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Paint overspray removal using a clay bar on car
Paint overspray is usually removed by clay bar, microfiber, and lots of elbow grease. Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Paint Overspray Removal on Cars

If you own a car or truck there’s a good chance you’ve run into a situation where you need paint overspray removal services.

Or you might be a detail shop owner here to learn more about removing overspray from cars. Which, by the way, is an in-demand and badly needed service. Especially if you live near a city.

Either way, we’ve got you covered. This paint overspray removal page is one of the most popular online resources available anywhere for this topic.

In this detailed guide on paint overspray removal, I will cover the following:

What is Paint Overspray?

Paint overspray generally concerns unintentionally applying paint or a similar coating to a surface that wasn’t the original target. In other words, you accidentally created a mist of paint spray that floated away and landed on nearby cars, houses, and buildings.

For obvious reasons, it’s not a great situation to be in if you are the person that created the overspray.

And for reference, even though I’m focusing on paint and related coatings, overspray can occur anytime you spray a liquid chemical in the air.

Where Does Paint Overspray Come From?

Unfortunately, it’s often left up to the owner of an overspray-damaged vehicle to channel their inner Sherlock Holmes and search out nearby clues as to the source of the paint overspray.

Sometimes it’s as easy as looking up to see a bridge or office building getting painted. A simple Google search will result in large numbers of paint overspray horror stories. Like the water tower painter who accidentally covered 900 cars in a wet droplet cloud of epoxy paint.

In those situations, one of the responsible parties will usually hire a paint overspray removal specialist to fix the car paint at your house or take it to their local detail shop or similar facility.

List of Common Sources of Paint Overspray

If you need some ideas on where to look, the following list is a good place to start. Just remember, on windy days paint overspray can travel a fairly good distance before drying and falling to the ground.

  • Bridge painting projects. Look for white tarp-wrapped bridges. They use industrial epoxy coatings that stick to anything.
  • Construction site and large office building painting. They also use epoxies that aren’t clearcoat-friendly. The wind up there moves fast.
  • Painting Water Towers. Most hold a million or more gallons and are hard to tarp for painting. Both the insides and outsides are painted with heavy zinc primer and two coats of epoxy paint.
  • Residential home exterior painting. Never underestimate the power of one painter with a spray gun. They can overspray an entire neighborhood in less than a few hours.
  • Wooden decks and porches. The double whammy of epoxy deck stains and polyurethane sealers. Looks like tree sap, but sticks to anything.
  • Tree Sap. If you see something that looks like hard, sticky syrup on your car, look above and you will most likely see the tree that caused it.
  • Road paint and highway line paint. Highway paint removal is so bad that we gave it a page of its own here on the ADG website. It’s called hot melt marking paint and it’s sprayed on roads after heating it to 392 degrees (Fahrenheit). Road paint removal is difficult but entirely possible to do as a DIY project at home.

Will My Auto Insurance Cover Paint Overspray Damage?

According to insurance claims experts, more than 1,000 vehicles a day are damaged with paint overspray, resulting in damage claims in excess of $500 million annually.

The problem with quoting statistics is that they don’t always give the full picture. If a professional painter causes overspray damage to your car, they are usually liable to pay for damages.

Usually? Well, there’s the little problem of actually getting paid. We have a similar article here on our site that goes into more detail on locating the source of the overspray and figuring out how to get them to pay for the costs of professional paint overspray removal. Check it out when you have some time.

Contractor Insurance That Excludes Overspray Claims

Liability insurance carriers, the people that cover contractors, are painfully aware of the costs involved with damage to car paint and clear coats from overspray.

That’s why liability insurance costs so much. And also why many painting contractors don’t carry liability coverage. It’s an expensive cost of doing business for any professional contractor. So naturally, some contractors let their policies lapse because they can’t afford the cost.

Insurance companies understand that cost is an issue. So to make these policies affordable, companies offer cut-rate discount contractor insurance. It makes sense for a painting contractor that only offers interior painting services to save money on their contractor liability insurance by choosing to exclude coverage for paint overspray claims. On the other hand, some painting contractors that do exterior painting might choose to exclude overspray coverage if they’ve never paid claims related to that type of damage.

The other issue is deductibles. Yet another way that liability insurance companies can reduce their exposure and offer lower rates is by setting a per-incident deductible. So that painting contractor that says they have overspray coverage, may in fact have a policy that sets per claim deductibles above $500. This means the painter will be paying out of pocket up to $500 per car.

Here is where I add the obvious disclaimers about how I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice. But it also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out your chances of recovering that money might be difficult. Either way, you should always consult with your auto insurance carrier and your lawyer.

Insurance Deductibles and Overspray Damage

Now let’s talk about your side of the equation as the victim of this overspray problem.

The average deductible for an auto insurance policy in the United States is $500.

And most overspray removal service bills come in at less than $500, depending on the extent of paint damage and how much work is involved.

Regardless of how much money it costs, it is always frustrating being forced to pay for damage to your car paint that is caused by a “professional” contractor. Any professional should know how to properly do their job.

