By Christopher Brown – OCDCarCare.com
Common auto detailing paint defects play a huge role in automotive detailing businesses. They influence all factors of paint correction services including: tool selection, product selection, procedures, workflows, etc.
Paint defects influence how or if advanced detailing services, like Paint Protection Film (a.k.a. PPF or Clear Bra) or Ceramic Coatings, may 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 auto detailing paint defects that most professional or enthusiast detailers will 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 their type.
Paint Defects are classified by two types:
Topical Defects and Contamination:
Paint Defects which Exist ON or ABOVE painted or other automotive surfaces.
Topical Paint Defects and Contamination are typically mild in nature and are simply removed with simple washing and decontamination processes. These steps include traditional clay bars and synthetic clay mitts or pads. Specialty chemicals may help dissolve some more stubborn topical contaminants, or loosen them up, so slight agitation (abrasion) will remove them entirely.
Some Topical Paint Contamination is aggressive in its chemical makeup. These contaminants, if left to dwell for extended periods of time, may damage paint or other surfaces, becoming Below Surface Paint Defects. Topical Contaminants, with a potential to cause harm to surfaces, are noted below in their respective sections.
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 system 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 and efficient means of permanent 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 regarding panels such as substrate material, paint type, age of paint system, condition of paint system, and more play important roles when forming a defect removal 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 paint correction and quality 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 Buffdaddy.com.
List of Common Auto Detailing Paint Defects:
Swirl Marks or Spider Web Swirls
Swirl Marks or Spider Web Swirls are the common all-direction-type scratches visible on many vehicles. These below surface paint defects mask paint’s: true color, gloss, and reflectivity.
Extremely heavy layers of swirl marks mask the paint characteristics because the many layers of scratches, on top of another, cause light to refract into many random angles. When light refracts in multiple random directions, off of a surface, the true condition and characteristics of that surface are not easily or accurately identified.
A few main factors typically cause Swirl Marks:
- Lack of regular wash intervals, causing higher concentrations of topical and bonded contamination to gather and potentially scratch.
- 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 carry a higher probability for washing to create scratch marks. Most commonly, washed based scratches result from large contamination particles, from the lowest quarter of the vehicle, damaging other panels. These, large and hard pieces of debris easily embedded themselves into a wash mitt. If this mitt is then used to wash other areas of the vehicle, these hard particles have a very high probability of creating defects.
Touching paint with materials or tools not safe for automotive purposes will cause spider web swirl marks. Any media touching painted surfaces should be soft and plush so it never cause defects.
Marring, a below surface paint defect, is the abrasion of paint. It’s not quite considered a “traditional” scratch because it lacks a hard or sharp ridge like a traditional scratch. However, marring it is still created with friction.
Marring is best demonstrated on soft finicky jet black paint systems; such as a Lexus or GM jet black. Marring is created by dragging an object over a painted surface.
Detailers frequently create marring on finicky paint systems using clay bars or mitt types which are too aggressive, lack sufficient lubrication, and are used with excessive pressure. Some combination of these factors may result in marring which appears grayish, dull, or as cloudy scuff marks–as seen in the picture above.
Towel marring is a different situation entirely. Towel marring is caused by touching a towel to a paint system that is so ‘soft’ or finicky that just a little bit too much pressure or wiping causes hairline scratches. For nightmare finicky paint systems such as these keep super plush, long pile, and uber high GSM towels on hand.
The best fix for marring, in most cases, is a light finish polish paint correction step.
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 (DA) polisher. The polisher’s movement, combined with the choice of pad and correction liquid, creates a series of minute uniform scratches.
DA Haze creates a hazy, dull, and lifeless appearance to paint even though it is defect free. Micro Marring is generally most visible and obvious during a finish polishing step, especially when working with dark color vehicles. However, micro marring occurs during all phases of paint correction on all colors of paint.
To fix micro marring, further refinement of the surface is necessary. The key to minimizing micro marring is to control paint correction variables to ensure the pad remains as clean as possible throughout the paint polishing processes.
Buffer Trails and Holograms
Buffer Trails & Holograms are technically below surface defects left behind from human hands. They are so light and easy to remove they seem like a topical paint defect. These lovely art inspired designs come from a rotary machine moved entirely too fast over the surface. Or a high speed buffer used without much skill behind it, or both.
