How To: Polish Your Car for Dummies

Ever since my posts of getting my car ready for Driven – I’ve gotten a TON of DM’s asking what I use, what I do, what to do, what products are best, and the list goes on and on and on. I’ve tried to answer them the best I can but a simple DM message doesn’t really explain it all as much as it should. I decided to do the same thing I did with my “How To” on rolling shots as that remains my top and most visited post to this day.

There are far too many complicated guides out there and forums with some unhelpful people out there that make things more difficult and confusing for the noob trying to polish their cars. I’ve been detailing for a little over 10 years now and I was one that started from scratch. I knew next to nothing about where to start and I fell for gimmicky products like Scratch-X thinking that it would make my car swirl-free and shiny with no effort. I’ve gone through hundreds of products – many of which worked but few that I loved. As technology gets better in the detailing sector, better products are released and I try to sample them whenever I can. The purpose of this post is really just to help guide anyone that’s new to detailing and wanting to polish their own car. I wanted to learn because I couldn’t fathom the idea of paying someone big money to ‘clean’ my car. Albeit, you can take your car to a Groupon detailer but you’re not going to get top notch results. You can also take your car to a professional detailer and pay hundreds of dollars to get it exactly how you want if you’re money bags. I wasn’t going to trust a Groupon detailer trying to make a quick buck and I didn’t have deep enough pockets to get my car detailed so often.

I’m a very anal person about cleanliness and that of course translate over to my car. BTW – I’m not claiming that I’m a professional detailer by any means – I’m just able to hold my own and keep my car in a condition that’s good enough for me to be happy with it. I’ve invested my own time in doing proper research and trying out new methods and combinations of products. Over time, it just comes naturally and you know what works and what doesn’t.

Anyway, let’s get on with it. The pics I took are of the car after I finished most of the detailing for the show. I tried to capture the paint and the condition – so the pictures aren’t trying to look entirely pretty…

I’ve done no editing on the condition of the paint – the most I’ve done is adjust exposure or shadows/highlights to show the surface of the paint more clearly.

Here’s a shot of the door – swirl free and freshly waxed. I do want to point out that I can’t easily explain when to stop polishing or when to do what. That all comes with experience and the condition of your paint.

A shot of the trunk and rear bumper. The plate is off for easier polishing of the trunk – it’s nice to be able to get in behind the plate and get the grime and swirls that develop back there. One thing to keep in mind is I generally don’t polish over emblems. The polish can cake up and get jammed in to places that make it more difficult to clean afterwards.

I like to take a q-tip or a detailing brush in and around the emblem to get the dirt and dust that gets stuck there that washing can’t get rid of.

One of the things that I’ve mentioned in a few of my posts is attention to detail. Even if your car is stock, attention to detail matters. If you truly want the feeling of a brand new and perfectly clean car, you need to spend time cleaning places that nobody ever sees. Honestly, I religiously clean jams and crevices that never see the light of day. This practice as a whole is what brings together a “clean” car.  One example is when the trunk is open – I clean the tail light crevices, bolt crevices, any connecting parts/joints and inside the trunk lining. I also polish in these areas as best I can – which we’ll talk about later in the post.

It sounds crazy, but imagine doing it the first time and then keeping it up every time you wash the car. It stays clean and manageable each time.

A shot of the tail light. I also polish the tail light as this can accumulate swirls and micro scratches as well. I like to ensure lights match the paint.

A shot inside the trunk gaps. I dry and vacuum out any dirt that accumulates here every time I wash.

A shot of the edge of the trunk. Taking a detail brush in between the trunk garnish and the trunk itself helps keep everything nice and tidy. Edges on cars are swirls favourites places to gather.

Here’s a shot of the trunk and rear bumper all polished up. The OEM paint has quite a bit of orange peel to it – something that can be fixed by wet sanding and polishing – a task I’ve not had the motivation to do any time soon. So I’ll stick with my swirl-free finish for now. The orange peel isn’t TERRIBLE, but it’s definitely noticeable if you know what you’re looking for.

For those of you that don’t know what orange peel is – it’s a texture that’s in the clear coat that causes an ‘orange peel’ look – exactly what it’s called. You can see what it looks like in some pictures. Typically, when your paint is polished – when you look at your reflection in it, it should be smooth and the clarity should match that of a mirror. If you see waves or your reflection looks like you’re looking into a reflective orange – then you have orange peel. The process of removing it requires wetsanding with a very fine grit sand paper to smooth everything out. Once done, you would polish with a polish that matches the grit to remove the scuffs to bring back a highly polished finish. It’s tedious and it’s a lot of work – if you’ve followed me all this time – you can see that we did this on Derrick’s old Integra after he repainted it.

Shot of the rear quarter from up above to see the reflections.

