Common Auto Detailing Paint Defects & Issues: Identification & Explanation

Common Auto Detailing Paint Defects: A List for Paint Correction during Detailing Training.

By Christopher Brown –

Paint Defects play a huge role in most automotive detailing businesses.

They dictate almost all factors of paint correction detailing: machine selection, product selection, procedure implementation etc etc.

Paint Defects also dictate if Paint Protection Film (Clear Bra) or Ceramic Coatings may or may not be applied effectively. The list of ways which surface defects may impact detailing services and their quality of results can go on endlessly.

Therefore, in order to properly detect, evaluate, and correct flaws in automotive paint, detailers need a clear understanding of the different types of paint defects. It is also important to understand the most likely cause and removal solution for common defects found on most vehicles.

This article explores the types of common detailing paint defects that most professional or enthusiast detailers encounter during paint correction (a.k.a. paint polishing or buffing).

Classifying Common Auto Detailing Paint Defects by Type

In order to effectively discuss common auto detailing paint defects, they must first be classified by type.

Paint Defects are classified by two types:

Topical Defects and Contamination:
Paint Defects which Exist ABOVE, or on top of, the painted surface.

Topical Paint Defects are typically mild in nature and simply removed with simple decontamination processes. These steps include traditional clay bars and synthetic clay mitts or pads. Specialty chemicals may dissolve topical contaminants or loosen them up so slight agitation (abrasion) will remove them entirely.

Below Surface Paint Defects:
Paint defects which are embedded within, or BELOW, the surface of the clear coat (top layer of single stage paint).

Below Surface Paint Defects exist within the layers of the paint itself, or even deeper. Chemical decontamination sometimes removes these defects with ease. However, machine paint polishing, otherwise known as paint correction or buffing, is the best means of removal for the vast majority of below surface paint defects.

Machine correction provides: the most consistent, most efficient, and least invasive means of defect removal.

Below surface paint defects require a solid knowledge and experience base for accurate evaluation and removal–depending on their severity. Additionally, other factors of the panel and paint type, play important roles when forming a correction strategy.

Remember to always begin defect removal utilizing the LEAST AGGRESSIVE means (within context) to maximize effectiveness. Automotive surface integrity is the number one goal in all auto detailing.

How to Best Identify and Diagnose Paint Defects

The best way to detect and identify paint defects for their type and severity is to first be able to see them accurately.

Often, proper lighting is an overlooked topic by many detailers. However specific lighting is crucial to optimal quality, efficiency, and profitability of many services. This is even more critical for businesses which offer high end services or work in highly competitive markets with a large concentrations of competitors.

For detailed information on lighting for paint correction, read the OCDCarCare Article Lighting for Auto Detailing Paint Correction Explained: Essential Concepts.

Additionally, the discussion of Lighting for Paint Correction on the Ammo NYC Podcast Episode #38 is an extension of the original article. In this episode  Christopher Brown of OCDCarCare Los Angeles discusses Auto Detailing Lighting Essentials with Larry of Ammo NYC and Kevin Brown of

List of Common Auto Detailing Paint Defects:

Spider Web Swirls

Common Auto Detailing Defects: Swirl Marks are caused by improper wash techniques.

Spider Web Swirl Marks are the common all-direction-type scratches visible on many vehicles on the road. These below surface paint defects mask: color, gloss, and reflective nature of the paint. Because swirl marks cause light to refract into many random angles.

A few main factors typically cause Spider Webbing:

  • Lack of regular wash intervals which, causing higher concentrations of topical and bonded contamination to gather.
  • Inconsistent or improper cleaning technique of the wash media (mitt or sponge) during or after vehicle washing.
  • Improper or inconsistent directional vehicle washing technique
  • Washing sections which are too large.
  • Using too harsh of wash media for the intended surface.
  • Washing of areas of low contamination (top 3/4 of vehicle) with Wash media that have touched the lower sections of the vehicle.

Vehicles washed without a specific and consistent technique have a higher probability for defects to occur. Most commonly, contamination from the lowest quarter of the vehicle, is easily embedded into a wash mitt. If this mitt is then used to wash other areas of the vehicle, the hard particles have a very high probability of creating defects.

