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Types of Car Scratches Explained (The Complete Guide)

Car scratches are the mortal enemy of every OCD car owner and detailer who takes pride in their work. Scratches are everywhere, and as hard as you may try to remove them, there are always some left.  

There’s literally no car in existence that doesn’t have at least a couple of fine microscopic scratches. Maybe NASA can polish one up for you, but that kind of detailing job would cost you more or less the price of the Hubble...

In fact, telescope lenses and clear coats have more in common than you think. It’s all about the reflection - a perfect mirror reflects the light clearly and at the exact same angle as the rays hitting it.

Zoomed in, scratches reveal deep gorges penetrating through various layers of your vehicle’s paint. When light hits a scratch, it bounces all around, eventually reflecting at a different angle than the smooth surface around it.

They look ugly, and if left untreated, can lead to further paint damage and body rust. In this article, we’ll talk in detail about car scratches and what you can do to keep them away from your car.

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The Paint Layers Of A Car Explained

Before we get into the different types of scratches, it’s only right to talk about the various layers and surfaces that comprise the exterior of your vehicle.

Bare steel or aluminum

Starting off at the bottom, we’ve got the bare metal body panel. This could be either stamped steel, used in most mass-produced vehicles, or aluminum, found in luxury and performance-focused cars.

Bare metals are highly reactive to the environment. Steel rusts immediately, developing a rough reddish surface that cracks easily and peels off, revealing more bare metal. Eventually, layer after layer, the panel will rust through completely, although that doesn’t happen overnight and there are plenty of opportunities to intervene.

Aluminum also corrodes and forms surface oxidation. The reaction is not as excessive as steel, but bare aluminum must still be protected if it’s to last for a decade.

Some exotic vehicles feature carbon fiber construction - both chassis and body panels. This is a composite material of carbon fibers embedded into resin or polymer of some sort. This is then molded and cured under high pressure and heat into an autoclave to make the final form and develop toughness and rigidity.

Usually, the carbon fiber is covered in at least a clear coat. However, Koenigsegg has successfully polished bare carbon fiber to use as a final exterior surface.

Primer

The primer is the first coating that goes on top of the metal. Bodies are dipped into hot chemical tanks that strip everything before the primer is sprayed on. It attaches permanently to the metal and protects it against corrosion and environmental damage.

Base / color coat

In the middle sits the color coat. This is a thin layer whose only purpose is to give the paint a particular color. Metallic paints include metal flakes, while pearlescent paints include iridescent particles. These have different colors and reflective properties, giving the paint a variety of visual effects.

Clear coat

Finally, the body panel receives a clear coat. This is a thick, transparent, and relatively durable polyurethane or other polymer coating that protects everything underneath.

The clear coat is arguably the most important one, since it endures all environmental erosion, rain, dirt, dust, chips, dents, chemical attacks... AND SCRATCHES!

If the clear coat fails, the underlying layers quickly erode to reveal the bare metal and begin the oxidation process.

Thankfully, this is easy to diagnose - the clear coat shows every possible imperfection under controlled lighting or appropriate atmospheric conditions.

With the right paint protection products, maintenance, washing, and storage, you can keep the clear coat of your car healthy and enjoy mirror-like reflections every single day.

Other materials

Other materials found on your vehicle are predominantly plastic parts, like trim pieces, front and rear bumpers, headlight units, and other functional bits and pieces.

On older classic vehicles, there may be several chrome-plated parts. And of course, every vehicle has glass windows.

All of these materials can develop scratches. There are different types of scratches, based primarily on how far they penetrate into the surface of the body panel.

Light Scratches

Light scratches, no matter how bad they look, reach only into the clear coat of the vehicle. They have not penetrated through to the base or primer and can usually be removed with proper detailing techniques.

Clear Coat Scratches

Clear coats are designed to take the grit of daily driving and environmental weathering. They can be scratched and repaired relatively easy, without requiring a repaint of the whole panel.

Any random event can scratch your clear coat - rock chips and debris flying from the road, overgrown vegetation, heavy boxes dragged off the car. Bumps, paint transfer, someone keying your car - there are millions of ways to get new scratches.

Hell, you can scratch your clear coat just by washing your car.

Fortunately, as long as the clear coat maintains a minimum thickness, it can be sanded, polished, and buffed to remove the majority of scratches and expose a clear, glossy, and highly reflective finish.

Be forewarned! If you don’t know what you’re doing, DIY paint correction can backfire, causing further damage to your paint and making the repair even more expensive.

That said, you can successfully polish away the majority of scratches you encounter. And while not perfect, you can maintain the paint of your vehicle in very good condition.

After paint correction, it’s recommended to follow up with some protective coating such as car wax, paint sealant, or ceramic coating to keep your car looking fresh and shiny for longer.

