Top 5 Methods to Remove Paint from a Whole Car

Restoration projects can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but there’s nothing more exciting than getting our teeth stuck into a whole vehicle project. Helping a restorer get one more step closer to their vehicle’s final lick of paint is truly rewarding.

But removing paint from a whole car can be a tricky prospect. There are a lot of things to consider – chiefly relating to the size of the surface, the suitability of the cleaning methods to the materials underneath, and getting an even clean all over. Here we’ve listed the top 5 most popular methods (from our perspective) that people choose when cleaning a whole vehicle – not just the ones we provide!

Let’s get started with our most popular method…

  1. Media Blasting

This is by far our most popular service. It’s versatile, affordable, and moderately uncomplicated. Compressed air propels crushed, recycled glass particles on to the surface in question, striking it and removing the finish through friction.

The virtue of glass blasting lies in its flexibility. Though it sounds pretty abrasive, it can be used as harshly as needed depending on the job at hand – either by adjusting the strength of the air pressure or by moving the nozzle away from the surface. Due to this versatility, it can be used to clean all kinds of problem areas including paint, underseal, rust, and filler.

The main drawback with glass media blasting is that the resulting friction generates heat, meaning that there is a risk of metal warping. Also, if a given section is worked on for too long, it can weaken that area.

Media blasting and other similar processes sometimes get referred to as “sandblasting”, which is quite the misnomer. Using sand as a blast media in the automotive world has been outlawed in the UK for decades due to the workers’ risk of sand inhalation and resulting silicosis of the lung.

removing paint from a whole car with crushed glass blasting

  1. Soda Blasting

Our namesake! Soda blasting is a popular, safe, and environmentally friendly choice for cleaning surfaces of all kinds. Soda crystals are propelled on to the surface at high speed using compressed air, where they fracture into pieces. The force of the crystals breaking apart separates the paint from the surface.

Soda is one of our gentlest cleaning methods, and unlike other methods, it can also be used to clean aluminium and carbon fibre. Its gentleness also makes it ideal for cleaning buildings and masonry – it’s the only method we use to clean graffiti and paint from listed buildings!

But let’s get back to vehicles. No heat is generated during soda blasting, so there’s no chance of heat warping. This is also beneficial when cleaning welded components such as rollcages as it won’t damage the integrity of the weld. Soda is a great way of cleaning specific, smaller areas of a vehicle when a whole strip isn’t necessary.

However, it’s not 100% perfect. Because it’s so gentle, getting an even and thorough clean can be slow going, potentially resulting in a higher price tag. Soda blasting will not remove really tough substances like underseal, thick filler, or heavy areas of rust. It also leaves a thin coating of soda dust on the surface that needs to be wiped clean before applying a new paint or undercoat surface – otherwise the paint simply won’t stick.

removing paint from a whole car using soda

  1. Acid or Chemical Stripping

Here’s one we don’t offer. Chemical paint removal methods are the main competitor to blast cleaning systems, and are a popular choice amongst restorers for whole vehicle cleans. Different providers and different chemicals require different processes, but generally the car is heated to a high temperature to get the existing finish to crack, then the car is fully submerged in a corrosive chemical that eats away at paint, rust, and filler. The car is then washed, the chemical is neutralised, and a coating is sometimes applied to prevent rust.

Because you’re submerging the car in a pool of acid, it cleans all parts of the car – even the bits you can’t see or get to. But this comes with a few rather significant downsides. Firstly, you can’t be selective in which areas are cleaned. The whole car is submerged so absolutely everything will need to be refinished. Prior to being dipped, the car is heated to high temperatures, which may cause issues if your car is made of certain metals or has welded repairs.

And perhaps most worryingly, acid can get trapped in small nooks and crannies or get missed in the rinsing and/or neutralisation process. This can corrode future paint jobs – a terrible let-down for a restorer who’s just spent time and money on doing up their pride and joy!

  1. Plastic Bead Blasting

Plastic dry blasting is a very similar process to glass media blasting – tiny plastic beads are propelled on to a surface at high velocity and the impact causes the surface finish to come away. It’s a relative newcomer to the blast cleaning game, and leaves a very similar finish to soda blasting.

Because the blast media doesn’t break apart as with soda blasting, plastic media can be reused several times before it needs replacing. Soda needs to be replenished with each clean, but plastic media can be collected and reused over multiple projects before being discarded, resulting in a lower cost-per-clean.

The ecologically minded among us can probably guess the main drawback with plastic media. It’s plastic! Dumping it in a bin or drain is understandably very bad for the environment. It also needs to be thoroughly sieved out between projects – otherwise you could be cleaning paint from vehicle 2 with bits of vehicle 1’s paint!

  1. Sanding by Hand

Going retro! The oldest way to do it, but also the most labour intensive. We’ll spare you the details of how it works – we’ve all sanded something before!

The obvious pros here are the fact that you can be selective about the areas you remove, and that sanding can be done at home using your own choice of sandpaper or sanding machine for the exact finish you’re after.

But here come the equally obvious drawbacks. I’m sure this is a surprise to nobody, but sanding is a painfully slow process, especially if you’re stripping large sections of a car like bonnets or doors. We frequently speak to customers who decided to try sanding down a whole vehicle – after a day’s work they’ve hardly finished a single door!

It’s also incredibly messy, and ideally needs to be carried out in a well-ventilated area with a thick dust mask at the very least. When you’re sanding, it’s also hard to get into small or hard to reach areas and ensure an even clean across angled bodywork.

We don’t feel anyone should struggle with sanding down a whole car or indeed keeping their fingers crossed that any potentially harmful acids have been washed away. We feel that blast cleaning – whichever method you decide to run with – is a much gentler method of cleaning your pride and joy. But I suppose we would say that, wouldn’t we?

SBL are a trusted provider of various blast cleaning services, and want nothing but the best for your restoration. Call us on 0800 774 7632 and we’ll help you get your latest project one step nearer to getting on the road.