Adding Shine to New or Old Paint through Wet Sanding

Wet sanding to bring shine back to a dull surface. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

It just doesn't seem like it adds up, does it? When you're thinking about a shiny paint job, the last thing to pop into your mind is probably sand paper. After all, if you've ever sanded a shiny, painted body panel you have seen what all of that abrasion really does to a paint finish. Shine it up? Hardly! Sandpaper takes the top shiny layer right off of just about any surface that's got any type of inherent glow or gloss.

Every time I have to do some body repair, it kills me the first moment I have to touch the car's shiny paint finish with a piece of gritty sand paper. Once you make contact you immediately see that the paint finish is ruined. Or is it? Have you heard of using sandpaper to make paint even shinier? Have you heard of sanding down a brand new paint job so that it will get an even deeper shine that the new paint did on its own? Both of these are real scenarios, and the results are even more real than that.

There are two times that you may find sandpaper useful in producing a shiny paint finish. The most common is on a new paint job. You may think that a new paint job is smooth, flawless and mirror perfect -- and most painters would like this to be the case, too -- but the reality of most paint jobs lies somewhere between hideous and perfect. If the paint is hideous, don't even bother with any attempts at remedy.

By hideous, I mean a paint job that is thin, went on too dry, or suffers from poorly scattered metallics. These problems all generally require a total repaint. Not fun. But anything a step above hideous can be greatly improved upon!

Sanding Old, Tired Paint

Have you ever seen one of those cars that looks like it was parked inside a vacuum cleaner bag even when it's clean?

Or a car that looks like a glazed donut thanks to a hideous layer of paint? These paint jobs appear to be too far gone to do anything about. Sometimes they are, but other times they have a little life left in them. All you need to do is do a careful wet sanding and polishing. There are a number of factors to consider. If the paint finish is actually cracked all the way through to the primer layer, or to the metal, no amount of massaging will make them go away. The same goes for a paint job that has worn all the way through the color layer and is exposing the primer underneath. Both of these mean it's time for a full strip and repaint. Like the previous examples, these can be called hideous. But if your paint is a step or more above hideous, there's hope.

Start with a 800 grit wet sand paper, add water often, and keep sanding until the surface looks uniform when dry. It isn't going to be shiny by any stretch, but you want it to be uniformly dull, not super splotchy. Be patient because an 800 grit takes a while. When you feel you've reached the uniformity point, repeat the process with a 1000- or 1200-grit paper. Next, wash the car and start polishing the paint using a high quality cleaner wax.

Again, this will take quite a while and require multiple applications. An orbital polisher or buffer makes this job much fast. Polish until shiny!

Color Sanding New Paint

A new paint job may have a number of imperfections. Dullness due to an imperfect surface (for instance, if your paint surface looks modeled like an orange peel) can be remedied by sanding the surface smooth, then polishing it to a shine once again. Allow new paint to cure before sanding (usually about a week). Using an 800 grit wet paper, add water and slowly and carefully sand the texture of the paint away until it's as smooth as you can get it. Rinse and repeat using 1200 grit paper. Then wax and polish the paint as described above. You'll have more shine that you know how to deal with!

Need to fix a dent first? Read up on body repair!