Review: 3M Heavy Duty Headlight Restoration Kit

If you have a car or truck with plastic headlamp covers then you know that their inevitable yellowing with age is both an aesthetic and a safety issue. You could spend hundreds having a dealer or bodyshop gouge you with their “headlight rejuvenation service,” or with a product like the 3M Heavy Duty Headlight Restoration Kit you could easily and quickly do it yourself, at a fraction of the cost.
Full disclosure: 3M wanted me to test their Headlight Restoration Kit so much that they sent me a sample. I just so happened to have a car that was in need.
The question is however, could a DIY kit do an acceptable job, or is it just a hold-off of the inevitable big money outlay? Let’s have a look at the job it does, and what it entails, after the jump.

First of all, while comprehensive, the 3M Kit does require that you provide some additional components to the process. One of those is a variable speed drill. Yes, mine is ancient. Fortunately it’s also pretty sturdy, and it has my name on it.
The other thing you’ll want to have is a spritzer bottle filled with water. I recommend distilled for its lack of potentially abrasive minerals, and pleasing aroma.

The 3M kit provides everything else you will need, including a roll of masking tape to keep your work from damaging the paint or trim surrounding your headlamps. Alternatively, you could always remove the headlamps. In that case you’d have to devise some way to securely hold the lamp in place, because as you’ll see we’re going to be putting some significant pressure on them. The instructions included with the kit are extensive and well worth reading before digging into the action. Your life will be much happier if you do. 

The process is very straightforward—you apply the sanding and polishing discs on the included drill pad and work your way in stages from medium coarse to ultra-fine and finally a polishing compound (also provided) on a knobby sponge pad. The first level can be rather alarming as it results in a lens that’s much cloudier—albeit white now rather than yellow—and which might cause you to think you’ve done something wrong. Don’t worry, you haven’t, and as the polishing gets progressively finer the clouding goes away, replaced by a clear and almost like-new appearance.
The instructions call for a 1200-1600 rpm drill. More than that and you might burn the plastic of the lens cover, less and the pads not be able to do their job. I have a 2500 max-rpm drill and it wasn’t a problem to hold it at half-trigger and make the necessary passes over the lens. And yes, I added even more tape, thanks for noticing!

The result? The lights look almost brand new. Not only does that dress up the car considerably but the light output has returned to its original specifications. All in all it took me less than an hour  to do both lights on the one car. That included an application of UV protectant (also included in the Heavy Duty Kit) to stave off future yellowing of the lens. The kit comes with enough material—sanding and polishing discs, tape, and polishing compound—to easily do a couple of cars if they are not too badly yellowed, or plenty for one it’s really badly compromised.
What are the downsides to doing this? Well, in my case I speckled the engine compartment, windshield, and surrounding bodywork with sanding residue and that needed to be cleaned off after the fact. Other than that, I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t want to rejuvenate your headlights yourself and hence save a bundle over having someone else do it. The 3M Heavy Duty Headlight Restoration Kit did the job with little muss or fuss, and with excellent results. The only caution is to make sure you read the instructions before diving in. Otherwise I think it’s something anyone could tackle.
Images: ©2017 Hooniverse/Robert Emslie, All Rights Reserved.

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12 responses to “Review: 3M Heavy Duty Headlight Restoration Kit”

  1. JayP Avatar

    I used the same kit to restore the headlights on the Ranger. Worked great but needed a re-do after about a year. If you can stay on top of the protectant, it would last longer.
    I gave up and bought a new headlight kit for $100 from 1auto.

    1. Rob Emslie Avatar
      Rob Emslie

      These kits typically run around $25 or so. I think if you can postpone the investment in new lights for a year or more then it’s a good deal. I know that the replacement lights for some cars can be pretty expensive.

      1. JayP Avatar

        Yeah… but the originals had 200k of road pitting.
        It only got so good.
        The 1auto parts are chinese and already the parts inside the lens have come apart on one side. Eh… I can see down the road.

    2. Fred Talmadge Avatar
      Fred Talmadge

      I think there is a sealer/UV protectent you can apply afterwards to preserve it.

      1. JayP Avatar

        There is but washing isn’t a priority on the truck.
        If one really wanted to save their lights, using the 3M headlight film would make it last a lot longer I believe. But that’s $50.

  2. Batshitbox Avatar

    Are these things polycarbonate or acrylic? We flame polish acrylic sometimes. Not that everybody has a hydrogen torch sitting around the garage or anything, but it would be a fun experiment. Maybe put muffler tape around the lenses instead of masking tape, huh?

    1. Scoutdude Avatar

      They are polycarbonate as it is much more impact resistant than acrylic. You can flame polish polycarb, I’ve done it on cut edges of sheet with good success many times.

      1. dukeisduke Avatar

        They also originally put a hard coating on them (I looked it up one time – some type of silane?), and I’ve heard that the hard coating is part of the problem.

  3. dukeisduke Avatar

    I’ll have to try that one; 3M’s stuff is usually first-rate. And, I have a Skil 6225 drill, too. I’ve had mine for about 25 years, and I added a keyless chuck shortly after I bought it.

  4. cap'n fast Avatar
    cap’n fast

    i do mine with wet-n-dry paper to 2500 grit and buff with finish glaze. by hand with running water from a hose as the spray bottle technique just doesn’t flow enough water to keep the plastics cool. a UV protectant is all that’s necessary. good results with very fine rubbing compound. effect is lasting quite a while. pity the owners of HID headlights as their lenses are damaged on the inside.
    considering effective LED lights.

  5. Turbobrick Avatar

    After you get the headlights polished you need to protect them with something. Carwax or any synthetic sealant works in a pinch for a short term solution but there are specific products out there that are designed to last longer. Film is one solution, and then there’s liquid sealants.
    The kit does work very nicely, even on 20 year old Mazda headlights. If you have really weird countoured shapes on your headlight I might recommend having just regular sandpapers in similar grit around so you can get everything. And do not do this AFTER you’ve washed your car, the drill will sling the mud EVERYWHERE.
    Interesting thing to note is that the 3M “heavy duty kit” is basically the same thing as the small kit in the hard plastic shell package that’s usually by the bondo shelf. DIfference? HD kit is $10 more and you get a small roll of tape and the bag of wax.

  6. jrj90620 Avatar

    I paid about $5 for the kit,at Amazon,after 3M rebate.Worked well for me.I don’t know why govt even allows non glass headlights.The plastic always goes bad,causing less output and dangerous night driving.We should go back to glass or maybe some high tech plastics that don’t deteriorate for at least 20 years.