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We’re sorry to break it to you this way, but no matter how careful a driver you are, you’re going to end up with scratches on your car. Whether you run into a bush while yelling at your kid or come out of the supermarket to find a careless driver slammed it with their door, there are times that you’ll find damage that needs fixing.
Thankfully, fixing a small scratch or scuff with touch-up paint is easy business. You can pick up color-matched paint that’s so close to your original paint color nobody can tell the difference, and fixing the damage yourself can save a few bucks in the process. Win, win!
Even though it’s easy work, there are a few things you’ll need to know to get started. The Drive’s editors fully admit that we’ve damaged, and subsequently fixed, our fair share of cars over the years, so let’s get into the weeds and talk about how to fix up your paint like a pro.
Car Paint Basics
Estimated Time Needed: Anywhere from ten minutes to several hours, depending on the size of the touch up job
Skill Level: Beginner
Vehicle System: Exterior - paint
Common Car Paint Problems
- The easiest mistake to make is to overcommit. If you’re even slightly doubtful about the difficulty of your car's paint repair job ahead of you, it’s best to take the car to a professional.
- Trying to use touch up paint to fix rust or other issues is just asking for trouble.
- Over sanding is a big problem. Remember, we’re only trying to fix a small spot here, not refinish the entire car.
Car Paint Safety
Paint can be hazardous stuff, so you’ll need to take care to handle it properly throughout the touch-up process.
- Keep paint away from children and pets. It can be toxic, not only if swallowed, but also if it gets on exposed skin, eyes, or ears.
- You can’t just throw away extra paint. You’ll need to call your local authorities to find an approved disposal location in your area. Your town hall should be able to direct you to the proper facility.
- Work in a well-ventilated area. Even if the paint is odorless, it could be emitting harmful fumes that can damage your lungs.
- If you’re just doing a light touch-up, you won’t need a mask and paint suit, but you should take care to wear gloves and protect your skin from contact with the paint.
Everything You’ll Need To Touch Up Car Paint
You likely already have many of the supplies you need already sitting in your garage. At a minimum, you should have on hand:
- Drop cloth
- Painter’s tape
- Plastic sheeting
- Clean microfiber cloths - for drying the vehicle and applying polish
- Touch up paint
- Polish solution
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking that is also well-ventilated. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.
Here’s How To Touch Up Car Paint
Before you get started painting anything, you’ve got to make sure that the paint color you’re using is the right one for your vehicle. The best way to do this is to head to the dealer’s parts counter and order the factory touch up color. The parts manager can look up the proper color, either using your vehicle’s VIN or by using the make, model, and year of the vehicle.
With that out of the way, we can get started. Let’s do this!
Prepping the Car for Paint
- Touch up paint won’t help you if the area is rusted or severely damaged. Touching up your car's paint works the best on small to medium paint scratches and similar types of damage, not when your paint is completely ruined on a large surface. Make sure that the spot you’re trying to fix is clear of rust and debris.
- Use a piece of sandpaper to rough up the paint and prep the surface for primer. You don’t need to sand a huge swath of paint here. Do just enough to clear the way for paint and primer. You’ll want to start with a heavier grit and move to a lesser grit sandpaper.
- Once you’ve finished with the sandpaper, it’s time to wash the area. Be sure to wash away any rust residue, old paint, and road dirt.
- Let the area dry thoroughly.
Priming and Painting the Car
- The key here is to keep as steady a hand as is possible and to apply a small amount of primer or paint, increasing as you go. Remember, you can always add more paint, but removing it is a painful process.
- Use a small brush, toothpick, or other stick-like object to apply a tiny amount of primer to the area you’re looking to touch up. Scratches and other small paint chips will only take a drop or two of primer.
- Let the primer dry. This will usually take an hour or so, depending on how large the primed area is.
- Make sure the touch-up paint is thoroughly mixed by shaking the bottle or stirring (if in a large can).
- Use the small brush or toothpick to apply touch up paint as evenly as possible. Take care not to apply the paint in a thick coat, which can lead to running or bubbling.
- Don’t sand or treat the painted area for a few days. If you can help it, let the vehicle sit for that period of time to allow the paint to dry and cure.
- Once the touch-up paint is completely dry, wash the vehicle thoroughly and polish it. This can help smooth out any imperfections in the touch-up paint and may help blend it with your vehicle’s existing paint color.
Congrats! You’re done!
Get Help With Touch-Up Car Paint From a Mechanic On JustAnswer
The Drive recognizes that while our How-To guides are detailed and easily followed, a rusty bolt, an engine component not in the correct position, or oil leaking everywhere can derail a project. That’s why we’ve partnered with JustAnswer, which connects you to certified mechanics around the globe, to get you through even the toughest jobs.
So if you have a question or are stuck, click here and talk to a mechanic near you.
Pro Tips To Touch-Up Car Paint
Touching up your vehicle’s paint isn’t open-heart surgery, but it never hurts to have some insider information. Here are a few pro tips:
- If you’re looking at a touch-up job that is larger than a scratch or small scuff, it’s better to take your car to a pro. Don’t get your feelings hurt. Trying to paint a large spot on your car at home won’t be easy. Even if you’re able to apply the paint smoothly, the colors will be off between the newly painted area and the rest of the vehicle.
- If the scratch or other paint damage has allowed rust to build up on the bare metal, make sure that it’s just topical and that it hasn’t “chewed” through the metal. We’re talking about touch up paint here, not complicated body repair.
- Start small, working as deliberately and as smoothly as possible. Apply both primer and paint in small amounts and add only as needed.
How Much Does It Cost To Touch Up Car Paint
The good news here is that paint touch up work isn’t a costly endeavor, no matter who performs the job. If you’re crunched for time or just lazy, paying a pro to do the work will only cost between $150 and $250. Doing the touch up at home will run you between $50 and $65, depending on how many of the tools and supplies you already have on hand.
How Often Do You Need To Touch Up Car Paint
If you see a small scratch on your car’s paint that hasn’t penetrated the primer layer, there’s no emergency. You don’t have to run out and get the paint right away. It’s the damage that has caused the bare metal to become exposed that you need to worry about. In other words, unless you’re absolutely crazy about driving a perfect vehicle, touch-ups are only necessary for real paint damage.
Life Hacks To Touch Up Car Paint
We’ll never advocate for doing the bare minimum to get the job done, but working with touch up paint is one of those times when you can get away with a little creativity:
- On black or silver cars, you can use a sharpie to cover up small imperfections until you can do the real thing. You could even use nail polish in a pinch, but don’t go overboard.
- Use painter’s tape and your plastic sheeting liberally. You don’t want to get paint on non-damaged parts of your vehicle.
- When it comes to touch up paint, the dealer is king. They can tell you the exact color you need and can order that paint for you.
Got a question? Got a pro tip? Send us a note: email@example.com