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Should I Repaint My Car? Lessons and Examples

If you have a choice, find a good car to fix up that mainly needs a new paint job. This ’55 Chevy 2-door has been sitting in my SoCal neighborhood more than a decade. It even used to be shiny. But there are no rust bubbles showing anywhere on it, it’s straight, it’s complete, and the fact it’s a Bel Air makes it even more desirable. You could strip it to bare metal to satisfy your curiosity, but all this car probably needs is a good sanding and new paint—besides other usual restoration. But, of course, the owner plans to do that “soon” and won’t sell.

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Why Do YOU Want to Paint this Car?

A car body is very much like a human body. In the first place, unless it’s new or near new, it’s probably not going to be perfect any more. Secondly, it’s inevitably going to further deteriorate with age. But there’s bad news and good news.

First the good; relatively speaking, it’s easier to keep your body in good shape than it is to get it back into that shape once you’ve let it go for a while. Like your own body, your car’s body can be kept in pretty good shape fairly easily if you care for it. If you house it properly, keep it out of bad elements as much as possible, and treat it kindly, it will stay in good condition for a long time. The problem is, unlike our bodies, our cars often come to us from other owners who have not treated them well over the years. Such cars might have suffered anything from chafed, spotted, or wrinkled skin, to scrapes, bruises, and scars, or much worse maladies such as sick internal organs or the dreaded cancer (rust that’s more than skin-deep). In this book we won’t treat any mechanical problems whatsoever, or matters of couture (interior/upholstery). We discuss minor to even moderate bodywork, because that’s integral to any good paint job. But we won’t get into the serious cut-it-out-and-replace-it type of metal transplant that serious rust requires, or body realignment that necessitates frame-pullers or PortaPowers.

The simple and obvious point is that if you protect your car as much as possible (not just from dents and scrapes, but especially from the sun), and take good care of it (wash and wax it regularly), its paint job will look good and can continue looking that way for years. If it was a good paint job to begin with, it will look even better; but with some work and upkeep, you can revive an ailing paint job or make a poor one look better than it was. We cover that fully later.


You’re not supposed to teach with bad examples, but this is classic. I came across this little dented sedan (I can’t even tell what it is) in northern British Columbia, Canada. Even though it’s been recently sprayed with silver spray-can paint, rust is popping out all over it. The owner said he was a certified welder and he was going to fix it. Why? The rust on this car is growing from the inside out. A paint job won’t fix it. Some major metal surgery could—but this car just isn’t worth it. 

That advice is useful to know, but since you’re reading this article, you’ve likely concluded that your car’s finish is beyond reviving. So on to our main point: Why do you want to paint this car? If you just want to change the color, or put a higher-quality paint job on it than the one it has now, that’s fine. It is a lot of work, but hopefully you have the right intentions. On the other hand, if it needs a new paint job, how did it get that way? Assuming that you got this car in this condition (probably for a good price because of it), and now, being a do-it-yourself type person, you want to fix it up to enjoy for yourself or to eventually sell it for more than you paid for it. Two things here, second one first—don’t even think about counting your time and labor as part of the profit made from selling a car you painted yourself. Painting a car is a big job. It’s very labor-intensive. It is not a good way to make money. The point of this book is to teach you how to do a job well; to get the quality of paint job you want and might not be able to get readily elsewhere; to save a considerable amount of money doing so (particularly if you count your time doing this as hobby time); and to have the satisfaction of knowing and being able to say, “I did this myself.”

Now, let’s get back to that question: “How did this car get this way?” If you let your own car fade, craze, crack, peel—or worse—I think you’re deluding yourself if you really think you’re going to immerse yourself in a repaint project, and then keep the car nice and shiny afterward. I’ve seen a whole lot of at-home paint projects that got as far as some chrome stripped off, some filler applied, the body sanded, and maybe even a whole coat of primer applied before the project stalled and surface rust started showing through. Most of the owners of such projects really had no idea how much work the whole job would be. On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of hobby cars make it to shiny paint and fresh chrome, only to naturally revert to their former state within a few years. I’m saying this partly to forewarn you, and partly to (hopefully) shame you into full follow-through. If you do it right and maintain it well, you have accomplished something you can take justifiable pride and satisfaction in.

