DetailingGurus.com Frequently Asked Questions – FAQ

Glossary:

  • LSP – Last Surface Protection, applied after polishing, to protect the paint from the elements. LSP’s come in the form of paste and liquid carnauba waxes, Sealants, Spray Sealants and Glazes.
  • Carnauba Wax – Carnauba is an extremely durable natural wax that coats the leaves of the Carnauba plant. Carnauba is a wax derived from the leaves of a plant native to northeastern Brazil, the carnauba palm (Copernicia prunifera). It is known as “queen of waxes and usually comes in the form of hard yellow-brown flakes. It is obtained from the leaves of the carnauba palm by collecting them, beating them to loosen the wax, then refining and bleaching the wax.  Most waxes, both paste and liquid variety, contain only a fraction of Carnauba. This is partly due to its high cost, but carriers and additives can make the wax easier to apply.
  • Sealant – Sealants are synthetic car waxes, made of polymers that bond very tightly to a clean, polished, painted surface. They typically last longer than most Carnauba Waxes and have a glassy, “wet” look that many detailers go after.
  • Glaze – Essentially a sealant that compromises some longevity for increased “filling properties” that can mask imperfections such as swirls and light scratches. Typically used on either show cars, or cars that are detailed frequently.
  • Clay Bar – A clay bar is gently wiped across the surface of freshly washed paint to remove surface contaminants that would otherwise induce swirling during the polishing process. A quick detailing spray that contains light detergents/lubricants is used to lubricate the clay as it passes over the surface, to prevent marring.
  • Swirling (See FAQ on Swirl Marks) – A generally circular pattern of light scratches caused by improper washing techniques, aggressive compounding, and general neglect. Swirling is usually considered a correctable imperfection, with polishing abrasives.
  • Scratch – A scratch generally penetrates too deeply into the clear coat to be polished away. If it penetrates into the base coat, or even the primer, then a touch up paint can be used to mask its appearance, but generally a repaint of the affected body panel is recommended to restore its original appearance.
  • Clear Coat (See FAQ on Swirl Marks) – This is the clear top layer in most modern automotive paint finishes. It generally consists of a two part polyurethane mixture that hardens to an extremely scratch resistant finish. The hardness of this layer determines both how easily the surface will mar, and how easy correction will be for surface imperfections. This layer is generally 50-100 microns thick (0.002″ – .004″).
  • Base Coat (See FAQ on Swirl Marks) – The Base Coat in a modern two part, base coat/clear coat polyurethane automotive finish contains the pigmentation and/or metallics that give the car its color and reflective properties. This layer is generally only about 10 microns thick (0.002″).
  • Primer (See FAQ on Swirl Marks) – A primer improves adhesion to the body panel. Different formulations are used for steel, flexible bumpers, fiberglass, etc.
  • Single Stage Paint – Not typically used on modern factory finishes, a single stage paint does not have a clear protective coat. It is generally an enamel that is applied in a 100+ micron thickness that can be wet-sanded and polished to a glossy finish.
  • White Carnauba – A type of ultra-high-end Carnauba with a higher degree of optical clarity. Particularly effective car wax in light colored paint finishes.
  • Hand Polish – Few polishes are designed for hand application. Mequiar’s ScratchX is a good example of a hand polish that can be used to effectively remove light scratches in areas that are difficult or impossible to machine polish such as behind door handles.  Other new tech, nano polishes like SYSTEM 51 Perfect Cut Polish work well by hand as well due to their sharp and precise abrasives.
  • Chemical Polish – A very uncommon polishing method that uses chemical action to reduce the appearance of swirls and light scratches as opposed to particle abrasion.
  • Machine Polish (See Removing Swirls… by Machine FAQ) – Also called a polishing compound. Many products are called polishes, but only those that actually remove a small portion of the painted surface are defined as a polish. Almost all Machine Polishes utilize small abrasive particles that are suspended in a carrier liquid that provides lubrication for the applicator pad. Some polishes use diminishing abrasives, and some use non-diminishing abrasives that are generally much smaller in size.
  • Diminishing Abrasives – A polishing compound that uses larger particles (generally made of Aluminum Oxide) that are softer than non-diminishing abrasives, and starts to break down after a few minutes of polishing. These types of abrasives can often be used as a “single step” compound that does some correction and finishes fine enough to be ready for LSP.
  • Nano Polish – This polish utilizes much smaller particles (also generally made of Aluminum Oxide) that are hardened and undergo an insignificant reduction in size during the polishing process. Nano Polishes utilize the sheer number of particles in conjunction with the properties of the polishing pad to control the amount of cut.
  • Foam Pad – A polishing pad that is used in conjunction with an abrasive polish to correct surface imperfections. Varying degrees of foam density, pore size/count and surface geometry are used to help control how aggressively the pad and compound will cut the paint surface.
  • Wool Pad – Wool pads can be made of both natural wood fibers and synthetic fibers that provide a much larger surface area than foam, carrying more compound and generally providing a much faster cut. This speed comes at the expense of marring, which forces the detailer to follow the wool pad with a foam finishing pad.
  • Micro-Marring – The fine swirls that result from a heavy cut foam pad or wool polishing pad after major correction of deep swirls or scratches.
  • Halo – Similar to Micro-Marring, a surface flaw that arises from various polishing methods, creating a halo-like effect when light is reflected from the surface of the paint.
  • Dual Action Polishing Machine (aka DA) – Also called a DA or random orbital machine, this device uses two motions to simulate hand polishing. The pad rotates and then spins about an offset axis to provide a safer cut than a straight rotary motion polisher. Some machines allow the secondary motion to freely spin (random orbital), while some utilize mechanisms to control the spin of the pad as a direct dual action machine.
  • Rotary Polishing Machine – A rotary spins in only one direction, providing a much faster cut than a dual action, but requires that the operator carefully control the pad to ensure that it is always tangent to the surface. This is to prevent the edge of the pad (which is traveling at a much higher velocity than the center) from being strongly applied to the surface and potentially burning through the clear coat, or even base coat.

