Instant Expert: Fix A Scratch

scratch on carThere are certain things in life that are best left to the professionals (dyeing your hair blonde, performing open heart surgery—you get the idea.) But basic car maintenance isn’t one of them. Each month, mental_floss and GEICO team up to walk you through an essential auto-related task, helping you become that much more accomplished (and not to mention, more financially responsible) in the process. December’s lesson? Removing a minor scratch on your car.

The Task: Taking care of a shallow scratch on your vehicle’s exterior.

How Much a Pro Would Charge: Anywhere from $50 to over $500, depending on the depth, length, and location of the scratch.

You’ll Need: 

1)            Dish Soap & Water
2)            At Least Three Towels or Cloths (Preferably Microfiber-Based Products)
3)            Masking Tape
4)            2000 Grit Sandpaper
5)            A Rectangular Sponge
6)            A Jar of Rubbing Compound
7)            A Jar of Polishing Compound

A WORD TO THE WISE: DON’T TAKE SCRATCHES LIGHTLY

Scratches on your car are, unfortunately, a part of life. But when you find a brand new one, don’t just ignore it: The paint on your ride helps protect it from the elements, and even a little mark can bring down a vehicle’s resale value. Here’s what to do the next time you spot a scrape:

STEP 1: FIND OUT HOW DEEP THE SCRATCH IS

The good news is that many scratches are easy to remove. But not all of them are alike. You can’t get rid of an offending mark until after you’ve assessed its depth.

A car’s metal surface is buried under several different layers of material. The lowest stratum is the so-called primer coat. On top of this sits a basecoat of colored paint that gives the vehicle its signature hue (firetruck red, aqua blue, etc.). Finally, the top stratum is a see-through layer of protective wax known as a “clear coat.”

In order to deal with your latest scratch properly, you’ve got to determine the number of layers that it’s penetrated. Don’t worry; this is an easy thing to figure out. Simply take your fingernail and drag it in a perpendicular line across the scrape. The objective here is to see if you can feel the edge of the scratch with your nail or not. If you can’t, then the gash is what mechanics call a “clear coat scratch.” This means that the mark in question is on the shallower side and hasn’t affected anything below the clear coat. If you do feel the edge, that’s because the scratch has penetrated the clear coat. If that’s the case, you may want to take your car into a garage, as the repair process will be far more complicated and require some potentially expensive touch-up paint.

STEP 2: CLEAN THE DAMAGED AREA

At the onset, you’ll want to make sure that the area around the scratch is as dirt-free as possible, as stray pieces of debris could carve new scrapes during the repair process. To clean the area, dip a clean towel in soapy water and wipe around the scuff mark. When you finish, gently dry everything off.

STEP 3: SET UP A PERIMETER

If you’ve never removed a scratch before, it’s a good idea to create some visual boundaries. Use masking tape to construct a square or rectangle around the offending scratch; each side should be laid down about one inch from the mark itself. All of the sanding, rubbing, and polishing to follow will take place within this makeshift parallelogram.

STEP 4: APPLY WET SANDPAPER

Sandpapers exist on a gradient. Before you even think about applying a sheet to your vehicle, check the label. This should give the paper’s “grit count,” which is a measure of how large the abrasive particles are. For the task at hand, 2000 grit sandpaper is usually ideal. If a lower number is printed on the packaging, it means that the particles might be big enough to leave scrape marks all over the car.

Once you’ve reviewed the sandpaper’s packaging, take a sheet and soak it in cold water for 10 to 15 minutes. Wrap the wet sandpaper around a rectangular sponge, then very, very gently  sand the scratch, rubbing in the direction of the original scrape (that is: if the scratch runs vertically, rub vertically, but if it’s parallel to the ground, rub the paper from right to left.) Be sure to sand slowly and carefully; you wouldn’t want to grate your way into the basecoat layer.

If you’re worried about overdoing it, use a hole punch to crop out a small circle of sandpaper. Glue this piece to the eraser end of a new pencil. That will allow you to focus on very small areas at a time.

