Polishing Paint

 

Of all the aspects of detailing that you will find on this site, and of all those that you will endeavor into as you detail, ‘polishing’ the paint is the most difficult to explain, causes the most confusion, and will take the most time and practice to perfect. It’s not that ‘polishing’ a car is difficult…but there are so many polishes, machines, pads, and techniques that it becomes overwhelming very quickly. Removing swirls and scratches from paint is extremely important and any ‘last step product’ (wax/sealant/coating) that you put on the paint to protect it will only look as good as your preparation of the paint beforehand. It is, therefore, imperative that you learn to polish paint and in this section we will discuss just that. We will limit our discussion to some extent – if we don’t then this section will be too confusing. First, we will be covering two-stage paint…that is paint that has both a color coat and a clearcoat (the majority of cars manufactured in the last 30-40 years have two-stage paint so this shouldn’t be an issue). And second, we will only be covering use of a Dual-Action Polisher (sometimes referred to as a DA polisher or simply a PC [for Porter Cable]). Dual-action (DA) polishers have become very popular over the years: they allow for excellent paint correction without the drawbacks of rotary polishers (such as paint burn-through, holograms, etc.) and are more effective than orbital polishers. We will discuss what polishing does, cover types of polishes, pads, and polishers and we will address ‘how’ to polish a car in what follows.

What does polishing do?

Before we discuss the tools you will need, let’s take a moment to discuss what it is that you will be doing when you ‘polish’ a car. The intent is to make the paint as perfect as possible by removing swirls, scratches, and any oxidation or other surface imperfections – this will yield a very glossy surface with a lot of clarity. The diagram below is a cross-section of a car panel…the hood, for example. The panel is the actual body of the car…on top of this is a paint primer layer…on top of that is the base or color coat – this is the actual color of the car…and on top of that is a clear paint layer called the clearcoat. I show some scratches in the clearcoat and numbered them for discussion. When you polish a car, you are using a very fine abrasive to shave/cut/abrade/level the clearcoat layer. Keep in mind that the total thickness of the primer/basecoat/clearcoat is about 100 micrometers…or 0.1 millimeters. That’s not very thick!! So, when you polish, you need to be cognizant of the fact that you don’t have much paint to play with and won’t be able to remove all the defects if some are too severe. As shown in the diagram, if we polish down to the red line then we will get rid of scratch #1…but we won’t be able to get rid of scratch #2 and definitely not scratch #3 (the smaller scratches are swirls…these you will get rid of). You will be rounding the edges of the deeper scratches so that they won’t be as noticeable, but you won’t be able to get rid of them via polishing without destroying the integrity of the clearcoat. So, by polishing, you are leveling or cutting or shaving the clearcoat layer in an effort to eliminate (and minimize) as many surface imperfections as you can to create a very smooth surface that will reflect light in the best way. Throughout your polishing, keep in mind ‘what’ you are doing and the polishing process will make more sense.

Polishes

There are generally two classes of polish on the market that use two different types of ‘technology’ and, hence, require different techniques (although some will argue that there is only one type of polish). Both classes of polish use abrasives…and there is a little bit of marketing hype in the ‘technologies’. Nevertheless, we will discuss them. One type of polish uses a type of abrasive that doesn’t break down or diminish quickly (these are known as ‘non-diminishing abrasives’) and is often referred to as Super-Micro Abrasive Technology (SMAT) on various forums and marketing lingo. The other type of polish uses a type of abrasive that does break down or diminish quickly (these are known as ‘diminishing abrasives’) and is often referred to as Diminishing Abrasive Technology (DAT) on various forums and marketing lingo. Irrespective of the class of polish, a polish is a liquid with very small abrasives in it…these abrasives will ‘abrade’ the paint as you polish…much like sand paper will ‘abrade’ a surface when you sand it – some of these abrasives will break down quickly as you polish (diminishing) or they won’t break down quickly (non-diminishing). When using a polish, it is imperative to know what type of polish you are working with as this will change your technique. (There are some polishes that contain both types of abrasives but they are rare).

In a SMAT polish, the abrasives in the polish do not break down and become smaller as you polish – at least this is what manufacturer’s say. This doesn’t mean that a SMAT polish remains completely effective throughout the whole polishing cycle…but for the most part, it does. The abrasives are extremely small to begin with and will abrade the paint, at the same rate, for as long as you polish. Prior to SMAT, non-diminishing abrasive polishes existed but the newer technology has abrasives that are both microscopic and very uniform. The key to using a SMAT polish is to constantly inspect your work as you polish to ensure that you are polishing out the swirls and scratches…once they are polished out, you stop polishing.

