Understanding the 3 Different Types Of Car Scratches

Car Scratches

Depending on how educated you are on the topic of painting cars, getting a scratch on your car can seem like the end of the world.

While scratches are unsightly and annoying to look at, all scratches are repairable. Providing you haven’t had a collision which has broken the paint, you will be able to remove scratches and swirl marks yourself.

Whether you’re someone that wants to avoid getting ripped off or a striving Bodyshop professional, It’s important that you know how the painting system works, the different types of scratches and the severity of each scratch.

Knowing your stuff will save you the embarrassment of going to a Bodyshop and asking them to respray a panel because of light scratches… and it could save you a lot of money too.

Understanding the layers of car paint

On a modern-day car, you’ll find 3 layers of paint. These layers are Primer, Color Coat and Clearcoat.

The Primer is the first coat and it’s applied to the metal surface of your car. Its job is to improve paint adhesion but it also comes with added benefits such as increased paint durability and protective qualities to help prevent rust and corrosion.

The Color Coat is exactly how it sounds. It’s often referred to as the base coat. The main purpose is to provide the color to your paint job.

You can get many different colors of base coat, there are even many different shades of the same paint code and that’s before you think about whether the paint is a solid color, metallic or pearlescent.

As a beginner, you would probably think this is the thickest layer of paint on your car, but it’s actually the thinnest.

The Clear Coat is the final, most outer coat that gets applied. It’s incredibly thick and it’s what gives your car the glossy finish. It also acts another protective layer and it needs to be durable enough to avoid any type of abrasion and stable enough to withstand UV light.

The different types of car scratches

There are 3 different types of car scratches. The price of each repair can vary massively based on the depth, area, and severity of each scratch, you may even be able to repair some at home yourself.

Keep reading to find out the difference between clearcoat, basecoat and primer scratches.

Clearcoat scratches

Scratches to the clearcoat are by far the most common. Most of the time you won’t be able to feel them and they may only be visible in certain lighting.

Because the clear coat is the outermost layer, it interacts with the environment and is susceptible to anything and everything that the world throws at it.

Clear-Coat scratches can be caused by poor maintenance techniques, brushing / leaning against your car, road debris and pretty much anything else that will come into contact with your paint.

Thankfully because the clear coat is extremely thick and transparent the scratches are inexpensive and easy to repair, with a little bit of learning, you can do it at home!

That being said, while they’re easy to repair if you want to repair them properly it can be very time-consuming. Most detailers would suggest a wash, paint decontamination, as well as a cut and polish stage.

Color Coat / Base Coat Scratches

Scratches to your color coat will penetrate the clear coat but will not expose any of the cars bare metal.

Unfortunately scratches to your color coat are very obvious. They’re easy to see, easy to feel, will result in discoloration and may even expose primer. Because of this, they’re a lot harder to repair.

The repair for a color coat scratch requires new paint. This means color matching and blending if you want a perfect repair. You can opt for touch up paint and hours of frustration, however, If the scratch is frustrating you, odds are poor touch up work will annoy you just as much.

For me, it’ll always be better to leave paint jobs to the professionals. It can be expensive, however, it’ll look factory new again.

Scratches that affect the color coat and beyond are a result of malicious intent such as keying, or minor accidents. They’re not that common unless you’re accident-prone or have many enemies.

A light brush against your car will not cause a scratch in the base coat.

Primer Scratches

These scratches are the deepest. They go through all of the paint layers on your car and will expose the metal or plastic panel that’s damaged.

When the metal surface is exposed, it no longer has the same protection that it had when it was painted. If you leave the surface untreated, even for a day or two, your car will be at threat of rusting. (Especially if it’s during a harsh winter).

If you want to avoid very costly repairs it’s best you get this sorted out as soon as possible. It would be very easy for a $400 paint job to escalate into having to replace a panel or weld repair, which would cost you a lot more.

Depending on the value of your car, you may not find the repair to be worthwhile which is fair enough.

Still, I would suggest no matter what else you chose to do, research some local body shops and get various different professionals to give you opinions and price estimates. That way you can make a semi-educated decision on how to proceed.

