I have been reading a lot of threads on the Autopia forum
(http://autopia.org) lately that
basically start with people asking "what polish should I use?" I
couldn't help but think, how do I best avoid using an abrasive polish
I posted the basic content of this article on Autopia to see what members
had to say. The conversation was interesting and insightful.
I think it's time for a completely different discussion about paint
polishing. What I strive to achieve is the highest level of paint
perfection without altering the structure of the paint. Once I get there,
I want to use the proper tools and techniques to keep my paint looking
When I have a paint problem, I want to be able to fix it without removing
excessive clearcoat that I need to maintain a deep-looking finish. I'm a
huge advocate of spot treatment. I rarely take an abrasive polishing
compound to an entire body panel, or worse, the whole car. It simply
I have the distinct feeling from reading many Autopia threads that people
are buying step 1-2-3 products and using all of them because that's what
they feel is necessary to achieve "the best results". In no way
is this use of paint polish an appropriate way to care for paint.
RULE 1: Do less damage than the damage that
My experience shows me that 95% of all paint issues can be resolved with a
very fine polish, the right tools and the right technique. So, why is it
that so many people are willing to reach for a harsh compound as the first
step... when it should be the last resort?
Member fotodad writes:
"You make many excellent points! I tend to get all caught up in
having the "best" most glossy finish I can have, but I never
thought about actually doing more harm than good. I truly believe (after
reading your post) that detailing can reach a point of diminishing returns
once we get involved in all these assorted polishes and paint preparation
products. Certainly no one would dispute the need to keep an automobile's
finish clean of dirt and general debris via weekly or even daily cleaning.
But is it really necessary or even smart to polish and wax or just wax
more than once every two months?
Often times neighbors will walk past my house while I'm detailing and
they'll jokingly say, "You're going to rub the paint right off the
car!" I laugh, call them a few choice names under my breath and
continue polishing. But maybe they've got a point!"
Your neighbors are correct, fotodad, you are going to polish the paint off
your car. I know, as I have done it!
There is a class of paint polish that can be used to maintain gloss
without abrasives that thin your paint. These polishes are most commonly
called pre-wax cleaners. The polishing (gloss enhancing) action is a
combination of chemical cleaners that remove embedded dirt and very fine
polishes that maintain gloss. The polishing "abrasive" is about the
consistency of talcum powder. My two favorite products are Sonus
Paintwork Cleanser and P21S
Paintwork Cleansing Lotion. There are many others.
RULE 2: Don't remove clearcoat you may need some
We all talk about gloss, depth and clarity, but are you stopping to think
about what you might be doing to each of these final finish
characteristics each time you take an abrasive polish to your paint? You
might be seeing more gloss, but it's coming at the expense of depth and
maybe even paint finish clarity.
Most professional polishes are designed to be used with a rotary buffer,
by an experienced technician. When you use these polishes by hand or dual-action
(DA) polisher, you put scratches in your paint finish that will not
come out by using the next polish up in the line.
Member Accumulator writes:
"Glad you mentioned the lack of depth that can result from excessive
polishing. You really can see the way a thin clearcoat lacks depth. My '95
Caprice is a good example of that; you can tell that the previous owner
tried a little too hard to 'polish it up'. Now I can either live with
how it looks or repaint, but I can't do much more polishing. I don't need
a paint thickness gauge to tell me there isn't a normal amount of
clearcoat on it."
There's no doubt that the clearcoat on the modern car finish creates the
beauty of the finish. To retain the good looks, the clearcoat must remain
clean and finely polished. Heavy polishing will reduce finish clarity and
Member Tasty write:
"I posted a question about this exact topic when I came to the forums
on one of my early visits. I raised the issue of how much polishing and
abrasive use can be done before you are actually just wearing the paint
thin. I also read the study that one guy did about abrasives on paint over
on the Meguiar's forum. He tried several products on a hood panel, and
after each use measured with a paint thickness gauge. It became clear that
you REALLY have to get aggressive to remove any significant amount of
clear or paint, but nonetheless the points in this thread are good. After
time all the less aggressive products effects become cumulative, and may
start to do more harm than good."