However, I mentioned “two things.” In addition to dismissing the notion that this is a big money maker for you, the other point to consider is that maybe you really shouldn’t paint this car yourself. If all you really want is to make a faded and fatigued car look better (and probably didn’t realize how much work a full-on paint job is), we give you several alternatives in this book. The days of the “Any Car, Any Color—$19.95” paint job are long gone. But you can get a decent “one-day” paint job, and we show you how here. We also show how to spiff up an otherwise ho-hum factory paint job, or re-coat a faded or spotted car in its original color, easily and inexpensively. There are several stages of home paint jobs, between a quick “scuff and squirt” and the full-on show-winning deal that we cover here. Take your pick. Choose your personal level of involvement and intensity.

In fact, your faded car might not need painting at all. You might be surprised how even long-neglected paint can be brought back to life, and how some touch-up or spotting-in can save a paint job you thought needed complete refinishing. That later, but first…


Why Do You Want to Paint THIS Car?

If you’re going to spend some major time and effort painting a car at home, you’d probably like to have something you can be proud of when you’re done, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt if it had decent resale value if and when you might get tired of it or you find a new project you want to tackle. Don’t put your sweat and elbow grease, let alone your heart and soul, into fixing up or rebuilding a car just because it’s free, it’s there (and you drove it through high school, or whatever), or because it was your uncle the priest’s, your father-in-law’s, or your grandfather’s. I’m guilty on every one of those counts. I know what I’m talking about. And I still have my grandfather’s free, 4-door sedan (that I drove through high school) to prove it. I put way too much work into it. And I’ve tried every way I can think of to sell it, with no results whatsoever. It wasn’t what I wanted in the first place. I don’t like it now. I don’t want it. But it’s too nice to donate to the Salvation Army. And I wouldn’t get much of a tax break for it, anyway. It’s got a beautiful, show-winning paint job. But it’s a hundred dollar saddle on a ten-dollar horse. You’re not listening are you? I can tell you’re not.

Hey, it’d be great if your grandfather—or uncle the priest—drove a ’57 T-Bird and willed it to you, even a clapped-out one. That’s definitely worth fixing up. But not aunt Meg’s 4-door Corvair, or the family ’75 Suburban, or much of anything else made in the ’70s or ’80s, for that matter. There are exceptions, of course, which price guides can help you understand. But if you want to put a whole bunch of hours into fixing up some 4-wheeled stray dog primarily because it has “personal attachment” (or, worse, just because it followed you home), fine. Just plan on being personally attached to it for a long time. If you really do love the car, for whatever reason, and you really do plan on keeping it indefinitely—go for it. Give it the personal attention and loving care only you can.

Here are some examples of ones that should have been fixed up, starting with some close to home. When I was in high school, my dad bought this ’47 Chevy convertible from a co-worker, in decent shape, for $50 because he wanted the wheels and tires. I gave him $50 for the rebuilt engine. Then he parked it on our ranch (as seen). A few years later he sold it to someone for $50, and I spotted it at a swap meet going for $350. No rust, no dents, all there—but we weren’t into convertibles in the ’60s. Sigh.



I nabbed this ’32 Tudor sedan for $900 because it was too good to pass up. It had lots of surface rust, inside and out, but no real cancer; it was surprisingly straight; and it came with rear fenders and an extra floor (behind car). This was a very restorable car but, again, I had no place to keep it. A friend let me store it on his property, and I collected swap meets parts when I found them, cheap. After several years I hadn’t touched it, and someone made a ridiculous (low) offer and took it to Sweden. I won’t admit the price, but the grille, hood, firewall, and gas tank were worth much more than he paid (not counting the quickchange rear axle). I just hope it finally got built.


I got this ’62 Grand Prix convertible from a college friend for $100. I rebuilt the radiator and heads, and did the little bodywork it needed. It had the good wheels and all the trim. But I had nowhere to keep it. So I rented a little compressor, painted it light blue primer, and tried to sell it. No luck. So I gave it away. Ugh.


I saw this convertible at a swap meet. If it were just a ’67 Fairlane ’vert, even apparently complete and running, it probably wouldn’t justify the $4,500 asking price. But this is a GTA with a “numbers correct” 330-hp 390 big block. Yet, that’s Midwest road-salt rust showing in the wheelwells, so you know there’s plenty more you can’t see underneath.


This is a ’36 or ’37 Ford Tudor body I saw at a swap meet in Kansas. Even if it were a ’32, I’d question trying to save this one. As it was, I didn’t even ask the price.


For example, here’s a ’55 Olds that looks straight, with only surface rust…until you start poking around down under the chassis, where the road salt has been eating it away. Not only do you have to deal with rust rot on such cars, but every nut and bolt down there has to be removed with a cutting torch.


