How to Identify the Type of Scratch on a Car’s Paint

Cars are an important part of our lives. They tell people a lot about us, and we take pride in them.

With that said, there is always something wrong with any car; whether it’s a scratch or dent or anything else.

The thing is, these defects can be very costly if they aren’t caught early enough.

It’s incredibly common to see small imperfections in vehicles. After all, life happens. Nothing that is used every day will remain perfect for long.

How to Identify the Type of Scratch on a Car's Paint

The trick is doing something about those imperfections. Where do you start with that? You start by identifying what the issue is.

Since scratches are most of the most common car imperfections, that’s what we’re going to be focusing on.

It’s time to learn more about the scratches on your car, and learn how to identify them.

So, if you’re interested in finding out more about your car’s scratches, just keep reading.

You’ll probably learn a thing or two by the time you get to the end of this piece.

Why Identifying Paint Scratches on Cars is Important

You might be asking yourself why this is even important. Surely you can just buff out any old paint scratch? No.

No, you cannot. The idea that any paint scratch can be buffed out is nothing more than a myth.

On the other side of the spectrum are the people who believe that all scratches require a new paint job. Both are simply not the case.

Some scratches can be buffed out, while others will certainly need a paint job to remedy the situation.

It all depends on the type of scratch in your paint. That is why all of this is significant.

By knowing what kind of paint scratch you’re dealing with, you can choose the right course of action.

When you do this, you end up saving money – every time.

Let’s face it – cars are an expensive hobby and necessity. Because of that, we need to know what should and should not be done.

We all want to save our money and take good care of our vehicles, but you can’t do that if you can’t identify differences.

It doesn’t matter if you just have one car, or if you’re planning on becoming a detailer – this is important.

You could be helping a few people like friends or family, or hundreds. By knowing when you can buff out a scratch and when it needs to be re-painted, you’re saving yourself and those around you.

What Can Cause Scratches on Car Paint?

There are many things that can cause scratches on car paint. Some of them are obvious, while others may not be so apparent at first glance.

In fact, some are completely intentional. For example, someone could purposely try to damage their vehicle by scratching it.

This sort of thing isn’t uncommon. However, it does happen, and you don’t necessarily know it until after the fact.

Aside from the obvious reasons such as road hazards and parking mishaps, there are many more issues that can lead to scratches on car paint.

There are several ways to get unpleasant scratches on your car’s paint. Let’s take a look at them below:

1. Washing and Drying Your Car Incorrectly

One of the most common causes of paint scratches is actually due to washing and drying your car using the incorrect techniques.

Being too rough or using the wrong materials to clean and dry your car can have a detrimental effect on the paint’s health and longevity.

2. Not having a wax coat to protect your car’s paint

A wax of some sort is crucial when it comes to protecting your car’s paint. If you don’t properly apply a wax, then you run the risk of damaging your car’s paint during its lifetime.

This is particularly true for older models. The worst part about this problem is that it’s often not immediately evident.

You won’t see anything visibly wrong with your car, but you’ll notice a scratch here or there once it’s already been damaged.

Not only does a wax coat protect your car from damage like scratches, but it also protects it against environmental factors.

Things like UV rays and pollution can wreak havoc on a car’s paint. A well-applied wax will help to keep your car protected from these elements.

3. Improperly Using a Buffing Wheel

Buffing wheels aren’t exactly known for being gentle tools. They’re designed to pull off layers of paint, and they do so very quickly.

While they might seem like the perfect solution to remove minor imperfections, buffing wheels tend to leave marks behind.

These marks are usually quite noticeable and can last for years. If you’re going to use a buffing wheel, you must be careful to avoid creating any markings on your car. Use a light touch and work slowly.

Also, make sure that you stop every now and again to check your progress.

4. Road Debris

A common reason our cars get paint scratches is something that we can’t do anything to avoid – road debris.

No matter where you go, there is always debris around. Sometimes this debris is even too small to notice while driving, so of course it’s going to make contact with your car.

If you want to avoid damage to your car’s paint, you need to pay attention to what’s happening around you.

Look out for objects coming toward your car, and move over if necessary and safe to do so.

Avoid putting yourself in a position where you need to swerve to avoid an object, since this is incredibly dangerous.

5. Intentional Damage by Others

If someone has deliberately scratched your car, then it’s up to them to repair their mistake.

You should never try to correct the damage yourself unless you know how to do so correctly.

It may be tempting to attempt repairs, but doing so could result in further damage. Instead, find someone who knows what they’re doing and ask them to fix the issue.

Depending on your relationship with the people around you, this could happen more often to some.

Certain career choices typically lead to intentional damage being done to your car.

Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon for individuals to key the car of people they dislike.

6. Accidental Damage

We’ve all been in a situation where we weren’t paying attention in a parking lot and backed up into something.

We’ve probably also hit things accidentally without meaning to. When you have an accident, don’t panic.

It doesn’t matter if the accident was your fault or not, you will still need to know how the issue can be resolved.

There’s no rule to follow for this kind of damage, because it will be different in every situation.

However, most of the time, the scratches you get in parking lots are typically manageable.

