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What is Automotive Paint Correction? Process Explained

Automotive paint correction is the process of removing defects in your vehicle’s clear coat – like scratches and swirl marks – by leveling its surface with various tools and techniques.

In simpler terms, paint correction is super-polishing your vehicle by grinding down the clear coat to remove imperfections. The clear coat of your vehicle is a clear layer of surface paint that protects the color layers underneath.

Both do-it-yourselfers and professionals can perform automotive paint correction, but the process takes time and effort. To get the best results, it is recommended to seek a professional.

They often use equipment like clay bars, polisher, and other top-quality products that may be very expensive or hard to find for the average DIY-er. If you do choose to attempt paint correction yourself, you will need supplies like a buffer, car washing materials, and even a wet sander.

Why Would Paint Correction Be Needed?

paint correction

There are numerous reasons you would need to perform some kind of paint correction for your car. They include many of the same reasons that car washing is needed and why paint fading occurs.

Here are three of the most common reasons paint correction might be needed:

Road Dirt and Grime

Some of the most common environmental factors you encounter during your everyday driving are prime culprits for eating away at your paint.

Rocks and small road chips can easily get kicked up onto your vehicle as you drive, residual oil and dirty rainwater can splash onto your vehicle and stick eat away at the paint, and road salt used in wintry conditions can do a lot of damage to your vehicle if left for too long.

All of these things and more can cause anything from microscopic clear coat damage to visible dings all over your vehicle’s paint. It also gets worse as your vehicle ages and the more you drive it.

Improper Washing

It may seem counterintuitive, but washing your vehicle can actually necessitate paint correction. Washing your vehicle correctly and only when necessary can be very beneficial to your paint and can help keep it healthy. It is when you wash your car too often or improperly that it becomes an issue.

Washing your vehicle too often can cause the cleaning chemicals to work the opposite way as intended. Using chemicals too often can eat into the clear coat and cause damage.

Likewise, using improper cleaning techniques or improper cleaning materials can be detrimental. Things like non-vehicle-specific cleaners are abrasive and can damage the clear coat.

Using only one towel, one washrag, or a paper towel can re-apply the dirt you’ve already washed off, or worse, it could act as a sanding agent as it clings to your already-used cleaning towel.

Even using the automatic car wash can cause damage to your paint. The same concept applies to the car wash as it does if you were to use a dirty towel or washrag. Depending on the type of automatic car wash and how it works, even the high-pressure sprayers could use the surface dirt to grind down the clear coat of your car. 

Scratches

Beyond the regular road dirt that gets kicked up onto your vehicle, there are numerous other ways you can get scratches on the paint of your car.

Opening the door onto a pole or another vehicle, rubbing against it with your jeans or a strap, and even trying to get some persistent dirt off with your fingernail are all common ways to scratch your car. 

How to Do Automotive Paint Correction

The paint correction process is time consuming, tedious, and delicate. Because you are literally sanding down the clear coat to level its surface to remove imperfections, a good paint correction job is not for the faint of heart.

There are three main steps involved in the paint correction process:

1. The Preparation

Prepping your vehicle to have paint correction completed is possibly the most important step in the entire process. Having a clean vehicle going into the correction process is essential as it prevents dirt from being further worked into the vehicle’s paint surface as the rest of the process takes place.

Similar to using a dirty rag to clean and dry your vehicle, any residual dirt left on the vehicle can act like sandpaper and cause further damage as the correction process is carried out.

Whether you choose to perform paint correction yourself or have a professional do it, you may choose to prep the vehicle yourself. Professionals will still make sure the vehicle is clean and ready to go, but cleaning the vehicle yourself before taking it in will help.

If you plan to perform the correction yourself, you should wash your vehicle thoroughly, using the two-bucket car wash method, proper car washing liquid, and microfiber cloths. B

Because of the necessity to make sure the surface of the car is as clean as possible, it is recommended that a clay detailing bar be used after the vehicle is washed to remove any extra dirt that may be difficult to remove.

2. The Correction Work

paint correction process

Once the vehicle is cleaned, the correction related work can be performed. This is the most difficult part of the process and involves leveling the paint surface and polishing or buffing it.

If you are completing the correction yourself, you will need multiple buffing pads, an electric polisher or a buffer, and a cutting compound. It is possible to use your hands to polish or buff instead of an electric polisher, but it may be more difficult and lead to inconsistency, especially if you are inexperienced in the area of paint correction.

Professional detailers will also often use a paint depth gauge and LED lighting in addition to the correction materials to better aid in the process.

Once the materials are gathered, the process can start. Coarse gritting and sanding compounds are used first to level the surface of the paint. As the process progresses, lighter, less coarse compounds are used to provide the finishing touches to ensure the clear coat is not sanded away completely.

The paint-depth gauges and LED lighting is used throughout the sanding process to check the clear coat and make sure that it is not thinned too much. After the process is complete, the corrected surface should be wiped clean to remove any remaining debris.

3. Waxing, Polishing, Sealing

After the correction process is complete, polishing, waxing, and further sealing can take place. Because of the leveling process, polishing is needed to restore the shine lost from sanding the surface of the clear coat. 

Waxing and sealing the paint after the paint correction process adds a nice touch and go to preserve the work that has been done, but neither is absolutely necessary. The finishing process is no different from adding wax and paint sealant after washing your vehicle.

What are the Benefits of Paint Correction?

There are several benefits of performing proper paint correction, the most obvious being that it makes your vehicle look great. The benefits of having a shiny, clean vehicle, free of paint swirls and scratches come mostly down to personal preference, but it could be very important for enthusiasts and those restoring older vehicles.

Another benefit of automotive paint correction is that it can keep your paint healthier for longer. Paint is delicate, and repainting your car is tremendously expensive.

Clear coat surface imperfections can allow dirt to accumulate within the smallest cracks. Outside factors like weather, sunlight, and insects or bird-dirt will stick to the uneven surfaces and cause damage.

Automotive paint correction can reduce the risk of debris accumulation by smoothing microscopic surface ridging, thus, preventing long-term damage to your paint.

Reasons for Not Performing a Paint Correction

There are two main reasons you may not want to perform some kind of automotive paint correction on your vehicle. The first is that it can be expensive. Though repainting your entire vehicle can cost several thousand dollars more, there may be little need for you to spend the money necessary to have automotive paint correction complete when you do not need it. 

This leads to the next reason: you may not need it. If you keep your vehicle in good shape and you can keep it generally free from scratches, there probably is not a good reason to justify the price unless you are an enthusiast or collector.

Many people lease vehicles today which means that a lot of them don’t keep their vehicles for more than three or five years. Even if you have a vehicle for ten years or more, you may just have your car to get around.

If this is the case, it may not matter to you at all if you have a few scratches and some paint swirls. To you, it does not matter if your car is perfect, as long as it is in good mechanical shape. That alone is good enough reason to avoid shelling out over a thousand dollars for work you don’t need.

Final Thoughts

Automotive paint correction is a largely misunderstood term. This ignorance is somewhat "okay" because it is a delicate process that the average person probably will never and should never tackle by themselves.

The process of sanding, buffing, and polishing your clear coat for a smooth finish is very delicate and can be very expensive if done by a professional. But, should you ever have to have paint correction done on your vehicle, you will now be better prepared to handle it knowing a little more about what exactly it is.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
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