Thursday, October 27, 2016

Headlights; From Sorry to Sparkling

OK, I'm pretty sure the sorry state of The Van's headlight lenses are my fault. They're not age-yellowed like the lights were on the 12 year old Ford Focus we used to have, but they are seriously scratched and fogged to the point where I wonder just how much light is actually getting through there and out to the road anymore.

I can't imagine that 5 years of normal wear and tear would account for all this so it must be something I've done.

I do know I didn't take to them with sandpaper, even though that's kind of what it looks like. So maybe I got careless with some Bug-and-Tar remover one day (A product which has long since been removed from my bucket of cleaning stuff because that shit is just too nasty to be good for the paint, the environment, or the user!) or maybe I bullishly drove my way through a sand-storm (You know, being a man and all. . .) instead of taking cover, though you'd think I'd remember something like that. But whatever the cause, I've had enough of looking at the dingy things!!


A quick stop at the computer confirmed that I would NOT be replacing my headlight assemblies!

So I put together my own repair kit from the nooks and crannies of the shop. Starting with 400 grit wet-dry sandpaper over there on the left and working on up through 600, 1500, 3000, and finally 6000. The last two would normally be used on the ground-glass plate of my sharpener for honing chisels, but right now I had a more urgent use for them, even though I wasn't entirely sure I needed to go quite that far with the polishing.

Just in case I was about to well and truly screw everything up, I picked a spot on the side of one of the lenses for a test area. That way if things went horribly wrong the headlight would still be at least as functional as before I started.

Here you can see wear on the lens that almost looks like the orange-peel of a bad paint job.


I taped off an area of this orange-peel and went to work.

A first I made things much worse by wet-sanding (Always with lots of water and strictly by hand at no more than a moderate pace to avoid heating the surface of the plastic to the point of optical distortion.) with the 400 grit until I couldn't see anymore of the orange-peel. But clearly (Get it? Clearly??) this leaves a seriously foggy lens behind.


But some additional wet-sanding with the 600 followed by the 1500 grit already shows significant improvement.

And by the time I worked my way on up through the 6000 grit the lens was looking much better.

The repaired area to the left of the arrow is nice and sharp and clear while the area to the right of the arrow shows what I started with.

Once I knew I could improve the lenses without totally screwing them up, I set myself up with a workspace that included shade, a stool to sit on, and a bucket of water to make sure my sanding was plenty wet. (Hey! I never said this was a high-tech or complicated repair!)

With the area around the headlight taped off I was ready to go. (I briefly explored removing the headlight assembly for this, but only briefly. Way too  much work to get that thing out of there! And even more work to get it back in and aligned properly.)


The damage doesn't show up as well in photos as it did in person, but here you can get a hint of an area of scratched and fogged lens cutting all the way across there between the arrows.


And here's the same lens after I finished with it. (That stuff in the bottom right corner is reflection off the gravel drive, not screwed up lens. One of these days I just might become a halfway decent photographer and avoid things like this. . .)

Since I didn't have any clear-coat for plastic on hand, either from the big-box or one of those fancy restoration kits, (I wonder if the clear-coat in that inexpensive off-the self spray can is any different than what comes in the kits?)  and I'm reading mixed reviews about finishing off the restored lenses with clear-coat anyway, (Although most the bad reviews seem to come from professional lens restorers with a business to protect.) for the time being I did a final polishing of the restored lenses with stuff I did have around.

A cotton buffing ball and a stick of pure carnauba wax, no binders, no solvents, no softening agents. (I normally use it for putting a finish on wood-carvings.) I left the drill on 'screw mode', which is about half the speed of 'drill mode', so as to generate minimal heat while I buffed the wax on.

Carnauba wax is one of the hardest of the natural waxes but the front of The Van is a harsh place to be hanging out, so I'll keep a close eye on how well it stands up and for any sign of the underlying plastic yellowing in case my sanding has removed a magic layer of yellow-be-gone.

The whole project took a little over an hour per lens, some materials I already had laying around, and a bit of elbow grease.  So, relative to buying a set of OEM replacement lenses, (which would probably take me at least 4 hours to install!) I just paid myself about $400 an hour this morning!!

(Again, in reality the driver's side lens is just as clear and sparkly as the other and the blame belongs to the photographer. This time the reflection was off our white car parked to the left (photo right) of The Van.)


  1. A really great job on that lens ... in fact a fantastic job!!!! Buttttttttt ... I was really disappointed to see you whimp out with that tent you set up to make sure the shade by the tree and van STAYED being the shade. Although that stool to sit on was a really nice added feature for the job. In my house I am sure that large bucket of water would have been a problem on a hot day, because Stella loves water, especially water that has some sort of polish, plastic or deer scat residue. LOL ... the lenses look great.

    1. What might not be clear in that photo is that the morning sun was within minutes of clearing the treeline to the east, the direction The Van is pointing, and blazing down, OK, shining down, on the back of my head, and I have to do something to protect my irresistibly sexy alabaster skin.

      Oh, wait. . . Last time I had alabaster skin was about 60 years ago. . . and sexy?? Come to think of it I don't thing anyone has ever used that word in conjunction with me . . . OK, so yeah, I wimped out. . .

      Question: What grit is Stella's tongue and do you rent her out for headlight restoration??

    2. It's not so much the grit of Stella's tongue, but the chemical makeup of her drool. Basically she could probably take chrome off a trailer hitch. She'd fly for free but would need a huge source of kibble where it the average cost would be more than you spend for groceries. She would need Sadie for supervision and a minimum stay of 3 months ... or spring in the Midwest. :)