In a DAT polish, the abrasives in the polish do break down as you polish and, hence, get smaller. When using a DAT polish, therefore, you will initially ‘abrade’ the paint fairly quickly and then, as you continue to polish, the abrasives diminish thereby abrading less and less, leaving the paint with a very high gloss. The key to using a DAT polish is to polish ‘long enough’ so that you allow the abrasives in the polish to break down…otherwise you will be left with microscopic scratches in the paint that will leave the paint looking hazy. The nice thing about DAT polishes is that they are typically formulated such that the abrasives will break down during the time it takes to do a normal polishing cycle…so, as long as you are patient and work the polish for a suitable amount of time, the polish will work as it is designed. In my experience, DAT polishes ‘finish’ the paint better than SMAT polishes (and yes, this is a big area of debate on various forums!!).

How do you know what polishes are SMAT and what polishes are DAT? Well, typically you would have to contact the manufacturer, ask on a forum, experiment with the polish, or all of the above. It will become common knowledge after you work with enough polishes and some manufacturers only use one type of abrasive. Keep in mind that all abrasives will break down in due time when you are polishing so stating that a SMAT type polish has abrasives that will not break down is not entirely true…but you will find that different polishes from different manufacturers behave differently and, thus, will require different techniques and give different results. 

Is it a polish, compound, polishing compound, finishing compound, swirl remover or something else?

Unfortunately, like most areas of detailing, nomenclature is not common and manufacturers don’t help – they try to market products under different names to reach as many people as possible to make as much money as possible – and this causes confusion. Polishes should be delineated by their aggressiveness…in other words, how fast they will ‘cut’ the paint or abrade the paint. For our discussion and for this site, I will use ‘polishes’ to refer to the broad class of all polishes with different aggressive levels – and we typically have three levels of aggressiveness. A compound is the most aggressive, a polishing compound is the next least aggressive, and a finishing compound is the least aggressive. Often one will just say they ‘polished’ a car or ‘compounded’ a car…what they are really saying is that they performed paint correction and depending on the condition of the paint to start, they either used a compound, a polishing compound, and a finishing compound OR they just used a polishing compound followed by a finishing compound OR they just used a finishing compound. (Keep in mind that some of the better polishing compounds will ‘finish’ the paint quite nicely and you might be able to skip the ‘finishing’ step). So, if the paint condition on a car is really bad, you will complete all three steps: compound, polish, and finish using the respective polishes. (By the way, Menzerna publishes a nice chart that has all their polishes along with their initial cut level and their final cut level…this is an excellent way to market products).

My recommendation regarding polishes

One way to avoid confusion of SMAT, DAT, and the different levels of aggressiveness is to find a company you like, learn their products really well, and stick with them. You can either take the advice of fellow detailers or buy a lot of products and test them. Often, however, people want to try many different products and they want to keep changing what they use in an effort to get their car to shine more…and this leads to confusion. I recommend you choose a reputable company with good customer service and stick with their products. Mothers, Meguiars, Adams, Menzerna, Prima, Optimum, Gloss-it, Poorboys, 3D, Griots, 3M…the list goes on and on…there are so many companies and so many products to choose from. Personally, I have tried a lot of polishes from a lot of different companies but I always go back to Menzerna polishes – they have been making polishes for a long time, the learning curve is pretty short and the results are amazing.

Pads

Polishing pads come in different sizes, shapes, thicknesses…there are foam pads, wool pads, microfiber pads…there are pads with concave faces, flat faces, corrugated faces…there are pads with different colors…and there are a lot of companies making pads or marketing other companies’ pads. The number of pads is just as overwhelming as the number of polishes. What’s best? What should you use? What brand should you buy? A lot of it is preference…and it really boils down to what you like and what you are trying to achieve. With that said, let’s discuss a few things that might help in your decision when looking for a pad.

Companies

There are a lot of good pad companies…and a lot of manufacturers market their own pads. My recommendation is to find a company you like, learn their pads, and stick with what works for you. There are companies that just make pads…Lake Country for example is a big pad manufacturer…and you can’t go wrong with their pads. Buff and Shine also make pads and has great customer service – again, you can’t go wrong. And there are a lot of other companies… Meguiar’s, Griots, 3D, Adams, etc. all have pads. I personally use Lake Country pads and they perform very well for the level of detailing that I do. Again, learn about the pads from a company and use them – that’s probably the only way you won’t get confused and frustrated.