STEP 5: RINSE THE SURFACE AT REGULAR INTERVALS

Excessive sanding will cause more harm than good. After about 15 seconds, put the abrasive paper down and rinse the scratched area with some clean water. If the original scrape is still visible, it’s time for another 15-second sanding session, followed by another rinse. Repeat this process until the scratch can no longer be seen. Afterwards, carefully dry the area using one of your microfiber towels.

STEP 6: BREAK OUT THE RUBBING COMPOUND

The sanding process will naturally dull your car’s exterior. Also, despite your best efforts, there may be some new scuff marks left behind by the sandpaper. Don’t panic: This is where the rubbing compound comes in. Pour a small amount of the product onto a clean cloth, then evenly rub the substance over the area you’ve been working on until the surface becomes shiny.

STEP 7: WASH THE WHOLE PERIMETER AGAIN

Once again, break out a (clean) towel—and some fresh water—and wet the whole area down. This will help you get rid of any unwanted refuse before the polishing phase begins.

STEP 8: POLISHING TIME

Put a drop or two of the polishing compound onto a clean cloth. Using a circular motion, apply it across the same chunk of real estate that you’ve previously sanded and covered with the rubbing compound. Once the surface looks shiny again, carefully peel off your masking tape and wash it down one last time.   To ensure the paint job says looking like new, consider getting your car waxed regularly. (The soap and sanding will have stripped any wax that previously covered the spot you just fixed.) Once everything looks good, rest easy knowing there’s one less clear coat scrape in the world.

Next article: How to Protect Your Paint Job

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  1. Mary Armstrong says

    I strongly suggest trying a “Magic Eraser” first. I had some scrapes on my mirror from hitting the garage door jamb and Magic Eraser took them right off and the finish seems to be perfectly intact.

  2. Larry E. Terry says

    Thanks so much. Very informative and simple to practice. Have been a customer of GEICO for 45 years. Have been a satisfied customer for all that time.

    • Glenn says

      Do not attempt this ,I agree with David being in the automotive industry for 30 years and having a couple of hot rods and other cars and trucks with nice factory paint or custom paint,start off with going to your local auto parts store and buy scratch remover or polishing compound…clean/wash the area first,then try the scratch remover first and then the polishing compound…on 80% of cars that will work,if it is only a scratch !! If not take to a detail or body shop…do not use sandpaper or rubbing compund,you will remove the clear coat and paint and that cannot be reversed…trust me

  3. Cecilie says

    I would recommend before taking out the Sandpaper and making a production out of this scratch, to do the nail test as you recommend and then if there is no gouge then a light bit of cleaning and Polishing Compound may take out what appears to be a scratching his only a transfer of paint.
    Then if you find that the top code has been compromised but the pretty paint or identity paying her whatever you want to call it is not affected then you can go on with a light sanding and putting on some clear coat.
    If it has gone down to the pretty paint or colorful paint then small touch up tubes usually can be bought from a dealer and again this can be done easily at home to touch up to scratch buff it out and sealed with clear coat.
    If it is going down to the metal through the primer that’s when I would take mine to a body shop have it assessed and repaired.
    It is essential to keep an eye out for scratches on a vehicle. What looks like a small scratch could easily turn into a major rust area underneath the paint. Also be attentive to the moldings you know the rubber or plastic add ons to the car. Often older cars will tend to Bubble Up near or even under these mouldings and need to have immediate attention.
    A small deep scratch can allow water in and once that happens you can have a rusted-out rocker panel, door or bumper. Tailgates are very susceptible to scratches on trucks or SUVs or even vans.
    Good luck and safe driving!

  4. Doanld Broderson says

    A much safer procedure for a clear coat scratch is to rub it out with a whitening toothpaste. It can take some elbow grease, but it won’t cut too deep and it almost always works. Wash the area with soap, apply the toothpaste and rub. i use my bare thumb for the rubbing tool.

  5. John Smith says

    You can sand right through the clearcoat wayyyyy easier than you think. This is a terrible idea for people who have never had any experience with automotive paint.

    Good rule of thumb is if your fingernail catches on the scratch it’s too deep to sand out and will need, at the least, some touchup paint applied.