Paint Transfer Scratches

Paint transfer happens when your car comes into contact with another car or a stationary object. During the impact, some paint or surface coating can cross over, embedding itself into the clear coat.

Most of the time, it looks worse than it actually is. If the impact was head on and the surfaces didn’t glance off of each other, it’s likely you can take the transferred paint off with a simple rag and some elbow grease.

If there was any scraping involved, you’ll likely need varying degrees of polishing to restore the shine and reflectivity of the clear coat.

Light Plastic Scratches

Interiors, especially on the cheaper end of the spectrum, feature predominantly plastic parts. This is usually soft plastic, which scratches just as easily as your paint and is subjected to a lot more wear and tear.

Mild abrasives and light pressure buffing will usually take the scratches out. You can use a variety of products, from specialized plastic scratch removers to regular polishing compounds and even ordinary toothpaste - yeah, it sort of works...some of the time.

There are even techniques for removing scratches from plastic panels by blasting them with a heat gun. However, you should acknowledge the risks of using excessive heat on plastics.

Swirl Marks

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The paint may look perfectly fine, but put under intense light, a web of swirl marks appears and ruins your whole day. Of course, you can’t feel them to the touch, as they’re very delicate, and they don't really hurt your paint in any way.

Still, they’re there and they’re driving you insane. It’s heartbreaking, but the vast majority of swirl marks are actually caused by bad cleaning and drying techniques.

For example, if you wash your car with a microfiber mitt and only use one bucket, all the dirt and grime you take off the body cycles through and goes right back on the car. Hard particles, which haven’t fully dissolved, can get stuck to the mitt and act as sandpaper, scratching the paint.

Alternatively, if you dry your car with the same towel over and over again without washing it, it will eventually pick up enough dirt to start putting fine scratches onto your squeaky clean paint.

Going in a circular motion, as most people do, further exacerbates the effect, producing spider web-shaped scratches.

You can take swirl marks off with the appropriate light polishing operation. However, unless you adopt proper cleaning and maintenance techniques, swirl marks will eventually develop again.

Hazing, Micro-Marring, Holograms

Hazing and micro-marring are clear coat defects that result entirely from improper polishing operations.

If you use a machine polisher with the wrong settings, pad, or polishing compound, it can introduce a new layer of fine scratches. These are sometimes invisible to the untrained eye, but under special lighting, reveal fine hazing or blurring of reflections.

These can take different shapes - hazing, marring of the top-most layer of the surface, wavy lines - almost appearing as three-dimensional objects.

All of these can be remedied through proper polishing and buffing of the clear coat. These separate the okay from the great detailing job.

Deep Scratches

Deep scratches penetrate the clear coat completely and reach into the lower layers of your paint.

At this point, you’ll be reaching for your wallet.

Deep scratches require removal of the clear coat of the entire panel, or at least a large area. Every affected paint layer must be repaired before the clear coat is applied again.

Trying your hand at a DIY repair could get you a long way. There are various touch-up products available on the market, which make it easy to eliminate the majority of scratches. However, be prepared to accept some level of imperfection.

In order to repair deep scratches to a level where it’s impossible to distinguish them, the car needs to go into a proper body shop, with professional painting equipment and experienced professionals who know exactly what they’re doing.

Deep Scratch Level 1: Base Coat Scratches

These scratches have penetrated through the clear coat and exposed the color coat underneath. If left untreated, the scratch can become an entry point for contamination. The underlying color coat and primer can erode over time, as the clear coat is the only one designed for enduring the elements.

The color coat can be repaired, although this requires extensive preparation. It must be first removed from the surrounding area, or best of all, the entire panel. Next, a factory-color touch-up paint is used, along with fine polishers to rejuvenate the color coat. Finally, the clear coat is applied, cured, fine-sanded, and polished to blend in with the rest of the panel.

Deep Scratch Level 2: Primer Scratches

These scratches have penetrated through the clear coat and exposed the color coat underneath. If left untreated, the scratch can become an entry point for contamination. The underlying color coat and primer can erode over time, as the clear coat is the only one designed for enduring the elements.

The color coat can be repaired, although this requires extensive preparation. It must be first removed from the surrounding area, or best of all, the entire panel. Next, a factory-color touch-up paint is used, along with fine polishers to rejuvenate the color coat. Finally, the clear coat is applied, cured, fine-sanded, and polished to blend in with the rest of the panel.

Deep Scratch Level 3: Metal Scratches

Some scratches are deep enough to affect the actual metal panel. At this point, you may need to use body filler to level out the scratch with the rest of the surface, then build your paint layers up, starting from the primer.

Deep scratches get progressively harder and harder to repair. Quick touch-up kits are available on the market, but these usually can’t fix deep scratches 100%. They mask and conceal the scratch from a distance, but upon close inspection, it can easily be identified.