We look at this one again next chapter, but here’s another perfect example from my neighborhood. The ’57 Nomad is a highly desirable, collectible car, and it looks like all this one needs is a new paint job. We know the paint isn’t original, and there’s been some less-than-perfect bodywork done (the sides are wavy). But the fact that the top is crazed tells us this paint has been on the car a long time, and no rust, filler cracks, or peeling have occurred. If it were for sale, the need for a full paint job should lower the price substantially. And if you painted it yourself… but, of course, it’s not for sale.


Another good example, this little Mustang project is following our Chapter 2 “How to Build a Car” sidebar well. It has a new EFI V-8, 4-speed, and 4-wheel disc brakes already installed, along with new performance wheels and tires. The primer spots tell you some minor bodywork has been done. Now all it needs is a good sanding through the peeling clear coat, and a fresh home paint job.



On the subject of red Mustangs, here’s exactly what you don’t want. This car looks fairly good and straight at first glance. But all it’s had is a quickie“resale” paint job, covering who-knows-what bodywork and prep. In fact, the close-up shows not only a poor fast-mask job, but the recent paint is already starting to peel and flake. Very bad. Worse, close inspection shows much of the car is missing. Bottom line: don’t pay for a paint job you don’t want, especially a recent one. Buy a car that needs a paint job, to save on the price, then paint it yourself—partly to know that it’s done right.


Here’s our last bad example. Even though I saw this one stored in SoCal, the snow tires and severe rust tell me it came from some snowy clime. Sure, it could be fixed, at great effort. But plenty of similar examples abound, in much better condition. Even at free, this car isn’t worth it. Been there, done that.


I love to poke fun at ’58 Buicks and similar huge, overchromed ’50s cars. Who knows how much restoration this 2-door hardtop took—but it’s basically a smooth, shiny, bright red paint job, lowering, and new wheels and tires that make it a standout. There’s no customizing or other tricks. This car shows how much impact a good new paint job can have, even on a big, otherwise ugly old car. Well, it’s not ugly anymore.


In proper order, I fixed all the mechanicals first, including brakes, suspension, steering, wiring, and eventually added a V-8, automatic trans, stereo, and even air conditioning. I had the bumpers and grille rechromed and removed and filled emblems on the hood, trunk, and elsewhere. Then my upholsterer talked me into adding white tuck-and-roll inside (out of order). So I had Stan Betz mix a little color-matched green lacquer so I could spot-in the few places I’d primed where chrome was removed and a ding or two were filled. Then I tried a little 3M rubbing compound with a buffer. Wow! It not only took all the surface rust right off, but it polished that old nitrocellulose lacquer to a high sheen, as you can plainly see in this photo. Believe it or not, this is mostly the factory original paint, just power-buffed and waxed. It looked so good; I drove it this way for several years before starting this book. Now it’s finally getting the full-bore bodywork/repaint.


More important and more serious is trying to assess the true condition of the vehicle you plan to spend some real time fixing up and painting. Since we’re concerned with the exterior surface here, we have to leave it to other sources (and your trusted mechanic) to determine its mechanical well being, but that of course should be taken into strong consideration. In the case of straight restorations, you must consider the rarity of the vehicle and the consequent availability (or unavailability) of replacement parts. In other cases, where originality doesn’t matter, one good option is to transplant newer mechanical components that are fresher or rebuilt, are readily available, and fit the chassis directly or reasonably easily.

Our concern is the exterior of the car. Check two things first: the originality and completeness of the vehicle, especially an older one. If the car still has its original paint job, even if it’s faded, chipped, cracked, or peeling, good. The worse the paint, the less the car costs. That’s a big part of the point here. But look closely to make sure it’s really the original color (there’s usually a “color code” number on an I.D. tag on a doorpost, but that’s hard to verify on the spot). If the car’s been repainted, you can usually see where masking wasn’t perfect, overspray got on non-painted parts, or areas didn’t get fully resprayed, such as under the hood, trunk, or wheel-wells and rockers. Next look for areas that might have been touched up or spotted-in. If the paint is old, these areas might be shinier or a slightly different color. This is an indication that body-work has been done. Then the question is: how much, and how well? If the panel looks straight (not wavy or bumpy) and fits properly, you can at least assume the job was done well. If so, such areas can be sanded and repainted without further work. If you can see ripples, waves, pin-holes, bubbles, or grinder marks—or worse, if it’s already cracking or even falling out, you know it’s a problem area that has to be stripped of filler, cleaned, straightened, and re-worked. Also check the gaps and fit between body panels and parts such as doors, hood, and trunk. If any of these are uneven or don’t fit properly, some part of the car has probably been crunched and replaced. That’s no big problem as long as the replacement part or panel is good, and can be realigned properly, and the frame is straight. But beware of things such as doors or windows that don’t open and close smoothly.