It should be noted that a proper paint finish (primer, color and clearcoat)
is only 6-8 thousandths (6/1000) of an inch thick. If your car has a
quality clearcoat, it will be about half of that total paint thickness.
Removing 1-2 thousandths of and inch of clearcoat happens in a matter of
seconds with an abrasive polish.
My business partner got a 3-inch long scratch in the clearcoat of his new
Lexus SC. I used a spot
pad and a corrective
polish to pull most of the scratch out so it would pass the 5 foot
test. He said "...but I can still see a trace of the scratch
close-up..." I explained that if I removed more material we risked
thinning the clearcoat and creating a patch of paint that no longer
matches the rest of the finish.
Sometimes, enough is enough. The skill is learning how to read the paint
and knowing what the final result will be when you use a product.
RULE 3: Know for a fact what tasks the products
you're using were designed to perform.
Are you using a polish designed to be used on an automotive assembly line
by a technician with a 4-inch spot pad on a pneumatic polisher to remove
2400 grit sanding marks? If so, what are the equivalent pad specs,
rotation speed and polish time to remove your 5000 grit equivalent swirl
Are you using a refinisher's panel blending compound originally designed
to cut and blend fresh paint using a wool pad as a general purpose cutting
compound? If so, can your foam cutting pad effectively generate enough
heat on your DA to break down the abrasives to prevent paint scouring?
The fact is, very few abrasive polish systems were designed from the
ground up to be a DA polishing system. Very few others have bothered to
correctly match "general purpose" polishes with polishing pads
and proper instructions to create a system.
Member Accumulator writes:
"As for the abrasive products, I generally find myself using (and
recommending) those that can be used by hand/PC/rotary. Nothing that
requires any real specialize technique or equipment. You might not get the
best results without a rotary, but you won't do any real damage either. I
sort of cringe reading recommendations to use rotary-only products by hand
Again, I reiterate buyer beware. All abrasive polishes have abrasive
particles with different characteristics. Abrasives have different size,
shape and hardness. Some abrasive particles are designed to break down
into smaller, finer abrasives as the polish is applied. Others are
designed to cut continuously at the same rate.
PAINT CARE WITHOUT ABRASIVES
Most new car finishes can be properly maintained without using abrasive
(corrective) polishes. Doing so requires smart paint care, including
regular washing and waxing, use of proper wash and wax tools (wash mitts,
applicators, towels, etc.) and cautious parking. Finish damage avoidance
is the best way to maintain a perfect finish. Nothing will swirl a paint
finish faster than a bad wash mitt or drying towels.
If you park away from soccer moms and shopping carts, and wash your car
using proper tools, you can keep the finish free of light surface damage
for a long time. When your paint does get marred, the problem can be
locally treated by hand or with a spot pad with a corrective polish.
Member Jinba ittai writes:
"I've always thought that it's preferable to get rid of or lessen a
scratch by filling it rather than taking actual paint off. That's always
the way I've always operated. IMO [in my opinion] the more paint on the
car, the better. I was taught to start with the least abrasive product and
work your way up.
Maybe it's because I'm a wuss when it comes to using a buffer on the
paint. I still do it all by hand. I have to admit that I am impressed by
the pictures I've seen here of cars that are too far gone for a simple
hand polish that have cleaned up nicely with a polisher."
This is a great approach. Many wax products can be layered to help cover
minor surface marring. My favorite combination is Klasse All-In-One
followed by P21S Carnauba Wax. Others swear by the Zaino polish system.
Member laefd writes:
"I'm often reminded of that old saying, "moderation in all
things..." The trick is to learn to live with the minor imperfections
and reach a happy medium where you take care of the issues that lead to
the problem - proper wash, protection, etc. If you have a problem that
needs immediate attention then take care of it, if you have issues
(swirling, etc.) take care of the swirls when it crosses your individual
threshold for tolerance. Just make sure you set your standard at a point
that you're not obsessed."
I could not agree more with laefd's comments. Moderation is the key.
I offer the following advice for proper long-term paint finish on new and
These five simple steps will keep your paint looking
great without the need to use heavy polishes for corrective action.
Proper paint polish, detailing clay and car wash are
available from Autopia