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What is Polishing

Polishing is often a misunderstood and intimidating step in the detailing process. It's unlike waxing because with polishing you must work the polish in and break down the abrasives in order for it to work effectively. This is done by using friction and/or heat. Whereas with waxing, you are applying a layer of protection on top of the paint, so there is no need to work the wax in.

When a polish is worked in properly it will either round the edges of the scratches/swirls stopping the light from reflecting off of it or remove a minute layer of paint where the imperfection was. The amount of paint that is removed depend on the aggressiveness of the polish, pad and machine used.

Applying a polish, letting it haze then buffing it off will do nothing for the finish.

Not working a polish in completely is one of the most common mistakes when using a polish. This will lead to less then desirable results and in some cases make the finish look worse by giving the paint a cloudy appearance - Hazing.

Any product that states it can remove swirls, scratches, etc. without the use of abrasives is not removing them, they are just hiding them with fillers and oils and will reappear after a few washes.

Polishing is usually a 2 3 step process, starting first with an aggressive polish to remove imperfections, swirls, etc. then followed by a milder (finishing) polish to remove any hazing or slight marring and bring back the gloss to the finish.

To help prevent discoloration or damage to the trim, it's a good idea to tape off any plastic, emblems or rubber pieces with Painters Tape before you start polishing.


Polish Breakdown Stages

All polishes will go through stages as they breakdown, each product is different, but basically their look goes from wet, hazing, translucent to dry or oily.

Without going through these stages you won't get the full effect of the polish and will most likely leave a hazed finish.

Below are three different polishes and the stages they go through as they breakdown.

All three polishes are demonstrated using the Porter Cable 7424.

Remember with polishing BE PATIENT, take your time, learn how the polish works and breaks down and always start with the least aggressive pad/polish to get the job done.

Lighting
Lighting is a very important part of polishing.

Without proper lighting you cannot see the majority of swirls and scratches that is robbing your finish of it's shine. It's also beneficial for seeing if the polish you are using is broken down completely.

Most popular indoor lighting are halogen work lights - 500w or 1000w - (like the one pictured). They are relatively inexpensive and are able to see defects in the paint and the polish stages as it breaks down.

Without good lighting it very hard to see the polish breaking down especially on light colored cars. If at all possible try to polish under controlled lighting. The sun can sometimes be masked by clouds, haze, or fog and can hide swirls, hazing & imperfections.


Polishing By Hand


Polishing by hand can provide decent results but is also limited in it's correcting abilites. I don't recommend using anything more aggressive then a medium abrasive polish, especially on dark colored cars. If a polish is not properly worked in it can leave a marred finish, like the one pictured here.


Method
  • Use a cotton, microfiber towels or foam pads for applying and removal.
  • Work in a 2x2 section at a time.
  • If you are using a towel, fold it so it fits comfortably in your hand this will help you apply even pressure.
  • Apply a nickel size amount of polish on the towel or pad. Using a circular motion to spread the product out then use a back and forth motion, left to right, up an down, diagonal to work the product in until the polish is breaks down or turns clear.
  • Wipe off residue and check your work under proper lighting. Repeat using different pressure or speed (if necessary) to achieve the desired results.

Polishing By Machine

Polishing by machine, if done correctly, can produce a like new finish to your paint.

There are basically 2 types of polishers for polishing automotive paint, an Orbital Polisher (single action and Dual action) and a Rotary Polisher.


Orbital Polishers

Orbital polishers are the most popular polisher amongst the enthusiast detailer. The reason for their popularity is they are relatively easy to use, can produce excellent results and if used properly won't damage your paint.

Unlike a rotary type buffer (that uses a direct drive and can create heat), an orbital polisher oscillates in an eccentric circular motion. This is similar to a circular motion created when waxing by hand, but much faster. Because of this oscillating motion there is less risk of burning or damaging the paint.

Not all Orbital polishers are created equal though, ones like Waxmaster or Craftsmen single speed don't have the power or torque to do paint correction. These type of Orbitals should only be used for applying/removing glazes, wax or sealants.
A Dual Action Orbital polisher spins around a center spindle (orbits) and the pad also spins freely on its own axis. This creates both an orbital and circular motion (dual action). Since the pad is not direct driven it does not create the heat like a rotary polisher and eliminates the risk of "burning" your paint.
Recommeded Orbital polishers ·
  • Flex XC 3401 VRG

    The is a combination random orbital (3200-9600opm), direct drive (160-480rpm) polisher. This is one of the most powerful orbitals available. Click here for my review on the Flex XC 3401 VRG.

  • Porter Cable 7424 or 7336

    One of the most popular machines for enthusiasts. It's variable speed can do everything from applying wax to paint corrections.

  • Ultimate Detailing Machine

    A new machine on the market, it has the same concept and design as the Porter Cable but with "Upgrades", one being more power.

  • Cyclo Polisher

    Has been around for 50 years, uses 2 4" heads that oscillate in opposite directions, great for paint corrections but is more expensive then the 2 above.


Rotary Polishers
A rotary type polisher is a direct drive polisher. This means the pad is driven directly off the motor and can create higher speeds and heat.

Since this site is for the enthusiast detailer and not the professional detailer, my polishing information with be geared more toward Orbital polishers and not Rotary polishers.

A rotary with the wrong speed, polish, or pad can do more damage then good. Personally, unless you are detailing on a professional level or need to get a job done quickly, I don´t think it´s a tool for the enthusiast.

I have and do use a Rotary, but I've been able to remove most imperfections I've encountered with a Porter Cable Random Orbital, it just takes longer and more passes to get similar result, but it can be achieved.


How to Polish
This section will show how to use the Porter Cable 7424 but works the same with all the machines that are recommended above.

The Video Section shows the Porter Cable in action.

How to determine the right polish & pad combo ·

  • Start with a test area (usually a 2x2 spot) and use the least aggressive polish/pad combo to start. This will depend on the severity of the imperfections, but the majority of time you can start with a medium aggressive polish and polishing pad.

  • Work the polish in completely (see Polish Breakdown Stages and Video Section). Remove residue, check work, repeat or go more aggressive (if needed) either by using higher speed, more pressure, a cutting pad or more aggressive polish.

  • After scratches/swirls are removed or minimized, step down to a less aggressive polish/pad combo to remove any hazing left from the more aggressive polishes...again repeat if necessary.

  • Once the desired finish is achieved you now know what combination works for this paint. Now it's time to move on to the other sections of the car.

By starting with a test section it will allows you to see what product/pad combo is needed without going too aggressive or not aggressive enough to get the job done.


How long do I work the polish for/how many passes before removing the residue?

Using a PC is not an exact science, every polish is different and everyone has their own method or style on using it, so you'll always get different answers.

Working time will vary · Temperature, humidity, speed, speed of movement, pressure, pad & paint all play a factor on "how long to work the polish in for". You need to know what the polish looks likes when it's broken down so you don't under or over work the polish. This is why good lighting is important!

Here is what I do with any new polish I use for the first time ·

  • Using a 1'x1' section - apply the polish the same as any other polish.

  • Using little pressure and speed 4.5 - 5 work the polish in.

  • At each change in the polish I remove a section and see how the paint looks.

  • Repeat at each change until very little or no hazing is present (this will vary depending on the abrasiveness of the polish).

The reason for speed 4.5-5 and little pressure is, it goes through the stages slower so you can determine when it's broken down without under or over working the polish. Now that you know what it looks like when it's broken down you can increase the speed, pressure, etc. to get the job done.



Click here to see the different types and aggressiveness of polishes and what they are able to remove.

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