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Buffing scratches from a car.

Automotive Finish Maintenance:

Removing Scratches In Auto Body Finish

In This Article:

  • The car is washed.
  • Scratches are wet-sanded with 2000 grit sandpaper.
  • Rubbing compound is applied, spread with a power buffer and buffed until the surface appears shiny.
  • Polishing compound is applied, spread, and buffed until shiny.

Related Articles:

Skill Level: 2-3 (Basic to Intermediate)

Time Taken: About 5 Hours (For about 2/3 of the car)

By Bruce W. Maki, Editor


It's a bummer when your car gets scratched. The only sure way to avoid getting scratches in your car's paint is to keep it in a garage... or a museum. But we buy cars to drive, not hide indoors. Lots of people act kinda paranoid about getting their car scratched. You know them... the guys who park their car or truck partially covering four parking spaces at the mall. The guys who are hyper-vigilant about their car... uptight people who keep everybody away from their pride-and-joy.

That's no way to live.

People who like cars with a perfect finish should know that minor scratches can be easily removed when the right tools, materials and methods are available.

Removing scratches from a car's paint job is similar to any polishing procedure: Intentionally scratch the outermost surface using progressively finer abrasives until the marks are impossible to see.

This was my first attempt at buffing a car. I only got about two-thirds done on the first day.

From ten feet away my 1996 GMC Yukon looked pretty good...


Scratches above window in car door.

...but upon closer inspection, lots of scratches were visible, such as this cluster between the blue arrows.


One of the doors had this nice 3-pack of scratches. Deep scratches in car door.


Scuff mark in front fender. The car had numerous long scuff marks, like this one in the driver's side front fender.

I bought this car from my sister-in-law, and she's got some pretty wild kids, so I wasn't surprised to find all these scuffs and scratches.

Luckily, I've learned a few tips about removing scratches from automotive finishes and restoring a car to like-new condition.

Cleanliness Counts:

The first step was to wash the car. The car needs to be clean or else the dirt will get caught in the buffer pad and create more scratches.


Wet-Sanding To Remove Large Scratches:

After I brought the car into the shop, I sprayed some clean water on the area to be sanded. Spraying surface and sandpaper with clean water.

I used a half sheet of 2000 grit wet/dry sandpaper, wrapped around a sponge pad.

The sandpaper and sponge pad are sold in auto body supply stores.

Wet-sanding scratches with 2000 grit sandpaper. I sanded the scratches with a straight-line, back-and-forth motion, periodically spraying water on the paper and the surface.

Frequent rinsing is necessary to keep dirt out.

I kept sanding until the original scratches were almost gone.

Note: Sometimes 2000 grit sandpaper won't remove all of the scratches, so auto body technicians will use 1500 grit sandpaper on the heavy scratches, rinse the area, and then sand with 2000 grit to remove the scratches from the 1500 grit.

I only used 2000 grit sandpaper, and some of my scratches didn't quite disappear, so I'll need to try again later. I'm learning that buffing out scratches takes practice and experience to do a truly good job.


When sanding you must make sure no dirt or grit gets between the sandpaper and the surface. A squeaky scratching sound can be heard if a tiny chunk of grit gets under the sandpaper.

When this happens, we  use the sprayer bottle to rinse the sandpaper and the area being sanded. This usually removes any grit.


After the sanding, there was a big dull area in the finish.

Wet-sanding merely abrades away part of the clear coat finish that is used on all cars today. Clear coat is a type of urethane, which is plastic.

Sometimes very deep scratches may cut all the way through the urethane and reach the paint. Such deep scratches may not be fully removed by the procedures shown in this article.

Car finish after wet sanding with 200 grit sandpaper.


Rubbing Out:

After the scratches had been sanded out and the surface rinsed clean, the car was ready to be buffed with rubbing compound.

There are two buffing procedures: Rubbing compound and polishing compound.

Rubbing compound has a coarser grit than polishing compound, so rubbing compound is applied first.

Makita buffer with 3M rounded-edge foam buffing pad. The buffer pad I used was a 3M #05731 Perfect-It™ Plus Rounded Edge Foam Compounding Pad.

The rounded edges are more forgiving for the average newbie like myself who is likely to push too hard on the buffer.


The buffing compound I used was 3M #06060 Perfect-It™ 3000 Extra Cut Rubbing Compound. 3M Rubbing Compound


Buffing Procedure:

I started this project by only working on one small section at a time, such as a fender or door. Then I grew tired of the need to repeatedly wash sections of the car, so I started working on larger sections of the car, such as the entire front end.


My Procedure:

Applying rubbing compound to car. I applied a half-dozen dabs of rubbing compound to the door.


Next I spread around the rubbing compound with the buffer pad not turning. (Some technicians describe this as "dabbing it around".)

Spreading around rubbing compound.


Begining to buff the car, with buffer turning very slow. I started the buffer v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y in an attempt to minimize flinging of the compound. It seemed to work.

Once the compound had been spread around (after 5 or 10 seconds) I ran the buffer at about 2,000 RPM to make the compound do its abrasive action. A dull haze appeared within a minute or two.

The proper procedure is to run the buffer side-to-side, traveling about 2 feet, then dropping down and overlapping about 50 percent on the next pass. I wasn't exactly thinking about those figures while I was buffing the car. I guess it takes some practice to make the precise procedure something that happens naturally.

I continued buffing until the haze was gone and the surface was shiny. Buffing the car until the haze is gone.


Washing the car after buffing with rubbing compound. Then I washed the work area with a clean towel.