Single Stage vs 2 Stage

The clear difference between single-stage and 2 stage paint is the painting process.

Single Stage Paint = Primer & Base Coat
2 Stage Paint = Primer, Base Coat & Clear Coat.

When applying single stage paint you’ll only have to spray primer and base coat onto your vehicle. The base coat has ingredients that provide a somewhat glossy finish, but it looks much duller than 2 stage paint and doesn’t offer you the benefits that clear coat does.

When applying 2 stage paint you’ll need to spray primer, base coat and clear coat. This will cost you a lot more in material and labor than a single-stage paint job would.

Providing it’s done correctly, a 2 stage paint job will provide you with a much better gloss and a thick clear coat that will protect your base coat from environmental damage.

Almost every modern vehicle that is mass-produced will have a 2 stage paint job.

There’s no clear way of telling what the paint of your car is, however, there are ways to find out.

Research your car, google it and find out what other people are saying
Single-stage paint is more prone to oxidation.

Finally, rub a mild cutting compound onto the paint of your car, if there is color on your towel or sponge after rubbing, it’s more than likely a single stage paint job.

5 Most common causes of car scratches

There are numerous causes of car scratches, some of which are far more serious than others. It’s important you know about the most common causes so that you can prevent your paint from falling victim to scratches.

Improper car washing techniques

Most people care that their car is kept clean and shiny, however, they don’t care about how it’s done.

Because of this, the most common cause of car scratches is definitely improper washing technique. I’ve seen too many cars get rinsed by automated car washes and abrasive brushes to think otherwise.

I like to believe that people do this because they’re uneducated, they don’t know how to prevent scratches while washing cars. I would like to think it’s the same for most car wash businesses, however, it’s pretty obvious that careless washing techniques lead to a more “efficient” and profitable business.

Road debris

Stone chips and scratches often happen as a result of road debris.

When you’re on the road, stones and other missiles are getting thrown around the atmosphere by other vehicles and sometimes even strong winds.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that road debris being thrown backward by another car will travel with a lot of force resulting in scratches or worse, stone chips.

Besides installing paint protection film (clear bra), there’s not much you can do about road debris. You can avoid being close to other vehicles, especially on loose surfaces, but it’s not always a viable option.

Damage from road debris is a given. It’s just part of day to day life with a daily driver. It will happen, you just have to accept it.


Bumps, scrapes and heavy collisions are going to be around for the rest of our lives. Until cars are 100% fully automated, there’s always going to be room for human error.

An accident will often create many deep scratches as you’re colliding with a solid, sometimes immovable object.

In some very lucky instances, it will be a light collision and you’ll be able to buff it out, but if you collide with another vehicle, wall or fire hydrant, you can expect paint transfer and deep scratching.

Human Interaction & Vandalism

It’s no secret that nobody will ever care for your car as much as you do.

Many people don’t understand the consequences of touching cars, leaning against them or leaving hard objects on them. I’ve had many friends tell me to chill out when they’re rubbing against my car, saying that I’m too precious. Sure it’s only light scratches, but it’s many hours of polishing them away.

Depending on where you live and what type of people you have around you, there are people who will intentionally damage vehicles.

I’ve seen many drunks slide across cars with buttons and zippers on their clothing digging into the paintwork, and many cars that have been a victim of keying.

Unfortunately, you cannot prevent jealousy and immoral human behavior. If you have a valuable car you should really have a garage where you can store it and keep it safe.


It’s not very often that we consider how animals affect our cars. Depending on where you live and what type of person you are, you may have animals that interact with your car.

If you own a dog and often put it into the boot, check out your bumper and you may be surprised how many light scratches and swirl marks are on it.

Another bad habit that you may be letting your pets away with is coming up to greet you when you get home, they’ll come out to the car and jump up against the paintwork with excitement. It’s no secret that their sharp claws tend to scratch.

Even if you don’t have pets, odds are animals will often come into contact with your car. It’s not uncommon for birds to land on cars and cats to jump across them.

You may be able to minimize this by keeping your car off the street and your pet away from your car, but again, it’s something that is hard to prevent in most cases.

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About the Author: JoshWilkins

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