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Polishing deep cleans the paint.

Many people assume that waxing and polishing are synonymous. In fact, they are two different processes.  Professional detailers and show-car owners know the secret to an award-winning finish is properly cleaning and polishing the surface prior to waxing.

All paints age from exposure to ultraviolet light, pollution and acid rain.  Beautiful finishes gradually become dull and chalky. Waxing over these surfaces will only create a temporary gloss over dull paint.  To reveal the paint's true vitality, vibrancy, and depth, it must be polished.


Here I'm using a  paintwork cleanser to clean and lightly polish the paint on this Porsche prior to waxing.
In the strictest sense, paint cleaners remove surface defects and swirls while a polish improves surface gloss. The lines are blurred however as many cleaners provide some polishing action and many polishes have some cleaning ability.

Polishing deep-cleans the paint.  It also removes oxidation, old wax, minor swirl marks and water spots.  The result is a rejuvenated top paint layer, which is then ready for waxing or sealing.  Polishing creates a uniform, high-gloss shine.

You can easily evaluate your car's paint every time you wash.  To do so, wash and dry your car.  With clean hands, run your fingertips across the paint surface.  It should feel very smooth, like glass. If it doesn't, you're feeling the contaminants and oxidation on the surface of the paint.  This is your indication that it's time to clean and polish your paint using a good polish.

To determine if your paint has enough wax protection, rub a clean, dry detailing towel over the hood or trunk surfaces.  If you hear squeaking, it's because the paint is dry and needs polishing and protection.  When a car's paint surface has good wax protection, a good buffing towel should glide across the surface.

Selecting a polish can be intimidating.  There are hundreds from which to choose, each having different abrasive or cut capability.  There are polishes for clear coat and non-clear coat finishes.  You will also need to choose the correct product for hand application or machine application.  In most cases, hand polishing is most appropriate.

Polishing a newer car twice a year will maintain the car's showroom appearance for years to come.  Newer cars usually have a clear coat finish, so be sure to select a low abrasive polish that is safe for clear coat finishes.  For ultra-safe polishing and paint cleaning, use a polish designed to be a fine pre-wax cleaner on new paint and paint in excellent condition.

If your car's finish is dull, cloudy, or chalky, it may require the use of a light rubbing compound.  Use caution when polishing with compounds, as they will quickly remove the top layer of dead paint.  Check your work often to make sure you don't rub the paint too thin.  Follow compounding with a swirl remover polish formula. 

Once you've selected a polish, here are some tips to make polishing easier:

  1. Work in a shaded area, out of direct sunlight.
  2. Work on one area at a time covering two to four square feet.  Buff off the polish residues as you go.  This allows you to discover any problems early before polishing the entire car.
  3. For best results, use a foam applicator pad to apply polish.  If you need a little more polish or cleaning power, use a terry cloth applicator.  When the applicator becomes caked with polish, switch to a fresh applicator.
  4. Use a small amount of polish.  With most polishes, a 1-inch size dab is enough to polish a two to three square foot area.
  5. If the polishing residue does not buff off easily, switch to a clean buffing towel.
  6. Apply polishes in a back and forth motion, not circular (polishes should take out swirls, not create them... don't polish in circles).  If you are creating swirls, you are using a polish that is too abrasive or you need to replace your polishing pad or towels. 

After polishing, your car's paint should be squeaky clean, smooth, and free of streaks and minor swirls.  It's now ready for waxing.

I love to polish my cars.  I get a real sense of accomplishment when a car is perfectly polished, and the paint is as smooth as silk.  Call me nuts, but I love rubbing the fenders on a shapely sports car until it shines like a mirror.  Only polishing can give that result.  This chapter is a brief introduction to polishing.  If you have a specific paint problem, such as swirl marks, water spots, or paint chips, read those chapters.