If you’re into advanced detailing or paint correction, you know lighting is everything when it comes to making swirl marks or scratches disappear. But if you’re just a car enthusiast, having a proper lighting setup can really make a difference when it comes to polishing, working on the interior, and many other areas of your vehicle.
On a 90 degree summer day, those swirl marks are much more apparent, but with adequate lighting, you can remove those scratches that may go unnoticed outside in the shade.
In this post, I’ll break why lighting is so important for detailing and paint correction, and provide recommendations for a few different types of lights that can really help reveal imperfections that may otherwise go unnoticed.
1. Start with overhead garage lights
If you’re not a mobile detailer, whenever waxing or doing any type of paint correction from a garage or shop, it’s best to start with good overhead lighting. Since halogens and even compact fluorescents (CFL) bulbs can get rather warm, LEDs are really the way to go for mimicking daylight (around 5-6000k) while staying pretty cool and energy-efficient. Anything higher than around 6500k may cause things to appear blue.
Here are a couple of choices to check out when it comes to overhead lights.
Hykolity LED linkable LED shop light fixture
If you have a dedicated garage or shop for detailing, this shop light fixture is a great choice and doesn’t require any wiring or electrical work to install. These obviously hang from the ceiling, can be linked, and are great for paint correction work since they can be positioned directly over your vehicle at an adjustable height.
Most of these units like this Hyolity 4 ft. unit on Amazon can be picked up for around 50 dollars depending on how many you need.
T8 TRLIFE LED Bulbs
If you already have fixtures installed, 28W TRLIFE LED T8 bulbs on Amazon are a great option to go with that can not only make it easier to see your vehicle but also save you some money. These LED bulbs are much more efficient than fluorescent bulbs and can last 10 to 15 years.
The 6,000K cool white color makes them pretty good for detailing, and they also have a lifespan of more than 50,000 hours. This set also comes with a 2-year warranty, so worth trying out at the price point.
Barrina LED fixtures
If you’re looking for a really affordable option, these Barrina LED fixtures with bulbs on Amazon are a popular choice I’ve seen many car guys use.
These definitely are of cheaper quality, but for less than about $100 on Amazon, you should be able to light up your garage. They plug into a wall outlet, can be linked together with connectors, and don’t need to be wired.
Tip on Configuration: If you are installing lights in a garage, one best practice is to mount them in a “U” shape, lining up with the perimeter of your car. Especially when waxing or doing paint correction, this can help to illuminate everything properly.
2. Color matching lights specifically for detailing
If you work in a body shop or are looking to remove scratches, you may want to consider color matching lights, which can bring out imperfections in any paint color. These are ideal for professionals but are obviously the most expensive.
These types of lights fall into the category of defect-finding lights, which can expose swirls and scratches that basic overhead lighting can’t. Here are a couple of popular options I’ve found that fall in this category.
SCANGRIP detailing lights
This brand is probably the most popular and well known for color matching paint correction, due to its versatility. These have the ability to change color temperatures depending on the color of your vehicle, have color match technology built-in, and come in a variety of types: from a MatchPen portable light, to work lights that can be mounted on a tripod.
Check out this video below for an overview of what these can do for your detailing game.
You can find these Scangrip Multimatch 3 lights (up to 3,000 lumens) here on Amazon, along with other Scangrip lights. These really are the gold standard if you are a professional.
Amazon also carries other brands of ‘color matching lights’ that also have some pretty good reviews and more affordable options like this Astro Pneumatic Tool SunLigh
3. Basic spot lights and work lights
While overhead lights are definitely a start for most hobbyists, if color matching lights are a little overkill for your skillset or budget, you may want to consider starting with a couple of LED work lights on a tripod to help focus on various panels of your car. You usually can find cordless tripod-style lights to avoid tripping over cords.
Spotlights and work lights (on a tripod) are a staple for any type of shop or garage work, but also work pretty well for detailing applications. I personally like spotlights on a stand for detailing, since it gives you a more focused beam of light.
You may want to consider LED spotlight bulbs to minimize heat, and since many halogen bulbs tend to burn out quicker.
That being said, a basic set of work lights, like this PowerSmith 46W 4,800 lumen LED Work Light on Amazon is a good affordable choice (under $100) for most people getting started with paint correction or anything else detailing related.
4. Portable and handheld lighting options
For detailing interiors and cleaning engine bays, I really like these underhood type of lights that you can hang of hook to just about any surface. Most of these are rechargeable, and great for multiple applications both on the interior and exterior.
This Neiko unit on Amazon has two brightness modes which are nice, and telescopes to fit just about anywhere.
Another accessory that I highly recommend is a handheld LED penlight for finding swirls. Coast makes a good line of these rechargeable inspection LED penlights and is an accessory that’s nice for quickly checking paint panels for signs of swirl marks that you may have missed.
5. Head lamps
Even in broad daylight, cleaning out your engine bay or interior can be difficult since holding a flashlight and dusting or cleaning is pretty ineffective.
You can find headlamps just for paint correction (like the Coast HL7 here on Amazon) or basic LED headlamps in most automotive sections for around 20 bucks.
The difference between these two types is that the premium Coast headlamps have adjustable LED color options, so you don’t have to worry about lights washing out defects, or not being bright enough. These also allow you to focus the beam of light, which is nice.
These are a great choice for working on scratches and other areas hands-free instead of merely inspecting with a penlight.
Lighting for dark vs light-colored cars
Before you purchase bulbs or any kind of lighting, one of the factors to consider is the number of lumens you need. For darker-colored cars, many detailers will choose bulbs in the 5000-6500k range, while lighter-colored cars may only require 3-4500k.
If the temperate of your light is too bright it can wash out the fine details, especially on lighter cars, which is why color-matching lights are so popular for detailing.
Understanding lumens, kelvin, and watts
You’ve probably heard these lighting terms, but in case you need a quick refresher, here’s what they mean:
- Lumens: a measurement of light output (like pounds)
- Kelvin: a measurement of light temperature (higher temperatures appearing blue (like 7000k, while lower temperatures appear yellow)
- Watts: a measurement of how much power a bulb (in this case) consumes.
It’s a good idea to get familiar with these terms, so you’ll know what lights are more powerful, brighter, or more efficient than others.
This article on Earth LED does a good job of explaining these relationships. A good combination of efficiency and power is key, but it really comes down to preference.
Overall you have several options: garage lights, work lights, portable handheld lights, headlamps, and specialty detailing lights like those made by SCANGRIP. For most people, a couple of tripod lights may be all you need to get started polishing out scratches; if you’re a pro detailer it may be worth checking out lights with color-matching capabilities.
At a bare minimum, a good set of overhead bulbs for your garage is a great place to start for most people if your garage simply isn’t bright enough for real paint correction or waxing.
For more ideas on creating a better workspace for detailing your vehicle, check out my blog post 10 Awesome Ideas for Your Detailing Garage Setup.
Let me know if you have anything else to add based on your experience using lights for detailing or paint correction!