Pad Aggressiveness

As mentioned above, pads come in different levels of aggressiveness. Let’s look at a foam pad as an example. Foam pads have pores and the number of pores per inch (PPI) correlates to the aggressiveness of the pad. Pads with high PPI are less aggressive whereas pads with low PPI are more aggressive – pads typically span from most aggressive (compounding) to least aggressive (finishing). Instead of selling pads by their PPI, however, manufacturers sell them by color – pads are color coded depending on their ‘aggressiveness’. Unfortunately, colors are not standard across manufacturers so a ‘yellow’ pad for one company is not the same as a ‘yellow’ pad for another company – and this causes confusion. The other common type of pad that is used with a DA is a microfiber pad. These too come in different levels of aggressiveness…but usually only two levels – compound/polish finish. Another thing to keep in mind is that not all pads are created equal. The type of foam (or microfiber), the Velcro adhesion to the pad, pad thickness, pad shape, etc., all play a part in the polishing process. In your search for foam pads you will read a lot about European foam…there is a lot of talk about how the foam produced in Europe is superior to the foam produced in the United States. I can’t say whether this is true or not…what I can say is that if you buy pads from a reputable company then you will not have problems. Just be careful if you buy a pad off the shelf at your local auto parts store – unless it is a reputable company that made the pad, there is no guarantee that the pad will hold up when polishing. When we discuss ‘how’ to polish, I will say more about what level of pad aggressiveness you should use.

Pad design and shape

Many years ago, all foam pads had a flat face – this makes perfect sense as you want to increase the amount of surface area in contact with the paint. As the technology used to make polishes improved, however, so did pad design. There are now foam pads that have designs on their face…some have lines, some have hatch patterns, some are corrugated, some have circles or hexagonal patterns…all of these designs are supposed to increase pad performance and polishing performance. In a nutshell, the designs were developed in an effort to keep the surface of the paint cooler and to allow for slow release of the polish to the paint. But, even though these improvements in pad design offer some improvements in performance they have also complicated the market. In addition to pad design, there are some differences in pad shape…mainly the way the pad edges are designed. Again, for the slight improvement in performance, the level of confusion has increased ten-fold. I only use flat-faced pads – I keep it simple and I achieve excellent results.

Pad size

Pads come in all different sizes as well – pad thickness is pretty uniform but pad diameter varies. There are 7-inch pads, 6-inch, 5.5-inch, 3-inch, etc. Here…it’s a little bit of what you prefer to use. Personally, I don’t use large diameter pads as the DA polisher has trouble orbiting with such large pads when they are in contact with the paint. I pretty much use 5.5-inch pads all the time. It may be a good idea to have an assortment depending on your needs but you can’t go wrong with 5.5 inch pads.

Pad cleaning

I will only say a few words about cleaning pads. First, don’t cross-contaminate pads…if you use a polishing compound on an orange pad, for example, then don’t use that same pad with a finishing compound unless you have thoroughly cleaned it. Second, make sure you keep your pads clean – if you notice debris on the pad, clean it off. Also, the pad will get caked up with polish as you polish…use a pad brush, polishing spur, or compressed air to routinely clean the pad surface as you polish. After you are done polishing, throw them in the wash by themselves ( don’t mix pads with towels or other clothing) or hand wash them.

Polishers

On this site I focus on the use of a Dual-Action (DA) polisher to remove paint defects such as swirls and scratches. Other types of polishers that you will find are the standard ‘Orbital’ polisher and the more aggressive ‘Rotary’ polisher. The DA, Orbital, and Rotary polishers differ quite significantly. Rotary polishers have a forced rotation (pad spins circularly) and can achieve high RPMs (revolutions per minute) – these are often used in body shops, production detailing shops (where throughput is of utmost importance), and at the end of the assembly line in a factory. Rotary polishers take a lot of skill and are dangerous to the paint if used improperly. In addition, it is hard to ‘finish’ paint well with a rotary polisher. Luckily, you can and will be able to achieve the majority of paint correction that you will encounter with a DA polisher – for this reason, we will focus on its use. A DA polisher operates by ‘orbiting’ or ‘oscillating’ the pad thereby causing it to rotate (but the rotation is not forced) – DA polishers can achieve high OPMs (orbits per minute). A DA polisher differs from the standard Orbital polisher in that it can achieve higher OPMs and uses a backing plate. (Standard orbital polishers use really big pads and are essentially useless for anything but putting wax on a car.) Using a DA to remove swirls and scratches will take more time as it doesn’t have the ‘cutting’ or ‘leveling’ ability of a rotary…but you can still achieve an amazing finish with a DA polisher and not have to worry about burning through the paint or leaving behind ‘buffer trails’. Meguiar’s, Griot’s, Rupes, and Porter Cable all make excellent DA polishers with the Griot’s polisher often the favorite of most detailers and the Rupes quickly becoming the favorite. (Keep in mind that there are polishers that fall between a DA and a Rotary. The Flex 3401, e.g., has forced rotation and also orbits…it doesn’t have the cutting ability of a rotary but it is pretty close and will cut faster than a standard DA polisher).
The pads that we discussed above are attached to a DA polisher via Velcro to a ‘backing plate’ – the backing plate is then screwed into the polisher spindle. Backing plates accept pads of all diameters although it is HIGHLY advisable to use a pad that has a diameter that is larger than the diameter of the plate to avoid damaging the paint surface with the backing plate.

