How to Restore Your Headlights




Introduction: How to Restore Your Headlights

This is my first instructable, so I hope all goes well.

Headlights begin to fade over time, and there's no way around it. As your headlights fade, the amount of light that makes it out of the headlight becomes less, and before you know it, driving at night becomes difficult, but more importantly, dangerous. This is due to oxidation on the lens. Once oxidation begins to take place, it quickly degrades the headlight lens, because polycarbonate is a porous material.  Wet sanding (what we will be doing) helps to remove this oxidation and restore your headlights to a safer condition.

I have been restoring headlights now (mine and a few friends and family) for quite some time, and I feel that the knowledge should be passed to others. So without further adieu, let's get started.

What you will need:

-Shop Towels
-Sand Paper with values: 800, 1000, and 2000 grit.
-A Small Towel, Rag, or Microfiber Cloth
-3M Rubbing Compund
-Automotive Masking tape
-A Drill (corded or cordless)
-Compound Pad (Wool pad works as well), with drill adapter
-A Spray Bottle with Water
-Rubbing Alcohol
-A Small Measuring Cup (one you don't use for food)
-Minwax's Helmsman Spar Urethane : Clear Gloss.You need this specific kind.
-Odorless Mineral Spirits
-2 to 3 Hours put aside (depending on your attention to detail)

Step 1:

First step is preparation. We want to get everything ready. Remember, this will take some time, so you might wanna get some music out and a couple of speakers to help pass the time. This is also the time you need to take to fill your spray bottle with water. Hint: you can add a little soap to the water. This helps keep the headlight lubricated while using less water, but you don't need any more than a few drops.

Now, we need to tape up the area around the headlights. This is the first and most important step of the whole process. You want to make sure to tape up any and all paint surrounding the headlights. You will be spending quite some time on your headlights. After all your hard work work is done, you don't want to have to fix the paint as well!

Next, after all the taping has finished, we can begin the fun.

-Cut your sand paper sheets into fourths (I found mine at Walmart for about $3 and change per pack. Each pack contains 5 sheets.)

-Get out your 1/4 sheet of 800 grit sandpaper, and spray it with the water bottle. Place the sand paper on the headlight (it will stick by itself) and continue to spray the whole headlight until the whole headlight is wet.

-Slowly start sanding the headlight making sure to spray water while you sand. Water isn't needed, but helps to make the paper last longer and make it easier.  Make sure to sand all the edges and all the corners. Do this for both headlights, making sure not to reuse the sandpaper from the opposite headlight. 1-1/4 piece of sandpaper per headlight. 

Helpful Tip: Sand in one direction. This makes it easier for you to check and see that your lines are consistent and that you have sanded the headlight evenly. It also helps to see anything you might have missed.

-Continue sanding until you can see a uniform surface of 800 grit scratches (where sanding in one direction helps). Wiping the surface with a towel or shop towel helps to check. When you have removed all the oxidation, and there is a uniform finish, continue on to the next step.

Step 2:

Now that we have finished 800 grit, we can move on to 1000 grit sand paper. Like 800 grit, sand in one direction, making sure to keep the headlight lubricated while sanding and making sure to sand all of the headlight.

When you get a uniform finish, you will notice the headlight is beginning to clear up (but only slightly). wipe off the water and move on to the next step.

Step 3:

Now that we have finished 1000 grit, we can move on to 2000 grit. This is a very important step. The longer you spend on this step, the better your results will turn out. Again like the 800 grit and 1000 grit sandpaper, you will take the 2000 grit sandpaper and begin sanding the headlight, making sure to go in one direction. Make sure to keep the headlight lubricated especially in this step. There is no such thing as over spraying your headlight.

After you get a uniform finish, you will notice the headlight has cleared up again. This time more noticeable than the last. Good news, this is the last of the sanding. Now your hands can get a break as we continue on to the next step.

Step 4:

Now this is where the magic begins. Get out your drill, and attach the hookit pad and compound pad. You can buy these items on amazon, or you can use a wool buffing pad and polisher if you've got one. If you don't have one, make sure to ask some friends to see if you can borrow it from them.

Take your rubbing compound and shake it well. Open the cap and apply a decent glob on the headlight.  Take your compound pad and rub the compound on the headlight without turning the drill on. This helps to keep the compound from splattering all over the place when you begin.