Which lasts longer? A Sealant or a Carnauba Wax?
In general, a Sealant will provide protection that will outlast most over-the-counter Carnauba Waxes. Some very high end Carnauba Waxes can match the longevity of Sealants when applied to a freshly polished surface that has been prepped with a cleaning solution.
One can generally expect 3-6 months of protection from a properly applied Sealant, and anywhere from 1-6 months from a Carnauba (depending mostly on Carnauba quality and content).

Should I use a Sealant or a Carnauba Wax on my car?
DetailingGurus suggests the use of a Sealant in most cases due to its edge in longevity, but when using high quality products, this decision becomes more of a case of aesthetics. Most detailers find that Sealants provide a glassy “wet” look that strongly enhances the lines of modern “edge” body styles and light colors such as white and silver. On dark colors such as deep blues and most reds, many detailers like to either use a combination of a Sealant followed by a Carnauba, or exclusively Carnauba, to give the color a deeper, richer tone that might be disrupted by the high reflectivity of a Sealant alone.
You should experiment with various combinations of Sealants and Carnaubas to determine which look is most aesthetically pleasing to you. As always, there really is no “right or wrong” when it comes to your personal preferences.

Should I use a DA or Rotary polisher?
It is much safer for the novice detailer to use a DA polisher. It is nearly impossible to “burn through” with most DA machines. They simply don’t have either the power or the motion necessary to cause this situation. The downside is that it may take more than twice as long to achieve the desired correction as opposed to using a Rotary polisher. In some cases, with automotive finishes that have a very hard clear coat, a DA machine may not be sufficient to correct the imperfections.
If you’re just polishing your own car, then a DA machine such as the Cyclo or Harbor Freight DA are both excellent machines that will safely restore your finish to its original gloss. If you’re a professional, or detailing frequently, a rotary system will save you time and enable you to do more aggressive correction.

