Easy Guide to Headlight Restoration

Posted by Justin L on 12th Sep 2017

Everyone loves a brand new car, but after awhile the joy starts to fade away -- along with the gleam of your headlights! You will notice the brightness of your headlights will 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, making it more difficult and dangerous to see at night. This is due to oxidation on the lens. Once oxidation begins to take place, it quickly degrades the headlight lens, because poly carbonate is a porous material. Don't worry, because this guide will walk you through the process of restoring your headlight lenses so you can make them look as close to new as possible.

What You Ned:

The following items are what you will need for this process. We have included links to where you can purchase some of them, but most can be found at your local Walmart store.

  • Shop towels to dry and wipe
  • 3M sandpaper with grit values of 800, 1000, and 2000
  • A small towel, rag, or microfiber cloth
  • 3M Rubbing Compound
  • Automotive masking tape
  • An electric drill
  • Compound pad (wool pad works as well), with drill adapter
  • A spray bottle with water and some soap
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • A small measuring cup (to measure chemicals)
  • Minwax's Helmsman Spar Urethane : Clear Gloss. You need this specific kind.
  • Odorless Mineral Spirits

(If you don't want to mix later, you can purchase a premixed polish solution from 3M.)  

What To Do:

Fill the spray bottle with water and a little bit of soap. This will be be used often for cleaning the headlights (you will also be spraying a lot during the sanding process).

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, and you will be mad if you damage your paint because you didn't take the time to do this step well. Alternately, you can remove both headlights from the car, but we suggest just using the tape to save time and headaches.

Cut your sandpaper sheets into fourths. You don't need the full sheet so cut them down.

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 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 is sufficient.

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.

Continue sanding with the 800 grit and then repeat with the 1000. Use plenty of water during the sanding process and wiping it dry after you 

have completed each level. Next, move on to the 2000 grit paper. 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, go in one direction and apply even pressure. 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 is the end of the sanding step.

Get out your drill and attach the Hookit pad and compound pad, or you can use a wool buffing pad and polisher if you've got one. 3M makes a full kit that includes all the pads, sandpaper and compound for this process.

Take the 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.

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

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.

Note: 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. 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, we suggest not washing the it for at least a day. If you do wash your car, hand wash it. Urethane takes time to cure, so sticking your car in the sun to show off your headlights won't hurt. After about three days of sun exposure and curing, you are safe to wash the car as normal.

We hope this guide helps you with this fun and easy process. No need to take your car into a professional shop when you can do it yourself! Take a look at your old headlights, if there are cracks in the housing then we recommend replacing the whole assembly. HIDeXtra offers full headlight assemblies that can be seen here at Headlight Assemblies.

HIDeXtra has been a leader in aftermarket headlights since 2008. We design and manufacture our own line of HID (Xenon) and LED lighting (including off road lighting, interior & exterior lighting, and headlight housings) for both cars and motorcycles. Our commitment to quality products and outstanding customer service is unmatched in our industry -- see for yourself! HIDeXtra: Where Extra Means Everything.