Making sure to start slowly, turn on the drill and begin polishing the headlight. When the compound has spread, turn the drill onto full speed, making sure to cover all areas of the headlight. This process helps to get rid of the 2000 grit scratches and gets the headlight shiny and new. 

Make sure to polish the whole headlight, using more compound if needed. The headlights should now shine and, depending on how well you did on the 2000 grit step, should start to look brand new. You are almost done. We can now move on to the next step

Step 5:

Celebrate for the hard work is done. you now have a nice, clean headlight and you can see at night again. Now that you know how much hard work you did, we want to protect the headlights from turning back into the way they were. This is where the Minwax spar urethane comes in.

Take the urethane and pop the top. Pour half an ounce (or an ounce depending on how accurate your measuring cup goes) of urethane into your measuring cup.

Now take your mineral spirits and add the exact same amount as you did for the urethane into the measuring cup. The mixture should be 1:1, so 0.5 ounces urethane to 0.5 ounce mineral spirits to make one ounce of clear coat (or 2 ounces if you used 1 and 1).

Stir the urethane and mineral spirits mixture. After doing this step, use a shop towel and the rubbing alcohol, and wipe the headlights clean. This will get rid of any compound left on the headlights.

If you would like, you can wash the car now, as after we apply the urethane, you won't want to touch the headlights for a good while.

Take a shop towel and fold it into a small square. Dip the towel into the urethane mixture and make sure to get rid of any excess urethane from the towel. you don't want it to drip on the paint.

Begin applying the clear coat, starting at the top of the headlight and going in a horizontal movement, making your way down. Use the tape as guides, making sure you follow through with each stroke. Make sure you apply a nice thin coat, making sure there are no runs.  After you apply, the clear coat will begin to become thick very fast, so try not to make any mistakes. Don't panic if you do. The clear coat will come off with mineral spirits. Just wet a shop towel with spirits and take all the clear coat off to start over.

You should get a nice, even coat on the headlights when you are finished. If not, take some spirits and strip the clear coat off and start over. The clear coat helps to add the finishing shine on the headlight, as well as seal up the headlight for protection.

Let the clear coat dry for 30 minutes before driving. After 30 minutes, the top of the clear coat will have become thick, and not so sticky. DO NOT TOUCH THE HEADLIGHT. The layer under the top is still wet. To be safe, let the clear coat sit for 4 hours before touching the headlight, Overnight is the safest bet.

If you didn't wash the car before applying the clear coat, I suggest not washing the it for at least a day, making sure that if you are to wash your car, you hand wash it. Urethane takes time to cure, so sticking your car in the sun to show off your headlights wont hurt. After about three days of sun exposure and curing, you are safe to wash the car as normal.

Congratulations. You have finished. you now have shiny, like new headlights and more importantly, you can see at night. You now have the expertise, and leftover paper to do more headlights (if you so feel).

SOMETHING TO NOTE: If you happen to notice that some of the urethane has come off (which may or may not happen over time. My first coat on my own car lasted about a year and a half, which, in between the time it came off and the time I noticed, no haze had appeared) feel free to make some more clear coat mix and put another layer on. While this solution may not be completely permanent, if done correctly, it can add years of haze free headlights to come.

I hope you found my instructable helpful, and I am here for anyone with any questions. Thank you.

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44 Discussions

I am curious as to why you mix the urethane and mineral spirits. The instructions say that the mineral spirits will take the urethane off, so why mix the two for application of the clear coat? Thanks!

is that first picture of a caprice?

great tips!

gmatta, thank you for this article . .I followed your instructions and my '08 Altima headlights now look tip top . . . .

Can I use steel wool instead of a compound pad? If so what grade?

1 reply

Continued; I also adjust speed to 1000 RPM (easy to burn plastic), after polish I scuff with 2000 grit wet sand paper, clean with fresh water, wipe with alcohol I use CLEAN brown paper towel (no lint)!! I mix 30% mineral spirits and use only Marine varnish (I use McColskey's) last for 3 years or more. I also buy the cheap foam brush home depot $.50. and paint w/ brush starting at top too bottom, be careful to get 1 solid coat, you will see slight lines but after complete turn headlights on and paint will smooth out. Using marine varnish (harder varnish), leaving scuff marks, and paint w/ brush I believe will give a heavier coat, going 30% spirits also heavier coating but drawback is takes longer to dry. The trick in the varnish it has UV properties, gives it a very slight tinge, creates a better look. when I get time I may try adding color to paint to see effects. Blue Red etc I'll post if I get a chance to try one. I pick up a used ones at local junkyard to test, and display in shop.

