How to Economically Fix Car Dents.

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Economical body work, fixing a dent yourself.

Be sure you buy the right supplies for the job of body repair. Photo by Adam Wright 2010

In these tough economic times fixing a costly dent on your car may not be in the budget. To challenge the high cost of body repair, we challenged some complete amateurs to remove a dent on a Toyota Rav-4 that would have cost well into the thousands to fix professionally. By going to the auto parts store and spending less than $100 they were able to fix this dent.

It does not look perfect, but if your car is an older model with some wear and tear already this cheap fix might be enough to keep it looking ok. While doing your own body work may not yield a good-as-new result like a pricey shop can give, you can buy yourself some time, and you won't have to tuck your tail between your legs and tell your friends how you backed into a pole. In this case the owner of the car hit the wall of the garage backing out, it was a very embarrassing dent and one she didn't like to explain.

So we showed her how to fix the dent herself for under $100. She was thrilled since she plans on getting a new car next year and just wanted this one to look ok for a while longer.

What You'll Need:

  • Plastic Body Filler (Bond-o or similar)
  • Plastic Mixing Spatula
  • Flexible Plastic Body Filler Spreaders
  • Masking Tape
  • Color Matched Touch Up Paint
  • Sand Paper
  • Sanding Blocks
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Assessing the dent.

Assessing the dent. Photo by Adam Wright 2010

This is the dent as we found it. She whacked the car pretty good, causing the body panels (bumper, filler panel, and fender) to become separated and putting a good sized dent in the fender.

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Taping off the area.

Taping off the outside area. Photo by Adam Wright 2010.

First, you must tape off around the area you will be repairing. This will save the paint outside of your damaged area from sanding and overspray when you paint. You want to make sure to tape all the way around the damaged area like we did on the bottom here.

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Rough sanding of the damaged area.

Sanding the damaged area with a sanding block. Photo by Adam Wright 2010.

The first thing you want to do once you've taped off the damaged area is to do a rough sand off it. In this case, we needed to sand off an area where the dent had started to rust, but the sanding is also important for the body filler and the new paint to adhere to the fender. For best results, sand all the way down to metal.

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Applying the Bondo body filler.

Applying the body filler. Photo by Adam Wright 2010.

Bondo is a plastic body filler that is a thick liquid plastic that you apply as a goopy paste, then sand into the shape of the car. Much like the game of chess, mastering body filler can take a lifetime, but learning the game can take just a day. Working with Bondo is the same kind of scenario.

You can learn fairly quickly how to effectively use body filler. The main trick is reading all the instructions so you can get the mix of body filler and hardener right. Too much hardener and it will harden too fast, and you won't have enough time to shape the filler. Too little hardener and the filler will never fully cure, leaving it tacky and ​unsandable. Use the spatula to mix your Bondo.

Once mixed you will apply the body filler using the flexible spreaders. You want to follow the lines of the car and spread in thin layers, if you do it too thick it can get too heavy and not cooperate when you need it to.

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Sanding the body filler.

Sanding the body filler. Photo by Adam Wright 2010.

Once the body filler has hardened you can sand it into the shape you want. This is where your skill will get better with time. A master body man knows just the right amount of filler to add and just the right amount to sand. You will probably add too much and sand too much off, but that is all part of the learning curve. It will take several applications of applying and sanding to get the shape right.

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The Final Shaping.

Marking off the body lines. Photo by Adam Wright 2010.

After several applications of body filler and sanding your fender will start to take shape. This is when it helps to get a marker and mark off your body lines. These are the creases that the metal fender shows from the factory. This will come in handy both when you are doing your final coats of body filler and when you are sanding. It will give you visual cues to work off of.

For the initial sanding, use a heavy grit paper like 100 grit. These take off the maximum amount of material, and quickly. As soon as you start to get close to your final shape, shift to 120 or 150 because you will want to be less abrupt in your sanding at this stage. When your shape looks spot on (or close enough for you), switch to 220 grit and sand it smooth. For a repair like this, 220 is fine enough, but feel free to go to 400 or beyond for an even smoother surface.

Before you apply paint, clean the area to be painted with mineral spirits to remove and greasy or finger grime that may have been left behind. You may also choose to use a tack cloth to grab any dust that remains on the area to be painted.

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Spraying the paint.

Spraying the paint. Photo by Adam Wright 2010.

You will want to check on your tape and maybe add more to make sure you don't get overspray on the body of the car. Only paint after you have sanded the body work to a smooth surface using progressively finer grades. Remember whatever you see in terms of flaws will not be covered up by the paint, flaws still show, so make sure your work looks nice before you paint.

Start with a high-quality sandable primer/filler. The primer acts as a middle ground between the Bondo and the paint, increasing adhesion of the paint. The filler part of primer/filler will fill in tiny pinholes that would otherwise affect the quality of your finish. Apply a coat or two of primer/filler, then resand the area. When you're satisfied with the finish, you're ready for real paint.

Apply several thin coats of paint rather than one or two thick layers. Always moving the can in one direction (left to right, or up and down), this will minimize runs and sags in the paint. Less paint and thinner coats are much better than thick coats. Also be sure you let your paint dry between coats or you may get runs or sags. Once the paint is thoroughly dry, you will want to remove the tape and do a very fine wet sand (600 grit paper) on the whole area. This will blend the new paint with the old and remove any lines left by the tape.

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The fixed fender.

The finished product, a fixed fender. Photo by Adam Wright 2010.

As you can see for less than $100, you can improve the look of your car. Is the fix perfect? No. Will it make the car look decent enough for a few years? Yes. In this case, the owner was very happy just to have it fixed enough that people stopped asking what happened to her car.