How to Remove Rust from a Car

Rusting is a chemical process that happens as your vehicle ages and is exposed to water and salt, but certain conditions make it happen much more quickly. While rust is generally an unavoidable side effect of the passage of time, winter and wet conditions greatly increase the likelihood of rust. If you keep your vehicle outside, the extra exposure to the elements can lead to early rusting. If you live in an area that experiences a lot of snow and ice during the winter, driving your vehicle through wet roads that have been deiced with salt can also make rust damage more likely. Rust can sometimes be hard to notice at first, showing up as small bubbles in your cars paint job or as dark spots once the paint peels, but it can spread over time, perforating the metal entirely, and requiring panel replacement. The how-to below gives a step-by-step on how to remove rust in its early stages, before it has perforated the metal entirely.

What Damages are Caused by Rust?

While rusting may seem like little more than a surface issue that affects your vehicle’s appearance, it can actually be a serious problem that you should not ignore. Vehicle panels can rust from the outside in, or from the inside out, and once the metal is perforated, the only proper repair is a complete panel replacement or section replacement with new metal. If left unremedied, rust damage may eventually make its way to the frame of your car, creating serious structural damage that you may not be able to repair. If you want to keep using your car for as long as possible, then rust is something you can’t ignore.

Learn how to prevent rust from building up on your car’s exterior.

Can Rust be Removed?

It’s all well and good to know that rust is not an issue you want to leave unaddressed, but you’re probably asking yourself how to get rid of rust on your vehicle. While almost any vehicle will eventually begin to rust as it ages, there are still ways to mitigate rusting in order to keep it from permanently damaging your car.

Rust restoration involves using abrasives and/or chemical rust removers to get rid of existing rust formation and stop it from spreading. In most cases, you will need to cover the surrounding, undamaged area with tape that won’t damage your vehicle. Once you have used a rust removing product to get rid of the existing rust you will need to paint back over the restored area with primer. To keep rust from returning you should plan on putting on at least a few coats of primer. If the rusted area is too damaged, it may not be worth trying to restore and simply opt for panel replacement.

How to Remove Rust from Your Car

1. Safety first

This project is going to require you to use safety googles. Always make sure your car is parked on a flat, level service. Do not wear loose fitting clothing or loose jewelry. Make sure you are working in a well-ventilated area.

2. Tape it off

Isolate the section you’ll be working on, the same as if you were painting the vehicle. You’ll want to make sure the non-rusted sections are protected. The rust job will put a lot of rust and paint particles in the air, so keep those off the healthy paint. Make sure to use real masking paper rather than newspaper.

3. Remove paint and primer

Start low and work your way up. We advise using a dual action sander, or a held-held grinder with a flap-disc for better control, starting with 60-80 grit. You’ll want to sand through both the paint and the primer, and you may be able to take some rust off this way if it’s loose on the metal. Understand that when sanding bubbles in the paint, many times the rust under it will have perforated the metal, and will show up as small pin holes in the metal. During this first step, most of the surface rust will also be removed.

Shop our large selection of sanders and accessories for this step.

4. Remove rust pits

When repairing rusted sections of metal, it’s important to understand that primer and paint cannot stick to rust, or at least, not for very long. It’s important that all the metal you are working with is completely clean and free from rust. For this you’ll need to use a grinder or drill with a wire wheel, or a chemical compound such as “metal rescue,” and make sure to wear eye protection and a dust mask. Use the wire wheel carefully to remove the rust that lives in the pits or below the surface area of the metal. Keep in mind that everything needs to be clean! If you use a chemical type rust remover, apply with a paint brush to concentrate your approach. Read the directions on the chemical bottle to determine the amount of time the chemical needs to work before re-cleaning the area. Chemical-based rust removers are good for removing rust and any microscopic remains.

5. Prime the surface

Whether you plan on simply priming the area for the time being, or actually refinishing a panel or section with the proper paint finish, the success of your job starts with a properly primed surface. Use an etching primer or primer that is suited for direct-metal contact. From here, you can choose to finish the panel with either body filler or surfacing primer, and then paint. Keep in mind that using body filler directly on bare metal that has not been sealed properly is not a good practice, and the repair will crack and fail over time.

How Difficult is the Rust Removal Process?

Since the extent of rusting will be different in every case, it can be hard to gauge the exact amount of time you will need to spend to get rid of it. Sometimes it can be a simple task that only takes an hour or so, while in other cases serious repairs may need to take place over the course of a couple of days.

Many times, the true extent of the damage will not be immediately revealed. For instance, an area that has 2 or 3 small rust bubbles, once stripped and cleaned may reveal several large rust holes in the panel, that needs to be replaced. You should try and pick a time to work on maintenance when the weather is good and allows you to work in an open area outside where you will get plenty of ventilation. You don’t want to get caught in the rain in the middle of repairs, so it’s worth tuning in to your local weather before getting started. Always assume worst case on the area you are working on, and have a plan for complete panel cut out / replacement if the repair turns out worse than expected.

While not the easiest DIY car repair, rust removal is something that you can do on your own. If you’ve never done similar maintenance before then you may want to find additional information and tutorials to help give you the know-how to get the job done right the first time.

Restoring a Rusty Vehicle

Once you notice rust damage on your vehicle you shouldn’t wait to get it fixed. It may not be the easiest repair process, but if you feel comfortable enough to try you should find that removing rust on your own is worth the work you put in. Doing the job yourself can be a great way to ensure that it is done with as much care as possible, and even with the products you will need to buy it can be a much cheaper option than hiring the work out.

If you don’t feel comfortable making the repairs yourself, don’t sweat it. Check out our preferred repair shops, and find one near you.

Remember, that the key to stopping rust is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Our information on taking care of your car in the winter can help here, as most rust is formed in the winter or wet months of the year. As for rust prevention and repair products, shopping online can be a great way to compare a lot of different products that can be used for rust removal without ever having to leave your home. Browse products online or head to your local AutoZone and get rust under control as soon as possible.

Advice, how-to guides, and car care information featured on and AutoZone Advice & How-To’s are presented as helpful resources for general maintenance and automotive repairs from a general perspective only and should be used at your own risk. Information is accurate and true to the best of AutoZone’s knowledge, however, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes.

Be sure to consult your owner’s manual, a repair guide, an AutoZoner at a store near you, or a licensed, professional mechanic for vehicle-specific repair information. Refer to the service manual for specific diagnostic, repair and tool information for your particular vehicle. Always chock your wheels prior to lifting a vehicle. Always disconnect the negative battery cable before servicing an electrical application on the vehicle to protect its electrical circuits in the event that a wire is accidentally pierced or grounded. Use caution when working with automotive batteries. Sulfuric acid is caustic and can burn clothing and skin or cause blindness. Always wear gloves and safety glasses and other personal protection equipment, and work in a well-ventilated area. Should electrolyte get on your body or clothing, neutralize it immediately with a solution of baking soda and water. Do not wear ties or loose clothing when working on your vehicle.

FREE Loan-A-Tool® program requires returnable deposit. Please note that the tool that you receive after placing an online order may be in a used but operable condition due to the nature of the Loan-A-Tool® program.

Related Posts