Touching paint with materials or tools not safe for automotive purposes will also cause spider web swirl marks. Any media touching painted surfaces should not have the ability to cause defects.


Automotive Paint Correction and Detailing Defects: Marring is an below surface paint defect caused by abrasion.

Marring, a below surface paint defect, is the abrasion of paint. It’s not quite considered a “traditional” scratch because it is so light, yet it was still created with friction.

Marring is best demonstrated utilizing a soft finicky jet black paint as an example; say Lexus jet black. If a clay bar ran over the surface with heavy force and very little lubricant, the surface would appear grayish, dull, and looked scuffed. This cloudiness or marring is a defect caused by abrasion, yet isn’t considered an outright “scratch.”

A light finish polish step of paint correction is the best fix for marring in most cases.

Micro Marring

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Micro Marring (a.k.a. DA Haze) is a condition caused during Paint Correction.

Micro Marring (DA Haze) is a below surface defect which slightly different from marring. This is not a normal random paint defect. It is a controlled defect that is byproduct of paint correction using a Dual Action polisher. The polisher creates a series of minute uniform scratches. Micro Marring is generally noticed most  head during the final polishing stage.

With micro marring paint appears hazy, dull, and lifeless even though it is defect free. To fix micro marring, further refinement of the surface is necessary. The key to minimizing micro marring to control paint correction variables to ensure the pad remains as clean as possible throughout the paint polishing processes.

Buffer Trails and Holograms

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Holograms and Buffer Trails are made by rushed or unskilled rotary buffer users.

Buffer Trails & Holograms are technically below surface defects left behind from human hands. They are so light and easy to remove they seem like topical paint.  These lovely art inspired designs come from a rotary machine moved entirely too fast over the surface. Or a buffer used without much skill behind it, or both.

Body shops and inexpensive local car washes frequently leave these marks when trying to crank out a high volume of vehicles. Buffer trails or holograms are often temporarily covered by a glaze or wax.

Most vehicle owners are completely unaware of their existence. However, once the glaze or wax degrades these lovely flames and holograms become vehicle art; on display for all to see. Hiring a skilled detailer with quality processes is the only cure for these “designs.”

RIDS (Random Isolated Deep Scratches)

 RIDS (Random Isolated Deep Scratches) are deeper scratches revealed after removing layers of swirl marks.

RIDS (Random Isolated Deep Scratches) are below surface paint defects. These large and deep scratches reveal themselves during the paint correction process. RIDS aren’t always visible during initial vehicle inspections because lighter topical scratches (spider web swirl marks) commonly layer on top of RIDS, camouflaging them.

Commonly, after detailing services are completed, some vehicle owners claim that a detailer has created deep scratches into their paint. This is not the case.

Frequently, the removal of a thick layer, or multiple layers, of small topical scratches (spider webbing) has exposed the larger underlying scratches.  The deeper scratches were hidden, or camoflauged, by the multiple layers of topical scratches.

This customer misunderstanding is avoided entirely if detailers educate clients about RIDS during paint polishing inspections or before a job is started.

Bird Droppings a.k.a. “Bird Bombs”

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Bird Droppings (Bombs) are full of uric acid, which will etch paint if left on paint.

Bird Droppings “Bombs” are topical (above) paint defects which may cause paint etching. If left long enough bird bombs may morph into below surface paint defects. Bird droppings have the ability to etch paint due to the extreme combination of acidity and protein contained within the droppings.

PICTURE ABOVE: A Bird Bomb sits on top of paint, baking into the sun to potentially become the defect below; known as bird etchings.

Bird Drop Etchings

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Bird Etchings can permanently ruin paint and cause unsightly defects.

ABOVE: Bird Etchings result when protein rich and or acidic bird droppings sit on and react to vehicle surfaces.

Bird Etching appears as a subtle recessed blemishes in the surface of the clear coat. The strength of the uric acid and proteins in bird droppings can vary greatly due to what particular bird(s) eat.

In rural areas, bird bombs are often more acidic and aggressive on paint, due to a diet high in seeds and other vegetation low on the Ph scale. Bird bombs, if quickly removed from painted surfaces, can pose little to no harm of etching into clear coat. Many light bird etchings are removed via machine polishing, a.k.a. paint correction. However, severely deep etching are can only be improved by correction, and sometimes may not fully removed.

