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3 Different Types Of Car Scratches (With Pictures)

car key scratch

Whether you own an antique Mini or a Lamborghini, the feeling is the same: the high-pitched screeching, the tortured sound of metal scraping on metal, and finally, a heart-breaking scar across your car’s precious bodywork.

Luckily for you, most scratches can easily be fixed. Depending on how deep they are, some can even be treated at home. With the basic knowledge of the types of scratches, some touch-up paint, and a steady hand, it’s a relatively simple and painless procedure. Not all scratches are made equal.

While many scratches can be buffed out, some will need more robust methods. But don’t run out and get a body re-spray for a scratch that can be fixed with polish and elbow grease. Car scratches are classified under different levels of severity: 1A, 1B, 2, 3, and 4. The first level is a minor surface scratch, while a level 4 scratch will probably leave you weeping.

This system has three basic types of car scratches: clear coat, base coat, and the dreaded primer scratch. Before rushing out to a mechanic, read on to better understand each type of scratch and if and how you can fix one yourself. Each type has a different treatment, so a better understanding of each will help you decide whether to take things into your own hands or if your car needs to go to the body shop.

Automatic car wash
Image Credit: Automatic car wash by beejees, Pixabay

The Main Causes of Scratches

Scratches can come from many places, and most are unexpected. Ironically, the main culprit of clear-coat scratches is car washes. This includes improper technique from hand washes but scratches mainly come from automatic car washes, which are notorious for not being gentle. They often use abrasive applicators that can easily cause surface swirls and scratches.

Parking lot mishaps are another common source. No matter how good you are, other people drive cars too. All it takes is a tiny lapse in concentration to create a collision. Gravel, sticks, and stones flying up from your wheels and the car ahead of you can also do damage. These are, of course, primarily unavoidable.

A final rare but possible source is key scratchers. They are jealous of your car’s immaculate finish and cannot stop themselves from dragging their key right across your paint job. Let’s look at the different definitions of scratches and what you can do about them.

The 3 Main Types of Car Scratches:

1. Clear-Coat Scratches

clear coat being installed
Image By: Clear coat being installed, KULLAPONG PARCHERAT, Shutterstock

Clear coats exist on most modern cars. It’s a thin layer of clear, pigment-free finish, protecting the paint job from potential environmental damages like harsh sun, rain, and other drivers. A clear-coat scratch is the best kind of scratch, as it is the most superficial and the easiest to repair. These include scratches and swirls from uncaring car washes.

To tell if it’s just your clear coat that’s affected, and it’s not down to the paint, you can do the “fingernail” test. Run your fingernail along the surface of the scratch. If your nail doesn’t catch, it’s likely just your clear coat that’s been damaged. Usually, it needs a good polish with a buffer and polishing compound, and you’ll be good to go.

How to Fix It

Make sure the area you are polishing is nice and clean. Use soapy water, and clean, rinse, and dry the area thoroughly. Several scratch-removing polishes are available, but a standard polish should also work fine. When polishing, use a microfiber cloth or something similar, which is mildly abrasive.

Apply a fair amount of pressure: You are essentially trying to buff off a microscopic amount of clear coat to get rid of that pesky scratch. Rub in a circular motion for a few minutes, then inspect. You might need to do it a few times, but this should work for most mild surface scratches.

2. Paint Scratches

paint scratch on car
Image Credit: PixieMe, Shutterstock

Paint or color coat scratches are a bit trickier, as you’ll need to match your car’s paint color to fix it. It will be a simple job to match if you have a standard black or white car. However more unique colors can be challenging to source accurately. A good idea is to check all the manufacturing details of your car, which should give you the exact name of the color. If this fails, many manufacturers sell touch-up kits to match your car’s color. Do the fingernail test, and if it catches but you can’t see metal, you have a paint scratch on your hands.

How to Fix It

You can either buy a kit or touch-up paint separately. A kit is preferable, as it will give you the additional tools needed for the job. You’ll need to thoroughly clean the surface and then use a scuff pad to rub it further and prepare it for the paint.

Shake up your paint to ensure an even color distribution. Apply the paint carefully and in layers, ensuring that it reaches the end of the scratch or chip. It will now need to dry for a couple of days. Once properly dried, apply the clear-coat layer and polish again, as described above.

3. Primer Scratches

key scratch on silver car
Image Credit: Jemny, Shutterstock

Primer scratches are the worst scratches and take more work to get rid of. They are the scratches that a jealous vandal can give you. The primer coat is the additional protective layer on your car’s paintwork. When the scratch has broken through the clear coat, the paint layer, and the primer, it will expose the car’s metal body. If left untreated, these scratches will rust and cause further and worse damage to your car.

How to Fix It

Ideally, a bigger, nastier scratch breaking through to the primer should be left to a professional. But it’s possible to do it at home if you are technically minded or brave enough.

It’s a good idea to go for a kit in this case, as it gives you all the materials you’ll need. Follow all the steps outlined above, but apply the primer before the paint. In a kit, this is usually supplied as a convenient pen. This will also take a couple of days to dry, after which you can carry on with the paint and clear coat. It sounds simple, but doing it cleanly and smoothly can be a challenge.

car and road divider In Summary

Most scratches will not require an entire door panel respray, so don’t panic too much, even if a scratch gets down to the metal. That can be done quickly and cheaply at a body shop. A small surface scratch is quickly treated using simple methods. An even nastier one can be fixed at home. Hopefully, this list has reduced your anxiety and given you helpful information about car scratches and their remedies.

Featured Image Credit: FotoBob, Shutterstock


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