Completeness is another concern, especially on older or rare vehicles. Make sure that all chrome trim, handles, latches, lights, grille pieces, and so on are on the car and are not bent or broken beyond simple repair. Even though we’re talking about painting the outside, this is a good thing to check in the interior, too. For newer cars, such pieces can be ordered from the dealer, but can be expensive (and ask yourself, why are they missing or broken?). For popular older cars (including foreign ones), a surprising number of these parts are available as reproductions. Others aren’t. For one example, as this was written the chrome “eyebrows” over the headlights on ’55 Chevy Nomad station wagons—unique to this year and model—were not available in reproduction. Originals (if you could find any) cost upwards of $2,000. Check these things before buying a new project vehicle.


Bad Filler and Dreaded Rust

If a car has one or more new paint jobs over the original, you really have no idea what might be under them. We talk about this more in the next chapter on stripping paint. Fortunately, filler—especially bad filler—is usually pretty easy to see. If it’s not immediately obvious from bulges or waves, sight carefully down the sides of the car, from front to rear and vice-versa. Besides front- and rear-end damage (which is relatively easy to replace), cars most often get hit in the sides (as opposed to the roof or tops of the trunk or hood), and this can be more serious. If you don’t see waves or ripples as you look down the sides of the car, open the doors and check the jambs. Bodymen usually don’t spend a lot of time in these areas, and damage is easier to spot here. If you do see bent or twisted metal, or poorly sanded filler, especially in the middle pillar of a 4-door, I’d probably pass and look for a better car.

Another way to find filler is to look and feel inside body panels that you can access, such as inside the trunk or the wheelwells. If a panel is bumpy on the inside and straight on the outside, you know it has filler in it. If you can feel both sides with two hands at the same time, you can probably tell how thick it is. But, especially on newer cars, many areas are inaccessible. The owner isn’t going to let you pull off the door panels or other parts to see (or feel) inside.

I have seen several types of “filler finders.” Most work magnetically, some with batteries and beepers or lights. Look in auto accessory catalogs to find them. But with a little practice and something like a refrigerator magnet, you can get pretty adept at judging whether—and how much—filler is under the paint. Any type of magnet works; just make sure it has something over the surface (such as masking tape) so it doesn’t scratch the paint on the car.

Rust is either easier or harder to find, but, unless it’s simple surface rust, it’s badder than filler any day. If you can actually see rust bubbles—or worse, holes—in the paint, be warned that it’s the tip of the iceberg. Such body rust is coming from the inside out. If you can see any on the outside, it has to be worse on the inside…probably much worse.

But, once again, many under-the-surface areas of car bodies are hard to access and these are the places where rust breeds and grows. Start by checking logical places for water to collect: the trunk floor, the interior floors (if you can lift the carpets), around exterior window channels (especially at the bottom corners). Open the doors and check the bottoms. If you can’t check interior floors from the top, crawl under the car and look at the floorboards from the bottom. This is especially important for cars that have ever lived in a cold climate where roads are salted (regardless of where the car might be right now).

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Since we’re discussing rust in this chapter, here are a couple examples from my Chevy that are of the fixable type. About the only place I found exterior rust was under the chrome trim, where water collected. But this was primarily surface rust. I used a small, air-drive grinder to remove most of it, but this area had a hole in the lower right about the size of a 50-cent piece that needed a patch welded in.


With the rust ground off, weld ground smooth, one coat of high-fill primer, and a little catalyzed spot putty, sanded smooth, this is how the same area looked after a final coat of primer.


The rusted area then had to be cut out with a cutting wheel on a die grinder. I scraped and wire-brushed as much as possible inside to remove more rust, but it was pretty inaccessible. So I resorted to liberally spraying the inside areas with a spray-can “rust converter” made by Permatex.


But you never know where you might find rust in a car. When I removed the interior panels, I discovered the left rear window channel drain tube had been plugged up, and the inner side of the trough was rusted completely through. Note the drain tube in the lower right, which had to be unclogged to start with.


The rusted area then had to be cut out with a cutting wheel on a die grinder. I scraped and wire-brushed as much as possible inside to remove more rust, but it was pretty inaccessible. So I resorted to liberally spraying the inside areas with a spray-can “rust converter” made by Permatex.


