Help! I spilled paint in my car!

Help! I spilled paint in my car!

Have you spilled paint in your car? You just came back from the DIY centre and a tin of paint had the lid pop off?

Now there is paint spilled all over your boot or carpets, and you are desperately looking on a search engine looking for advice, this is it.

Don't Delay... ACT NOW!

It is important to act immediately before the paint dries because it is far harder to remove dry paint than a wet paint spill. As most people do their DIY in the summer and cars get hot, you must act quickly to slow down the drying. So before reading the rest of this article, get your car into the shade if you can, get some old towels or old sheets, wet them and place them over the spilled paint.

  1. Take a deep breath, it's going to be fine!
  2.  Cover it with wet towels/sheets. Cover all spilled paint, especially splatter and the edges as they will dry first. You can keep re-wetting them with a trigger-spray. But DO NOT make it too wet. Don't flood the area with water, that will just spread the paint. Don't try scooping the paint out, this will just make it thinner, allowing it to dry more quickly.
  3. . With that done, if they are open, call a detailer/valeter/groom and ask them if they have a wet-vac / extraction machine / carpet shampoo machine. If they have get it booked in right away. Many will treat this as an emergency. The alternative is to rush to the hire shop and hire one.
  4.  If the tin was just bought from a DIY centre or paint supplier, take photos, contact their customer services.
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How do you clean up spilled paint in a vehicle?

It's usually fairly easy if you have the right equipment because thankfully, most paint these days is what most people would call water-based*. If the paint you spill in your car is emulsion or a water based then it can be washed out fairly easily as long as it doesn't dry. Solvent based paints are a bit trickier and will require washing out with solvents, some of which can have an effect on the plastics on your car. It is important to know which you are dealing with before you begin.

Paint spilled or splattered on the outside of you car?  How to get paint off a car?

Spilled Paint in Car
Spilled paint in car interiors is a problem we see all the time, but we are well equipped to fix it up with our Interior Accident Clean Service

What not to do!

DO NOT put a hosepipe in your car and definitely do not use a pressure washer inside the car. Also don't dilute it with gallons of water. That paint needs to be removed, diluting it won't help, it just spreads it around, and a pressure washer will cause it to splatter everywhere. It sounds obvious, but we have seen it done!

Interior Accident Clean

Over the years, we have seen all kinds of paint spillages in cars. From kids finger paints, to creosote-like fence paint. We see tins which have tipped over and spilled a cup or two of paint on the boot carpet, to cars which have had to brake hard, sending the paint flying and tins exploding, with paint splattering most of the interior.

The smaller the area of clean-up, the easier, quicker and cheaper the clean-up will be, this goes without saying. So aside from not letting the paint dry, which is definitely the worst thing you can do, it is very important to not spread the paint around.  Some of the hardest cars we have had to clean up are the ones we have got after somebody else has already tried to clean it an made it worse.

If you have a small spillage on a boot carpet or floor mat that you can remove from the vehicle, then by all means take it out and flush it through with water. You can even use a pressure washer.

However, on balance, it is better to keep it wet and spread it around than let it dry.

How to remove water based paint from a car.

As previously stated, it is important to keep the paint from drying. Cover the area with damp towels, even if it's just a little bit. One of the benefits of water based paints is that they are quick drying, especially in warm weather, the edges can begin to dry out before you have had a chance to collect together cloths, paper towels, scrubbing brushes and a bucket of hot water. Make things easy on yourself, keep it from drying.

Paint spilt under car carpet
If paint is spilled on carpets it can often run under leaving pools of spilled paint which need to be extracted and cleaned, meaning we often need to dismantle some of the car's interior.

If quite a lot of paint spilled and splattered, it is tempting to tackle the largest part first. But the larger part of the paint takes longer to dry, so work from the outside in. By the time you have tackled the large spill, you might find that it had dried on smaller areas so do those first. 

If you have paint splattered over hard plastic trim or the backs of leather seats, wipe off the paint, trying not to spread it, then wash it down with warm soapy water.  Carpets are made of a shiny nylon-like materials and can be far more forgiving than satin/matt plastic trim or leather which can absorb the paint and stain the finish.

When tacking a pool of spilt paint on a carpet, the best thing to do is scoop it our. A dustpan is best for this, but don't use the brush. Use a piece of cardboard, the lid from a plastic tub or the ice scraper for your windows.

In theory, you can keep wetting and blotting up the paint, but really, the best think you can do is beg, borrow or steal  buy a "wet-vac". Not one of those 12v battery powered hand held ones, but a proper extractor. According to Google, they can be had for £40-£80 which considering the cost of a replacement boot carpet is a bit of a bargain. We doubt it will be the last time you find a use for it. If you take your car to a professional, hopefully they will have a carpet shampoo machine which is even better.

If the paint spilled only on the boot carpet, and you can remove it, we would recommend you do so and work on it outside the car, this will help prevent you spreading diluted paint and allow you to really flush it through with water. You might even be able to remove the back seats in some vehicles without undoing bolts and screws, although if you feel up to it, that wouldn't be such a bad idea, it's certainly something we often do.

What if it's splattered everywhere?

Many of the cars we clean up, just have a spillage in the boot and we can often fix these up in an hour or so, but it's often the case that people bring their cars to us because they had the paint on the floor, or on the seat and it really has gone everywhere. 

