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Surface Damage Field Guide

This field guide is for you to compare the damage on your vehicle to figure out a potential cause and how to fix it where possible. Some can be done DIY, other more severe damage may require professional help.

PAINT CHIPS (TINY)

Damage: Rock chips usually get through the clear and sometimes into the paint. They’re often on the front bumper and hood of the vehicle, though you can get them on sideskirts and doors too.

Caused by: Rocks. Pebbles. Gravel.

General fix: You’ll usually need to use touch-up paint then polish. Protect the area with wax until you can fix it.

Some rock chips are very small and hard to notice. They can be fixed with touch-up paint.

PAINT CHIPS (SCRAPES)

Damage: Rocks that hit at an angle can cause little scrapes in the clear coat and paint. These got deep.

Caused by: Rocks. Stones. Gravel.

General fix: You’ll need to use touch-up paint then polish. Protect the area with wax until you can fix it.

These rocks had some good velocity on impact and chipped the paint pretty badly.

PAINT CHIPS (DENTS)

Damage: High speed little rocks can hit like bullets and make small dents in the plastic or metal of your bumper and hood. These are usually kicked up by the tires of the vehicle in front of you on a highway. Shopping carts are often guilty as well.

Caused by: Rocks. Stones. Gravel. Road debris. Sharp impact with small point of contact.

General fix: The dent can sometimes be popped out at a body shop. You’ll need to use touch-up paint then polish. Protect the area with wax until you can fix it.

This rock hit so hard it dented the surface and took off a bit of paint.

FOGGY, HAZY, CLOUDY HEADLIGHTS

Damage: Over time your headlights will become covered in micro scratches, which causes the lenses to look cloudy and the light beam to become a little weaker. UV exposure also breaks down the surface over time.

Caused by: Sand. Small rocks. Gravel.

General fix: You can restore headlights with wet sanding or polishing/compounding depending on how bad they are.

The clear light is a new factory light. The other is an old hazy one. Haze/fog can cause your lights to appear dim…and ugly.

PAINT TRANSFER, DENTS, SCUFFS (HIT & RUN SPECIAL)

Damage: Something hit something else that it wasn’t supposed to hit!

Caused by: You, some asshole in a parking lot, that pole that jumped in front of you.

General fix: Some dents can be popped out at a body shop. Paint from the other guy’s vehicle (or pole) that was scuffed or transferred onto your vehicle can be removed with clay and a good polish. Scrapes that catch your fingernail can’t be repaired very easily.

This hit & run looks bad at first glance but it’s not too terrible to repair.

LIGHT SCUFFS/SCRAPES

Damage: Light scuffs in the clear coat.

Caused by: Something hard rubbed against the vehicle like a heel, piece of wood, or another vehicle.

General fix: Scrapes that don’t catch on your fingernail can be polished/compounded out. If it catches on your nail it’ll probably require touch-up paint and then the polish/compound.

There’s not much we can do about the cracks in the paint (those wispy long ones in the middle there) but the scrapes are fixable!

DEEP SCRATCHES (KEYED)

Damage: A deep scratch that penetrates the clear and paint, sometimes primer down to the metal.

Caused by: Keys. A hardware nail. Sharp metal object.

General fix: Deep scratches often can’t be fixed entirely but you can make them look better or nearly invisible with touch-up paint followed by a bit of sanding and polish/compound.

BONUS! /u/indefinitekarma did [an excellent guide for fixing key scratches] and I pulled his image for this entry.

People suck sometimes. The scratch on this poor Mustang wasn’t fixable to 100% completion, but some touch-up paint and elbow grease did the trick.

SWIRLS

Damage: Circular-ish shallow scratches in the clear coat that reflect under a bright light. You generally can’t feel them.

Caused by: Anything touching the vehicle. Poor maintenance. Neglect.

General fix: Paint correction with polish and compound using a DA buffer.

The random straight lines as well as the more circular scratches can be fixed up easily. This happens to neglected or mistreated paint.

MICRO SCRATCHES

Damage: Very shallow scratches in the clear coat that reflect under a bright light. You generally can’t feel them.

Caused by: Anything brushing against the vehicle. Poor maintenance. Neglect.

General fix: Paint correction with polish and compound using a DA buffer.

The general rule of thumb is that if it catches on your nail, it’s probably too deep to polish out. Even though these scratches look scary, they aren’t deep.

CLEAR COAT FAILURE (BUBBLES, BLISTERS, PATCHES)

Damage: The clear coat has decayed and has started flaking off the vehicle, leaving paint exposed.

Caused by: Poor maintenance. Neglect.

General fix: Nope, you can’t fix this. You need to have the area sandblasted and repainted.

It’s dead. You can’t save this. The clear coat is flaking up in chunks and will continue to erode until it’s stripped.

