additionally, it looks to be a different color or you can see the steel layer, you’ve got bigger gouge to tackle, but there are plenty of resources to help you.

If you determine the scratch is only as deep as the clear coat or color layer, then let’s get to work!

How to Fix Scratches

Before you begin, thoroughly clean and dry the area surrounding the scratch. The last thing you want to do is cause more damage by rubbing in existing debris. Sanding in the direction of the scratch, use wet 2000-3000 grit sandpaper wrapped around a sanding pad to level out the blemish with the surrounding area. Pro tip: Apply a bit of Whiteout to the scratch beforehand to make sure you aren’t sanding past the affected layer. The goal is to make it as even as possible without going any deeper. You’ll want to rinse both the sandpaper and the area with a quality microfiber cloth as you go to make sure you’re on the right track.

By now, you’re probably noticing faint sandpaper scrapes. Spread rubbing compound around the area and use a power buffer or work manually with a terrycloth in quick, circular motions to buff them out. If you’re using a power buffer, be sure not to linger on any one spot more than a second to avoid getting deeper than the original scratch.

When the scratches left from the sand paper are gone, wipe the area clean with a terrycloth and some water. Use a foam polishing compound pad and very fine compound to go over the dull area, until it regains shine. Make sure to remove any remaining compound. Lastly, give it a good wax to lock in your hard work.

Check out all the paint & body supplies available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how to fix scratches, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy of Blair Lampe.


Blair Lampe View All

Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter.  In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.

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