Detail Management - December 2010

Paint Overspray —
Removal is a Problem, but Profitable
By Sharie Sipowicz

For detailers, paint-overspray removal can be a big problem — it can also mean big profits.

Paint overspray refers to any type of paint that — while being sprayed on a building, house, bridge, or other structure — becomes airborne and lands on the surface of a vehicle. It can also occur when a vehicle drives over freshly striped roads or highways.

Once dried, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to remove the paint from the vehicle’s surface.


There are a number of problems inherent in paint-overspray removal, but the major challenge is removal from painted surfaces without removing or damaging the original finish. Removal from rubber, plastic, or vinyl surfaces without causing damage is also difficult.


For many detailers the easiest and simplest approach is a high-speed buffer, cutting pad, heavy-duty compound, and maybe a little lacquer thinner.

This approach is bad enough for lacquer and enamel paint finishes, but with today’s polyurethane clear-coats, it can be disastrous. Here is why: Assume a vehicle is relatively new and you take a high-speed buffer and compound and literally grind the overspray off the paint. The result is heavy surface scratching and premature wear to the clear-coat.

Furthermore, the plastic and rubber surfaces can be scratched or actually burned from too aggressive buffing. Add the use of lacquer thinner to this process, and you can encounter problems you may not realize.

Therefore, what appears to be an easy and simple solution can create even greater problems. Why solve one problem and create another when there are better methods? Why damage a paint finish with abrasive compounds and high-speed buffers? Why use lacquer thinner when it could create extensive damage?

Like every vehicle-cleaning problem, paint-overspray removal should be an analytical and diagnostic process just like the one a doctor employs when attempting to diagnosis and cure an illness.


When confronted with a paint-overspray problem there is a simple procedure to follow that will allow you to determine the best way to solve the problem. You need to obtain the following information — not necessarily in this order — either from the customer or others:

  1. How and where did it happen? This can help determine the type of paint that was used.
  2. When did it happen? The length of time the overspray is on the vehicle can affect the ease with which it can be removed. Possibly, the customer knows the type of paint that was used.
  3. Get the name of the painter or contractor. If road paint, knowing who maintains the roads will allow you to contact the government authority to determine if the paint is water-based, oil-based, or thermoplastic.
  4. Determine the type of paint finish on the affected vehicle: single stage or clear-coat.
  5. Survey the extent of overspray on paint, plastic, vinyl, and rubber surfaces.

Without this information in hand, any action you take would be like “an accident looking for a place to happen.”

For example, as simple a thing as dabbing a little lacquer thinner on a towel and rubbing it on a spot could result in paint removal. If you did not know the exact strength and type of lacquer thinner and you used it on lacquer paint, one of two things would happen: One, the paint would come off as you were rubbing or two, even more dangerous, it would soften the paint, and when polishing the vehicle, the paint would come right off down to the bare metal. Lacquer thinner can cause damage to plastic and rubber as well.

After obtaining as much of the above-mentioned information as possible, you will be in a better position
to determine what needs to be done, how long it will take, and a price.

Test by using a less aggressive cleaning solvent that you know will not harm lacquer, enamel, clear-coats, plastic, rubber, or vinyl surfaces and see if it will remove the overspray.

Usually a cleaning-solvent product and “000” steel wool will easily remove overspray from most plastic, rubber, and vinyl surfaces without any damage.

If the cleaning solvent will remove the overspray from the painted surfaces, you will have a relatively easy job. If it does not, you can be in for a more difficult procedure.

The next choice is the use of body clay, which in almost all cases is completely safe for all finishes.


Besides clay, some chemical companies offer paint overspray removers. Typically, they are formulated not to damage the paint finish, but still test them before using on the entire surface.

Should none of these products work, then you must use other methods that will require talking with paint companies to determine if there is a product that can be used to remove, for example, epoxy overspray from a clear-coat finish. Research and analyze to solve the problem.


If all else fails, that is, you cannot find a chemical solution to solve the removal problem then you have two additional courses of action:

  1. High-speed buffer and compound
  2. Wet sanding

In both instances, it will take skill and care to remove the overspray.

If you buff with a compound you may need to buff again with a lighter compound and then a swirl remover/polish and protectant.

If you wet sand, you will definitely be required to use a buffer, cutting pad, and compound to remove the sanding scratches, and then follow the normal paint-finish restoration procedures.

If you are afraid to use either of these methods, simply refuse the job, or refer it to a body and paint shop. Maybe you can get a referral fee from the owner.


In every overspray situation, always attempt to speak with the insurance company or painting contractor responsible for the overspray. Tell them you will attempt to remove the overspray at the least cost possible and save them from having to repaint the vehicle. However, because of the uncertainty of the process and the number of variables over which we have no control we can assume no liability if our procedure does not work. After all, if our procedure works it saves them the cost of a repaint, if it does not they will pay for a repaint anyway. This usually works and you have the best of both worlds.


There should be big money in overspray removal if you do it professionally.

The back alley detailer may simply take a high-speed buffer and compound to the task and might charge $100. However, to do the job correctly and professionally as described, with analysis, research, and hand labor, you can ask up to $500 for a single overspray removal because of the time involved.


After you have analyzed and evaluated the problem and quoted a price, the aggrieved customers will usually indicate that they need to take the estimate to the insurance company or painter.

At that point, caution them not to let the insurance company or painter intimidate them into going to a “cheaper” shop. Warn them that the “cheaper” shop will simply take a high-speed buffer and compound to the paint and grind the overspray off, causing severe damage to the finish. What is required is a safe removal procedure that requires a great deal of careful hand labor and time. This is usually all it takes to get the customer on your side. The insurance company or the painter is the harder sell.


Paint-overspray removal can provide your detail business big profit, but there are problems, big problems, if the process of removal is not done in an analytical and professional way.

Sharie Sipowicz is aftermarket sales manager with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems Inc. She has been involved in the detail industry for over 20 years, both as a vendor of products and equipment and as a hands-on operator in a retail detail environment. You can contact Sharie at

AUTO LAUNDRY NEWS is published by EW Williams Publications Company
2125 Center Avenue, Suite 305, Fort Lee, NJ 07024-5898, USA Phone: 1-201- 592-7007 Fax: 1-201-592-7171