Using a towel to clean off the compound may be fine when buffing a small area, but I got tired of this, so I resorted to driving the car out of the shop and washing it with a garden hose.


I used this plastic-bristle brush to clean the compound from the door handle. It's best to remove excess compound as soon as possible.

I'm told that an old toothbrush is a good tool for removing excess compound, but I didn't bring any with me.

Cleaning details with brush.


More Pictures:

Front end of GMC Yukon after wet-sanding. My Yukon looked absolutely terrible after I wet-sanded the front end. After rinsing, a lot of the white stuff goes away... I guess it's just sanding dust.

But the car had almost no shine.


After I applied the rubbing compound and buffed it for a few minutes, a haze appeared.

Sometimes I found thick paste-like spots of compound on the car. I think I was applying the compound too heavy and it was loading-up the pad and then squeezing out on the car, especially when I ran the buffer over a corner.

Hazy-looking rubbing compound after application, before final buffing.

After the dull haze appeared, I buffed the car until the haze was gone. I'll note that some of the worst scratches on the hood still had a dull, scuffed patch around them. I think I didn't buff the hood enough. I guess I became impatient after several hours of buffing. My back was really aching while buffing the hood. It's difficult to reach all areas on a hood this big.


Notes And Warnings:

Do not let the buffer linger in one spot for even a split-second.

Only buff a small section at a time. Many body technicians will buff a section about 2 feet by 2 feet. This corresponds to buffing a typical door in 3 or 4 sections.

The rubbing compound leaves an invisible residue, which needs to be either washed off or wiped off immediately with a good quality automotive polishing cloth. DO NOT use paper towels because most paper is too abrasive. All of the excess compound needs to be removed before going on to the polishing step or else the coarser grit particles will get mixed in with the polishing compound.

Any compound that gets into gaps (such between doors and fenders) will dry hard and is difficult to remove, so prompt wiping is needed. An old SOFT bristle toothbrush is excellent for removing compound in tight crevices.

Body moldings or door handles that are textured and not painted may need to be covered with masking tape. Otherwise compound will get into the texture and will be very difficult to remove. The same applies to vinyl tops or convertible tops.

Any irregular plastic surfaces (such as the cowl below the windshield on some cars) should be masked off. Any compound that gets into those small crevices will be difficult to remove.

DO NOT think that brute force will help here. Car polishing involves finesse.


Polishing Procedure:

The second (and final) buffing used a 3M #05733 Perfect-It™ Plus Ultrafina™ Foam Polishing Pad.

Polishing equipment: Buffer with 3M polishing pad.


3M Ultrafina SE  Polishing compound. The compound used was 3M #06068 Perfect-It™ 3000 Ultrafina SE polishing compound.


I applied a few dabs of polishing compound to the door. Applying dabs of polishing compound to car door.


Buffing a car with polishing compound. Then I ran the buffer over the door, using a procedure similar to the rubbing compound.

When using polishing compound, I set the speed limit on the buffer to around 900 to 1,000 RPM.

After spending much of a Saturday buffing this vehicle, my whole body ached. This is hard work... hard on the arms, the back, the legs. I gained a new level of appreciation for the people who do professional automotive detailing. This is not a task I would want to do every day. If I was 25 instead of 45, maybe this job would be less taxing on my body.

Even if you're young and very fit, you might consider doing this work over a period of several days.


The Results: Were They Worth It?

After buffing with the ultra-fine compound, the buffed-out sections of the car looked really shiny. That long scuff mark in the fender is gone.

It's difficult to take pictures of the absence of something like scratches. When the finish has been buffed properly, you can see excellent reflections in it.

Scuff mark is gone.


Scratched car door after buffing. That cluster of scratches at the top of the door is gone.


There are still some tiny traces of scratches on this door, but they are much less visible than what you can see in the 3rd picture at the top of the article.
Hazy or cloudy patches from inadequate buffing.

Some Problems:

The cloudiness seen in the blue circle are the problem areas that I mentioned earlier.

These are only visible in the reflection of the fluorescent lights in my garage. Oddly, I can hardly see these hazy patches when the car is outdoors.

I guess I didn't buff long enough with rubbing compound. I'll need to buff this area again.

Overall, I'm glad I tackled this project. Every time I look at my Yukon (at least the sides), I notice the shiny and scuff-free finish. My sore body recovered within a day. I've long since forgotten how tedious the work was.

Clean Up:

Often small amounts of buffing or polishing compound will get into crevices between doors and fenders. This excess paste should be wiped off before it dries.

The foam compounding pad (a.k.a. buffing pad) and the polishing pad can simply be tossed in the laundry for washing. (Personally, I'd rinse them out first.)


Additional Considerations:

It doesn't hurt to buff over pin stripes and stickers. In fact, some body technicians have removed scratches from stickers (like the "4x4" sticker found on trucks) with rubbing and polishing compound.

Smooth-surfaced headlight covers, turn signals and taillights can be sanded and buffed to remove scratches.


More Info:

Tools Used:

  • Buffer, Variable Speed
  • Buffing Pads:
  • 3M #05737 Perfect-It™ Plus Foam Compounding Pad.
  • 3M #05733 Perfect-It™ Plus Ultrafina™ Foam Polishing Pad.
  • Water Sprayer

Materials Used:

  • Sandpaper, 2000 Grit
  • Clean Water
  • 3M #06060 Perfect-It™ 3000 Extra Cut Rubbing Compound.
  • 3M #06068 Perfect-It 3000 Ultrafina SE Buffing compound.

Related Articles:




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Written July 19, 2007
Revised June 15, 2008