How to Repair Chips in Your Car’s Paint Job

By Vincent Ciulla

scuffed bumper paint
 Scrapes like this happen in parking lots all the time. You don’t have to live with it. Adam Wright

One of the best ways to repair small chips in the paint of your car is to do it yourself. Even metallics can be repaired, and if you follow these directions, you’ll save yourself money that might otherwise have gone to the body shop. Like many do-it-yourself-car repairs, this one is simple if you go slowly, and maybe even practice beforehand.

Chipped Off

The moment you have been dreading has arrived. You have to go to the mall in your beautiful, expensive, brand new car. You just know that the nitwit who parks next to you is going to slam his door into the side of your car as he gets out. So to prevent this, you park way out in the boonies with nary a car in sight.

But, when you come back out, you see a bright red car of indeterminate model zoom out of the spot next to you. Your sense of dread increases. Sure enough, whomever was in the car dinged your passenger door, leaving two bright red spots in your perfect pearlescent paint job.

Getting It Fixed

Once at the body shop to get an estimate for repairing the damage, the technician adds more insult to your injury. There is just no way he can guarantee an exact paint match. Sad to say, but it is very difficult, if not nearly impossible, for anyone to match most modern paint finishes, even if they use the factory color. If you repaint just the door panel, you’ll see the difference. If you repaint the entire car to prevent this, then you’ll see your bank account go into the red.

But, if the chip is small, and even if it goes through the clear coat and deep into the paint, the best thing may be to try a simple touch-up. It won’t be an exact match, but chances are no one will notice it unless you point it out. Sure, you’ll still know it’s there, but in this case you need to weigh that knowledge against the possibility of saving money.

Paint by Numbers

If you decide you can live with less than perfect, then you should easily be able to use the following method to repair small chips or scratches, like the ones that happen at the edges of the trunk and the door openings. If it is about 70 degrees or less outside, you should do this in a heated garage. If you live where it’s hot, then work early in the day so the paint doesn’t dry out too quickly.

First, pay a visit to your dealer’s parts department. They will have the exact name and number of the color for your car, which they will then match to their stock of touch-up paint. If the chip has gone into the metal, also purchase some primer and clear coat. Make sure you use an automotive primer, not the spray primer you get at the hardware store or home center. Your dealership should have both, either in stock or they’ll be able to order it.

First Things First

Once back home with your paint, primer, and clear coat, mask off a quarter-inch area around the chip with masking tape. Using a clean, lint-free cloth (no paper towels or tissues!) and lacquer thinner or alcohol, clean the area of dirt, wax, and road grime, making sure to work both inside and around the chip. If the chip goes down to bare metal, use some 40 grit emery cloth to scratch up the metal so the primer and paint will have something to grab on to. Make sure any rust that may have formed is cleaned out as well.

Primer Time

Using the applicator brush that came with the primer (or a toothpick or end of a paper match if it didn’t) coat the bare metal with the primer. Try not to get it on any of the paint, just the bare metal. You want a smooth layer, just enough to cover the bare metal, with no bumps or lumps. Let this dry for at least 24 hours.

Start Painting

This is where patience and a steady hand comes in. Shake your paint well and, using the applicator that came with your touch-up paint (if one didn’t, you can buy touch-up applicators at any auto supply store), apply a thin, even layer of paint, again ensuring there are no bumps or lumps. Try not to paint outside the borders of the chip, and don’t try to fill in the entire chip up to the level of the surrounding paint—you’ll be painting in stages.

If you get sloppy, use a cotton swab dabbed in a little bit of lacquer thinner to clean up any excess paint. If your paint is too thin, clean the applicator, shake the paint, dip the applicator back in, and wait 30 seconds for it to thicken up. If it’s too thick, add about six or seven drops of lacquer thinner to the touch-up paint and shake well. Be careful and add only small amounts until you get the texture you want. If you over thin, you’ll have to wait for some of the thinner to evaporate. Even then you may never get the correct texture.

Once you’re done, let it sit for another 24 hours. The paint will shrink quite a bit as it dries, which is why you don’t want to use too much. If it looks lumpy, use some 800-grit wet/dry sandpaper to smooth it out, working carefully so that you don’t sand the surrounding factory paint.

Now repeat this procedure one or two more times until the new paint is almost flush with the surrounding factory paint, leaving just a small recess for the clear coat.

Apply Clear Coat

Wait about a week, a little longer if the weather is a cool, and then coat the damaged area with clear coat. If all has been going well, you might be able to simply build up the clear coat to the level of the original paint without overlapping.

Otherwise, you’ll have to blend the repair with the factory paint. To do this, apply clear coat about a quarter of an inch around the damaged area. Allow to dry overnight. Keep doing this over the course of a few days to allow for drying and shrinkage and until you’ve built the clear coat up a couple thousandths of an inch—or a little bit more than the thickness of a sheet of looseleaf paper. Allow this to dry and shrink in the sun for at least a week.

When it’s good and set, very carefully sand it with 800-grit wet/dry sandpaper to blend it all in. This will leave a dull finish, so follow up with some medium to fine polishing compound applied with a soft, lint-free cloth to shine up your repair.

The Spray Paint Method

What about chips in the middle of a body panel? In this case, you may want to spray on your primer and paint. First, use the lacquer thinner or alcohol to clean and degrease the area and make sure there is no rust anywhere inside or around the chip. Now get a thin piece of cardboard (a file folder works nicely), and cut a one-and-a-half-inch hole in the center.

Hold the cardboard in one hand with the hole directly over and about two inches away from the chip in your paint. Then start by spraying the primer onto one side of the cardboard and move it across the hole and over to the other side of the cardboard, where you can stop spraying. Do not start or stop the spray over the hole, because it will run and lump on the car. What you want is a fine, even mist of paint. If the cardboard you’re using is small, then mask the rest of the car with larger pieces of cardboard. Don’t use newspaper because the paint will soak right through it. Wait about an hour and do it again. All in all, you’ll spray about three to four light coats of paint. Don’t overdo it. You don’t want the paint to run or lump.

When finished, remove the masking tape and, using 800-grit sandpaper, sand off the bulk of the primer, leaving it to just fill the chip. Use some medium rubbing compound to remove any overspray from the surrounding paint.

Re-mask the area and, using using the same piece of cardboard and technique, lightly spray three or four coats of paint, waiting about 30 minutes between each coat. Remove the masking and let the paint dry for 24 hours. Remove any overspray, then repeat the process with the clear coat. Then finish with the rubbing compound to add a nice shine.

That’s all there is to it. But, if you feel nervous, then we recommend you practice first, either on an inconspicuous part of your car, like the inside of your hood, or on a friend’s old junker.