There's no getting away from it, it is more difficult to clean these than a simple spill in the boot. The carpets are often not the same, they may have underlay where the paint can soak in. This is especially the case with seats which are filled with foam. Even with leather seats, the paint can get into the seams and stain the stitching. Although you can clean these things up yourself, you still need to do it before it dries, time is of the essence and it helps if you have experience and all the right equipment to hand. It really is better to take it to a professional. 

Removing dried paint from a car.

First you need to ask, is it really dry? It takes a little while to fully harden. If it was spilled less than three days prior, still cover it in wet towels. If it's still soft, it's a whole lot easier to remove.

We have found steam can help break up drying water based paints, otherwise, a solvent needs to be used. 

Spilt latex and solvent based paints in cars.

As always, cover any spillages with damp towels, damp sheets or wet paper. Even though they are solvent based, this prevents evaporation and slows the paint from drying. And even if you think the paint is dry, it might not have fully cured so it is worth covering the area with something damp. It is easier to remove if it hasn't fully hardened.

Fence paint spilled in car boot
This paint was spilled in the car boot and has run down under the carpets.

To remove solvent based paints will require solvent instead of water. Which solvent depends on the paint and what it's been spilled on, usually we test progressively hotter solvents until we find one that works. Carpets are often very resilient to solvents allowing you to use something 'hot'.

Solvents are dangerous!They are highly flammable, there are issues with fumes, especially in a confined space such as a car; they are toxic and carcinogenic, and we really can't recommend you go down this route because we live in a litigious society. In fact we advise against it. Seek the advice of a professional.

Plastic trim, rubber and leather are far more sensitive to solvents, often they have thin coatings on them which solvents can easily remove. It is sometimes the case when we clean up this kind of car that we salvage what we can, but sometimes parts need to be replaced. 

When paint gets onto seat faces, it is sometimes the case that they either can't be recovered, or it would just be too labour intensive to be economically viable. It may be the case that the replacement parts are not too expensive or replacement used parts can be sourced. 

What you definitely shouldn't do is use paint stripper, this is strong enough to destroy practically anything inside your car, and despite what you might have read on other websites... don't use turpentine! It stinks! There are other alternatives... which are still best left to professionals.  

Frankly, if you have spilt solvent based paint in your car, the best thing to do is seek the advice of a professional. 

Can I claim on my insurance?

Yes this is entirely possible, but if you keep the paint from drying, get to a professional quickly, you may well find that the cost of the clean-up is less than your insurance excess, it really depends on the extent of the spillage.

At the time of writing, we have a car in our workshop for a paint spillage clean-up, and the owner at first called the insurance company who insisted they wouldn't cover it. (However there was a happy ending).

If the insurance company will cover it, then an insurance assessor will be sent out to ensure that the job was done to the highest standard with no compromises. What this means is that, although you might have lived with that bit of plastic trim over the back wheel arch that now looks a bit flat with a slight stain on it, the insurance company will want it replaced. The up-side is that you will get your car back in absolutely mint condition, the down side is that these kinds of parts are not usually in high demand, so parts companies probably won't stock them. It could be the case that parts need to be ordered from German, Japan of South Korea and take weeks to arrive. 

Happy ending after the horse has bolted.

I'm sure if you could turn the clock back, you would have put the paint tin inside a plastic sack and secured it upright in the boot of your car... but if you are reading this it's probably to late. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

In case you are wondering, yes, sometimes the lids do just pop off tins of paint. You take the paint from a cool warehouse DIY centre and put it in a car which is baked hot from the sun, the contents of the tin expand and pop the lid off.  Sometimes it appears like they actually explode. It happens a lot... it must do because we clean up a fair number every year.

It seems to happen mostly when people have had a colour mixed up at the store so the tins weren't sealed at a factory (although these don't seem to be immune either). When mixing pain in store first became common we were getting loads of calls about this, so then they started putting metal clips on the tops of the tins, but even this isn't foolproof. One of our local paint suppliers seals the lids on with tape and then puts them in a bag which seems to be a better solution. 

We think they have done much to remedy this problem, but if they provided tins which could endure the 35*c temperatures of your car on a hot day, then we'd probably be complaining the lids are too hard to get off for the other 51 weeks of the year.  

The customer who we mentioned earlier who had no luck with her insurance company, next went back to the DIY centre customer services, and we are happy to say that they agreed to pay for the clean-up in full. We have often found it these case that the DIY centre will usually agree to pay towards the bill... but not always.

We would suggest that you contact them immediately and tell them what happened. You are probably angry and upset, but please remember that the poor girl didn't do anything wrong! You have a problem, they are there to help you with your problem, help them to help you, you will get better results if you make their life easier.

Negotiate with them, tell them what you intend to do (getting the car professionally cleaned) and if they agree to pay in whole or in part, get them to put it in writing. In order for them to pay, you will need a bill from a professional cleaning service --  they won't pay you to do it!

...and if anybody from a DIY centre is reading this, please supply tins of paint in sealed plastic bags and warn your customers about hot cars.

*What most people call "water based" is actually using water as a carrier medium. In layman's terms it is like a resin suspended in water. Once the water evaporates it is not re-wetable as it has formed into a polymer which can only be disolved with a solvent. True water based paints such as child's paints can usually be washed off, however they contain pigments which can sometimes stain. 

Danny Argent

technical writer and customer education.

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