New and used vehicles sooner or later accumulate scratches and minor dents. Physical wear and tear on a vehicle’s exterior is a minor annoyance, but it can also impact a vehicle’s eventual resale value.
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Minor damage repair is easy once you learn what to do. It helps to have some experience, but you can practice your repair on another surface a few times to improve your technique. Any old paint can or aluminum baking pan works fine for a practice surface.
Make a scratch or dent in your practice surface that closely approximates the damage to your vehicle.
You’ll want to collect a few things before you get started. You should also avoid touching up paint in wet, cold weather if you can. If the damage to your vehicle’s surface is superficial, or if you can leave it alone for a few days in a warm, dry zone, then don’t worry about the weather.
Match Your Vehicle’s Paint Code
Touch up paint is sold in spray cans, paint pens, or brush bottles. If your vehicle still has its original paint job, you’ll need to look up the color code. Some touch up doesn’t require a primer, so check the label to see if you need to buy one.
First, look in your owner’s manual. The paint color code should be there. If you don’t have the manual or you cannot find the color code in it, the information should be in one or more places in your car.
Try looking in the glove compartment. There may be a small metal plate with your vehicle’s make, model, serial number, and other identifying information.
Other places where you may find it include the driver’s side door jam, the wheel well, the passenger sun visor, or under the driver’s seat.
If you cannot find the paint code inside your vehicle, it should be somewhere in the engine compartment. Open the hood and look at the firewall – the metal barrier between the engine and the passenger cabin. You may also find the plate on or near the radiator.
You’ll see the paint number specification on the plate. This is the paint color number you need to purchase from the auto parts store. If you’re not sure you can read the plate, then try cleaning it with a non-abrasive solution like soap and water.
Take a picture of the plate on your cell phone and show it to the clerk. If you visit a store with a paint guide, browse the guide by make and model.
You can also ask your dealer to look up the paint code by giving them the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
After you buy your paint confirm you’ve made the right choice by comparing the can’s color scheme to your vehicle’s color. Ideally, do a test on a piece of paper to confirm the color match.
Other Things You May Need for Your Surface Repair
If there is rust on the car you’ll need to buy a rust remover or arrester. Follow instructions on the bottle.
You’ll need a de-waxing agent if your vehicle has a wax coat. Buy a degreasing agent if your vehicle has accumulated grease near the damage.
You need at least course wet or dry sandpaper (220 or 500 grit), finer sandpaper (1000 grit), and possibly a small wire brush.
You’ll want a bucket, soap and water, a scrub cloth or sponge, some drying towels, and 1 or 2 clean dry finishing cloths.
You may also need a flat-edge tool like a putty knife or screwdriver.
Park the Vehicle in a Well-lit, Dry Area
You need to work in a low humidity environment. You’ll also want to avoid direct sunlight. Suitable working temperatures are in the 60 degrees Fahrenheit range to 70 degrees. If you’re using spray paint you need to be in warm air. You can use a paint pen or brush and bottle at the cooler temperature range.
Since you’ll need to let the vehicle sit be sure you don’t have to move it before the paint has dried. Avoid windy, drafty areas where dirt can blow onto the finish. And don’t point any fans at or near your vehicle, either.
If you need to work in air conditioning you want refrigerated air, not a swamp cooler. But you may be able to compensate if you have a dehumidifier.
De-rust, Wash, and Sand the Vehicle
First, get rid of the rust. If it’s just a small bit you may be able to remove it with the derusting agent. Otherwise, a wire brush or 220 grit sandpaper should do the job nicely.
Wash the damaged area thoroughly and allow it to dry completely. You can use soap and water but you may need the dewaxer and/or grease remover.
Pick away flaking paint with your flat edge tool.
Use the 600 or 1000 grit sandpaper to feather painted edges around the damage.
Apply Primer First, If It’s Needed
If you used a rust arrester or converter it might have dried to a primer. Check the directions on the packaging. You may be able to skip this step.
If the factory primer is visible and completely covers the exposed surface it’s probably safe to skip this step, too.
If your touch up paint says “no primer needed” or something similar, you can skip this step.
If you’re only repairing a thin, shallow scratch you still may not need primer.
If the scratch is deep, you’ve had to sand it down, and you see the bare metal, then apply a thin coat of primer and let it dry. The drying process may take 20 minutes or longer. It could take up to several hours for the primer to dry.
Primer protects the metal from rust and creates a sticky surface the finishing paint adheres to. The primer fills in any small cuts in the surface.
You need only a tiny amount of primer for the exposed surface. Wipe off any primer that accidentally lands on the vehicle’s remaining paint.
Apply the Touch Up Paint
Follow the application directions on your paint container. If you need to mix or shake the paint then do so thoroughly.
For small, fine scratches it’s easier to apply a thin coat of paint with a toothpick. Some people use matches.
The brush that comes with your can or bottle should only be used for larger dents or scratches, where you need to cover as much area as possible.
You’re not going to use all your paint for a typical gash or dent. You just need to apply a thin coat over the primer. Let it dry thoroughly. That can take a few hours to several days.
You may need to apply a second coat of paint, or even a third one. You want each layer to be thin, not thick. Avoid creating a paint bubble that sticks out from the surface. Lastly, your kit should include a clear coat. Apply several coats of clear coat to protect the finish.
Mistakes are reparable, although you may have to start over if you make a bad one. That’s the best reason why you want to practice first on a test surface. You’ll be more confident and sure of what you’re doing.
You don’t need to be artistic with your touch up paint. If your vehicle has a custom paint job and you’ve never done this before, you should look into getting a professional to help you.
After the Paint has Dried
Time to wax and polish your car. The idea is to help the touch up paint to blend in as much as possible with the rest of the car’s paint.
Unless you’re repairing a new vehicle, the touch up paint may look slightly off. Older vehicles’ paint usually fades due to exposure to sunlight and the elements.
Most people ignore dinks and dents in their cars as part of the normal wear and tear. You really should not do that. Not only does it diminish the aesthetic appeal of your vehicle, it lowers the value overall.
Vehicle paint is not there just for aesthetic reasons – it protects the metal surface from corrosion. If you allow rust to set in then it weakens the surface’s strength, reduces the value, and may spread to other parts.
Small scratches are annoying and seemingly harmless. If you don’t keep an eye on things, over time you’ll become desensitized to surface damage. You’ll be less likely to take action when it’s really needed.
Touch up paint serves an important purpose in maintaining the value and performance of your vehicle. Don’t assume you’ll just get a new paint job somewhere down the road. If you have lost significant coverage, your vehicle will begin to corrode.
That’s a mistake you can easily avoid with just a few gentle brush strokes.