What Are Swirl Marks?
If you look at a cross section of clearcoat paint, you will three three basic layers of paint on the bodywork of the car – the base coat, the color coat and the clear coat:

If you look at your car under a bright light, for example sunlight, sometimes you may see very thing scratches in the paint. There can be lots of these, like someone’s draped multiple spider’s web across the paint. Here’s a couple of pictures of what quite severe swirl marks look like:


These tiny scratches are catching the light such that it masks the color underneath and you don’t see it. This robs the paintwork of its true deep color. Shown below is a single swirl/scratch mark in the clearcoat of paint (not to scale):

The sharp edges of the swirl mark are catching the sunlight and directing it up to your eye so you see sunlight along the swirl mark, not the paint color. This is why these blemishes are particularly prevalent in bright lights – sunlight, halogen lights in petrol stations are kinds of light that really show up the marks!

Where Do Swirls Come From?
Swirl marks can be inflicted to paintwork by a variety of means, and ultimately the bad news is that its nearly impossible to avoid inflicting swirl marks altogether to paintwork. However, severe swirl marks can be avoided and amongst other things, these are caused by:

Poor Wash Technique – washing using a sponge traps grit between the surface of the sponge and the paint, dragging sharp grit across the paint and scratching it. Automated car washes do this on a grand scale by essentially battering grit into the paintwork and should be avoided at all costs.

Using the Wrong Buffing Towels’ – using the cheapest cotton stockinet you can find in Walmart will inflict swirls to the paint as the material is hard and unforgiving, itself inflicting scratches without even the need for grit particles!

However, all is not lost when swirl marks appear, it is possible to either mask them (by hand) or remove them completely by machine polishing…

Filling Swirl Marks – Recommended for working by hand
One method of getting rid of swirl marks is to basically fill up the mark with a filler (a bit like anti-wrinkle cream!!) so that there’s no longer a hole and sharp edges to catch the light. This method I prefer for working by hand as it does not require massive effort to break a product down (see machine polishing later), and by hand this method achieves better results.

Below is a diagram showing a swirl mark that has been filled with filler:

This can be achieved by using products such as paint cleansers, some glazes and even some sealants contain fillers. When applying a paintwork cleanser, work the product well into the paint to fill the swirl and be prepared for a repeat application if more filler is required. Some products which contain fillers, there are many others:

  • Meguiars NXT Tech Wax
  • Autoglym Super Resin Polish
  • Clearkote Red Moose Machine Glaze

If masking swirls by hand using this filling technique, a generic recommendation I would go for would be:

  1. Paintwork Chemical Cleanser – work this well into the paint with medium pressure and remove from surface immediately – working on small areas at a time (2′ by 2′ roughly). Repeat application if necessary. These cleaners also help remove oxidization from the paintwork too.
  2. Glaze and Seal – can be done in one step or too, glazes will deepen and “wetten” the shine and most will further fill and hide the swirl marks. Sealants protect the shine and seal in the fillers, as they can be washed away very easily. Apply the glazes in circular motions first with medium pressure then finish in a fore and aft motion. Work on small areas at a time and remove residue straight away. GuruGlaze is an Acrylic Glaze that combines a filling glaze and a light layer of acrylic sealant to protect the paint.
  3. Optionally, top this off with a pure wax to give the icing on the cake, and you choices of wax are endless but a good starting point for light colors would be GuruWax.

While filling the swirls works in the short term, there is the disadvantage of what happens when the fillers fade and leave the original swirl marks as shown:

The swirl mark starts to come back which will then require filling again in order to hide it and this process goes on and on. By hand, this is the most effective way to hide swirls, but you can accomplish far better with a machine.

Removing Swirls – recommended for working by machine
This is a more permanent solution for dealing with swirl marks and involves removing a thin layer of the clearcoat (or paint) where the swirl exists down to a flat layer where there are no defects. This requires a cutting polish to achieve this and is therefore best suited to a machine polisher, although results can be achieved to a more limited extent by hand with plenty of patience and the strength and stamina of strong arms! We will concentrate on working by machine for this case.

