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Touch-Up Paint Options for Your Car

Repaint Scratches and Road Rash Without Dropping a Bundle

Every time you walk up to your car, that scratch on your driver side door looks like a hideous, gaping sore. You'd like to have it repainted but you don't have the time or money to take it to a body shop. What are your touch-up paint options?

With a little elbow grease and a few inexpensive tools, you can do it yourself with a spray can or, depending on the type of damage, a bottle of touch-up paint. If that seems too intimidating, you can hire a mobile paint-repair technician to do the job for a fraction of what body shops charge. Either route you take, you will likely be pleasantly surprised with the result.

I went the DIY route to repaint several areas on my family's second car, a 2000 Nissan Sentra GXE. And I spoke with the owner of a 2009 Porsche 911 who hired a professional technician to retouch the road rash on his hood. The results in both cases were better than expected, and the price was much lower. Here is a description of both repairs, starting with the repair to my Nissan.

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The driver's door on my Sentra had multiple scratches. Also, the paint on the side mirrors was oxidized into a white-ish blob in a shape that looked like an undiscovered continent on an ancient map. Then there was the bumper: It looked as if it had been parked against a barbed wire fence. We don't drive this car much, but when we did, it was an embarrassment. It was time for action.

My first stop was the Nissan dealership. But I found only touch-up paint in tiny bottles, as if it were fingernail polish. This definitely wouldn't do the job. I bought touch-up spray paint from a chain auto repair store and just eyeballed the color. That made the scratch so much worse.

Turning to the Internet, I found a number of companies selling paint they claim to be factory-matched, based on the vehicle's paint code, including in New Orleans. I ordered an aerosol spray paint can, a prep kit and a handle that attaches to the spray can and makes spraying easier. My total cost was $79, plus shipping.

Once my paint and tools arrived, I was eager to see how well the color matched, so I sprayed some on the door with little preparation except for wiping down the area. Even so, the result was impressive. At a glance, it is impossible to spot the repainted areas. The gaping sore of damage that irritated me every time I saw my car was gone.

I was curious to know how much better the paint job could have been if I had been more diligent in reading the directions, or watching the how-to videos on the Web site or on YouTube. So I called the company's owner, Jeremy Thurnau.

"Without trying to brag, I will say the results can be as good as a body shop," Thurnau said. "Most body shops do great work but you can't get your bumper repainted for $100."

Thurnau says the paint his company sells is high quality, costing from $200-$800 per gallon. Compare that to the $20-per-gallon paint in the "shake and shoot" spray cans sold at auto-parts chain stores. Furthermore, Thurnau's site helps car owners find their vehicles' paint codes, which can be difficult to locate. Using the paint code, rather than eyeballing the color as I did, helps get a good color match.

Thurnau says most simple automotive repainting jobs take only about two hours, including prep, sanding and painting. Most of the hard work and time involved is sanding the old paint and then waiting patiently for the coats of paint to dry.

Common problems Thurnau sees are customers forgetting to order clearcoat, which is a nearly transparent protective coating. They also fail to test the color match before applying paint to the vehicle. Another mistake is taping off and repainting just a tiny square. This makes it difficult to blend the new paint with the factory paint.

Southern California Porsche owner Alec Barinholtz preferred to put his car in the hands of a professional. Flying rocks and debris had pitted the black paint on the nose of Barinholtz's 911, leaving highly visible white specks. He called in mobile touch-up technician Steve Bode, owner of the unusually named Quinn the Eskimo. Barinholtz also asked Bode to repair a deep, "nasty" inch-long scratch in the passenger door.

Working out of a Ford Transit Connect minivan, Bode uses and sells paint from, which is specially formulated for filling scratches and pits. Bode applies a small puddle of paint to the car and then squeegees it across the area, filling the tiny depressions. He wipes off the excess paint with a special solution.

Many of the cars Bode works on are exotics. "I'm pretty well known by the Porsche crowd," he says. But he'll also repair less exotic daily drivers. And if you want to try your own hand at this, you can buy the materials from Bode or and Bode will advise you on how to use them.

Before attempting it yourself, check out Bode's blog.

And, by the way, Bode isn't a fan of paint pens — he's often called in afterwards to fix what he refers to as "paint bombs."

He doesn't try to discourage people from fixing their own cars. "I'm more interested in making cars look pretty than making a lot of money," he says. He calls it a "no-mistake process." However, after working on more than 15,000 cars, he's seen just about any injury a car can sustain.

For most jobs, Bode charges from $150-$225. The DIY kits from are about $65. A body shop would charge up to $700 per body panel for repainting. Scratches that are too large for Bode can sometimes be repaired by a mobile spray paint technician. Those companies charge about $300 per panel.

"The results are pretty impressive," Barinholtz says of Bode's work on his car. "Small pinholes from road rash pretty much disappear," and the scratch is "much improved." He adds that Bode's price was $175, compared to the $2,000 quote he got from a body shop.

"I'm a perfectionist, but at that price, I can live with the fix to my factory paint," Barinholtz says.

It's amazing how even little scratches in your car's paint can be such eyesores. And it's just as remarkable that an inexpensive repair can greatly improve the look of your car. But it's important to know your options and make the right choice for your repair.