Project: Headlight Restoration

Okay, lets try this again. Earlier you may have seen my post regarding a little headlight restoration project I did with my friend Colin. Well he must have thought my iPhone pictures were rubbish because he e-mailed me a bunch of pictures taken on his D90. I think these do the project and evening a whole lot more justice, so we’re going to give it another go.

I’ve been looking to refinish my headlights for quite some time now. I bought them used from my friend Nat in 2006 and they’ve never gotten the kind of pampering they deserved. A few months back, Colin was throwing around the idea of doing a little headlight restoration party and I was onboard. It wasn’t so much of a party as it was the two of us talking cars and constantly getting distracted while doing the project at hand. Above is a shot of Colin’s headlight on his BB6 Prelude. Don’t be fooled by the picture. There were plenty of rock chips and some oxidation on the casing of his headlights. You can see better in this close up.

Notice around the top of the headlight especially: there are many hairline scratches and rock chips.

For the job we decided to go with 3M’s headlight restoration kit. It’s a great little kit and at only $20, it comes with everything you need to get the job done. You can find it online or at most automotive parts stores. Inside the kit there’s an attachment for an electric drill with velcro on the end for attaching your various sandpaper and polishing pads. It’s a pretty straight forward step-by-step process but it still had me a little concerned. I’ve been detailing cars for a while now, and I know that to ultimately improve a car’s paint, you have to break it down first. But the thought of taking sandpaper to a set of JDM STi headlights made me a little nervous.

Once again, don’t be fooled by the D90’s ability to make everything look beautiful. You’ll see that my headlights needed some serious attention in the next 2 pictures.

My right headlight was especially trashed for some reason. There were more than enough scratches and rock chips to work through. My lights were also beginning to oxidize quite badly.

With the 3M kit being a step-by-step process, we first got started with the dry sanding. This was probably the most nerve-wracking part of the job because you need to be extremely carful not to apply too much pressure with the sand paper. You also need to make sure you’re keeping all the excess dust and debris off the headlight casing because it can cause additional scratching. The dry sanding goes in 2 waves with 500 grit paper being used first, followed by 800 grit paper for an even smoother finish.

Your headlights are supposed to turn a milky white with the inside housing barely visible. This was how Colin’s lights looked after the first round of sanding with the 500 grit paper. I cannot begin to tell you how much the dry sanding improves the headlight casing. It’s truly amazing how smooth they become after just a couple passes. With the exception of one particularly gnarly scratch on my right headlight, I was able to fully remove every rock chip.

After wrapping up the dry sanding, we moved onto the wet sanding portion of the project. The wet sanding is where you really begin to see the final product show itself. It takes away all of the debris and dust left behind from the dry sanding. It also begins to reveal the inner housing once again. Despite being the most time consuming portion of the project, wet sanding really lets you get in there and work the headlight casing to perfection. I thought they were smooth after dry sanding, that was nothing.

We took a quick break to admire the evening. The weather in SoCal has been insane lately. I have to keep telling myself it’s January.

The final step in the process is polishing. The 3M kit comes with a package of decent polish, but I have my suspicions that I could make my headlights look even better with a little buzz from the Porter Cable and bit of proper car polish. Polishing the lights is similar to wet sanding and depends on how much time you actually want to spend doing it. The slower and steadier you go, the better your end product. I think a lot of people expect to really put some elbow grease into polishing, but that’s just not the case. Always let the polisher do the work, slow and steady.

The sun went down and it got dark towards the end of the job. Colin had some nice shop lights to keep things bright enough for us to finish. Unfortunately, not bright enough for some pictures of the end result of our labor.

Here’s one picture that came out rather nicely in the dim light. You can’t truly see the clarity, but it’s there. Colin’s headlights looked brand new and it was time well spent. I on the other hand was off to the side when this picture was taken, doing another cycle of wet sanding and polishing. I’m a bit of a mental case when it comes to keeping things clean and the first time around, the headlights just weren’t up to my standard. After a little more attention and some increasingly patient polishing, we were able to get the headlights looking pristine. It wasn’t until the following morning where I was really able to see what we had accomplished.

That’s all the pictures I have for now. I know, I teased everyone the first time around and said I’d be adding pictures of the finished product tonight. Well, it’s been a busy day and I never got around to taking the pictures. Hopefully, I can get some tomorrow.

I would highly, highly recommend picking up the 3M headlight refinishing kit. I’ve polished and buffed out my headlights time and time again and the results have never amounted to what the sanding was able to do. Both Colin’s and my headlights look like they were just out of the box and they’re smooth, very smooth. You know you’ve done a good job when running your fingers down the surface creates static. The clarity and sharpness of the beam is also a noticeable change. My HID’s are now brighter than they’ve ever been before. I’m sure on coming cars love getting an eye-full of my JDM beam pattern! Try the kit for yourself, it’s really straight forward and so easy, your lady could do it for you. Just kidding, but seriously, she could.

Photos courtesy of Colin Chu.

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2 comments

  1. Good write-up! My poor headlights are trashed too and need some TLC. I’ll give this 3M kit a shot during spring break.

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