Touch-up Paint: What? When? Where? Why?

Scratches in Car Paint

From the moment you drive a new car off the showroom floor, the attacks begin. Ravenous paint-eating contaminants like bird-do and acid rain hunger for your clear coat and paint. Filth billows up from the asphalt to do a dance on the lower portion of your front fascia, bumpers, and body side moldings, while thoughtless drivers terrorize your shiny exterior with heartless door thwacks in parking lots and garages. In just a matter of days or weeks, you may find a half-dozen or more, small, unpreventable dents, dings, and scratches stippling the paint on your new vehicle. To you, every one of them looks like a gaping wound.

Just because we say they are unpreventable doesn’t mean you should just accept them as irreparable damage. There’s the kind of car owner who feels the need to repaint the panel with every ding and the kind that that learns the live with them. However, possibly the best option is to keep a bottle of touch-up paint to simply do some patch work from time to time.

We’re based here in Chicago and no one should be surprised if their bumpers get a little beat up from time to time. Parallel parking on the streets of Chicago and other urban cities is going to leave you with some “scars”. That’s why properly applying touch-up paint may be one of the most important techniques you learn.

The three main reasons to touch up paint is to mask the damage so it is less noticeable; to prevent rust; and to prevent repainting sections of your car. However, it is important you not set expectations too high when dealing with any paint touch-up product or method because there are limitations. It will not necessarily make a scratch go away or flawlessly remove a paint chip scar, but if applied correctly, touch-up paint will prevent further damage and look much better than it did before.

What to Look For:

If the nicks, scratches, scuffs, and chips are shallow, cutting into the clear coat without penetrating the paint, you may be able to polish or buff them out, and we recommend always trying this approach first. However, you should never ignore a blemish that cuts down into the metal as many door dings and malicious key-type scratches do. In that case, your biggest enemy is rust and if the scrape looked like a gaping wound before, rust is like giving it gangrene! Remember ― your car is made of metal and it is the paint that keeps it from rusting!

Even if you do not see metal, look closely to see if the scar cuts into the primer, the extremely thin layer of paint immediately on top of the metal and underneath the base coat. The primer gives the color coat adhesion and promotes a smooth, even texture. The primer is too delicate to stop rusting and if you do not treat it with a rust arrestor prior to using a touch-up kit, the rust will continue to eat through the panel causing even the smallest paint chip repair to peel and deteriorate.

What Do I Do?

A couple of factors affect what technique you should use in applying touch-up paint. First, what kind of coverage do you need? Enough for a single quarter-sized paint chip; a half-inch scrape; a peppering of gravel dings?

Some paint kits come with its own applicator, but try to avoid nylon-bristled brushes because the paint doesn’t flow as smoothly and the bristles tend to break off and embed themselves in the paint.  Using a proper artist horse hair brush and is key to applying the touch-up paint.

If the affected area is smaller than a pencil eraser, then use touch-up paint for chips. If the chip is too big then it’s unlikely that there’s much of anything one could do to hide it. Be sure to “pre-treat” paint chips by applying wax remover to the damaged area.

Also, remember that automotive touch-up paint is much different from interior house paint or artistic paint. Designed for more of a dabbing motion than long strokes, you will find difficulty getting the desired results if you try to tackle a deep key-scratch down the entire side panel of your vehicle. Instead, you may find the repair just as conspicuous as the scratch, even though most touch-up kits provide exact manufacturer’s paint color codes.

Furthermore, automotive touch-up paint does not blend well, making it nearly impossible to get a perfectly smooth transition between the touch-up and the original paint. This is because of the prep, the heat needed, and the layering of actually painting the car. Let’s say you have significant road rash damage on your passenger-side door. Prior to touch-up paint, you could do everything right ― order or mix the exact base coat and clear coat paint codes; properly prepare the painted surface; and expertly apply the paint ― but it will almost certainly not match exactly, the rest of the vehicle. But getting the closest matching color by calling your dealership is important. Touch-up paint may not be a perfect match and it may not flawlessly disguise the road rash damage, but it will create the illusion of blending, especially to the non-critical eye; and is much more acceptable than having the entire passenger-side door a different shade… no matter how slight… from the rest of the vehicle. Talk about conspicuous!

If you have thoughts, experience, of ideas about using touch-up paint, please leave us a comment and share with the rest of us!

Photo  by: Tobias Toft