Call: 888-333-4642  
Detailing DIY Articles

Wash & Dry
Engine Compartment
Tires & Wheels
Clean with Clay
Swirl Marks & Water Spots
Wax & Seal
Quick Detailing
Glass & Plastic
Convertible Tops
Tar, Sap & Bugs
Detailing Accessories
Sonic Blast
Are you Over Polishing?
Carnauba Wax a Dinosaur?
Orbital Polisher Use



"... it's time for a completely different discussion about paint polishing."

by David Bynon

I have been reading a lot of threads on the Autopia forum ( 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 all together?

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 perfect.

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 isn't necessary.

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 already exists.

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 day!

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 depth.

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 marks?

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 or PC."

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.

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 like-new cars:

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 Car Care.