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."