Body shops, inexpensive local car washes, and inexperienced detailers frequently leave these marks behind on ‘finished’ vehicle paint. They’re caused by a lack of quality control or by ‘completing’ a high volume of vehicles too quickly.
Unfortunately, these defects tend to go unnoticed since “completed vehicles” are finished with a glaze or wax applied over them. However, once the glaze or wax degrades, with time or multiple washes, these holograms become visible for all to see. Hiring a skilled detailer with a quality paint correction processes is the only permanent cure for these “designs.”
RIDS (Random Isolated Deep Scratches)
RIDS (Random Isolated Deep Scratches) are below surface paint defects. These deeper scratches aren’t always visible during initial vehicle inspections because they’re hidden. This is because lighter topical defects and swirl mark scratches layer on top of RIDS, camouflaging them.
These large and deep scratches quickly reveal themselves during the paint correction process.
Frequently, the removal of multiple layers of small random defects, and swirl mark scratches, exposes the larger underlying RIDS. These deeper scratches were previously covered, or completely hidden, by the multiple layers of topical scratches and defects.
Depending on the severity of the scratch’s depth, RIDS may either be fully removed or improved. If a RID appears sharp and white, or is able to be felt with a fingernail, it may only be improved– not removed. Improvement occurs by rounding off the pronounced sharp edges of the scratch, thus lowering the length of the scratch valley. The shallower the valley of the scratch, the less surface area available to refract multiple beams of light in different directions.
Sometimes, after detailing services are completed, some vehicle owners might claim that a detailer has created deep scratches into their paint. This is not the case with RIDS.
The good news: this customer misunderstanding is completely avoidable with basic client education and by setting realistic service expectations. Detailers should always inform clients about RIDS during in-depth paint correction service consultations, or vehicle intake inspections, before services begin.
Bird Droppings a.k.a. “Bird Bombs”
Bird Droppings or “Bird Bombs” are topical (above surface) paint defects, unless they are left to sit on vehicle surfaces for extended periods of time. If left long enough, bird bombs may morph into a more severe below surface paint defects called bird etchings.
Bird droppings can etch paint due to the extreme combination of acidity and protein contained within the droppings. See the section below for more information on bird drop etchings.
To review; bird bombs, if quickly removed from painted surfaces, can pose little to no harm of etching into clear coat.
PICTURE ABOVE: A Bird Bomb sits on top of paint, baking into the sun. If left on paint long enough it could become a below surface defect, known as a bird etching.
Bird Drop Etchings
Bird Drop Etchings or Bird Etchings appear as subtle recessed blemishes in the surface of clear coat. Think of them as a mini craters in your clear coat. The depth and severity of an etching crater is based on the equation: strength of dropping + time allowed to dwell on surface.
Bird Etchings are dangerous for vehicle surfaces due to a combination of uric acids and proteins contained with in the dropping. The strength of the uric acid and proteins in bird droppings greatly varies due to the type of bird and its diet. In rural areas, bird bombs are often more acidic and aggressive on paint, due to diets high in seeds and other vegetation low on the Ph scale. City birds may not be too far behind though as many regularly consume high amounts of chemicals and highly processed foods.
Many light bird etchings are removed via machine polishing, a.k.a. paint correction. However, severely deep bird etchings might only be moderately improved by more aggressive correction techniques– and not fully removed.
So, before trying to “hero remove” a single bird etching in the middle of a hood– ask yourself one question… Is one bird etching potentially worth jeopardizing the integrity of the paint system of an entire panel (a full hood) and risking the out-of-pocket cost of a repaint and a pride swallowing call to the vehicle owner?
Its worth discussing the realistic expectations of deep defects with clients before taking actions that could potentially harm their vehicle.
Light Water Spots
Light 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.
Light water spot removal is generally very simple. They are simply removed by a traditional wash, rinseless wash, waterless wash, or even a detail spray wipe down.
Medium Water Spots
Medium 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 medium water spots are too deep for chemical removal. Its often possible to completely remove medium water spots, or minimize the appearance of deeper etching, with machine polishing.
Heavy or Severe Water Spots
Heavy or Severe Water Spots are the worst type of water spots on automotive surfaces, typically paint. These have etched and caused below surface damage to the paint system or substrate they contact.
