Restoring Old Paintwork

with a bit of elbow grease, a respray is not always necessary

Restoring Old Paintwork

It is possible to resurrect dull and faded paintwork without having to pay out for a full respray. There are many factors that cause your paintwork to become faded, with UV rays and salt being the main contributors. Thankfully, the damage is often only on the surface and can be repaired by removing the top layer of paint, revealing the original lustre and colour of your car’s paint.

How Bad is It?

The first step is to determine how bad the paintwork is. The more faded and oxidised the surface of the paint, the harder it will be to bring back the original colour. Have a really close look at your paintwork: if your car is in good shape and only a little faded, then you may well have the job done and a sparkling 'new' car in one weekend. On the other hand, if the base coat is too thin, there may not be enough good paint left and any attempts to remove the damaged/faded paint will cause you to hit primer and metal before the shine returns.

Wash Your Car Before You Start

Once you have established the extent of the damage, you need to give your car a good wash to remove all dirt, dust, and grime. You really should use a proper soap/shampoo designed for use on vehicles or, at the very least, a non detergent soap. Dish detergent will remove oil from your car’s paint and do more harm than good and you should never, ever use liquid or powdered laundry detergent (yes, some people do!). These soaps will actively do harm your paint.

Wash you car before you attempt to restore paintwork Before you start, spray down the wheel wells and under body to remove any oily grime that may splash back up on your clean car. If you find any rust spots or dings, make a note and consider treating them first before you start to work on the paintwork. Be sure to use only a clean sponge or hand applicator when washing your car. Any dirt will scratch your finish making more work for yourself later on.

It is always a good idea to wash your car in the shade to avoid the water spots that occur if it dries too fast. Spray down the roof first, then the bonnet, then move to the sides and then the front grill followed by the rear panel. Then, using a big sponge and a bucket of soapy water, wash your car in sections, beginning with the roof. Always rinse one section before you go to the next, so that the soap won’t dry on leaving marks.

When you are finished, use a chamois to dry off the car, wringing it out as you wipe water from the surface to help prevent streaking. Once the car is dry, check for any spots you’ve missed such as tar and insects. You may need to use a good road tar remover to remove stubborn dirt.

Now that your car has been cleaned, you can get a better idea of the condition of your paintwork. Look for fading and oxidisation of paintwork as well as any acid etching (from bird droppings) and scratches on the paint.

Get Polishing

The next step is dependant on the type of paint used on your car. If it is metallic paint with no clear coat, use only non abrasive polishes, such as Turtle Wax Metallic. Most classic cars don’t have a clear coat, unless they have been repainted. If your paint is severely faded or heavily scratched, you will probably need a rubbing compound. This is a big job and best done by hand (although it is possible to use a buffing machine). Beware, there is a risk of badly damaging your paintwork if done over enthusiastically or on thin paintwork. However if the only alternative is repainting, you might want to give it a try.


Polish and a polishing compound aren't necessarily the same thing. Some polishes contain abrasives and others don't. Some polishes will say they are fine for all paint, others for new paint or faded paint. Some polishes are in liquid form, others are wax or waterless. Rubbing compounds come as a liquid or paste. Liquid is easier to apply, but you do not get as much compound for your money. It is always advisable to stop and read the label to see what your getting and decide if it is right for your car.

Whether you’re using an abrasive hand-applied polishing compound on severely faded paint, or a nonabrasive polish on clear coat, you should always work in the shade or in a garage. Apply the polish to a small area using the supplied applicator or a piece of soft lint-free cloth, following the package directions. If you are using an abrasive compound, you will see the removed paint on your applicator.

Using Compound

A lot of elbow grease is needed to do a hand compounding job right. Work on a 2 foot square area at a time. If the damage to the paint is severe, begin by lightly wet sanding the area with 800 grit sandpaper. Again, this is not recommended for clear coat or metallic paint. Once sanded and using a soft cloth or the supplied applicator, apply the compound to with straight back and forth strokes. Remove the compound and then inspect the paint. If the surface isn’t glossy once the compound is washed off, you haven’t removed enough paint and should try again, but do be careful not to rub all the way through the paint.

To properly do an entire car by hand will take at least a weekend. You may want to buy or rent a polishing machine. Machine compounding will remove a lot of paint quickly and if your paint is already thin, you will have to repaint if you go through the base coat to undercoat. (Hint: To avoid rubbing all the way through raised surfaces and corners, cover them with masking tape and rub them by hand later.)


Now that your car is compounded or polished, rinse it thoroughly with warm water and dry it once again with a chamois. Once the car is 100% dry, apply some pure carnauba wax. This will make your car shine like new again and will also provide a good layer of protection. Make sure the wax does not contain any abrasives as some brands do. Apply the wax to one small area at a time and polish it with a soft lint-free cloth.

Et Voila!

And finally, move on to the chrome using a stainless steel or chrome cleaner and then your car should be looking like new.

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