Beginner’s Guide To Detailing: Polishing (Part 1)

Polish being applied to a pad

It seems as if we’ve been discussing polishing a lot on Behind the Detail, but I guess that’s okay since the polishing process is the most widely misconstrued subject in car care. As a beginner, the first thing you need to know is that polishing “corrects” imperfections with abrasives and heat. What exactly does this mean? That’s what the article’s for…

Paintwork Correction

There are two distinct practices in the realm of paint care that you must familiarize yourself: paintwork preservation and paintwork correction. Their classifiers say it all, with the latter clearly describing some sort of “fix” for an imperfect finish. This “fix” is, of course, polishing. So let’s dive in to paintwork correction so you can get a better idea of this.

Beginner's Guide to PolishingImperfections, such as scratches or swirl marks, stick out like a sore thumb… but why? Put simply, imperfections are a blemish in an otherwise perfectly reflective surface (on glossy cars that is). This is visible to the human eye because light is scattered (or refracted) when it hits the scratch.

Now, where polishing comes in, is in rounding the edges of deep scratches and/or completely erasing them by removing enough clear coat to get under the lowest point of the scratch (or swirl, or hologram). Anything deeper is then covered and further smoothed out with fillers that are in both polishes and glazes. To get a better grasp, I strongly suggest reading this article: Surface Science: Car Scratches. What you’ll learn is that some scratches cannot be removed at all due to either hitting the pigment layer or being so deep in the clear coat that you risk burning your paint to remove them.

While the idea of paintwork correction is great and certainly necessary, it is flawed.

Regardless of product, when you polish with a machine (be it a rotary, orbital, or DA polisher), you are being abrasive—it’s a matter of friction. Because of this, you are essentially removing microns of clear coat from your car—and with it valuable UV protection. This has developed into an epidemic often referred to as over polishing. A buffer in untrained hands can do more damage than it does good, and, in most cases, is the primary cause of swirl marks. So before you pick one up and put it to your car, I suggest getting some sort of introductory training.

Hand Polishing

A remarkably little-used alternative to machine polishing is hand polishing. The detailing industry has made the Machine the “be-all, end-all” in that many enthusiasts think they’re not getting anything done unless something’s spinning. This is wrong. As simple as it sounds, if you maintain your finish properly, you rarely have to use a machine polisher.

If you adopt a hand-polish-first mindset, you are in the first stages of paintwork preservation (an idea that proper care requires less aggressive cleaning). You are being far less abrasive by hand polishing and therefore less destructive to your paintwork, meaning your finish will last much longer than one that is machine polished 1-2 times a year. In my opinion, this seems like the logical choice, but the problem is most people see it as additional work. In reality, it doesn’t have to be…and if it is, it’s worth it.

Paintwork Preservation

Preservation starts with the products you choose. Everything from your car wash soap to your car wax can play a role in prolonging the life of your finish. One place to start is with pH balanced formulas, as these wont strip sealants or dry out your finish. Pay attention to the detailing products you buy and determine for yourself whether they were crafted for a “quick fix” or prolonged results (usually this is apparent on the bottle).

Beginner's Guide to PolishingNext, and probably the “big daddy” of this whole idea of preservation, is protection. You must protect your paint regularly to get away with only hand polishing your car, and you must do so by utilizing the advancements in poly-sealant technology. What I’m trying to say is that waxes aren’t enough anymore, and they really never were. The idea of a carnauba-based wax is high-shine, which, to give you a peek inside the chemistry of these products, is in direct conflict with the product’s durability and lifespan. This is why results from most waxes struggle to last even two or three months. What you need is a paint sealant, and a good one. There are poly-sealants available that bond instantly (saving you loads of time), yield a great shine, and last well over half a year—you’d be insane not to make use of this. Better yet, if you need that extra pop, you can wax right over the sealant with a carnauba for more depth and clarity.

Lastly, your approach to polishing must defer from that of the majority. Chances are, if you follow the above two tips, your finish is already less damaged than it would’ve been if you hadn’t. So when it comes to fixing minor scratches or scuffs in your paintwork within this concept, your hands can take care of most of the work. Sometimes all you’ll need is a glaze, but for the most part the place to start is with a light smoothing polish. Then you move to a heavier correcting polish if necessary. Always follow and fill after with a glaze, and top off the surface with a fresh coat of sealant. If you’ve never polished by hand before, I guarantee you’ll see results that rival any machine.

Now what?

If I turned you upside down, I’m kind of glad. The goal here is to set you straight on a more rewarding path as it pertains to maintaining a perfect finish. If you’re just starting out or have recently purchased a new car, I urge you to seriously consider adopting the idea of “preservation” right off the bat. We’ve practiced it for years on our shop cars and I would put my name on the line to tell you it really does work. Believe it or not, we have a 20-something year old FJ62 Land Cruiser and an almost 40-something year old FJ40, both with original paint. They are rarely polished and the key to their perfect paint is that there’s never a minute that they’re not sealed with at least one layer of protection. So take it from me, the idea of paintwork preservation works.

Next time we’ll cover the polishing process from start to finish. Sneak preview: there’s a decision tree involved and it’s über important.

Got polishing questions? Let us know in the comments!