Light “Type I” Water Spots

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Type I Water Spots - topical defects usually removed completely.

Light “Type I” Water Spots: mineral deposits left behind by evaporated water. These topical defects generally indicate “hard water” dried on the surface.

Hard water contains a high concentration of mineral solids. Also, if water is introduced to a dirty vehicle, with high levels of contamination, the water can trap the dirt/dust/loose topical contamination, causing light water spots.

The water emulsifies and concentrates surface contaminants into drops which embed into the porous paint surface once the water evaporates.

Typical Type I water spot removal is generally very simple. They are simply removed by a traditional wash, rinseless wash, or a waterless wash.

A water spot removal chemical may be necessary for water with extremely heavy mineral content. Those are Type II water spots, mentioned below.

Medium “Type II” Water Spots

Common Automotive Paint Defects: Type II Water Spots - below surface etching that requires paint correction for removal.

Medium “Type II” Water Spots partially penetrate below the surface of the clear coat, slightly etching surfaces. For this reason, they are considered below surface paint defects. Etching appears as a subtle crater-type recessed blemish within the surface of the clear coat.

Some medium water spots barely etch the painted surface, while others may penetrate moderately past the surface. The severity depends on the type and concentration of minerals or chemical contamination present in the water while it dried on the painted surface.

Generally medium water spots can be removed with acidic cleansers to break the bonds of minerals. However, some type II water spots are too deep for chemical removal. It is possible to completely remove these or minimize the appearance of deeper etching with machine polishing.

Heavy or Severe “Type III” Water Spots

Heavy or Severe “Type III:  Water Spots are essentially type II spots, however, they exist on softer single stage paint. Single stage paint is much more porous than modernized catalyzed base coat/clear coat paint. Because of the porous and soft nature of single stage paint; the minerals within resting water penetrate deeper into the paint.

Phantom Water Spots – Appear After Paint Correction or Ceramic Coating Application

Phantom Water Spots are mineral deposits that appear or reappear, hours or days, after their removal via paint correction (machine polishing or buffing) or after a ceramic coating application.

These below surface defects occur because the paint system received too much heat from the paint correction process and swelled up, hiding the water spots. After the paint system cooled off and returned to its normal state, the water spots were again visible.

There are mostly noticed hours or days after paint correction and or a ceramic coating installation.

Road Tar

Common Automotive Paint Correction Defects: Road Tar occurs when contaminants from the road are kicked up onto vehicles.

Road Tar is a topical defect that occurs when liquefied “tar” launches from tires and onto paint. This topical paint defect or “tar” is actually a buildup of contamination layers on roads.

“Tar” is a combination of hydrocarbons (exhaust) mixed with rubber particles transferred from tire tread onto paved surfaces. Road tar most commonly occurs on lower rocker panels or areas behind wheels.

This is most frequent occurs when weather seasons change, and temperatures first becomes warmer/hot (typically 80°F and above) after winter. Hot days are a ripe circumstance for tar to kick up onto vehicles. It is best to use a solvent to loosen, dissolve, or completely remove road tar particles. A clay bar process may also remove minor amounts of road tar.

Generally road tar is not harmful to most paint. However if left on the surface too long, and allowed to heat cycle, it may cause damage to painted surfaces.

Paint Swelling Caused by the Heat of Paint Correction (Paint Polishing or Buffing)

Paint Swelling: a condition where automotive paint has increased in size “swollen” from excessive heat exposure. As a result of this increased size, the paint has sealed defects within the swelling. Therefore, covering up defects or denying detailers access these defects while the swelling persists.

Most often this paint issue is caused from paint correction or paint polishing by introducing too much heat to the surface.

Topical Bonded Contamination
(not pictured)

Topical Bonded Contamination is a function of regular driving. Dust, pollen, industrial fallout, brake dust are a few types of topical contaminants. Basically any and everything which can collect upon a painted surface may cause contamination.

Generally, bonded contamination occurs because regular wash intervals (preferably weekly) aren’t maintained. When this occurs, layers of different contaminants bond to paint then layer on top of one another.

