From Salvage to Showroom Shine—Bringing Paint Back From the Dead
It began with a phone call. A friend had just bought a bargain-basement-priced 1990 240sx.Although it was mechanically in good shape, the paint job was trashed. It was badly oxidized on the hood, trunk, and roof—with a chalky pallor and no reflectivity left at all. Plus, the hood had deep scratches that looked as if someone had done a break dance on it wearing a suit of 60-grit sandpaper. Wanting to boost the car’s curb appeal without having to resort to the hassle and expense of repainting, my friend’s plan was to see how much life he could breathe back into the paint through tried-and-true finessing techniques.
While this was an extreme example of deteriorated paint, the scenario is common, even for vehicles only a few years old. Exposure to sun and the elements starts working on a vehicle’s paint the day it rolls off the assembly line. Oxidation can leave it looking dull and lifeless; acid rain, bird droppings, and other environmental debris can produce etching and stains; and day-to-day use can cause light scratches. All this can make an uncared-for finish look old well before its time—and shave hundreds of dollars off the vehicle resale value.
The paint on the 240sx was red, and fortunately, none of the scratches had gone beyond the outer coat. This is important; as long as defects don’t go completely through the outer layer—whether clear or color coat—they can often be finessed out. Which means removing enough of the paint layer to take out the defects and return the surface to a smooth, glossy finish. This, in turn, requires the use of abrasive cleaning compounds and, in more serious cases, wet sanding. With the 240, we decided to use Meguiar’s professional line of Mirror Glaze products, which includes cleaners of various abrasive levels and the company’s Unigrit sandpaper, made specifically for use on automotive finishes.
While most light defects can be removed with a good cleaner or rubbing compound, for more serious problems, such as heavy oxidation, deep scratches, or orange peel, wet sanding is a faster method of removing paint. The typical way to sand a finish is to begin with the least abrasive paper, then if that’s not enough to remove the defect, move up to increasingly more abrasive grades. Coarser papers, however, leave behind a rougher surface, which then has to be smoothed out with sequentially finer grades. Since the 240sx paint was in such bad shape, we started with 600-grit paper to remove the dead first layer of paint and work out the deeper scratches. Once that was accomplished, we moved to increasingly finer paper (1000- and 2000-grit) to smooth out the relative roughness left by the initial grade.
Sanding an automotive finish isn’t for everyone. You have to be careful not to remove too much paint, which is especially easy to do around contours or corners in the sheetmetal. 1000-grit or heavier is particularly apt to remove paint quickly. Beginners should stick with 2000- or 1500-grit paper until they get a good feel for the process. Unless you’re working on a very small area, it’s advisable to wrap the paper around a sanding block, which will elicit an even result; finger pressure alone can create subtle waviness in the paint surface.
Wet sanding helps the paper last longer and generally provides better results. To do this, halfway fill a clean bucket with water and soak the paper in this prior to use. In addition, it’s a good idea to keep a hose nearby to wet the area to be sanded and allow the water to flow over the working surface as you sand. Rinse the paper frequently to avoid any buildup of paint particles that can cause new, deeper scratches. As you sand, check the surface regularly to see how the removal of the defect is progressing; don’t remove any more paint than necessary.
By the end of the wet sanding, the 240sx already showed a dramatic improvement. The rough 600-grit paper had done most of the work, taking off the heavy oxidation and enough paint to eliminate most of the scratches. Then, the coarseness left by the 600 was worked out with the fine 1000- and ultrafine 2000-grit papers, leaving only light sanding marks.
Next, it was time to move to the cleaners and polishes to bring back a like-new shine. Mirror Glaze cleaners are available in three levels of abrasiveness: heavy-, medium-, and fine-cut. On most finishes, with light defects that don’t require sanding, you can begin the finessing process with one of these cleaners. As with the sandpaper, it’s recommended to start with the least abrasive product possible that will do the job. Locate the worst area of the finish and choose a small section (about 2×2 inches) to use as a test. First, go over it with a light abrasive product and see if it’s successful in removing the defects and smoothing the surface. If a little more abrasive is needed, choose another product and go over the same area with it. When you find which level of abrasive works best, you can use that product for similar areas, or move back to a lighter product for areas with fewer problems.
To take out the light sanding scratches left by the 2000-grit paper, we chose the Heavy-Cut Cleaner. A nice advantage of Meguiar’s cleaners is that they use “diminishing abrasives,” which gradually become less abrasive as they’re worked. This means that even the abrasives in the heavy-cut cleaner gradually wear down to work as a fine polish that leaves a smooth, glass-like surface.
The diminishing abrasives also permitted us to move directly from the heavy-cut cleaner to an ultrafine swirl remover to take out any haze or swirl marks left from the cleaning and bring out a high, reflective gloss. At this stage, we were able to use an orbital buffer to speed up the process and reduce the elbow grease needed for the remaining steps.
The swirl remover produced a brilliant, glistening finish that left onlookers following the project awestruck by the transformation. For a final polishing step, we opted to apply a coat of Showcar Glaze to further nourish the paint and enhance the gloss, and then Meguiar’s’ Medallion For All Paint protectant to help protect the paint from environmental damage. When the project was finally complete, the 240sx looked like a newly painted car with dramatically higher curb appeal, which would probably draw a much higher price during a resale. Meanwhile, our total outlay was about $100.
Overall, it was a good lesson for owners of cars with worn paint: There may be life in that dead finish after all.