How to Identify the Type of Scratch on a Cars Paint

How to Identify the Type of Scratch on a Cars Paint

To follow on from one of my older posts “How to Remove Swirl marks from your paintwork“, I thought it would be a good idea to do a post to teach you how to identify the type of scratch on a cars paint. One of the main reasons that people want to machine polish a car, is because of some sort of damage, whether it be some light swirling or something more serious.

type of scratches on cars

There is a common misconception that all scratches on a car’s paintwork can be buffed out. This is absolutely not the case.

Conversely, some people assume they need a paint re-spray or repair on scratches that could indeed be buffed out with a machine polisher and a compound.

As a detailer, whether it be at an amateur or a professional level, it is important to know what can be done to correct the paintwork in any given situation.

In my own experience, I have been able to help family members and friends with issues regarding their paintwork, and they have been extremely grateful for it.

Other times, the defects were too severe to be corrected by compounding/polishing.

Before we look at the different types of paint scratches that can arise, let’s first look at some of the main causes of these issues in the first place.

type of scratches on cars

Main Causes of Paintwork Scratches

1. Improper Wash & Dry Techniques

Believe it or not, some of the main causes of paintwork damage is inflicted by incorrect or bad wash and drying techniques. ( This includes Automatic Car Washes, but I’m guying to assume since you read this blog, you know better than to be using those! )

This is a lot more common than you would think.

two bucket wash

I’m not going to go into the in’s and out’s of proper wash techniques in this post, but you can check out some of my related posts which will hopefully guide you in the direction of safe washing and drying.

The good news is that most of these types of scratches can be corrected quite easily, which I will go into more detail about later in this article.

2. Accidents and Car Park Dings

Sometimes accidents are unavoidable. Whether somebody hits your car or accidentally clips your car door with their shopping trolley in the car park, these things can happen.

Obviously, the damage and scratches can vary widely in their severity, so it only is assessable on a case by case basis on whether they can be corrected by detailing alone.

3. Intentional Damage

This type of damage is caused by someone trying to intentionally vandalize someone’s car. The most common form of this is called “keying.”

Any type of sharp surface rubbed against the car’s paintwork is likely to cause a scratch to some degree. Similarly to point 2, this type of damage can vary in its severity.

type of scratches on cars

4. Road Debris and Stone Chips

Hitting road debris, such as a stick in the road, loose gravel or similar items can cause scratches when they contact your cars paintwork.

Sometimes this can be unavoidable, but this is just another example of the day to day risks for our cars paintwork.

The Different Layers on a Cars Paintwork

Now that we have identified some of the most common causes of paintwork damage, let’s look at the different types of scratches that can be a result of the above, and the best course of action when they occur.

But first, I think it is important to give a brief overview of the different types of layers on a car’s paintwork.

paint scratches

1. Wax/Coating Layer/PPF

This is whatever protection you have applied to your cars paintwork, whether it be a wax or a coating of some kind. This usually acts as a first layer(or sacrificial layer ) for your vehicles finish. You’re putting a barrier between the clear coat and the outside world to protect it from nasty stuff in the air, UV rays, and water etc.

A common misconception of Ceramic Coating is that it can prevent scratches completely. This is not the case.

Ceramic coatings for cars are not thick or flexible enough to absorb the impact of a rock hitting your paint at highway speed or to resist someone purposely trying to scratch your car.

2. Clear Coat

Clearcoat car paint is paint or resin with no pigments and hence imparts no color to the car. It’s simply a layer of clear resin that is applied over colored resin.

Almost 95 percent of all vehicles manufactured today have a clear coat finish. One major advantage is that this coat provides protection from the sun and ultraviolet rays that cause the car paint to fade, and also protects the deeper layers of vehicle paint. Along with the functional benefits of a clear coat, it is also what gives your cars paint that shiny wet look.

clear coat on paint

3. Base Coat (Color Coat )

The base coat paints are basically the paints that go on top of the primer layer. You need to remember that base coats do not have any hardeners or strengtheners because they are only raw paints coated on top of a primer. They do not offer any protection and are not typically left there by themselves ( hence why clear coat as applied on top of the base coat as outlined above)

4. Primer

Primers are the ones that make a surface ready for painting. Putting on a base or clear coat on a metal surface without covering it with a primer will not make the paint bond or stick consistently.