Topical contamination may feel like randomly occurring bumps to the touch in mild concentrations. In heavy concentrations they may feel similar to light grit sand paper.

If the bare hand cannot detect the presence of topical bonded contamination alone, then get some help. Grab a plastic produce bag or a similar THIN bag and put it over your hand. Run the plastic covered hand over the painted surface and note the tactile feel and sound. A smooth surface will allow the hand to glide over easily and with no noise. A contaminated surface will offer a good amount of drag on the hand and the sound of the contaminants against the plastic will be noticeable.

The most common way to remove topical bonded contamination is with a clay bar or synthetic clay substitute. The clay, paired with a lubricating spray, glides across the painted surface, embedding the contamination within itself.

Tree Sap

Common Automotive Paint Detailing Defects: Tree Sap is a topical contamination which can damage paint after it hardens.

Tree Sap is a topical paint defect, occurs when sap droplets or smaller particles of  liquid sap collect on a vehicle surface. No matter the form, tree sap adheres to a surface and hardens, creating a hard topical particulate.

If Tree Sap is left on surfaces too long and exposed to extensive sun exposure, sap may harden and become resin like; leading to etching of the paint.

The best way to avoid sap contamination is to park as far away from coniferous trees (like pine or fir) as possible, if at all!

Tree Sap removal methods depend on how long the sap has sat on the surface. Methods include: washing with warm soapy water wash, or topical decontamination with a clay bar. Chemical based solutions also help to dissolve the sap’s bond to paint. Sometimes, mixing methods is necessary to remove the most stubborn tree sap.

Paint Transfer Marks or Paint Scuffs

Common Automotive Paint Detailing Defects: Transfer/Scuff Marks - a softer material has rubbed and transferred onto paint.

Transfer Marks or Paint Scuffs are abrasion defects which result in a transfer of material onto a surface. These are classified as both topical paint defects or below surface defects, depending on their severity. Transfers or scuffs occur when an object collides or brushes against an automotive surface.

Often, the object transferring residue is softer than automotive paint. For this reason, many transfer/scuff marks are accompanied by minimal scratching or none at all. Common types of transfer/scuff marks include paint transfer from vehicle collisions, striking of inanimate objects, or the collision of rubber and softer plastic materials into surfaces.

Paint Overspray

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Paint Overspray is a topical defect from atomized paint particles

Paint Overspray is a topical paint defect. Its caused by free floating paint that found a home on a surface. During spray painting, liquid paint is atomized into tiny particles which can carry hundreds of feet through the air from the painting area. No matter how drastic the precautions taken, some amount of overspray will escape the intended area.

Removal of paint overspray depends on the type of paint used and the amount of time it sat on the surface. Some paint removal is as simple as a car washing. More stubborn overspray may require a clay bar. Sometimes a combination of a solvent, used to loosen the paint, requires pairing with the clay bar for final removal.

Bug Guts, Dried Insect Parts, &  Lovebugs

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Insect Remnants (Love Bugs) can etch paint if not removed quickly.

Bug Guts or Lovebugs are another topical contaminant with the ability to create below surface paint defects (etching) if not removed ASAP. This is because the remnants of insects contain proteins that are potentially VERY harmful to automotive finishes. The larger the insects, the more protein they may contain.

Ask anyone in the southeastern United States, and the mere mention of the words “love bugs” will make them shake their heads or release a sigh in disgust. Suggested removal method: keep a waterless wash solution spray bottle in the vehicle with clean microfiber towels to remove the majority of insect parts ASAP!

Paint Oxidation & Color fading from UV Exposure (non clear coat failure)

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Paint Oxidation - extended UV & elemental exposure has faded & degraded the paint.

Paint Oxidation & Color Fading – These are considered below surface paint issues because they occur at the clear coat or base coat level.

These paint issues from long term exposure the sun’s UV rays and elemental exposure. Married together, oxidation and UV cause paint to appear dull and sometimes, in more extreme cases, a bit whitish or chalky in appearance.

When paint is completely neglected for extended intervals of time, oxidation and fading frequently occur together. While the sun’s UV rays directly strike only the surface of paint, oxidation and color failure might merit classification as a below surface defects, because they require polishing (abrasion) to remove.

