Technically Speaking: How to Restore Corvette Single-Stage Paints

Rejuvenating older original paint

James Berry Nov 1, 2013 0 Comment(s)
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In our last two installments, we addressed the proper techniques for washing, clay-barring, polishing, and waxing your Corvette by hand. This month we’ll focus on rejuvenating older original paint, as opposed to freshening up a more recent finish.

The first thing you’ll need to determine is whether your car uses a single-stage or a basecoat/clearcoat finish. Single-stage paints are usually some type of lacquer or enamel paint. These were used exclusively in the automotive industry until about 1985, when most U.S. manufacturers switched to a base/clear product. Basically, single-stage paints have the color and gloss mixed together, while basecoat/clearcoat paints are two-stage, meaning they use a base color coat topped with clear to provide gloss and protection.

Luckily, single-stage paints are very easy to restore, since most problems tend to be on the surface. Simply removing the “dead” top layer of paint will usually reveal a finish that can still be buffed to a surprising luster.

Single-stage metallic paint can be more difficult to refurbish, as the embedded metallic flakes—which can’t be reached from the surface—tend to oxidize and darken over time. Single-stage metallic silvers are the hardest to recondition, due to the amount of aluminum used as a pigment.

If you have an older car and want to find out which type of paint it wears, there’s a simple test you can conduct. Working in an inconspicuous area like a doorjamb, place some polish on a cloth and rub the cloth against the paint. If the color rubs off on the cloth, the paint is most likely single-stage.


Luckily, single-stage paints are very easy to restore, since most problems tend to be on the surface. Simply removing the “dead” top layer of paint will usually reveal a finish that can still be buffed to a surprising luster.


As we mentioned in our previous installments, appropriate exterior preparation is a must to prevent scratching and swirling caused by dirt and other contaminants being ground into the paint during the rejuvenation process. Good surface prep will also allow finish-care products to adhere better to the painted surface, providing a long-lasting high-gloss shine.

Remember, do not use dish soap, laundry soap, or household cleaners on your Corvette’s painted surfaces. These products are designed to remove and dissolve grease and oil. They’re also hard on rubber components and, in some instances, could damage your finish. Genuine car-wash products contain an anti-spotting agent, are pH-balanced, and are formulated to loosen and lift surface contaminants without stripping away waxes and oils. Follow the cleaning procedure outlined in Parts 1 and 2 of this series.

Paint Inspection and Problem Areas

  • If preserving original paint, it’s important to evaluate the condition of the finish before working on it. Factory single-stage paints are thin from the manufacturer, so look for spots where primer may be showing through. This commonly occurs at sharp edges and seams, such as the fender ridge line. Always be very careful when polishing or waxing around these areas. Remember: It’s acceptable to leave a few minor defects in the paint, in the interest of overall finish preservation.
  • Completely avoid any areas where paint is flaking off. Even using a microfiber towel here can exacerbate the problem.
  • A chalky, whitish color on the surface of the paint could be oxidation. Lacquer and enamel paints are prone to this when exposed to air and moisture over time. While this is usually a topical problem that can be repaired during polishing, extensive oxidation may require that you use a compound to remove the oxidized paint from the surface. This will expose a clean surface that can then be polished to a high gloss. Single-stage paints are soft, so be sure to utilize the least aggressive product possible to get the job done.
  • Single-stage paints are more porous than basecoat/clearcoats. As a result, the oils they’re made with can leach out onto the finish over time. This can dry out the paint, weakening it and causing spider cracks. Special care will need to be taken in such instances. Keep the car moisturized and out of direct sunlight, as well as extreme heat or cold; this will help slow the aging process.

Understanding the Polishing Process

The product you choose to use on single-stage paint is important, since some compounds use solvents that can dry the paint and cause damage.

I generally try not to promote any specific brands in these columns, but my father was in the collector-car hobby before me, and he passed down a product that I have used on original-paint cars since my childhood: Meguiar’s Mirror Glaze #7. This glaze will condition the paint as it cleans, leaving a deep, high-gloss shine.