5. Metal

This is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin – just the bare metal of the car surface.

The Different Types of Scratches on Cars Paintwork

Clear Coat Scratch / Damage

A clear coat scratch is one that didn’t hit the color layer and only the clear coat has taken the damage. Of course, you don’t want any type of scratch on the paint of your car, but if you are going to get one – a clear coat scratch is the best type of scratch you could hope for.

paint scratches

How do you identify a clear coat scratch?

One trick that I always use is to take my fingernail and drag it along the paintwork. When you run your fingernail over the scratch, you need to feel how deep it is. If it’s no greater than the thickness of a piece of paper ( or your fingernail does not catch the scratch ), it’s likely that only the clear coat is damaged.

type of scratches on cars

How to Repair a clear coat scratch?

The good news about clear coat scratches is that these are relatively easy to repair using a polisher and some compound, and no “professional” experience is generally needed. If you have not read my guide for beginners on how to polish your car – this is a good place to start – HERE

Base Coat / Color Coat Scratch

Color coat scratches are where the damage has penetrated completely through the clear coat and the color coat has been hit.

In this case, the actual color has been removed from the car’s paintwork.

base coat scratch

How do you identify a color coat scratch?

As above, I usually use the fingernail test and if my nail snags in the scratch, it generally has gone too deep for the scratch to be completely buffed out with a machine polisher.

How to Repair a color coat scratch?

You can use a machine polisher to improve the appearance of the scratch and make it less visible, however, you will likely not be able to remove it completely.

A full repair of the scratch is likely to be a more advanced fix and maybe better left to a professional, however, it can still be attempted at home with the use of a touch-up pen. If you are a bit OCD like me, I would suggest getting a professional opinion on how it should be handled, to get it looking 100%.

Primer Coat Scratch / Damage

Primer Scratches or “oh Sh*T!” scratches as I like to call them, are the deepest and worst scratches that can happen to your paintwork. These types of scratches expose the bare metal of the car.

One very important point to note is that If a primer scratch is left untreated, even for a few days, rust can start to form. This can cause serious damage to the car’s bodywork.

How do you identify a primer coat scratch?

Usually, if the primer coat is very damaged, you will spot the bare metal of the car very easily.

Primer Scratch

How to Repair a primer scratch?

if the scratch has hit the metal, you are more or likely going to have to repaint the surface. At this depth you’ll see a silver color when examining the scratch, and, if left untreated, the surface will slowly transition to rust.

My advice – seek professional advice ASAP.

Car Scratch Type Summary

Hopefully, the descriptions and images above give you some guidance on the type of scratches you may encounter on your vehicle. All going well, you may never experience any of these but some general guidance I will give you if you do.

  • Clear Coat Scratches are easily improved or completely fixed at home using a decent machine polisher and some good cutting compound
  • Color Coat Scratches Can be improved and masked at home with some polishing and possibly using a touch-up pen. I would still recommend a second professional opinion.
  • Primer or bare metal scratches should be looked at ASAP by a qualified professional.

Have you ever had a scratch on your car? If so, how did you go about getting it repaired? Please let me know in the comments below or join the discussion in the DriveDetailed Forum HERE.

Until Next time,

Happy Detailing!

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About the Author – Darren O Hara

Darren is the founder of the DriveDetailed blog and is a keen detailing enthusiast living in the rainy south of Ireland. When he is not cleaning his car he is always researching ways he can improve his techniques and enjoys testing out new products.

Darren currently drives an Audi TTRS and is a big fan of performance cars.

You can follow Darren on Instagram @darrenoharacork

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