I've never tried restoring crusty, yellowed headlights before, although I've seen the restoration kits available for years.
For whatever reason, I thought of the whole headlight restoration concept was an "As Seen on TV!!!" late night infomercial type product, like spray on hair, or a that blanket with sleeves that prevents a gruesome death by strangulation risked by a normal, highly-dangerous blankets. I figured the products would improve my headlights a little bit, or at least they wouldn't be harmful to try. Likely, I'd eventually replace the lights from a junkyard recovery place or ebay anyway.
If you follow me on Facebook (please), you know I inherited my Dad's beloved Miata MX-5. I shipped it from Michigan to Arizona, about a month ago. This car needs some TLC.
The little convertible is well used and seasoned by the elements and wildlife. It had been stored outdoors, year round at my parent's lakeside home and hadn't been driven the last three months before my Dad passed away.
Yep that's bird poop - Photo by Jim
So the old girl is weathered. Since it arrived, it's been tucked in the garage, eating up my workshop space. The photos doesn't really show how bad the headlights are. They are beat up and fogged with age. A brief night drive showed the yellowing and reduced illumination. In this tiny car, I want to see, and be seen, as best I can, thus the idea to try out a headlight restoration project.
I picked up a 3M Headlight Restoration Kit - Heavy Duty with Drill-Activated Sanding from the assorted products available at my local auto parts store. I knew the 3M name and I also liked the whole "drill activated" part. Any chance to use power tools instead of elbow grease is alright in my book.
Despite the glorious photo depicted on the box. I didn't let my expectations get too high for great results. I tore into the packaging and got to work. I'm going to share how it went down, step-by-step.
Spoiler: the results were freaking incredible . Read on!
The kit came with an assortment of parts and pieces that I laid out on the hood on a towel. There were assorted grits of sandpaper, a couple spongy things, tape, a drill piece, and a couple packets of fluidy stuff.
I've never done this project before, and I'm not much of a car guy, but I have a power drill and know how to read instructions. How hard could this project be for a DIY, home improvement dude with a 3 day growth of chin stubble?
The headlight got a nice, soap and water bath. I cleared away the layer of dust and crud from months of sedentary rest beside the lake and 3,000 miles of high-speed, trans-American highway travel atop that foul-mouthed Russian's auto-hauler rig.
Rub a dub dub
I taped off the area around the lens with the included masking tape. Doing so would protect the painted surfaces. It additionally helped me definitively determine that any future trim painting or detailing would not be a bright, lime green color.
SANDING THE LENS
The drill disc got chucked into the drill. This particular kit requires a 1200-1600 rpm drill. On my DeWalt, that's second gear, the middle speed.
No. I do not recommend hammer drill mode.
The 3M kit makes it easy by coloring the sanding discs by grit. The first one is yellow, 500 grit. It goes on with simple hook-and-loop connection. Just center it and press it on.
500 grit sandpaper disc
Step Five: Go Time!
With a "medium to light" pressure I started buzzing the spinning disc across the face of the lens. After one pass, I was clearly past the point of no return. It instantly fogged the lens to nearly opaque. Nervously, I pushed through and kept grinding the yellowed surface away. I also plowed through some minor dings in the surface, probably from loose rocks pinging off for 15 years, dropped from Michigan gravel hauling trucks.
The lens was covered with a fine powder of chalky plastic dust. It was completely fogged over by a finely etched layer of scratches. The lens was toast, completely unusable as a headlight at this point. But the yellowing was completely gone. The color was completely white. All the powder needed to be wiped off. and the lens inspected. I ground a little bit more with the yellow disc to get a deep scratch and the tiny remains of a last rock divot smoothed out. I wiped it down again; it was still more opaque than transparent, but it was smooth.
Swap the yellow 500 grit sanding disc for a white 800 grit disc. It's easy with the hook and loop connection, but I was extra careful not to rip the disc off too carelessly and risk tearing the "hook" / attaching surface from the foam disc.
With the finer sanding disc installed I made a few "medium to light" pressure passes across the lens. The lens was still fogged, but it was clearing up rapidly. It was starting to look much better. The scratches were finer and I could see into the light enough to see the lamps again.
It's a repeat of Step 6. I cleaned up the plastic dust, retouched any areas that needed a little more attention with the drill and wiped it clean.
The white disc got peeled off and a green foam disc got added. It felt pretty soft, barely any noticeable grit to it at all. Based on the labeling of P3000, I guess it's a 3,000 grit abrasive.
I didn't expect this step at all. The directions had me lightly mist the green disc as well as the surface of the lens with water. Just wet, the lens looked pretty good. I started running the 3,000 grit disc.
As soon as I started grinding with the P3000, the light plastic dust and the water turned into a white slurry. I made 4-6 passes across the lens after the slurry appeared. Even with wet mushy slime, it was looking good.
Once again, wipe the lens to clean it up, regrind any little touch-up areas, and give it a final wipe. Holy cow. It looked pretty nice.
THE BIG FINISH!
Next up, an orange sponge got installed on the disc pad holder. The kit referred to it as a "compounding disc"
I got to tear into the first of the liquid packs, and squirted a small dollop of rubbing compound onto the compounding disc.
To reduce spatter, I smooshed the rubbing compound around across the face of the light before turning on the drill.
Holding the pad flat against the lens I fired up the drill and buzzed it around the whole area. The clarity was simply incredible. According to the instructions, you can go a few steps back, to the white disc if necessary, but my first finish was absolutely perfect.
I peeled the masking tape.
A quick wipe with a microfiber cloth and the refresh is complete. Gorgeous!
Step Eighteen: Protection
The second packet of liquid is a Synthetic Wax Protectant product. I applied it with the same microfiber cloth and quickly buffed it off
I am seriously impressed. These headlights from 2001 look brand new.
Just like new
The project took about 20 minutes to do, for both lights. Even though it was only the headlights. it seemed to take years of age off the car.
I know somebody is happy...
This post is not sponsored. I plucked the 3M kit off the shelf at my local auto parts store on a whim. The experience and opinion is 100% my own. I numbered the steps to mirror those in the manufacturer instruction.
These kits are available at auto parts stores and on Amazon.com: