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The Little Details: Taillight Restoration


We’ve been recently working on a 2004 Subaru Forester XT for a huge wet sanding correction, and to get the car show ready after new paint. After many, many, many hours, and the new paint looking flat, well corrected, and coated, all the little details remain to bring it all together. These little things in my opinion, are what separates a detailer from your typical, to show standards. It’s that bit of OCD in me that comes in handy sometimes!

In detailing, we often see headlight restorations, but it’s fairly rare to see taillights getting much attention. This is an area to show that you’re different and to really bring the detail together. A simple 3k grit wet sand got rid of the major defects and haze. I then went to a Meguiar’s Microfiber Cutting Disc and M100 to cut it out, and polished with a Black LC Pad and CarPro Reflect. For protection, the famous Crystal Serum Ultra from Gtechniq knocked it out of the park. We made sure to coat not just the area corrected, but also the black trim around them to really make them pop when the hatch is open. These taillights are looking brand new with about 20 minutes invested into them.

Isaac Mittlesteadt
Refined Auto Studio
Reedsburg, WI

10 comments on The Little Details: Taillight Restoration

  1. rlmccarty2000 says:

    Did you really need the 3k sanding step? Most plastic tail lights are pretty soft and age can make them brittle. I just normally use a Megs microfiber cutting pad with d300 and then hit them with foam and what ever finishing polish I’m using on the rest of the car. I know with 3k sanding you are using it wet/damp but I still worry about heat and the thinness of taillights especially on older models that already suffer from sun/uv damage.

    A “show ready” Subie Forrester? I had to laugh a little. I had to think resto mod, but on a Subaru? Would love to see pics of the final results. I hope it’s Forrest green. The world needs more green cars.

    • Hi –

      The 3k sanding step is actually much lower temp than any kind of polishing is, however, as long as you’re careful, there’s very little risk involved here, sanding or polishing. The 3k “cuts” a little quicker and easier, removing the defects, as well as any previous protection on the taillights. It creates a uniform finish that can then be polished out quickly and easily.

      Yes, LOL. The car is a fully built, big turbo setup. It is actually a modified BMW color. Extremely high metallic. Feel free to shoot me a message on the IDM Details Facebook page and I can send you a few photos.

    • Paul says:

      Looks great.

      So it’s ok to apply CSL or other coatings to plastic?

      • Paul –

        Sorry I missed this comment until now.

        Yes. We always have, and will continue to do so. I believe the official word from Gtechniq is C4 should be used on plastic products, but I’ve never had an issue with CSL, Ultra, EXO, etc. on plastics.

  2. Mark says:

    What is the best process for making cloudy front head lights look new. So many options. Trying to find one that really works.

    • rlmccarty2000 says:

      Sanding and polishing are the best ways to refinish headlights. 3M sells a very good repair kit that uses a drill to sand and polish. Pick up a can of Meguires Headlight Protectant Spray to coat the lenses after and you will be fine.

    • Mark,

      There are many options that give you different turnouts. In order for you to make a proper decision on this, let me give you hopefully, some helpful information:

      Headlight yellowing is due to the OEM UV coating over the headlights failing and fading. In order to make these back to new, wet sanding needs to happen. A few people get scared to get into this, but it’s truly not too big of a deal. The other option is to just polish them out. This will clear them up temporarily, unless the fading is extremely light, then you may be able to get away with it as a more long term solution.

      The bug spray trick, toothpaste, etc., may work, but again, temporarily. Truly wet sanding, polishing, and protecting them are the only real answer to a full headlight restoration. At the shop, we most commonly go 1500, 2k, 3k, and polish it out with M100 on a microfiber pad, and then finish with something like M205 or CarPro Reflect. Protection is up to you, however, remember that they’re likely now nearly bare plastic, so you’re going to have issues if you don’t use a long term protection product.

  3. Richard says:

    Remove taillights from car, sand them, compound them, polish them, install coating. “about 20 minutes invested into them”. No way my friend! Even 20 minutes per step is pushing it.

    • Richard,

      Actually, 20-30 minutes was pretty accurate. Took me all of about 2 minutes to pull both of them from the car, about 5 for a quick 3k wet sand, and maybe 5-10 to polish them out. Coated in a minute or two, and another few minutes for install again. When you get your steps refined and streamlined, have your tools laid out nicely, and work quickly, these small things take very little time.


      • Richard says:

        Welp, that’s why you can make money at this! The results speak for themselves. I didn’t mean to sound condescending, but this would have taken me at least an hour per side. Granted, 40% of that time is finding tools and playing with different products. 🙂

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