To fix, the “dead” top layer of oxidized paint must be removed, in order to expose fresh clear coat. Removal of oxidation causes paint to appear optically clear, restoring the appearance of the paint’s color, clarity, gloss, and reflectivity.

Clear Coat Failure

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Clear Coat Failure is terminal and requires a repaint.

Clear Coat Failure is a below surface paint issue where paint has oxidized completely or been jeopardized that it completely fails and delaminates from the vehicle surface.

After clear coat, the topical protective layer of paint, completely fails the elements begin to wear on the base (color) layer of paint. Often, the beginning stages of clear coat failure appear as subtly dull or white patches on the horizontal surfaces of a vehicle. As the oxidation process continues, paint eventually starts to crack and flake off; similar to the picture above.

Clear coat failure usually begins on the horizontal areas of vehicles because they are subject to the most intense and longest duration of UV and elemental exposure. Also, these areas are susceptible to the most amount of topical contamination due to a high volume of surface area which collects particles.

The only fix for any stage of clear coat failure is repainting the affected areas.

Dirt Nibs Embedded in Clear Coat

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Dirt Nibs are caused by dirty paint booth conditions. - Chad Raskovich

Dirt Nibs are below surface paint defects, which are seen and felt within paint. They usually are contained within the clear coat layer, as small hard nodules.

Dirt nibs are caused by dust or contamination during the painting process. Dust Nibs occur if paint booths are improperly prepared and dust and debris are present in the area during the painting process. Dust is then stirred up from the directed air flow of the spray gun and pushed beneath the paint.

The removal process for dirt nibs requires an individual removal process, one nib at a time. For this reason, de-nibbing is a tedious process which requires great focus and a steady hand. If nibs occur at or more than 3-4 per square foot, then repainting the panel is the fastest and most cost effective fix.

Paint Checking a.k.a Crow’s Feet

Common Automotive Paint Correction & Detailing Defects: Crows Feet are a defect of paint failure.

Paint Checking a.k.a. Crow’s Feet is a below surface paint defect, containing a concentrated amount of small cracks within the paint. This is actually a paint failure issue. Checking may often appear as many individual cracks adjacent to one another. Other times, crow’s feet cracks form a large network of connected cracks.

In the past lacquer paint frequently had this issue, therefore the term ‘lacquer checking’ was born. The term ‘checking’ and ‘crow’s feet’ are interchangeable terms.

On modern automobiles, crow’s feet typically indicates a repainted section was performed in a cheap and quick fashion. Another cause could be poor factory paint and or shoddy prep work or the materials were of poor quality to begin with.

Solvent Pop and Pin Holes

Solvent Pop is a below surface defect, caused when solvents try to evaporate and are caught beneath the paint.

Solvent Pop is a below surface defect that occurs when painted layers are sprayed too close together in time. The first layer requires time to allow the solvents within the paint to evaporate, or flash off. Sometimes additional layers may be literally sprayed a few moments after the previous.

Solvent pop ranges in appearance from a series of trapped bubbles beneath paint, to tiny pin holes.

Common reasons for solvent pop: a painted layer is NOT given ample time to completely outgas before another layer is sprayed, paint is sprayed on too thickly, or improper thinner/reducer selection for paint booth environmental conditions.

When an additional layer of paint is sprayed on top of an already out-gassing layer, the top layer becomes skin-like. It traps all out-gassing fumes from previously sprayed paint beneath it causing the many bubbles.

Pin Holes are the popped solvent bubbles which escaped through the top layer of paint. The look like tiny little holes in the surface.

There is no cure for solvent pop; the only solution is to repaint the affected areas.

Final Thoughts on Common Auto Detailing Paint Defects:

More paint defects exist outside this list, constantly throwing detailers curve balls during the paint correction processes.

This list tackles about 90% of the most common auto detailing paint defects which are present on the overwhelming majority of vehicles. Defects such as: paint runs, fisheyes, shrinkage (dieback), and dry spray have importance, but occur much less frequently. Not to say these aren’t important, but for article length considerations they aren’t listed.

Hope this article serves as a useful resource for the detailing community and the paint polishing public.

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For more auto detailing and car care related topics please browse: OCDCarCare Los Angeles’s – Auto Detailing Article Archive

Christopher Brown
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