How to polish

OK, we have discussed pads, polishes, and polishers…and now we will discuss ‘how’ to polish the paint. Keep in mind that there are many variables at your disposal when it comes to polishing. In order to know how to proceed, you need to understand the condition of the paint you are going to work on. Before you polish, make sure that you have washed the car well…you can use a Dawn wash to remove any grease, oils, or previous waxes or sealants. After you wash the car, inspect it…both visually and with your hand (see the section on Claying…do a baggie test). If the surface has a lot of ‘above surface bonded contaminants’ then you will need to clay the paint before you polish – you need a pristine surface prior to polishing otherwise you run the risk of inadvertently introducing more defects into the paint. Once you wash and clay the paint, you are then ready to polish. You will need a DA polisher, three types of polish (compound, polishing compound, and finishing compound), and an assortment of pads with differing levels of aggressiveness. It’s good to have two of each color to start – after some time you may find that you are using some pads more than others and can then focus better on what to buy. You can achieve great results with just Menzerna Super Intensive Polish and a Lake Country Orange Pad if you are on a tight budget.

How does the paint look?

Look at the condition of the paint under an assortment of lights…the Brinkman Dual Xenon is a popular light for seeing defects. If you have a garage, make sure you have good fluorescent lighting and also some normal incandescent lights (in addition, some LED flashlights and normal flashlights will help). If you are working outside, inspect the paint in the sun and then move it into the shade to do the polishing. (It is not advised to polish a car outside as debris may land on the surface and introduce defects – if you have to polish outside, make sure you wipe the paint with a microfiber towel prior to polishing each section). You need to assess the paint as best you can…are there a lot of swirls? Or just a few? Has the paint been neglected? Are there a lot of random scratches? Are they deep? Are there water spots? Through experience you will learn how to ascertain the condition of the paint fairly quickly and know what pad and polish to use…for now, if you are having issues determining what to use, I recommend you start with a Lake Country 5.5” Orange pad (or equivalent), and something like Menzerna Super Intensive Polish (or equivalent). You just can’t go wrong with this combination. Before you set out to polish the whole car, however, you will NEED TO DO A TEST SPOT to see if your pad/polish combination and technique are sufficient to correct the paint.

Test Spot

There is a lot you can do with different pads and polishes but you need to start somewhere to see if what you chose will work to remove the defects. Performing a test of your chosen pad/polish combination on a small area of the car is crucial to see if you have ‘locked’ in your recipe for the whole car. Often a small section of the hood or trunk is used for this purpose. Choose a small area, 18”x18”, and tape it off…simply make an 18”x18” square on the hood or trunk. That will be your test spot…you will polish that section with your chosen pad/polish combination and then take the tape off and inspect to see if it worked…if it did, then you can proceed to do the whole car with that combo…if not, then you will need to experiment a little more. See the next section to learn ‘how’ to polish the test spot.

Finally…how to polish

We will now explain ‘how’ to polish using the test spot as an example. If you have never polished with a DA polisher then one thing will become apparent immediately…it will take minutes to polish out a small section…not seconds. Be patient and the paint will respond as you want it to.