Here’s an instructive example. My son was looking for a 1950 Ford to build. He found one in Ohio, and the owner proudly stated, “All new patch panels have already been installed, all around the car.” Being a Californian, this sounded good to me. All the body rust had been cut out and replaced with new sheetmetal. But a friend who grew up there said, “Whoa! If the car was so rusty that it needed full patch panels, you can bet everything under the car is rusted tight. You won’t get a nut or bolt off of it without a cutting torch. And you’ll find more rust in areas you never thought of.” Good lesson. My son bought a ’50 Ford from Arizona, and he’s still driving it. The cost of a trip to a drier, warmer area to look for a car could be well worth it in the long run.

Finally, there’s one phenomenon about buying hobby cars—or any cars—that I’ve never been able to understand, but it really is central to this book. Why buy a paint job you don’t want or aren’t going to keep? Especially in the rod and custom field, I see people pay the big bucks for a nice, finished car and then, a year or so later, decide they’d rather change the color, and the upholstery, and maybe the wheels and tires, to make it more “their car.” Well, they’re paying twice for all that stuff that was fine to begin with.

The point of this is to find a sound well-priced car with good potential that needs a paint job. You add your own paint and finish the car however you like it. That way you can pay about half instead of double, have the car look the way you really want, and have the satisfaction of doing it yourself. Somehow that sounds more sensible to me.

Further, the first thing that you should be suspicious about on any car you’re looking to buy is a fresh paint job. You’ve heard of “resale red,” and with any experience you can spot quickie cover-up paint that very likely hides a multitude of sins. But I’ve seen far too many high-dollar cars, of all types, with beautiful-looking—even show-winning—paint jobs that turn out to have a ton of filler under that shiny, smooth surface. They’re not all that way, of course. But production body shops, and even busy custom shops, know they have to get cars in and out quickly, and sanding filler smooth is a lot easier and faster than properly straightening, forming, or replacing sheetmetal. If you buy something with new paint (even a full, fresh coat of primer), you really don’t know what’s under it. If you buy something that needs paint, or still has all its factory finish on it, you have a much better idea what you’re getting.


Save an Old Paint Job

You’d be surprised how dead a paint job you can bring back to life. I’m not talking about making the car show-winning perfect. I’m talking about a car that someone has let go—left out to fade and oxidize—and all you want to do is make it shiny and nice once again. On the other hand, at concours shows you see old, original classics that have been meticulously taken apart, cleaned, and polished—both old painted and bare-metal parts—until they look just like new. You can do much the same thing to any old car, for nearly no investment other than time and elbow grease.

In the old days I heard of people oiling or waxing primer to make it shiny. If you ever intend to paint over it, don’t do that. Also, I’d see guys (especially lowriders) wax whatever paint was on the car, repeatedly, until it got real shiny. If they went through the paint down to the factory primer, that was okay. It’d be shiny, too. With the abrasive paste waxes of the day, you could shine up most any old paint job pretty quickly; the more you waxed, the shinier the car got. Here, we’ll do something similar, with more modern polishing products, and hope we don’t hit primer.

Another option, with the variety of catalyzed clears available today, is to scuff down and clear coat whatever you’ve got. That’s a possibility (even over primer), but we won’t delve into it here because it isn’t common; any scratches, blotches, or other irregularities in the underlying paint (including sanding scratches) not only show but are usually magnified. On the other hand, the big craze among the rod and custom crowd now is “patina.” Not only are worn, faded and flaking paint jobs prized (partly to prove that the car has old, original sheetmetal), but some people are actually “weatherizng” paint jobs to create fake (or “faux”) patina. Whatever. You’ll have to find some other book or magazine to teach you that.



We show more on spotting-in paint in following chapters, but let’s consider a vehicle that looks like it needs a new paint job, but might not. The car in question is a ’93 Honda Accord wagon that my wife bought, new. She took very good care of it for 200,000+ miles, including several cross-country trips (seen here somewhere east or west of Laramie), but it never once spent a night or day under cover—nor got waxed. The clear coat was getting chalky in places, but the metallic red hadn’t visibly faded—a testament to today’s factory paint jobs. When Anna got a low-mileage white Camry (which you see in Chapter 8), she willed this one to me, and I decided to see what I could do to fix it up without a full new paint job.


Oftentimes, new cars get damaged in shipment and repaired at the dealer before they’re sold. Apparently that happened with the front bumper. We crunched the rear gate and had to have it repaired and repainted. These were the only two places the clear coat had actually peeled off. In such cases neither buffing nor recoating with clear works; you have to sand it down, repaint the base coat, and reclear it.


Try to sand off as much of the peeling clear coat as possible, but also try not to sand through the factory primer coats. Also note the peeling black-rubber roof strips had stainless steel underneath. I removed the remaining rubber with a razor blade and buffed the stainless.