This is why I mentioned above about speaking with a good lawyer about your claim. They might have ideas for possible ways to mitigate your out-of-pocket costs and recover your money from the contractor.

Don’t give up if you run into roadblocks. It’s your money, fight for it!

How Much Does it Cost to Remove Paint Overspray?

The typical cost to remove paint overspray from a vehicle ranges in price from a low of $150 to a high of $500 or more. These rates are standard for professional detailers or reconditioning techs.

To clarify a few things, the price you pay will greatly depend on the size of the vehicle, the severity of the overspray damage, and where it’s located on the vehicle.

For example, is it just the windshield or is it covering the entire vehicle? And if it’s everywhere, is it a Kia compact or a Yukon Denali XL SUV? Obviously, the price points will be wildly different depending on those types of differences.

Another criteria that often affects overspray removal prices, is the type of surface. Removing paint overspray from glass windows is measurably less difficult than removing it from body paint or plastic trim.

DIY Paint Overspray Removal

So up to this point, as far as paint overspray is concerned, I’ve covered what it is, how it happens, who is responsible to fix it, and ways you might be able to get reimbursed for your out-of-pocket costs.

If you exhausted all of those options and you are paying for paint overspray removal out of your own pocket, then you might be interested in fixing the problem on your own.

Let me just point out, upfront, DIY paint overspray removal is absolutely something you CAN try at home. A lot of people think it’s something only professionals can handle, but it’s not.

And it’s definitely NOT expensive. But as I will cover in the next section, paint overspray removal is very hard work. And you must be careful or you could end up destroying your car paint.

Is It Hard Work to Remove Overspray from Cars?

Yes, paint overspray removal is very hard work. That’s why detailers charge so much to remove it. And by hard, I mean labor-intensive. Not like back-breaking work moving a truckload of concrete blocks to your backyard.

DIY paint overspray removal is more on the level of setting aside a bunch of hours to take a clay bar and rub it on the outside of your car. And wash it. And rubbing it more. And washing it.

Clay on. Wash off. Clay on. Wash off. Very good Danielson.

Wax On. Wax Off.

Speaking of Mr. Miyagi. Removing overspray is one of those things that takes a frustrating amount of time to complete. Mainly because every time you think you’re done, you find some more.

Each time you dry your car after washing it, run your hands over the car again and try to feel for the tiny bumps of hard overspray paint droplets.

When you feel the paint bumps, you do that area over again.

And you will find some. Again. And Again. It’s frustrating how there are always a few that you miss.

Then you keep doing it all over again. And again. And again…

Wax On. Wax Off.

The Karate Kid, still movie scene - Article - Paint Overspray Removal -
Wax on. Wax Off. Photo credit: Ralph Macchio (L) as Daniel, Pat Morita (R) as Mr. Miyagi in ‘The Karate Kid’ (1984), Columbia Pictures

Disclaimer: I am obviously not Mr. Miyagi. I’m good, but not that good. So no, you won’t mysteriously know blackbelt level karate after you are done following my instructions for removing overspray from your vehicle.

You will, however, be as sore as I imagine Danielson was after he spent all day waxing all those cars for Mr. Miyagi.

Step by Step Paint Overspray Removal Instructions

If you are ready to get started, I have included a step-by-step instruction list for removing paint overspray from your car.

So let’s go!

First, a quick note. If you have any corrosive damage to your paint from environmental causes, paint overspray removal processes like the following will most likely not repair that type of damage. This is for the removal of hard droplets of dried paint overspray on your car exterior.

What are the environmental causes of corrosive paint damage?

Since I brought up environmental causes of corrosive paint damage, let’s briefly discuss this so you know the difference going into this.

Paint corrosion problems caused by the environment have been in the news for decades. These are issues like acid rain, toxic industrial exhaust or plant discharge, even bird crap that’s sat on your paint for too long.

It’s all toxic to paint.

These environmental conditions can eat away at your car’s clear coat and paint. It’s fixable, so don’t think you need to repaint the entire vehicle. That’s usually not the case.

Many auto paint repair and reconditioning services can fix those problems without the need for a body shop.

But the tips I’m including here in these instructions, like clay bars and high-speed buffing, usually won’t fix corrosive damage problems.

Those repairs need to be made at a body shop or a car detailer that handles auto reconditioning services like auto paint repair, paint chip repair, bumper painting, etc.

So now that we are on the same page, let’s get started.

Wash Your Car with a Pressure Washer

The first step in the overspray removal process is to scrub your car. With soap. But the more important part of this step is to use a pressure washer during the entire wash process. Even the self-service car washes with the bays sometimes have enough pressure for this step.

Can I Use a Pressure Washer to Remove Paint Overspray?

Well, yes and no. Using a pressure washer while removing paint overspray is effective in blowing off or loosening droplets of overspray that were somewhat dry when they landed on your vehicle. Even though these droplets are still attached to your car, the bond with the clear coat isn’t always strong. Especially if you were quick to fix the overspray damage.

So yes, using a pressure washer will sometimes remove a significant portion of the overspray droplets from your car.

