Paint Polishing

by Jeremy Goodspeed

The process of polishing a vehicle is to aid in the restoration of neglected paint. Oxidation, scratches and other paint blemishes all take their toll, leaving behind a neglected finish. Polishing will eliminate fine scratches, restore rich color and rejuvenate oils that were lost by washing, sun, rain, age and smog. The process of polishing may use either a single step, or a multiple step process, depending on the severity of the blemishes. Polishing can be performed either by machine or by hand.

MACHINE POLISHING: Machine polishing or "buffing" as some professionals call it, is the procedure that professional and skilled home detailers use to remove imperfections in paint. A machine process is less fatiguing and much faster than a hand rubbed method. This method uses less polishing product, and allows more uniform gloss. A machine process is notably better for both oxidation and scratch removal. Most aggressive and medium polishes designed for scratch or oxidation removal use the heat generated by friction to aid in their polishing operation. This friction cannot be generated by hand use, therefore only moderate results will occur by using these polishes by hand. A person with experience should attempt machine polishing. Things move very fast with this type of process. Variable speed circular polisher will help in the control. If you want experience, find body panels to practice on. Wrecking yard parts are good. Don’t make your first mistake on your prized auto. Otherwise consult a professional for this procedure.

When using a circular polisher on paint, keep the following rules in mind:

    Keep the polisher in motion to dissipate the energy.

    Do not apply too much pressure, as heavy pressure can result in burning through the paint.

    Always polish in the direction of the panel (front to rear).

Use masking tape to protect trim from the risk of being burned and eliminate the risk of compound damage to plastic parts such as bumpers, window trim etc.

When polishing near an edge, always polish off edge and reduce speed. A polisher polishes in a clockwise direction. Tilt the polisher slightly to the right, and allow the right edge to polish off the end of the panel. Allowing the left side to dig into the panel will result in burning the paint.

To remove moderate and heavy scratches always work in a cool area. Always take a conservative approach to paint polishing. It is better to live with a small imperfection, than repaint a panel from being too aggressive. A rule to determine weather a scratch can be removed is to see if you can catch your fingernail in the blemish. If you can, you may only lighten the scratch at best. Remember, paint is only so thick and clear coats are thinner. Always spot polish scratches individually with a compound or polish just strong enough to remove or lighten the blemish. Using too heavy of a compound will leave swirl marks that will require additional polishing to remove. In most cases, a body panel with a moderate blemish will require two or three steps to restore the surface.

To remove light scratches and blemishes, use lighter polishes to remove both swirl marks left by the previous polishing step as well as to remove light blemishes. When polishing, each step will build on each other. Always polish a small area at a time. Remember to always wipe all compounds from the surface before it dries. Dried polishes become abrasive and could scratch the freshly polished surface. It is also a good idea to remove polishes to keep polishes from being mixed. Some polishes are not compatible with each other when combined.

The type of polishing pad will also affect the way the compound is transferred to the surface. Polishing pads are available in both wool and foam. Wool will leave more surface blemishes, however it makes a cleaner cut on areas of imperfections. This is due to wool pads having a firmer cutting surface. Usually wool pads are best used for spot repairs or body panels needing total restoration. Foam pads are less aggressive and available in two types, cutting and polishing. Foam cutting pads are less aggressive than wool pads. They transfer some of the heat away from the panel and allow oxygen into the polishing area. The less heat, the less cutting force. Remember, just like polishes; use the polishing/cutting pad only aggressive enough to do the job. Foam polishing pads also allow heat transfer to escape. Foam polishing pads are for light scratches and final machine polishing.

ORBITAL MACHINE POLISHING: The main function of an orbital polisher is to eliminate both polishing marks caused by a circular polishing, and to remove light imperfections caused by normal washing. If a vehicle has only light marks or is new, this may be the first step. A random orbital polisher is efficient, provides even pressure across the pad surface (eliminating swirls caused by an improper hand application) and is easier to use by a less experienced detailer. Random orbit polishing is slower and generates less heat than circular polishing, however is several times more efficient than hand polishing and yields swirl free results. Remember; still use caution when using an orbit polisher as it is a machine. To orbit polish, work in a cool area away from direct sunlight. Apply polish onto a foam pad, place the pad onto the surface, and engage the power. Orbital polishers are variable speed, so adjust the speed to a comfortable range (usually between speed 3 and 5). Working one panel at a time, move back and forth working the polish onto the surface. With the polish worked completely into the body panel, wipe the surface with a clean cotton towel before the polish is allowed to dry. If the polish doesn't buff off easily, change to a clean towel and repeat the wiping procedure. When removing a final polish or a glazing material, a microfiber cloth will assist the removal procedure. Proceed to the next panel and repeat until entire vehicle has been polished.

When using an orbital polisher to eliminate polishing marks left behind by a circular polisher, it is a good practice to start with the same polish that was used for the final step with the circular polisher. This is commonly referred to as a "cross over point". By using the same polish twice, this ensures that the polishing marks left by the circular polisher has been properly removed. Not just covered over. It is a good idea to use a medium cleaner/polish for a "cross-over". Most medium polishes do not contain glazing materials, which are designed for gloss enhancement rather than removing polishing marks. The use of a glazing material or a final polish would follow this "cross over" step to increase gloss and paint depth.

A glazing material or final polish is the last orbital polishing step before either sealing the surface with a carnauba wax/polymer sealant or using a final polish that is only recommended for hand application. To eliminate any contamination of the surface, it is recommended to use a separate polish pad for each polish used. A heavier polish that has dried onto a pad could leave small scratches or swirls in the finish, especially when polishing darker colored vehicles. Sometimes several applications of the final polish or glazing material will deepen gloss and eliminate more imperfections.

POLISH PAD CLEANING: When finished using a foam polish pad, it is a good idea to thoroughly clean the pad by using warm water and flushing the compound or polish from the foam material. Squeeze the pad without folding it, and allow it too completely dry. After it has dried, place the pad into its original bag or a clean zip-lock bag for storage. Be sure the pad is dry, or the moisture from the bag may cause the adhesive holding the backing to come apart. Also be sure to label the bag with the polish used with this particular pad to eliminate any cross contamination. Cleaning a pad using this method will extend the pads life.

HAND POLISHING: Hand polishing is both a safe way to for an amateur enthusiast to polish a vehicle and is sometimes necessary using certain final polishes (i.e. Zymol HD Cleanse). Hand polishing is also necessary in areas such as under a door handle, where a polishing machine may not be accessible. Most medium to light polishes may be used either by hand or by machine. The process can be slow, however the results can be rewarding with some patients. Always hand polish in a cool, shaded area. Always work in small areas, one small body panel at a time or half of a larger one. Polish should be applied with a soft cotton towel or an applicator pad following the specific directions on the product label. Using applicator pads lessen the chance of swirl marks by allowing the polish to be applied with even pressure being applied to the body panel. They can be used individually or can be wrapped in a soft cotton polishing cloth to create an application bonnet. Apply polishes in an either a back and fourth motion following the vehicle bodylines or in overlapping circles. Remove the polish with a clean towel or microfiber cloth. Refer to manufacture instructions.

If you are generating swirl marks:

The polish may be too aggressive.

The towel or applicator may have picked up contaminates.

Contaminates may have been picked up by the wiping towel.

After polishing is completed, proceed to sealing the finish to protect the surface.