Plastic Lens Restoration
by Jeremy Goodspeed
In years past, if your vehicles taillights got scratched or faded, they were replaced with a fresh set. Now days, an NOS set of taillights for a muscle car can bring upwards of $1000.00. That's if they are even available. Even a new car lens can easily receive an unwanted scratch that could cost hundreds of dollars to replace.
To start the refinishing process, first evaluate the condition of the lens. If the lens has only minor defects and surface contaminates, a quick clean up might be the trick. However, if the lens has been neglected, has the appearance of heavy scratches or oxidation, a lens restoration might be the prescription.
Plastic Lens Polishing
For a quick clean up or for a light scratch, simply use either an aluminum polish, or a polish suitable for plastic polishing. Using a soft cloth, apply the polish onto the plastic and buff to a gloss. Wipe excess with a soft polishing cloth or a microfiber cloth. If any polish becomes trapped in DOT markings and identification lettering, brush the letters with a tooth or detailing brush.
Plastic Lens Restoration
For a complete restoration or to remove deep surface scratches, it is first recommended to remove the lens from the vehicle. Once the lens has been removed, inspect the lens for any cracks or crystallizing. If any cracks or crystallizing is present, the lens is beyond repair and would need to be replaced.
Now that the lens has been inspected, and does not have any cracks, it is ready for restoration. First wash the lens in a mild soap solution to remove any trapped dirt that could be transferred onto the lens. If the lens is a one-piece design with internal reflectors (such as most newer vehicles) tape the bulb holes with duct tape to prevent water from entering the lens. If any water gets into the lens, rinse with distilled water to prevent any internal spotting. Once washed, dry the lens completely and tape any raised lettering.
Next, start the scratch removal process by placing the lens on a work surface covered in carpet. This will keep the lens from sliding during sanding and polishing steps. Begin sanding the lens with 1000 grit wet-or-dry paper followed with 1500 grit and 2000 grit sandpaper with a rubber block to get it leveled. Be sure to sand using a back-and-fourth motion.
Once the lens is sanded smooth, polish the lens using a circular polisher on low speed that is equipped with a micro foam polish pad. An aluminum polish is recommended because of its thick consistency and its ability to dissipate heat away from the plastic. The trick with plastic is to not let the heat build up and to make sure that the compound is doing the work, not a dry buffing wheel. If the plastic lens receives too much heat, distortion and damage can result. Continue working the lens until it has a uniform gloss. Wipe the lens with a microfiber cloth to remove any residue. Inspect for any sand scratches and repeat the polishing if necessary.
If a circular polisher is not available, the lens can be hand polished by using a moderately aggressive paint polishing compound and a soft cloth. Follow hand polishing with an aluminum polish to restore a high luster.
Once completed, the lens is ready for re-installation. The lens will have increased depth and clarity.