  1. Ensure that the car has been washed, dried, clayed and is free of any debris.
  2. Tape of an 18”x18” test spot on the hood or trunk with painter’s tape.
  3. Place a pad on your polisher…here I am using a 5.5” Lake Country Orange pad on a Meguiar’s G110 DA polisher with a 5” backing plate.
  4. Prime the pad. This is essential! You want to completely coat the face of the pad with polish…don’t glob it on – just a very thin layer. I make a circular bead around the pad and then work it into the pad as I manually rotate it (see photo). Here I am using Menzerna Super Intensive Polish. After I coat the pad, I then place the face of the pad into a microfiber towel and turn on the polisher while pressing my hand against the pad…this will remove any excess polish so that it doesn’t splatter all over the paint when you begin to polish.
  5. After you prime the pad, put two small drops of polish compound on each side…no bigger than a dime – about the size of a pea.
  6. Take the polisher and place the pad on the paint in a few spots…this is to put some polish on the paint and prevent it from splattering when you turn the polisher on.
  7. Make sure the cord is thrown over your shoulder – you don’t want it to hit the paint. Also, set the speed of the polisher on 4 or 5.
  8. With the pad in contact with the paint, turn the polisher on and immediately start moving the polisher around the section you taped off…you want to spread the polish out…then, starting in one corner, work the polisher along a defined path, as shown below, while you apply some pressure to the head of the polisher (5-10 lbs)…if the pad stops rotating, you are applying too much pressure (you can put a black line on the top of the backing plate with a Sharpie to help you see if the pad is moving as I show in the photo). Go up and down, then side to side, then up and down, then side to side…move the polisher slowly – this isn’t a race. You need to work the polish – watch the video to get an idea of the speed of movement. After you do 2-3 passes in each direction, turn the polisher off while it is still on the paint and remove the polisher from the paint.
  9. Wipe the area with a microfiber towel and make sure the area is clean of polish – don’t apply a lot of pressure when you wipe the polish away – you don’t want to instill swirls back into the paint! You can use a mix of isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and distilled water to help wipe the polish off and make sure that you aren’t getting any ‘filling’ of the defects with the polish. A 10-25% IPA/water mix should be fine.
  10. Inspect the paint to see if your choice of pad/polish/technique was good to rid the test spot of swirls. Is the paint hazy? If it is then you didn’t polish long enough or you are using a very aggressive pad/polish combination and you need to follow up with a less aggressive pad/polish to finish the paint. Take the tape off carefully to see if you can notice a difference. If it’s good, then simply continue to do the whole car in small sections. If it isn’t good…see below section on “What if your test spot didn’t work?”

What are you trying to achieve?

It is important at this point to assess your pad/polish combination. Did it remove the swirls? What about the scratches? Keep in mind that if you can feel a scratch with your fingernail then you probably won’t be able to completely remove it but you will be able to minimize its appearance. Is the test spot good enough? Here you need to really answer the question: What are you trying to achieve? Is it a car that’s going to a show? Is it a daily driver? Is it a garage queen? How much correction do you want or need? Perhaps 90% correction is good enough. Perhaps you want 95% correction. This all depends on what you are polishing the car for…if it is your car and you drive it every day then 90% correction may be fine (by this I mean that you are removing 90% of the paint defects). If you are polishing a car for a car show then you probably want 95% correction or better (although a lot of cars at local shows don’t seem to be polished at all lately). If you got rid of 90% of the swirls and scratches in your test spot and you are happy with that, then move on to polish the whole car. If you aren’t happy with your test spot then reassess your pad/polish combination and adjust it until you get what you are seeking.

What if your test spot didn’t work?

I always start with a Lake Country 5.5” Orange pad and Menzerna SIP unless the paint needs very little correction – generally this is not the case but if it is I will go with the next less aggressive pad/polish combination (for example, a white pad with SIP or a white pad with Menzerna Super Finish). If the orange pad/SIP combination is not aggressive enough then I will move to a more aggressive polish…if that’s not good enough then I will move to a more aggressive pad…each time I will step up the level of aggressiveness of the pad or polish until I find what works. The Menzerna SIP/orange pad combination is very versatile, however, and should yield excellent results. If your test spot didn’t work then there are few things you can do.

  1. You can increase the aggressiveness of the technique (apply more pressure) or increase the aggressiveness of your pad/polish
  2. Using the same color pad as you did for the test spot, use a more abrasive polish
  3. If that doesn’t work, use a more aggressive pad and the same polish you initially used for the test spot.
  4. If that doesn’t work, use the same pad from (3) and the polish you used in (2)…what you have done at this point is stepped up the level of aggressiveness in both the pad and polish.

Notice that each time you increase the aggressiveness of the polish or the pad…you are stepping up the level of aggressiveness of your polishing until you achieve the results you want. Note that as you use increasingly aggressive products, you will probably end up with hazy paint but the swirls will be removed – this is normal and you can then use the next lower level aggressive pad/polish combo to remove the haze. There are a lot of variables here…you are using a pad with a certain aggressive level, a polish with a certain aggressive level, and a polisher set on a certain speed and you are moving the polisher at a certain rate and applying a certain pressure with a certain pad size and polishing a specified work area. These are a lot of variables that you can adjust to achieve the paint correction you are seeking. You can use an aggressive polish with an aggressive pad…or you can use an aggressive polish with a finishing pad. Make adjustments to get the best finish possible…‘how’ to know what to choose generally comes from experience. You need to practice and find what works for you and the car you are polishing.