I have been dong tis commercially for 10 years, 2 or 3 items to try, Only sand if necessary, (headlights turned brown) I just tape off and use dupont #7 plastic compound, I also use high speed buffer (most may not have but drill works) with wool pad

I'm gonna let you guys in on a little secret.
The secret is called Silvo or Brasso. They are both metal polishes and come in small inexpensive containers. Rub it on and buff it off by hand, time spent... maybe 2 minutes.

3 replies

To be honest, I never thought of that. The van I showed was actually a neighbor's car. The husband tried to fix it himself so there were a lot of scratches I had to correct. But to get rid of just oxidation, that's a genius idea. I'll have to try that out. And thanks for checking out my first i'ble

Hi gmatta, I tried to clean mine over the weekend because my wife mentioned that my headlights weren't working very well. I went to the auto parts place and the guy suggested some 800 sandpaper and water to lubricate should clear it up. With only that instruction I went at it. Today I noticed that they are cloudier than they were before, I didn't know to do single directions when sanding, or about the 3M or anything. If I use this process will it correct what I've done?

Hey Will T7, that's not an issue, everything is fixable. This method, while not guaranteed to work (I mean techinically nothing really is), should help you out quite a bit. Because we are using high count grit sand paper, we only ever remove a small amount of plastic at a time, even 800 doesn't take off much. If you still have some sand paper leftover, go ahead and just re-do what you have done, but in one direction. Then buy go ahead and go up paper grade the instructable says, and I would suggest alternating patterns like someone suggested earlier. So 800 left to right, then 1000 up and down, then 2000 left to right and so on. Then while you are at the auto parts store, look at getting some headlight sealer, I couldn't find any so I used urethane made for wood, and while it lasted a good bit, I found a more permanent solution using automotive clear coat paint, but legit headlight sealer would work just the same (if not better). Most autoparts stores should have a polisher kit that attaches to your drill, but if you can't find one, I will update the instrucatble with some links to things I use personally to do this. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask, and I hope this helps

what is the difference between automotive tape and painters tape?

1 reply

In all honesty I'm not quite sure. I am no chemical engineer or anything, but I think I have a small understanding, someone feel free to correct me. Painter's tape has a low tack adhesive, and is used to keep paint from bleeding through under the tape and ruining an area that you don't want. I believe that automotive tape has a stickier adhesive, and therefore may stand up better to water sanding that I did in this instrucable. Both are made for clean release, meaning they won't leave sticky residue and would work fine, the auto tape probably working better than painter's tape, but with how cheap I find painter's tape, I tend to use it more as it's good enough. Whatever tape you decide to use, make sure that you use enough and you replace any that doesn't want to stick while wet sanding. This will go a long way.

By all means, you can use what suits you better, in fact I have recently moved to spraying automotive clear coat (theoretically it should last longer, but I only just recently made the switch). With spraying clear of any sort though (especially with rattle cans), you must be mindful of overspray. Overspray has a way to get on any and everything that you don't mask, so when you spray (if you so choose), you will also need to spend more time masking and taping. I do not expect my instructions to be taken verbatim, but I would like to think of them more as a guide. I hope that you found this instructable at least somewhat helpful, and I do thank you for taking a look at it :))

I'd suggest editing the instructable to include the use of spray clearcoat, and what type/brand you used.

Also: most new automotive headlights are actually pretty easy to remove (mine, for instance, have just two pull tabs that release the whole housing), so removing them and repairing them away from the car is easy and recommended, especially to control overspray. ;-)

I realize this is an old comment, but I wanted to comment for everyone to see.

I agree with you, but there are a lot more steps, so I would either add steps for spray and make a seperate instructable for spraying clearcoat to reference, or I would have to do a seperate instructable altogether. That being said, the one I did spray has lasted something like a year or two without any touch up, so when I get the time I will try my best. Let me know if anyone is interested.

I have seen in some kits for this that they recommend sanding in the same direction for one grit size and then sanding perpendicular to the previous direction in the next. Is this how you sanded these headlights or did you go the same direction for all three grits of sandpaper?