The only way to repair these scratches is through sanding and repairing each affected layer individually.

Deep Plastic Scratches

Bumpers on economy vehicles are usually plastic. The plastic used is flexible, so it can withstand years of parking lot abuse. However, it’s also soft and easily scratched.

In fact, scratches can penetrate deep into plastic parts, leaving huge gouges behind. If you can catch it with your fingernail, the only way to repair such a scratch is to sand the scratched area down. That’s the quickest way to understand which type of scratch you have. You need to level the scratch with the rest of the surface and fill the missing material with some body filler. Then, you need to sand the area progressively with finer and finer grit sandpaper going up to 700-800.

Sanding leaves more scratches behind, so as you go up in grit, you need to expand the sanded area so the new layers blend smoothly with the rest of the paint.

Use light pressure and lots of soapy water to keep the area wet and free of loose abrasives and hard particles. Wash the area and the sandpaper multiple times, and follow up with finer grit to remove the traces of previous sanding operations.

Finally, polish the area to restore the shine and gloss of the plastic. The same procedure more or less applies to metal body panels, where scratches have penetrated through the primer.

If this is your first time doing body work, always practice on a junk part beforehand and not your car.

Frequently Asked Questions About Car Scratches

You asked for it online, we answered. Here are a couple of things about car scratches you want to keep in mind.

What Are The Most Common Causes Of Car Scratches In a Car’s Paint?

Your paint can get scratched by a vast array of events:

  • Rock chips and debris from the road
  • Parking incidents and paint transfer
  • Collisions
  • Dragging heavy objects off the body
  • Improper loading of cargo on the roof
  • Vandalism
  • Bad paint correction attempts
  • Bad cleaning techniques

How Can I Prevent Car Scratches From Happening?

Trying to protect your car from all sources of scratches is a good way to go insane. Instead, invest in modern paint protection like a clear bra and a ceramic coating.

How Can I Fix Car Scratches?

Light scratches usually come out relatively easily by buffing and / or polishing the clear coat.

Deep scratches require sanding and careful repair of each impacted layer. This is arduous and delicate work. It’s easy to make a mistake, but is usually correctible if you put in the time and effort. It’s best to practice elsewhere before attempting to sand and repaint your own vehicle.

Are Car Scratches (scratch repair) Covered By Insurance?

Usually, paint scratches will be covered by your auto insurance as long as they match some of the predetermined causes like vandalism or collision damage.

Proving that you didn’t scratch your own car is one thing. Even if your insurance claim gets approved, you’ll still need to pay your collateral, which you agreed to when buying the insurance policy.

The cost to repair minor and moderate scratches is usually significantly less than the collateral on your insurance policy. Thus, it’s worthless to file an insurance claim for minor damage, since you’ll still end up paying for the repairs.

How Much Does It Cost To Get A Deep Scratch Fixed By A Professional?

That’s a hard question. The answer depends on the severity of the scratch, its size and location, as well the particular vehicle and paint combination. A scratch removal job can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. ($100-$2,000)

Top-notch paint repair jobs for luxury vehicles can even cost you five-figure sums.

What Is The Best Scratch Remover Product?

There’s no magic formula that automatically takes care of all scratches on your vehicle.

For light clear coat scratches, you should really try Reverse: Scratch Remover and Swirl Repair by Torque Detail. This all-in-one paint correction compound is easily applied with a microfiber towel onto the scratched area.

It contains fine abrasives that sand the scratch down and polish the clear coat at the same time. You can remove paint oxidation (for single-stage paints), light scratches, swirl marks, mineral deposits, and chemical etching.

Summary: Make Your Paint Job Last!

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Reverse! The Best Car Scratch Remover

Reverse is the newest car detailing product that easily removes scratches and swirls by hand. This car scratch remover and car paint scratch repair compound will bring your paint back to new. It's also a water spot remover and swirl remover. Make paint correction easy with this all in one formula.

BUY NOW

So, car scratches. They’re everywhere, and you can’t practically avoid them if you even plan on taking your car into town.

The best way to protect your paint against scratches is to install a paint protection film (aka clear bra) and follow it up with a ceramic coating.

If there are already scratches in the clear coat, you can try to polish them out with a scratch remover such as Reverse by Torque Detail. Just keep in mind that improper polishing and washing techniques can create new scratches, swirl marks, and hazing of the reflections.

Deep scratches are a whole new problem. Scratches penetrating past the clear coat require a significant amount of work to sand down and prepare the panel, then repair each individual layer up to the clear coat. Careful though, as shoddy repair jobs can leave your panel looking worse than when you first started. Make sure you know what you’re doing, or entrust this task to your preferred body shop.

Ready for part 2? Up next, read our Ultimate Guide To Repairing Car Scratches.

  • Published on Oct 27, 2020
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