What Is Paint Correction?

Machining away surface defects in your car's paint can make a world of difference.


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Oxidation, dullness, swirls, and scratches in a vehicle’s paint not only look bad, but they can affect the car’s resale value. Whether you’re hoping to boost the sale price or restore your pride of ownership, there’s a way to make the exterior look better than new with car paint correction.

What is Paint Correction?

Paint correction is a multistep process that involves buffing out imperfections in the vehicle with a random orbital polisher and a series of pads and compounds until the car shines. Detailing shops will start by cleaning a vehicle down to its bare paint, stripping away all contaminates and dirt, and then will begin to carefully remove tiny scratches in the clear coat. The process often takes a good portion of the day for a professional to accomplish, and then is often followed up with a protective coating like a ceramic, or a wax.

How Much Does Paint Correction Cost?

Detailing shops offer basic packages starting at a few hundred dollars, but depending on how many passes they need to make, it could go into the thousands. The price reflects the amount of time required by the job. How long does paint correction take? That depends on the size of the vehicle and how marked up the surface is, but a one-stage correction could take half the day—and that doesn’t include decontaminating the paint. If the shop needs to go over the car more than once, it could take up to 25 hours of labor.

Can I Do My Own Paint Correction?

If you’re ambitious and have a fair amount of time on your hands to experiment with different paint-correction compounds and pads, sure. But it’s not easy to match the quality level of a pro job. It’s also a bit risky, as the process will remove some of the car’s clear coat, which is likely only two mils thick. That’s about 50 microns, or two thousandths of an inch: basically, it’s thin! If you’re too slow with the polisher or use an abrasive compound that’s too aggressive, you could wind up wearing through the clearcoat and even burning into the paint. But we’ll explain the process and let you be the judge.

If you’re up for the challenge, you can buy an entry-level polisher for $75 to $200. You’ll want a variety of pads and compounds, which should run you $40 or $50 per set.

Step One: Paint Decontamination

Before you can correct the paint, you need to decontaminate it—that is, you need to remove any surface grime and dust. This is its own labor-intensive process, often consisting of a presoak foam, a pressure rinse, and a hand wash, followed by chemical decontamination using iron and fallout removers and mechanical decontamination with a clay bar. When slid over a lubricated body panel, a clay bar will pick up tiny bits of grime stuck to the clearcoat. (If doing this yourself, be sure to fold the material so you’re always working with a clean and sticky surface of the bar.) After that, you’ll want to spray the car with an isopropyl alcohol solution to remove any cleaner residues, and then you’re ready to proceed with paint correction. Tired yet?

Step Two: Paint Correction

Paint correction begins with assessing the hardness of the clearcoat and, in turn, what type of buffing pad and compound (fine, medium, or coarse) to use. An experienced shop can likely do this by eye, but a DIYer can figure it out by trial and error, starting with a light or medium compound and pad in a small test area and working to more aggressive materials if needed.

You’ll need to prime the pad with dabs of compound, set the polisher to its lowest speed, and, with gentle pressure, spread the material on the surface of the car. Most shops recommend working in small sections (think a square foot or two), moving the polisher one inch per second across the area and then up and down it. It’s important to keep the polisher moving, as you could rub away too much of the surface and cause problems for yourself.

After each pass, you’ll want to wipe down the polished area with a microfiber towel and clean the pad. If at that point the paint looks close to shiny, you can move on to the finishing compound and foam pad. If not, you may need to repeat the process a few more times—possibly switching to a coarser compound and pad—before you’ll achieve the desired finish.

Lastly, after correcting the paint, it pays to protect your work with a sealant spray or ceramic coating.

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Beth Nichols
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Beth Nichols stumbled into automotive journalism and found her footing, jumping between a few car magazines before going freelance. Her head, once full of useless facts about literature and art history, now holds useless facts about vehicles. She edits, checks, and occasionally creates content for Capital One, and though she understands it’s customary to write a bio in the third person, I don’t like it.