Pete Epple Technical Editor
June 1, 2009
We rolled our Cobra clone into the wash bay at Dawn's Auto Body in Keyport, New Jersey. A degreaser and wax remover was sprayed over the whole car before it was pressure-washed with 150 degree water to strip it of any dirt or wax still on the surface.

Editor's note: Although a few hours in the driveway with some sandpaper, water, and a buffing wheel can bring your car's paint back to life, rushing into it without the right information, knowledge, and tools can result in damage. Most vehicles come from the factory with approximately three thin layers of clear over the paint. If you sand through the clearcoat, a body shop will have to reapply clearcoat to restore the finish. If sanding a car on your own is not a job you want to take on, your local body shop can handle it in about a day, and it won't break the bank.

Over the years, paintjobs take some serious abuse. Exposure to the elements, the harsh effects of the sun, and the wear and tear of daily use all take away from the original luster of your vehicle's finish. In many cases, especially with older Mustangs, the factory shine is long gone. But just because your Ford's skin is not pristine doesn't mean that it will never look good again. Thankfully, we have an easy, cost-effective way to bring your paint back.

Once our '88 Mustang was in the shop at Dawn's, we removed the hood and rear spoiler in preparation for the wet-sanding and buffing process.

Wet-sanding and buffing the surface of your vehicle might seem like tasks reserved for body-shop professionals, but in this story, we show you how to bring back the shine from an older, faded paintjob. The process known as "wet-sanding" also removes the orange peel and leaves a mirror-like finish. In most cases, a quality wet-sanding job can leave a better finish than what came from the factory. Best of all, the process is simple and can easily be done at home.

Our test vehicle started life as a basic '88 LX, much like the one you may own. Around 2000, 21 years after leaving the factory, the paint was faded and there wasn't much shine left. To bring it back, the body was stripped, and a '93 Cobra body kit was installed before two-tone paint was laid on.

While preparing your car for some finish work, be sure to tape off anything that can get scratched. The crew at Dawn's made sure the headlights, taillights, and window moldings were completely covered before any sandpaper touched the car.

While that restored the paint to better-than-stock form a few years ago, the car sits outside in New Jersey and it's taken a beating. It just didn't have the "pop" we are looking for and something had to be done. To achieve our goal of making our Pony shine, we turned to Dawn's Auto Body in Keyport, New Jersey, where Shaun Dalton and Chris and Eric Matey taught us about the finish work involved with bringing a faded paintjob back to life.

Getting Started
As stated, our '88 LX sits in outside storage in New Jersey. We have a good amount of wax on it for protection from the harsh elements, so that had to come off.

"The first step in any body project is making sure the surface is clean and free of wax and dirt," states Chris Matey. "You don't want anything on the surface that can cause deeper scratches than what the sandpaper is going to leave."

After Jaylynn Towing of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, delivered the car to Dawn's, the hood and rear spoiler were removed, and we rolled our Stang into the wash bay. Matey sprayed a mild wax and grease remover over the entire car and cleaned it thoroughly with a hot pressure washer. The combination of solvent and 150-degree pressurized water left the finish slightly duller than when the car rolled in. With the body surface now free of wax and dirt, the task of sanding began.

Sanding The Skin
When paint is applied to the surface of a car, there is a texture or "orange peel" that is a constant in many paintjobs. "There is no avoiding orange peel," Matey explains. "Cars that cost $90,000 come out of the factory with orange peel, and the only way to remove it and achieve the bowling ball-type finish is by wet-sanding and buffing the paint."

Wet-sanding and buffing your paintjob will remove the orange peel from the factory paintjob, leaving a mirror-like finish as well as restoring the original shine. Our test vehicle sports a large amount of orange peel that takes away from the blue and silver hues.

Finish-sanding or wet-sanding may seem scary, but it's actually something you can do at home on a weekend, and the material list is small and inexpensive. All you'll need is a few different grit sandpapers, a bucket of water, polishing compound, and glaze. In the tool department, a dual-action sander (DA), a buffing wheel, and a rubber or silicone squeegee are all you need to complete the job. A DA is key because the sanding surface rotates on two axis providing a smoother final result with less swirl marks than a sander that spins on one axis.

The sanding should be done in stages starting with 1,000-grit sandpaper, followed by 1,200-, then 1,500-, and finally 3,000-grit. The first three stages should be done by hand using a sanding block to ensure the surface area of the sandpaper is even over the surface you're sanding. Sanding by hand without a block will leave uneven areas in the clearcoat finish that will look like waves once the paint is polished. Don't apply too much pressure, as large amounts of force are not necessary to do the job; let the sandpaper do the work. Large amounts of water are necessary for this part of the job, as water acts as a lubricant and helps prevent burning through the clearcoat. In the case of our LX, there are four heavy layers of clear over the Sonic Blue and Satin Silver hues, so sanding into the color wasn't much of an issue. But this will not be the case with a factory paintjob, so proceed carefully.

Chris Matey takes 1,000- 1,200- and 1,500-grit sandpaper to our Stang in order to bring out a mirror-like finish. Matey uses large amounts of water and a foam sanding block to ensure the sandpaper maintains an even contact patch on the paint surface. Sanding by hand without a block will yield an uneven final result that will look wavy.

Eric Matey started sanding with 1,000-grit sandpaper to cut through the top layer of clear. "If you're not sure whether there is enough clearcoat on your car, start with 1,200-grit sandpaper," Matey explains. "This will deliver the same desired effect without removing as much clearcoat." With the sandpaper wet and extra water on the surface, start lightly sanding. Stop every few minutes and squeegee the excess water off the surface. The end result should be a smooth, even surface with no orange peel. With the 1,000-grit level finished, the surface should be smooth--a dull finish is normal through the various stages of sanding. Matey then performs the same steps with 1,200-grit and 1,500-grit sandpaper. The surface will get smoother as you use higher grit paper, and a dull shine will become more prevalent.

With the entire car wet-sanded using 1,000-, 1,200-, and 1,500-grit sandpaper, the final step in the sanding process is completed using 3,000-grit sandpaper with a dual-action sander. The technique is the same and sanding is done wet. Be extra careful in this step because it's very easy to burn through what's left of the clearcoat and expose the paint below when using a DA. This step will remove the rest of the fine scratches left behind by the more coarse sandpapers, and will make the buffing process much easier.

The final result is an orange-peel free, mirror-like finish you can achieve at home.

Polishing Your Paint
The process of wet-sanding your car's paint will leave a smooth glass-like finish, but it will take a little more time to bring out the shine. This is where the buffing process comes into play. Once the crew at Dawn's was finished sanding, Eric Matey went to work with the buffing wheel.

The process is simple. Start with a cloth hat on the buffing wheel and a fine-grit polishing compound. Apply the compound directly to the paint, and spread it evenly with the buffing wheel before turning it on. Polishing takes some patience and a lot of elbow grease. Use long, smooth motions when polishing, and remember that leaving the buffing wheel spinning in the same spot for too long can burn the clearcoat and permanently damage the finish, so keep the wheel moving.

Once the buffing is finished, switch to the foam hat and use a glaze instead of compound. The glaze won't remove any more clear, but will bring out the mirror-like shine and double as a wax to protect all the work you've just put into your newly revamped paintjob.