In order to abrade the clearcoat away as shown in the diagram:

we require a cutting polish. A cutting polish is a liquid substance which has suspended in it tiny little sharp particles that when worked into the paint, scratch the surface away. The liquid acts as a lubricant to prevent scouring and the polishes are made such that the paint receives an even amount of these little sharp particles, known as abrasives, so that the paint layer remains flay and you don’t just inflict many more little swirls. Many polishes such as SYSTEM 51, Meguiar’s and Menzerna, have diminishing abrasive which means that the sharp particles start large and get smaller as they are worked so the cut less and less. Thus they start by removing larger quantities of clearcoat aggressively and finish by removing a fine amount to smooth the surface and leave it flat with the swirl removed as shown:

This happens automatically with quality polishes as you work the machine, so you don’t need to do anything other than keep working the product until it begins to cure and dry (dusts a little). For deeper swirl marks, highly abrasive polishes (sometimes called compounds) are required and sometimes the sharp particles in these leave some light swirls of their own as they abrade the clear coat. Going over the area again with a Finishing Polish will use much smaller abrasives to flatten the surface, removing the fine swirls left behind to give the surface a nice flat mirror appearance. For this reason, many detailers will use a high abrasive polish and finish with a finishing polish – however, read the general rules of thumb for machine polishing for which products to start with!

Polishes are graded by how aggressive they are, and listed below are some cutting polishes in order of how abrasive they are (generally):

There are, of course, many other polishes.

These are combined with cutting and light cutting and polishing pads on a machine polisher (for example the Porter Cable 7424 or Harbor Freight DA). More aggressive polishes work best on cutting pads, the less aggressive ones we would recommend you use on light cutting pads and finishing polishes I would use on a polishing pad. (Yellow, Orange and White respectively in color if using the Lake Country pads). Also, you can get both 6″ and 4″ pads – the 4″ pads can generate more heat when used on an UDM and therefore have more cutting power so are good for more severe swirl marks.

To machine polish, the generic method I use is as follows. Spread the polish with the machine off over a small area of the paint (2′ by 2′). Turn on the machine at a low speed (speed 3 on UDM) and go for one quick pass to spread the polish even more, then turn machine up in speed (speed 5 on UDM) and go for a single slow pass with increased pressure on the UDM head, then turn machine up in speed again (speed 6 on UDM) and go for multiple slow passes with medium pressure over the head of the PC and keep going until the polish starts to dust. Remove the residue with a microfiber towel.

General Rules of Thumb for Machine Polishing

  1. Always work out what the least aggressive pad and polish combination required for the task in hand. To do this, start with a light aggressive polish on a light cutting pad. Apply this and examine result. If marks not removed, step up to a slightly more aggressive combo and repeat. Again examine, and if required step up again on a light cutting pad and so on. Once you’ve got to the least aggressive combination required, proceed to polish the car and if you’ve gone for an aggressive combination be sure to follow this up with a finishing polish to restore surface gloss.
  2. Spot repairs – on some cars, there are specific areas of severe swirls while the rest of the paintwork has only light swirls. Only use your aggressive combination on the light swirls and use a 4″ pad for spot repairs and then do the rest of the vehicle with your less aggressive combination. I find it best to finish by doing the whole car with a finishing polish to ensure an even looking appearance.
  3. Always follow up the polishing stage with a glaze to add wetness to the shine by moisturizing the paint.
  4. Always follow up the polishing with a sealant and/or wax to protect the finish.
  5. As you can see from the (not to scale) diagrams, you’re effectively removing paint using this technique so machine polishing is something that should only be carried out when required – say every six months to a year, otherwise you’ll end up with clearcoat failure and require a re-spray if you machine polish every other day for example!
  6. Swirls you can remove by machine – run your finger across any scratch, if it catches your nail its too deep to be removed by machine and will require filled and wet sanded then polished, which is a story for another thread.
  7. The DA Polisher is one of the most popular machine polishers for beginners because its dual action nature makes it safe.
  8. Striving for perfection – some swirls will be very deep and to fully remove every single one may require the removal of a lot of clearcoat! Its sometimes best to leave behind the odd deep swirl in favor of keeping most of your clearcoat – the paint will still look immense, and you wont be risking clearcoat failure.