Being the rodder I am, my first job was to peel off what trim I could, remove the washer and wiper, and weld up holes where the emblem and washer had been.


Next I wet-sanded the areas to be repainted with 360-grit, taping off other areas to protect them.


Before spot-painting the bumpers and tailgate, I tried buffing a portion of the weathered paint to make sure it would “come up,” which it did nicely.


If you can repaint full body panels separated by seams, it’s not the same as“spotting in” and matching the color exactly isn’t nearly as important. Here I have masked off the entire sanded tail-gate, plus the rear bumper, which got some dings and scratches erased with high-fill primer.


What we show here, instead, is how to buff and polish a tired old paint job until it looks, maybe not as good as new, but a heck of a lot better than it did. It still takes some effort, but we can make the vehicle look presentable without all the preparation, labor, materials, equipment, and expense of a full-on paint job. We rely primarily on wax and polishing compounds, with some minor spot painting, if necessary.

First off—this needs to be discussed somewhere in this book, and this is as good a place as any—automotive wax products are mostly snake oil, in my opinion. Somebody comes up with a new “Wonder Wax” that does everything short of curing cancer and pimples seemingly every month, and advertises it aggressively until a new one takes its place. Car magazines are full of ads for them. Barkers at car shows and county fairs hawk products that polish anything from beer cans to leather seats. To a certain extent they all work. I suppose some might do more harm than good. I don’t know. I don’t use them.

I’ve got a whole slew of wax and polishing products in my garage cupboard, ranging from basic 3M rubbing compound in a big jug to pure carnauba wax in a bottle. As with paints, I’m not going to recommend any specific products here. But I have relied on the Meguiar’s line of glazes and polishes, 3M compounds, Mother’s wax, and certain items from a place called The Wax Shop (that may not be around any more). I’d say:(1) lean toward name-brand products that have been, and will be, around a while; but (2) try out various products to see what works best for you; because (3) ultimately, it’s much more important that you wax your car than what you wax it with. You can quote me on that.


After similarly masking off the front bumper areas needing repainting, I sealed the entire rest of the car with plastic sheeting, available from paint stores for this purpose. Base coat is little problem, but overspray from the urethane clear sticks to everything.


I’ve seen other painters recently using 1,000-grit or finer paper for “scuffing” a surface for repainting, but on this older finish I used 360-grit, dry. Never wet-sand a masked area; you don’t want to get the tape or paper wet. On the other hand, after dry sanding, be sure to wipe and air-blow all sanding dust not only off the surface to be painted, but also out of all folds in the paper or other masking materials.




Buff it Out

Assuming that the paint in question is simply faded and oxidized—it’s not cracked, peeling, discolored, or otherwise damaged—the trick is to rub or polish it evenly until it all shines again. The paint’s condition determines what products and procedures you have to use to revive it. A good hand wax job, or two or three, might be all it takes. For others, many “deoxydizer” or “fine rub” liquids are available. You can hand rub or machine buff these. For bad cases, you need to resort to real rubbing compound and a buffing wheel. If you’re not sure what it’s going to take, try these products in the order mentioned. If you have to go to the rubbing compound, follow it with a sealer (polishing compound), and then a coat of wax.

Although I have seen magazine articles and other sources suggesting it, I do not recommend color sanding a factory paint job, particularly those with clear coats, especially if it’s old and worn. The factory doesn’t put enough paint on to warrant sanding, and if it’s partly eroded, you’re asking for trouble. Even using a power buffer and rubbing compound is iffy. Start with finer polishes first.


I had the base coat mixed to the original color code. If I were spotting-in the paint, I’d have to have it “color-matched” to the existing, slightly faded paint, either by computer or experienced eye. But in this case a perfect match was not so important. A pint of base coat was plenty for this job, and I’m using a graduated beaker to measure the proper amount of reducer/catalyst.


Spraying base coat is like spraying lacquer. It goes on easily and smoothly and dries quickly to a dull sheen. After it dries, follow with a couple of coats of clear. Do not sand either the base or clear between coats.


After all the masking is removed, the painted and cleared area looks glossy like this, requiring no rub out unless you want to. But now it’s time to rub out the old paint on the rest of the car.


Numerous “paint rejuvenators,” “de-oxidizers,” or even “swirl removers” are available from the wax purveyors. Try them out to see what works best for you. For this job you don’t want a “non-abrasive” formula; you need a mild abrasive, if not more


Depending on your paint’s condition, you could hand-rub it out with a mild abrasive.