The Layers of a Car’s Paintwork

The Layers of a Car's Paintwork

There’s more to a car than simple metal and paint. In fact, there are 5 layers to your car’s surface that you need to know about.

These layers include the metal, primer, base coat, clear coat, and wax. All of these elements are important for keeping your car looking its best.

Let’s take a look at each of these layers in a little more detail.

The Wax Coat

On a car, the wax coat is essential to protect the other layers from wear and tear. This layer is made up of two parts: sealant and polish.

The sealant is applied first, and once it dries, the surface becomes polished.

A good wax job won’t just cover the surface of your vehicle; it will actually fill in any nicks and dents.

Wax acts as a protective layer on the car, and also makes it attractive and shiny.

It’s amazing how well wax coats work, and it’s a great way to keep your car looking new.

The Clear Coat

The layer below the wax is called the clear coat. This is a clear resin that coats the car to help protect it from environmental damage and UV rays.

Around 95% of all cars manufactured today will have a clear coat to help protect them.

Since UV rays cause paint to fade, this is a crucial step if you want your paint’s vibrancy to stand the test of time.

This is also the layer that is responsible for making a car look wet and shiny – a look most people adore.

You can never underestimate the importance of a clear coat on a car!

The Base Coat

The base coat is the middle layer in the car’s surface. It is the color that gets applied to the car.

One of the most popular car colors include red and black, and these will be the base coats.

This paint layer will go on top of the primer layer, which sits on the metal.

This layer does not offer any kind of protection, and is very rarely painted on by itself.

Once this coat has been applied, there will be a clear coat and a wax coat to top it off.


The primer layer is located directly on top of the metal. All this coat does is prepare the surface to be painted on.

Without the primer, the metal and base coat would not work together well and last very long.

The Metal Layer

A car’s metal is one of the components that hold everything together. It’s usually aluminum, steel, or magnesium.

Regardless of which type of metal is used, when it comes to protecting the rest of your car, it’s crucial that it’s protected properly.

The Different Types of Scratches You Could See on Your Car

There are five main scratches you might notice on the surface of your car. These vary in severity, and the way you resolve them are all different.

From scratches that can simply be buffed out, to the more severe damage that will require a paint job – anything can happen.

Let’s take a look at the types of scratches you might come across with your car.

  • Deep Scratch – a deep scratch has torn through the clear coat. These scratches will reveal the primer coat, base coat, or even the metal if it is deep enough.
  • Deep Marring – deep marring is a deeper scratch to the clear coat layer of the vehicle. No color is removed, but the scratches are more noticeable.
  • Swirled Marring – these are simple shallow scratch marks on the wax and clear coat layer of the car.
  • Buffer Marks – buffer marks can be caused by buffing the wax incorrectly. These marks can be found on the wax and clear coat of the car.
  • Etching – etching can be caused by water or acid that is left on the surface of the car. This type of damage only affects the wax and clear coat layer.

Identifying and Fixing a Clear Coat Scratch

You can use your own fingernail to help determine whether the damage is only to the clear coat.

These scratches should be no thicker than a piece of paper, and your nail shouldn’t watch on it if you drag it across.

These scratches can look irritating, but they are easy to fix.

All you need is a polisher and some kind of compound. You don’t need to have any kind of professional experience to get these scratches gone for good.

If you aren’t sure how to polish a car, all you need to do is find a tutorial on the internet. It’s never been easier.

Identifying and Fixing a Base (Color) Coat Scratch

You can identify this type of scratch pretty easily because the color beneath the scratch is gone.

Unlike the type mentioned above, these one’s mean that a lot more damage has been done.

You can still use the fingernail test on this, but you can typically tell that it’s pretty bad without having to do that.

When it comes to these scratches, buffing it out won’t solve the whole problem.

A machine polisher can be used to reduce how noticeable the scratch is, but it’ll still be there.

You can try using a touch up pen on it, but the best option would be to get it to a professional.

That way, they can get it looking perfect again – something that you can’t achieve at home without the right equipment and skills.

Identifying and Fixing a Primer Coat Scratch

Hopefully you will never have to go through the pain of experiencing one of these.

These are the worst scratches you could imagine, because the damage goes all the way to the primer and metal layer.

These are the worst because not only do they look terrible, but they can do some real damage.

Primer coat scratches can lead to rust forming in the area if it’s left for even a few days.

If this happens, some serious damage could be done to the rest of the car.

The silver metal color will be enough to tell you that you need to get the issue resolved ASAP.

You’ll need to get in touch with a professional to get it seen to at your earliest convenience. Or even inconvenience. Just get it seen to before the car falls apart.

Final Thoughts

So, car scratches are never fun, but not all of them are worth lamenting over. A clear coat scratch is easy to deal with most of the time, but primer coat damage is a nightmare.

The key thing to remember is that not all scratches need to be painted over, and not all scratches can be buffed out.

Use your own fingernail to test it out and find out which applies to you.

Most of the time, you will be dealing with a clear coat scratch that you can bull out with ease.

Occasionally, you will come across a prime coat scratch that you will need to spend some money on as soon as you can.