The Over Polishing Problem

Polishing Red Chevy Impala

Every industry has its own quirks, but car care and detailing is fairly unique in that we deal with probably the second most expensive possession someone will purchase aside from their house. Sure, for some this isn’t an issue… but for the vast majority of us, it sure as hell is. We want our vehicles to last a long time and look good until we sell them, but to do that you must practice proper car care. Unfortunately, there’s poison in the pancakes when it comes to detailing thanks to the misconception that polishing fixes everything.

How most people view car care

Just take a look on the road. There are thousands of filthy cars. Unprotected cars. Cars covered in swirls and holograms from years of mistreatment. The fact is, most people don’t give a damn about car care because it seems like just another thing to do. Now this is important: I am making vast generalizations that probably aren’t descriptive of our reader-base, but I’m doing so to make a larger observation that the entire consumer mindset is flawed.

People see car care and detailing as a chore. Unfortunately, no one expressed to them the benefits of a properly maintained car, and more importantly, no one told them how easy it would be if they adopted the practice the day they bought their four wheeled friend. For this reason, most people consider detailing a “fix” for an ugly car. Sure you can fix the ugly, but what you can’t do is permanently restore a neglected car. There are few things we humans don’t try to control, but the environment is another story. We can’t stop things like acid rain, UV rays, and debris from affecting our automotive finishes. People don’t realize these are problems until they see visible damage, which has led to the detailing industry being largely based on reaction rather than prevention.

The over polishing problem

What we’re talking about here is paintwork correction and that fact that it’s widely overused in the detailing community. First let me make a bold statement: with proper care and maintenance, the absolute most you’ll ever need to “correct” with a high-speed machine is once every year or two. Yes, it’s true. Now, how do you think swirl-marks get on your car? A machine. No natural process rotates in perfect circles at a speed high enough to dig debris into your clear coat. Unfortunately, rather than regularly protecting the finish to prevent scratches, rock chips, and the like, most car owners allow their finish to become battered to the point where they either bust out a machine or have a detail shop charge them upwards of a few hundred dollars to take care of it for them. Some car owners do this multiples times a year. As you’ll soon see, this is not the ideal way to go about caring for your car’s paint finish.

The downside of paintwork correction

Ask a detail shop about the light scratches on your hood and the answer you will undoubtedly receive is “that’ll buff right out.” While they’re right, the scratches probably will come right out, they don’t tell you at what cost. Correcting paintwork requires cutting into the clear coat and rounding the edges of deep scratches to make them less visible. If a scratch is too deep, it will never be totally removed unless you repaint the finish – this goes for all cars, period. In addition, people often don’t realize that swirls and imperfections are in your car’s paint from day one (just read this).

Worse, yet, if you keep hammering your clear coat with a machine polisher, the protective ability of the clear will eventually cease to exist. To take an excerpt from a great post from TOGWT on one of the many detailing forums:

Modern clear coat paint finishes are so good today that they lull people into thinking that vehicle paint has protection and shine when in reality there is not really much there, the clear coat that has a thickness of ~25.4 µ (micron). As a point of reference a sheet of copy paper is 89 µ…There are two considerations; how much clear coat and how much ultra violet protection can be removed, they are not interchangeable. The following are the maximum allowable clear coat reductions the major USA car manufacturers will allow before the paint warranty becomes void; Chrysler- 0.5 Mil (12µ) Ford – 0.3 Mil (7.5 µ) GM – 0.5 Mil (12µ)…Most light surface marring is ~1.27 µ (0 .05 Mils) a surface scratch that can catch your fingernail is ~1.01 µ (~ 0.04 Mils) Using a medium abrasive polish and a rotary polisher will remove approximately ~ 2.5 – 3µ (~ 0. 98 – 0.12 Mil) from the paint surface. To remove a scratch you need to level the paint to its lowest part, so if a scratch is 1 µ that’s the amount of paint (and UV protection) you need to remove to eliminate it. Note: 25.4 µ (micron) = 1 Mil

The important thing to get here is that over polishing is going to lead to your clear coat getting thinner and thinner until it has lost is protective power. The more you remove, the less protected the paint is and the harder it is to get back to its factory look. Polishing can be quite the slippery slope if you’re not careful.

Why protection and prevention is the solution

If you properly seal your car regularly with a quality paint sealant, your worries go away. Not only are you shielding your clear coat from potential debris and contaminants (that would otherwise embed themselves into the paint, eventually causing swirls and scratches if not treated properly), but you’re assuring that your finish won’t go to crap in a couple days. A lot of people just wash their car a few times a week, but this isn’t enough to properly care for the finish. In fact, it’s too much washing and not enough protecting. Cleaning, like polishing, does not guarantee you won’t run into the same issues in three months. The only way that level of confidence is achieved is by protecting your paint on a regular basis with a quality sealant.

If nothing else, I hope this gives you something to chew on. Years of mistreatment, over polishing, and improper car care can (and will) lead to problems in the future. It doesn’t just happen piece by piece – clear coat degradation runs alongside fading paintwork, cracking, and anything else you might find wrong with your finish. So don’t be mistaken: protecting your car is the single most important concept in car care. Do yourself and your car a favor, start preventing damage before you have to fix it.