If the clear is starting to craze or check, it’s usually impossible to fix without repainting. But this case responded pretty well to some hand rubbing and waxing, as seen in the second photo.


I wouldn’t use any wax that has silicone in it because it is very difficult to clean off if you ever need to repaint or touch-up the finish later (silicone causes fisheyes in new paint). Pure carnauba (or a similar “gloss wax” product) is a great finish wax; it gives a high-gloss and a protective coat that should last a while. But it doesn’t clean any grit, grime, road tar, or oxidation that doesn’t wash off. So, in the old days, you’d precede the wax coat with a cleaner, which usually had a fine abrasive in it. It was a two-step process that required plenty of elbow work, but was effective. Today we have all kinds of good cleaner-waxes that do pretty much the same job in one step. The “super gloss” final-finish waxes (or glazes) are for show cars that spend most of their time indoors, covered. For any car that sees regular outdoor driving duty, I highly recommend a good cleaner-wax, used often. Some of these use fine abrasives as a cleaner, others use chemical cleaners. My favorite, and standby for years, is Meguiar’s “red bottle.” It goes on quickly and relatively easily (even in the sun), it cleans well (especially if you rub hard), it wipes off very easily, and it doesn’t streak at all. Mother’s makes a similar product that has carnauba wax in it. It’s not quite as easy to put on and take off, but I think it lasts longer. The point is, try different wax products (perhaps not on your favorite car first) until you find one that works well for you.

On our test car, I started with a couple different kinds of cleaner-waxes, but they weren’t strong enough. So I tried using a couple different brands, and different strengths (super fine, fine, then mild abrasive) of “de-oxidizer” or “finish renewer” liquids, by hand. It was getting better, but I still wasn’t getting through the old hazy tarnish. Trying these products with a buffer and wool pad still didn’t cut it. So I got out the 3M rubbing compound with a “cutting” buffer pad, and that did it, surprisingly without going through the clear. Obviously (as we see in the rub-out chapter) this had to be followed with sealer/glaze and then a good coat of hand wax.

Now here’s my big caveat—or rationalization—for this section: It’s a can’t-lose deal. Of course you want to buff out the paint to a like-new finish without breaking through the clear coat, or whatever the top layer is. If you can, great. You’re lucky, and you’ve saved a lot of work and expense. But if you do buff right through—so what? Now you have to repaint the car, which is what we really started out to do, anyway, right? You haven’t really lost anything. The car only needs minor sanding at this point, and then you can mask it and shoot it. Or maybe you can get by just spotting it in.


Spot it in

Speaking of clear coats, most new cars of the past couple of decades came with them, even over solid colors, like black (which seems strange to me). If the paint is crazing or peeling, obviously the clear coat is first to go. You’ve seen it. It looks like your skin when it’s peeling after a bad sunburn. When the paint is in this condition, no amount of polishing or rubbing is going to save it. If it’s bad enough, sand down (or strip) the whole car and repaint it, including a new base coat and clear coat. You can’t just spray a new clear coat over a peeled one. The edges where it peeled will show.

However, on our test car for this chapter, the peeled clear was confined to panels separated from the rest of the car (the tailgate and the front and rear bumpers). Therefore, they could be sanded down, masked off and sprayed with a new base coat, and then cleared, without having to “blend” the paint into any of the rest on the body. Given this, I simply ordered the color by code at the paint store, rather than having it “matched” to the now-slightly-faded original paint elsewhere on the car. They were close enough in color and separated by body lines.

Incidentally, you may not realize it, but many brand new cars (more so in the past; they try to protect them better these days) get damaged in shipping, or even on the lot, and get spot-repainted at the dealer’s before they are sold new. I don’t know exactly how the factory cures its paint jobs, but factory paint is invariably more durable than any kind of repaint. That was the case with our sample car. The front bumper was apparently repainted by the dealer and the tailgate was repaired and repainted by a bodyshop. These were the first areas to peel. The rest of the factory finish, even after 12-plus years outside, took plenty of rubbing and polished up nicely.


You also might be surprised how many scrapes and abrasions on your car are less than skin deep, and can be removed or significantly repaired by some rubbing with compound.


On this car I decided to try 3M Super Duty compound to start, which is about as coarse as you’d want to use on anything. Since it comes in a jug, it helps to put some in a squirt bottle for ease of application. Then I used a cutting pad on my power buffer to do the whole car. This is extreme; you might want to start with something less abrasive. See Chapter 11 for more details on rubbing out paint, old or new.