CLEAR COAT FAILURE (DECAY, UV DAMAGE)

Damage: The clear coat has decayed and is completely gone. The white edges may feel rough.

Caused by: Poor maintenance. Neglect.

General fix: Nope, you can’t fix this. You need to have the area sandblasted and repainted.

There is no way to save something that’s in this bad of shape. The damage is too much.

CLEAR COAT FAILURE (PAINT EROSION)

Damage: The clear coat is completely gone and the paint is starting to wear away. Metal might be visible.

Caused by: Poor maintenance. Neglect. Abuse.

General fix: Nope, you can’t fix this. You need to have the area sandblasted and repainted.

The clear coat on this one is long gone and the unprotected paint has started to erode and crack. Unlike thin scratches in clear coat, you can’t buff these out!

ETCHING (FAINT)

Damage: Something acidic has reacted with the clear coat and etched into it. It’s sometimes hard to see and may feel rough to the touch after washing.

Caused by: Bird droppings, tree sap, polluted rain, mineral-rich water.

General fix: Wash and clay to remove contaminants. Polish if necessary.

Bird droppings are acidic and will dissolve your clear coat (and paint) if left on the surface for too long, especially in a hot environment.

ETCHING (CLOUDY)

Damage: Something acidic has reacted with the clear coat and etched into it. It’ll feel rough after washing.

Caused by: Bird droppings, tree sap, polluted rain, mineral-rich water.

General fix: Wash and clay to remove contaminants. Polish.

A well-aimed bird strike can cover a surprisingly large surface area.

ETCHING (SEVERE)

Damage: Something acidic has reacted with the clear coat and etched into it all the way to the paint. This is what happens if you don’t wash often.

Caused by: Bird droppings, tree sap, polluted rain.

General fix: Wash to remove contaminants to see the clean damage. May require spraying touch-up paint and clear coat depending on severity.

The longer it bakes on the surface, the further the acid will eat through the clear and get down into the paint.

WATER SPOTS

Damage: Minerals cause white spots that can range from very faint to chalky white on the surface.

Caused by: Water evaporating due to improper drying technique, being caught in sprinklers, etc.

General fix: Wash and clay, then dry the vehicle properly. Wax afterward to prevent future minerals from sticking to the surface.

Your tap or hose water often has minerals in it. When the water evaporates, the minerals are left behind.

WHEELS: CLEAR COAT FAILURE

Damage: Some wheels are clear coated just like paint. The clear coat can become damaged and wear off. It’ll feel rough and sometimes be gray or black.

Caused by: Neglect, physical damage like curbing.

General fix: You need to have a pro refinish the wheel.

Yes, some wheels have clear coat too. When it fails due to neglect or damage like this, you need to have your wheels redone.

WHEELS: CURBING (ROAD RASH)

Damage: Something scraped against your wheels and wore away the edges of the metal.

Caused by: Driving against a curb or parking barrier.

General fix: Some folks could DIY this but you’re better off having the wheel refinished or buying a new one.

If the edges of your wheels feel gnarly and rough, they’ve probably been scraped against a curb or parking barrier.

WHEELS: OXIDATION/CLEAR COAT FAILURE

Damage: Some wheels are clear coated just like paint. The clear coat can become damaged, which allows the metal underneath to start oxidizing. It’ll feel rough and sometimes form a squiggly pattern branching outward.

Caused by: Neglect, physical damage like curbing followed by neglect.

General fix: You need to have a pro refinish the wheel.

Some wheel clear coats will fail and make a squiggle that goes all over the place. Depending on the material, your wheels could start oxidizing from exposure.

BRAKE DUST BUILDUP

Damage: Dust produced by the brakes gets caught in your wheel and builds up over time, causing discoloration. It often feels rough and sometimes can come off on your fingers if you touch it.

Caused by: Braking. Excessive dust buildup over a short time can mean your brakes have a problem, though some vehicles like Mini Coopers and BMWs just produce a lot of dust under normal conditions.

General fix: Wash normally then use a metal cleaner like Iron-X or Sonax Wheel Cleaner to dissolve the brake dust. Waxing can help prevent dust from sticking.

Wheels often get caked with brake dust. It can be tedious to remove if you allow it to build up for too long!

RUST

Damage: Oxygen and moisture have combined to start rotting the metal through a breach in the paint/primer layer.

Caused by: Neglect, lack of repair to severe chips or body damage. Mazdas.

General fix: Surface rust can be sanded down, then sealed and painted. Severe body rust requires replacing the entire panel.

Rust is cancerous. Once it starts, you need to repair it before it spreads and runs up a bigger repair bill. This one can’t be saved without major body work in the area.

FIRE/FLOOD DAMAGE

Damage: Your everything is busted.

Caused by: Wrath of God. Flamethrowers. Early zombie apocalypse.

General fix: Continue buffing until morale improves.

She’s dead, Jim.
Updated on 30 July 2018

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