The severity of the heavy or sever spots, and their associated damage, can depend on a number of factors , including but not limited to:
- Type and concentration of minerals and/or chemicals contained within the water contacting the surface
- The type of paint, surface, and/or substrate the minerals interact with (think low solids non-metallic or softer single stage paint systems)
- The ambient conditions at the time of water contact (hot and sunny vs. cools and shaded, etc.)
- The length of time the minerals have been in contact with the paint system
- The ambient conditions the water spots are exposed to– after forming on vehicle surfaces
- If multiple layers of water spots exist, stacked upon one another
Single stage paint, gel coat, and window glass are all much more porous than modernized catalyzed base coat/clear coat paint. Due to their porous nature any minerals contained within sitting water have a higher chance to penetrate deeply.
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 has recovered from swelling (cooled off) and returned to its normal state, the water spots are again visible.
These are mostly noticed hours or days after paint correction and or a ceramic coating installation.
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.
“Road Tar” is a combination of hydrocarbons (exhaust) mixed with rubber particles transferred from tire tread onto paved surfaces. Tar most commonly builds up on lower rocker panels or areas behind wheels, but may be thrown onto any surface by other vehicles.
Road tar generally builds up 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 become molten like and to easily kick up onto vehicles. It is best to use a solvent to loosen, dissolve, or completely remove road tar particles. A clay bar/ physical decontamination 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 the paint’s increased size (mass), the paint defects are hidden within the swelling. Paint swelling poses many problems because the defects covering up defects or denying detailers access these defects while the swelling persists.
Most often paint swelling is directly caused from paint correction (a.k.a. ‘buffing’ or ‘paint polishing’) by introducing too much heat and or other swelling agents to the paint system.
OCDCarCare In-depth Automotive Paint Swelling Education Articles:
Topical Bonded Contamination
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 when 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 a synthetic clay substitute. The clay, paired with a lubricating spray, glides across the painted surface, embedding the contamination within itself.
Industrial Fallout and Brake Dust are unique topical contaminants. Both may sit on top of surfaces and also embed themselves within the porous paint structure. If left too long they can cause damage to the paint system in the way of rust. A common example of this is seen with ‘wheel pitting.’ When brake dust if left too long, or severely concentrated it can cause damage to wheels. Commonly when barrels of wheels are not cleaned entirely for extended periods of time they can start to accumulate small craters or pits.
To fallout and ferrous iron contamination from the paint structure, and cracks and crevices, a dedicated ferrous iron removal product is necessary. Ferrous iron removers react to the iron in the contamination particles and change color. Typically the reaction causes the product to run a color between red and purple. The color changing reaction for ferrous iron removal products is known as ‘bleeding.’
Tree Sap, a topical paint defect, occurs when sap droplets, or smaller particles of liquid sap, collect on vehicle surfaces. 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 it eventually hardens, becoming resin like. When sap hardens to a hard resin it can lead to etching (recessed craters) within a vehicle’s paint system. Even if tree sap does not etch paint it has the ability to permanently discolor portions of the paint where it sat for long periods of time.
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! Better yet away from any and all trees whenever possible.
Tree Sap removal methods depend on how long the sap has sat on the surface. Methods include: washing with warm soapy water, IPA (isopropyl alcohol), or topical decontamination with a clay bar. Chemical based solvents may help to dissolve the sap’s bond to paint. Sometimes mixing sap removal methods is necessary to fully eliminate stubborn tree sap from a variety of automotive surfaces.
Paint Transfer Marks or Paint Scuffs
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 is a topical paint defect. Its caused by free floating paint that found a home on a surface. During the spray painting process, liquid paint is atomized into tiny particles which can float hundreds of feet through the air from the painting area. No matter how drastic the precautions taken, some amount of overspray will escape the painting area.
Removal of paint overspray depends on the type of paint used (water or oil based) and the amount of time the paint sat on the surface. Some paint removal is as simple as a car washing. More stubborn overspray may require a clay bar. Sometimes stubborn overspray requires a combination of a solvent, used to loosen or dissolve the paint, with the friction of a clay bar for final removal.
Bug Guts, Dried Insect Parts, & Lovebugs
Bug Guts and Lovebugs are topical contaminants with the ability to create below surface paint defects (etching) if not removed ASAP. This is because the remnants of insects contain proteins (acidic in nature) that are potentially VERY harmful to automotive finishes. The larger the insects, the more protein they may contain.