As I say in the text, the best thing about trying to restore old paint (factory or otherwise) is that, if you rub through it, you can then repaint it. We show how elsewhere in this book. But for 12-year-old paint that had never been waxed or spent a night in a garage, this one really came back to life with a little rubbing and waxing. No new paint job needed here.




Once you have touch-up paint for the car, use it straight from the can (unthinned), with a small brush, to fill-in any small chips, scratches, or nicks that don’t require spraying. For any car you paint, save a little extra for this sort of touch-up.


When you’re spotting-in a paint job with a clear coat, it is relatively easy. If most of the clear coat is lifting, sand it all down, repaint the entire panel for full and even coverage with new base coat, and then clear coat the entire panel. If only a small portion of the clear coat is bad, or if the area has scrapes or other small damage, you can sand down the affected area (into the good clear coat), spot-in new base coat to cover the damage (again, spraying over at least a small portion of the good clear coat), then clear coat the entire panel. This works fine even if you have to do a little bodywork and priming in the damaged area to start—as long as you fully cover all primer, and any of its overspray, with base coat. You can even try spotting-in the clear coat—again, spraying beyond the base-coated area and any of its overspray—and rubbing out the junction of the old and new clear coats. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But, hey, if it doesn’t (if you can see a line or edge between the new and old clear coats once it’s buffed out), simply scuff down and reshoot the whole panel with a full clear coat. Depending on the type of car you’re restoring, your proclivities, and how well you can get the clear coat to lay down and gloss out, you can either leave it as-sprayed and start waxing it regularly along with the rest of the car, or you can color-sand and rub it out.

If your car doesn’t have a clear coat, spotting-in is more difficult. With metallics or modern paints with pearl added, it is nearly impossible to spot-in a portion of a body panel, rub it out, and have it blend in with the former finish so you can’t tell. About the only recourse here is to repaint a full panel separated from the rest of the body by seams or trim. Another possibility here is to spot-in areas that need it, and then clear coat the whole car. This is unusual, but certainly possible.

If your vehicle is painted in a one-step, non-metallic color such as red, yellow, or black, spotting it in and rubbing out the area is usually easy, particularly if the paint is fresh (i.e., you got a run while you were doing the paint job, a bug landed in it, some paint pulled off with the tape, whatever). Just sand the area with 360-grit until the dirt, bug, or rough edge is gone, repaint the area, and rub it out. If you saved some of the original paint, this also works on an older paint job if you’ve kept it in good shape. Of course I’m talking about some sort of catalyzed, hardened paint (both the original and the spot paint), or lacquer.

Now, if you’re dealing with older paint that’s spent any time in the sun, it’s going to be faded to some extent. Reds and lighter colors are especially susceptible. So even if you carefully saved some of the original paint, it’s probably not going to match anymore. On the other hand, if the paint is new, but you didn’t paint it, and you don’t have any of the exact same paint that was used, don’t expect new paint to match just because you ordered the same color code that’s on the car. Nearly all automotive paint is mixed by the can, as it is ordered. Some minor differences usually show in the shade of the color, the cast of the metallic, or the intensity of the pearl, from one new can of paint to another. This doesn’t matter if you’re painting a whole car, and it usually doesn’t matter if you’re painting a whole panel—the colors are close enough that you can’t tell.

If the old paint is perceptibly faded, or you’re trying to blend spot paint in the middle of a panel, you need the paint “color-matched.” Experts—and these are few—can do it by eye. Many shops these days have electronic equipment (spectrometers or spectrographs) to do it. Neither method is perfect.

Ultimately, it depends on how picky—and perceptive—you are. I notice mismatched paint jobs all the time, usually on cars with metallic or pearl paints repaired at collision shops. The owners apparently don’t notice or don’t care. Probably both.

Then there are the super-picky. A friend won’t finish his beautiful silver metallic ’54 Chevy because the paint shop messed something up and had to repaint the front fenders. They’ve redone them three times now, and he still sees a slight difference in the hue. Silver is about the hardest color to match, and this one has pearl in it, which is worse. Just adding a second or third coat, especially of a light color, changes its shade slightly. So will painting it over different colors of primer. Spot painting, or partial repainting—even with the same paint you started with—is hardly ever going to be perfect or seamless, especially to a very picky eye. If you’re that type of person, I’d suggest you sand down the whole car, coat it evenly with an opaque sealer close in shade to the final color, then respray the entire car, preferably all at the same time, and definitely with the same number of coats on each part. Remember, it’s your car, you’re the only one you really have to please, and you’re doing all the work yourself. How perfect do you want it?


Written by Tommy Lee Byrd and Posted with Permission of CarTech Books


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