Especially if it was a long-distance that the paint droplets traveled in the air from the paint sprayer nozzle to your car.

The longer the distance traveled, the drier the droplet when it lands on your car. Ultimately, that results in a bond with the car clearcoat that isn’t as strong as fully wet droplets.

So always start with a good wash and always use a pressure washer.

How to use a Clay Bar on Car Clear Coat

When it comes to painting overspray removal you need to start with a good clay bar. Detailer’s clay, as it’s called, is a special mix of clay that works incredibly well at removing impurities from your paint.

But how do you use a clay bar to clean a car clear coat? It’s a simple enough system. You take the detailers clay and wet it. You are also going to need some form of lubricant for the car paint surface. This is always a subject of debate whether you need special lubricants or not.

Some detailers will tell you that you need to use everything from spray-on finish wax to showroom shine products to keep the clay lubricated.

From my experience, a simple solution of Joy dishwashing detergent works great.

Your goal is to keep the clay bar lubricated as you rub it across the clear coat in a circular pattern. So whether it’s spray-on finish wax or dishwashing detergent, both will work.

Detailer Clay Bar and Lubrication

It’s a one, two process. Rub the clay in circles and keep following behind it occasionally with your other hand to feel for the dry bumps that overspray creates.

Keep going over it with the detailer’s clay until it’s gone, lubricating your work area as needed. Also, keep rinsing the areas you have completed, so you don’t let the clay dry as you are moving forward on the vehicle.

Another cool feature of clay is if you have already waxed the car, the clay bar won’t remove the wax on the painted surface, but it will remove the overspray.

Always Use the Clean Side of a Clay Bar

Something else to keep in mind while you are using the clay is that you need to keep folding it back into itself while you are rubbing it.

The clay will start getting dirty as it’s pulling everything off the painted surface of the car. So keep folding it over on itself, and you will always have a clean surface.

Eventually, the clay will need to be replaced, but one bar will do many, many cars. If you are doing this at your home, that one container of clay will last you a long time.

Another thing to keep in mind. Always keep the clay wet. It should come in a bottle with a replaceable cap. Fill the jar or container with your water and Joy detergent solution and put the cap on tight before you put it away after using it. This will keep it ready for the next time you need it.

After you have completed the entire car, you will want to wash the vehicle using your standard car wash soap mix with a soft wool wash mitt.

Once it is dry, you will be able to feel for any areas that you missed.

Can I Remove Paint Overspray with a High-Speed Buffer?

Short answer, no you should not remove paint overspray from your car paint or clear coat with a high-speed buffer.

Is it possible? Sure. But even after I spent a decade becoming an expert wheelman with a high-speed buffer, I still limited the situations where I needed to use one. The reason was simple. High-speed buffing can damage car paint and clear coats. The longer you use it on the car, the higher the chance for burnt or damaged paint.

When I was first learning how to use a buffer, we had an old car door we practiced on in our shop. I burnt straight through the paint to the metal on my first time. It was practice, so it didn’t matter much. But it was scary how easy it was to do that.

And burnt paint is just one of the many possible things that can go wrong with high-speed buffing. Spend too much time with a buffer on car paint and you are just asking for burnt paint, ripped molding, damaged accessories, and so many other possible and exciting ways you can damage a car.

Take my advice that I give to everyone that asks about high-speed buffer. Get an orbital buffer. My favorite for the past two decades is the Porter-Cable High-Speed Orbital Buffer. It’s a variable high-speed orbital buffer. The orbital aspect is what I love about it since it all but eliminates the chances of both burning paint and the clear coat swirl makes that a lot of buffers leave in dark color cars.

Nano Ceramic Coating or Polymer Sealant After Clay Bar

A car that has been through the clay bar cleaning followed by either high-speed buffing or orbital buffed to remove any swirls looks absolutely incredible. Apply a nice coat of Nano-Ceramic Coating or a Polymer Sealant to the paint after you are done, and your car will be ready for six months until you need to reapply. Personally, I love the Hydro Slick Ceramic Coating Hydrowax from Chemical Guys. It makes your car clear coat incredibly smooth.

The paint overspray removal process is not an easy one, but it looks great once it’s done.

When it comes to my preferences for detailers clay, I tend to stick with Meguiar’s brand detailing products. They have a Meguiar’s C-2000 Professional Detailing Clay which is a great product. These clay bars do a fantastic job of paint overspray removal. Highway paint, tree sap removal, and more.

If you are interested in a slightly less costly clay bar, Griots Garage Paint Cleaning Clay is a wonderful product and easy to use.

Over the past two decades, I have used hundreds of bars of detailer’s clay. Meguiar’s and Griots are the best clay bars I have used, but my personal preference is Meguiar’s. I just really like the feel of their clay bar in my hand when I’m working it over the car paint surface.

Hopefully, this information helps you to get your car back to top condition after dealing with paint overspray damage. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop me a note on our Facebook Page and/or sign-up for our free weekly ADG newsletter. We share exclusive content with our subscribers that isn’t always posted publicly.

As always, thanks for spending time here at Auto Detail Guide!