Mention the word “love bugs” to anyone in the south and southeastern United States and watch them immediately 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!
If you have many bug guts on your vehicle during a trip, and are unable to wash your vehicle, avoid direct keeping the bugged up panel out of sunlight as much as possible. The more the bug guts are allowed to heat cycle, the higher the potential that acidic proteins within the bugs can seep further into the paint system, causing more damage over time.
Paint Oxidation & Color fading from UV Exposure (non clear coat failure)
Paint Oxidation & Color Fading – These are considered below surface paint defects or issues because they occur at the clear coat or base coat level.
These paint issues are caused by long term exposure the sun’s UV rays and elemental exposure. Married together, oxidation and UV rays cause paint to appear dull. In more extreme cases the paint looks 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. This classification is given because both conditions require polishing (abrasion) to remove.
To fix the appearance of oxidation and fading, the “dead” top layer of oxidized paint must be removed. Removal of oxidation causes paint to appear optically clear, restoring the appearance of the paint’s color, clarity, gloss, and reflectivity. However, paint oxidation and fading are common warning of vehicle surface neglect. These symptoms are tell tale signs that total paint (clear coat) failure may be in the near future.
Clear Coat Failure
Clear Coat Failure is a below surface paint defect. The paint system has been so jeopardized by oxidation, UV, or other chemical agents, that it completely fails. Eventually this failed paint system delaminates entirely from vehicle surfaces.
After clear coat, the topical protective layer of paint, completely fails the elements begin to immediately wear down 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 (see the picture above.) Sometimes paint failure is so severe it looks like skin shed by a snake.
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 to repaint the affected areas.
Dirt Nibs Embedded in Clear Coat
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 when paint booths contain loose contamination particles. Inside improperly prepared booths, loose dust and debris particles are kicked into the air during the painting process. Dust is then pushed onto the painted panels by the directed air flow of the spray gun and pushed into the fresh 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 more than 3-4 nibs exist, per square foot, then repainting the panel is the fastest and most cost effective fix.
Paint Checking a.k.a Crow’s Feet
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 often appears as many individual cracks adjacent to one another. Other times cracking forms a large network of connected cracks, appearing like a dried up river bed. The name ‘crows feet’ stems from the appearance; dozens or hundreds of marks that look like crow tracks.
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 for modern base coat & clear coat paint.
On modern (bc/cc) vehicles, crow’s feet typically indicates a repainted section was performed in a cheap and quick fashion.
Other causes might be:
- poor factory paint
- super low quality and/or rushed prep work
- the materials used were of poor quality to begin with
There is no cure or fix for paint suffering from paint checking or crow’s feet because it is paint failure. The only remedy is to sandblast the afflicted panels down to bare substrate, then prime and repaint them.
Solvent Pop and Pin Holes
Solvent Pop, a below surface defect, occurs when paint layers are sprayed too close together in time. When an additional layer of paint is sprayed on top of an already out-gassing layer, the top layer becomes skin-like. This skin-like layer traps all out-gassing fumes, from the fresh paint layer previously sprayed beneath it, causing the many bubbles.
Generally, in automotive painting, the best practice is to give the first paint layer adequate time to set up. This allows the solvents within the paint to evaporate, or flash off and not interfere with additional paint layers. Solvent pop frequently occurs with unskilled painters or when paint jobs are rushed. Sometimes, these jobs are so rushed that additional paint layers may be literally sprayed within moments of the previous layer.
Solvent pop ranges in appearance from a series of trapped bubbles, to tiny pin holes, or a combination of both.
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
- Improper thinner/reducer selection for paint booth environmental conditions
Pin Holes are the bubbles from solvent pop which eventually burst through the top (skin-like) layer of paint. The look like tiny little “pin sized” holes in the paint’s 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 found on vehicles on the road. Defects such as: paint runs, fisheyes, shrinkage (dieback), and dry spray have importance, yet occur much less frequently. While these defects are important to understand, for article length considerations they aren’t listed.
We hope this article serves as a useful resource for the auto detailing community and the paint polishing public.
“ALWAYS Keep Learning to Strengthen Your Passion & Your Business.”
© Christopher Brown – OCDCarCare Los Angeles
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- OCDCarCare on Ammo NYC Podcast: Auto Detailing Lighting – Ep #38 - 21 November, 2019