How to Wet Sand a Car

Closeup of mechanic's hand sanding bumper

Maintaining the glossy appearance of a fresh paint job on your car requires regular cleaning, buffing, and shining. But even the most careful car owners can’t escape the inevitability of finding little scratches and scuffs caused by bushes, trees, and sometimes even the weather.

While finding these imperfections on your car’s surface can be disheartening, it doesn’t necessarily call for a complete car paint overhaul.

So, how can a car paint job be restored to its natural lustre without a full repaint? Here, we’ll explain the wet sanding process, when to use it, and our top tips for achieving the best results.

What is Wet Sanding?

Wet sanding is a process intended to smooth out and remove small, surface-level scratches from car paint. A smooth, like-new appearance can be achieved when wet sanding is completed to a high standard. It can also help remove the orange peel effect, where car paint becomes pebbled and uneven, resembling the surface of orange skin.

The process of wet sanding involves sanding the area with dampened sandpaper to create an even surface, allowing the existing paint to bleed into any gaps. However, it can be difficult to use the right pressure and avoid removing any deeper paint layers.

How to Know If Wet Sanding is Right for You

It’s important to know that wet sanding can’t fix all paint scratches and imperfections. For example, scratches deep enough to expose the metal layer can be much more difficult to repair. For these, wet sanding alone wouldn’t be enough.

However, scratches or imperfections in the clear coat or upper layers of paint can usually be restored with this method.

How to Wet Sand a Car: Step-by-step

Wet sanding requires several tools and equipment. These are as follows:

  • Sandpaper
  • Sandpaper squeegee/handle
  • Bucket and water
  • Car cleaning solution
  • Sponge
  • Microfibre cloths
  • Car wax
  • Polishing compound
  • A buffer
  • Cloth tape

Armed with the right equipment, the in-depth steps below should give you all the information you need to wet sand any scratches or scuffs in your car’s paintwork.

Young man sanding a car bumper with sandpaper. First step before painting car's plastic bumper cover. Worker using protective gear while working to keep from inhaling harmful fumes.

Step 1: Assess the Damage

Before doing anything, you’ll need to decide which sandpaper is right for the job. Light damage can be restored using just one type of sandpaper, while more significant scratches often require extra sanding.

For light scratches and scuffs or when working on a new paint job, you can usually reach for the 2000 or 3000-grit sandpaper straight away. However, it can be beneficial to start with 1200 or 1500 grit paper for scratches deeper than the clear coat of paint.

Step 2: Prepare the car

The car must be cleaned thoroughly using a sponge dipped in a specialist car cleaning solution mixed with water. Once the car has been cleaned and rinsed, it should be carefully dried with a clean microfibre cloth. Ensure there are no streaks or smudges since this can adversely affect the outcome of the wet sanding.

At this stage, the tape can be used to mask off the panels you’ll be working on. Our general-purpose and premium cloth protection tapes provide the perfect tape solutions because of their highly adhesive, moisture-resistant, and temperature-resistant properties. These will guarantee that adjacent panels remain unaffected during the sanding and buffing processes.

Step 3: Wet the sandpaper

Fill a bucket with water and add a small amount of automotive soap. This will provide the lubricant for the sandpaper to prevent it from burning the paint when force is applied.

Cut your sandpaper in half lengthways so that it fits against the squeegee or handle and soak the bottom half of each section in the bucket of water for around 5 minutes. The lower portion of each strip should be fully saturated in soapy water, and the top half should remain dry to help it attach to your squeegee or handle.

Closeup of hand sanding car bumper

Step 4: Begin sanding the affected area

Once you’ve attached a suitable grit of sandpaper to your choice of sanding tool, you can begin sanding in a back-and-forth motion, applying light pressure as you go. It can take time to determine how much pressure is required, so take your time with this step. Too much pressure can damage the deeper levels of paint and make the process more difficult.

You should notice the colour from the paint bleeding into the water and tinting it, which then begins to seep into the scratches and scuffs. If the water darkens, this is usually a sign that you’re applying too much pressure.

It’s also important to keep an eye on your sandpaper and check that it doesn’t become dry during the sanding stage. The heat from dry sandpaper can burn the paint and cause more scratches or scuffs, which might mean the entire panel requires repainting. Add water as necessary and swap out the strips of sandpaper if they become too soggy or dry.

Remember, you’ll need to repeat this step first with lower-grit sandpaper and then with higher grit for deeper scratches. For lighter damage, you can skip straight to the higher-grit sandpaper.

Step 5: Treat the sanded area

Rinse off any soap or debris from the area and dry thoroughly away from direct sunlight. The buffing process can then begin with a buffing pad and polish at a medium speed using low pressure. Again, too much pressure can burn the paint and cause issues with your finish, so start gently.

Finally, apply wax to the area to add a layer of protection for the paint. Wet sanding can cause a slight dip in the affected area, and wax can help build this back up. Wax should be applied with a soft cloth using gentle circular motions. A high-quality wax can make a huge difference at this stage, so it’s worth investing a bit more into the wax you use. This method should provide an even finish, so long as you gently wipe away any excess once you’ve finished and allow it to dry fully.

Tips for Achieving the Best Results

Looking to improve your wet sanding skills? Below, we’ll go through our top tips for producing a high-quality finish.

Close up of master with tattooing hands preparing the hood of deep blue sport car for polish in workshop, slow motion

  • Use cloth tape to protect adjacent panels: Wet sanding can be concentrated on specific panels, so using high-quality cloth tape can guarantee the non-damaged panels stay that way.
  • Avoid using a sander: A sanding machine might seem time-efficient, but it can leave swirls in the paint and provides much less control than hand-sanding.
  • Use gentle pressure to start: It can be easy to sand too deep and damage the car’s paint, so take care when beginning the sanding process.
  • Sand in straight lines: Creating an evenly-sanded surface can be much easier when the sandpaper is rubbed in back-and-forth motions using the same pressure levels.

For more information about our full range of helpful JTAPE products, please visit our online store, or contact us to find your local distributor.

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