#4 Repairing Paint Chips

So you think you want to fix that chip yourself, huh? And you'd like to do a good job instead of just daubing some mismatched bit of wall paint in there with a matchstick? Well, it's a bold move but you are unlikely to do anything that a decent body shop can't undo for a few hundred dollars, so why not give it a try?

Preliminary Caution: If you have metallic or metalflake paint anything other than the tiniest touchup is going to be very difficult for an amateur to get a good colormatch. If that's your situation then go ahead and try, but don't be surprised or disappointed if your effort is imperfect. DAMHIK. See the last phrase in the paragraph above. 

Proper application of touch-up paint and then wet sanding is the way to go to get a beautiful (well, acceptable, anyway) repair. Here’s what you gotta do.

Start by getting all your supplies. (It's sort of a rule for projects, that you should get all your stuff in a neat little heap before you start instead of as you go along.) Here's what you'll need, and it's all available at a local auto body supply store. I'd avoid the auto parts places like O'Reilly, etc. Go where the pros go for their supplies.
  • A bottle of touch-up paint. Have your paint code in hand so they can match it. (This may be an item to buy at your dealership since they will either have it or can get it in a small bottle.)
  • A very fine paintbrush with a pointy tip. (You know that bottle of touchup paint you bought from a rack or from the dealer? It probably has a brush built in to the lid. Cut that brush right off so you won't be tempted to use it. It will do you no favors at all.)
  • Sandpaper, in 1000 through 4000 grit. You won't need more than one sheet of each and if they sell partial sheets, even a 1/2 sheet will be enough.
  • A bottle of scratch and swirl remover. It'll come with instructions, but ask if they have any advice. In fact, if the counterman has done bodywork himself, ask him about generic advice.
  • A high-quality wax. Think $$$. Carnauba used to be the only way to go, but there are now some very good synthetic waxes, too. But for this purpose, use whatever wax you usually do.
  • Rags. You'll want good quality microfiber or 100% cotton with an unbound edge. Why unbound? Because the stitching is often done with polyester or nylon thread which can slightly scratch as you wipe with it. Do not try to get by with generic shop rags, either. Many of them are recycled and still contain metal chips from the machine shop that used them last. It will do your paint no good at all. 
Clean the chipped area thoroughly. Wash it with a heavy concentration of dish soap which, in most cases, will remove contaminants as well as surrounding wax. Then give the spot a wipe with alcohol to remove any soap residue.


If you are dealing with a scratch or a chip bigger than this letter “o”, use a fine-tipped artist’s brush. For even smaller chips and scratches, you can use a toothpick (not a toothbrush, you hillbilly!) to dab a dot of paint into the hole. If a toothpick point is too fine, trim it back to get a proper diameter. Also, you can trim a point onto a paper match to create a "brush." You'll know if you need something like that instead of the aforementioned.


Fill the chip with few dabs of touch-up paint. Build enough thickness that the new paint stands proud a bit above the surface of the damage. Make sure that the edges of your fill do not just come up level with the undamaged paint - you'll want a distinct bump over the whole ding. (Build it up in well-dried coats, of course. For multiple coats, let each dry for two beers or one hour, whichever comes first.) Let the whole job dry for 24 hours – you don’t want to try to sand soft paint; you’ll just make a mess and wind up starting over. But that won’t happen until you’ve wasted an hour or two trying to undo the mess you made, so let it dry thoroughly.


Then, soak a small piece of 1000-grit paper and, with water running on the area, use it to begin reducing the dabbed-on paint to level with the main surface. Once you’re nearly there (“nearly” is roughly equal to “almost,” or about .001” for you guys who understand dot numbers) switch to finer and finer grades of sandpaper, down to at least 3000 grit, and 4000 is better. Keep water running on the work spot, and if not running water, then you should wear your finger out on a spray bottle squirting it on. Light back and forth movements will do the job. Periodically run a fingertip over the spot to feel for progress in reducing it to level. Slow is good – you don’t want to discover that it’s level while you’re still using 1000 grit paper.

Now, because you are reading this I know that you are new to the process - if you knew anything you wouldn’t be coming here for answers. So I will tell you this: Use a small piece of sandpaper cut to size on a sanding block.  Avoid folding it, or wrinkles, either. If you use a bigger piece folded down to size you will create hard edges at the folds. And those hard edges absolutely will, with one clumsy move, create deep scratches in the paint around the area you are sanding. Same rule as above applies to starting over: you’ll waste time trying to fix it, so just don’t do it to begin with.

What makes a good sanding block for a job this small? Try a rubber block eraser like the one shown.
When you’re done with the sandpaper the clear coat will look cloudy. That cloudiness is miniscule (“tiny” or "little bitty" for you guys that dropped out in 7th grade) scratches in the clearcoat. They gotta go, so now you turn to your scratch and swirl remover to polish the area. You might have to do this step this a few times, so do it gently; the stuff is an abrasive and you don’t want to thin the clearcoat more than necessary. If the gods of automotive restoration choose to smile upon your work you’ll see the shine come back.


However, if those gods choose to piss down your neck, if the shine doesn’t come back, you may have to use a rubbing compound before getting back to the the scratch and swirl remover. CAUTION: If you use a rubbing compound you can cut the clearcoat right off the whole area if you are not very, very, careful. That is why it was not mentioned in the list of supplies: you hope you don't need it, and if you do, you want time to think about it first. Just a few gentle strokes at a time and know when to quit. Or when to give up and start over with a much bigger job.


Finish off with your choice of a high quality ($$$ again) wax and then go for drive.


Good luck!