Polishing by Hand

1. Start with a clean, cool vehicle and work in a shaded area.

2. Work in small, 20x20-inch sections.

3. Apply a nickel-size amount of polish to your towel. I use a microfiber towel when applying Mirror Glaze #7, as this combination offers a gentle scrubbing action that gently removes oxidation while infusing polishing oils into the paint.

4. Use a circular motion to apply the prod4. uct over your working area. Use overlapping passes, going left to right or up and down, working the product in until it breaks down.

5. Remove the polish with a microfiber towel after it becomes hazy. Unlike wax, polish should not be allowed to dry completely to a white residue. Otherwise, it can be difficult to remove.

6. Use a fresh microfiber towel regularly throughout the process to ensure you don’t carry debris from the cleaning action and scratch the finish.

7. When working with single-stage paint, you will notice some color transfer onto your microfiber towel; this is normal and no cause for alarm.

8. After you’ve wiped off the polish residue, check your work under proper lighting. If you’re unhappy with your results, repeat the process using different pressure and speed as necessary.

9. Remember, single-stage paints have a tendency to oxidize. Accordingly, you’ll need to repeat the polishing process approximately four times a year (depending on how the car is stored) to help remove the oxidation and replenish lost oils.


The product you choose to use on single-stage paint is important, since some compounds use solvents that can dry the paint and cause damage


Polish vs. Wax

Remember that polishes do not protect your car’s finish. Rather, they’re used to remove small amounts of the paint’s surface and restore its original luster. Waxing, on the other hand, applies a layer of protection on top of the paint, to protect it from airborne contaminants, bugs, tree sap, and more.

For unsurpassed protection on an original-paint vehicle, use a carnauba wax at least four times a year. Carnauba is a natural product preferred by most collectors, since it imparts a rich, warm glow to the finish.

Waxing by Hand

1. Start with a clean, cool vehicle and work in a shaded area.

2. Work with a dry vehicle. Water droplets will dry too quickly, causing the product to streak and making it hard to remove.

3. Work in small, 20x20-inch sections.

4. Apply a small amount of wax to your microfiber or foam applicator pad. When working with wax, you want to use the thinnest coat you can get. A thicker coat won’t offer more shine and depth, but it will make the wax more difficult to remove and cause streaking.

5. If a second coat is required, check the label to see how long the initial one needs to cure (usually 12-20 hours).

6. Use a circular motion to apply the product over your work area. Use overlapping passes, moving left to right or up and down. There’s no need to work the wax 6. into6. the paint; instead, the idea is to apply a layer of protection 6. on top of6. the finish.

7. Putting a coat of wax over stripes and other decals will help protect them. A spray wax works best here, since a paste or liquid can leave a white residue. Take care in these areas to avoid lifting the decals along their edges.

8. Use a microfiber towel to remove the wax after it becomes hazy. Remember, the statically charged fibers of the microfiber grab waxy residue so there is less dusting. Have several towels available to replace ones that become coated with wax, and rotate them frequently.

9. After you’ve wiped off the polish residue, check your work under proper lighting. If you notice streaks or an uneven shine, you can usually buff them away using a quick-detail spray.

Closing Thoughts

There are many variables that come into play when performing paint rejuvenation on an older Corvette. Sometimes polishing is more effective when the product is worked in using friction and/or heat to help break down the abrasives. While this can conceivably be performed with a buffer, I prefer the hand method when working with original-paint vehicles, since there’s less chance of burning through the thin, aging finish.

Good luck with your paint restoration, and if you have any tips for helping preserve these beautiful machines, please feel free to submit them. We all need to work together to preserve these important pieces of automotive history for future generations.


Questions?

Got a question for our Tech Corner expert? Just jot it down on a paper towel or a lightly soiled shop rag and send it to us at VETTE Magazine, Attn: Technically Speaking, 9036 Brittany Way, Tampa, FL 33619. Alternatively, you can submit your question via the Web, by emailing it to us at vette@sorc.com. Be sure to put “Technically Speaking” in the subject line.

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