Now let’s get to the details…

My go-to tool is my trusty Porter Cable 7424. Believe it or not, this particular polisher is 11 years old. I’ve never had to repair it or replace it – it’s built like a tank and has polished hundreds of times over the last decade and continues to power through. The first question you’re probably asking is “what type of polisher should I get?” and that is a very open ended question because you’re going to have so many different recommendations that it’ll make your head spin. I’ll make it simple for someone new like you…

There are two major types of polishers:

  1. Orbital or DA (dual action)
  2. Rotary

The first is what I have. It’s a simple machine that has 6-speed settings. An orbital polisher rotates/jiggles around the center via a counter weight. When you turn it on, it looks as though it’s spinning at a high speed, but it’s orbiting slowly around the center while jiggling fast if that makes any sense. An orbital in the simplest terms is a polisher meant for beginners – it is almost impossible to burn through the clear coat using an orbital because when it “orbits”, it doesn’t generate enough heat to do so. I started with this and I continue to use it because it works. I also haven’t had paint or work that requires the power of the rotary. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Number 2 is a rotary. It does exactly what it’s name implies – it rotates in a circular motion at high speeds to create heat and friction to break down polishes fast and remove swirls. To be honest, I’ve been meaning to get into a Rotary but I just never had the need – my paint has always been in good condition so I just haven’t jumped ship yet. If you’re new, I still recommend starting off with an Orbital.

Great! We got that out of the way. Now that you have a polisher, we can talk about what to pair with your polisher.

One of the most confusing things is knowing which pad to get and which pad to pair with which polish. There are hundreds if not thousands of pads and products and combinations that will make your head spin. Again, to make it simple – I’ll tell you what I use and you can make your own judgements from there.

A quick run down on pads – I like to use Lake Country foam pads. They’ve been my go to for the last 11 years – they last long, they provide good results and are easy to use and clean. Lake Country offers a variety of pads, but again, to keep it simple – I’ll introduce you to the simple ones:

  • Purple cutting foam pad – This is their most aggressive pad. You would use this if you have a large amount of swirls, your paint is in pretty bad condition and has not been polished before.
  • Yellow cutting foam pad – This pad is the next level down. Again, I would say this is used for a car that has a moderate amount of swirls. These swirls would likely look like you’ve used a terry cloth or cotton towel to wash and dry it for years on end.
  • Orange cutting foam pad – This is what I use as you can see from the pictures. It’s a light cutting foam pad – it removes a big chunk of light swirls and corrects paint quickly and effectively. This is my go-to pad for everything that kind of borders what the yellow foam pad might fix.
  • Black finishing foam pad – This pad is super soft and is used to apply waxes or sealants/glazes. This is optional – you can do it by hand using a foam applicator as well. I like using the black pad because you can ensure a nice even application of wax/sealant on the whole car. Doing it by hand sometimes causes unevenness and caked up parts on some pieces of the car if you’re not careful.
  • Blue final foam pad – You can interchange the black and blue if you wish. I usually stick to just black for my finishes. This is your choice.

Hopefully that helps you decide what kind of pad you need… Remember, it just takes patience, trial and error and practice. I probably wouldn’t start off with the most aggressive pad and I probably wouldn’t start with a very mild pad either. The orange pad is a safe bet to start off.

If there’s one thing that most people know about washing cars – it’s that you don’t go through a car wash with physical contact through a brush or foam arms – no matter how much the place tells you it’s “scratch-free”. There are instances that I go to the coin-op wash so I can rinse it down if it’s not too dirty and I have no time but I’d only spray soap and water – never use the brush if you want to avoid major swirls.

Otherwise, I wash at home almost all the time. I use a two-bucket method – one filled with soap and suds and the other with clean water. I also use a microfiber wash mitt – you’ll notice a theme throughout this post and that is everything that you do involves trying to prevent swirls in the first place. If your methods are already adjusted to prevent swirls, then you don’t have to polish so often. Anyway, the two-bucket method allows you to get the soap in one bucket and wash the car, then rinse off in the water bucket to ensure the dirt you’ve washed off your car doesn’t go back into your soap water.

I’ve used lots of car soaps over the years and one of my go-to and cheap soaps is Meguiars Gold Class. It works well, it suds up nicely and provides a nice lubricated feel to the paint. Lately, I’ve really been enjoying Auto Glym’s line up – and their bodywork wash & wax is excellent. It’s a super concentrated formula and you only need a cap-full to wash the whole car. It’s by far the best I’ve used in a long time.

Alright, you’ve washed your car… Let’s move on.

This Menzerna PF2500 has been my best kept secret over the last 2 years. It provides a super high gloss finish, it gets rid of almost all swirls – provided they aren’t created by mad car wash brushes and neglect, and it doesn’t dust as quickly as other polishes that I’ve used.

The best way to explain how much polish you need for most car panels is enough to make an “X” on your pad. Just two lines crossing each other, you’d dab the pad a few times on different areas on the panel to ensure it’s all over and then start off at the lowest speed first to spread the polish. Your first step is to spread the polish, not to start high speed and go to town just yet. Once the polish is all spread on your panel at a low speed, turn it up halfway and then make one more pass. Once you’re satisfied with how it’s spread on the panel, bump it up to the highest setting.

Here’s an example of what I mean by “dabbing” on the paint.

The polish generally needs to be worked into the clearcoat for a few minutes. I like to make a few passes on a panel and ensuring that I overlap as I make each pass. The best results are typically when your movements on the panel are uniform – that is, going left to right and moving your way down the panel until you’re at the bottom, then repeat and go back up. Again – staying as even and uniform as you can. Another key thing to polishing is to ensure you’re going slow and steady enough with enough pressure to create heat and friction. The amount of pressure you’d need is about 15-20 pounds on the polisher to your paint.

It’s important that you don’t polish out in the sun if you can help it. If your paint is hot, the polish will dry and dust super quick and will prevent you from working it in enough to break down to do any actual work on your clear coat.

Here’s an example on my RX from last year of somewhat uniform-ness LOL. You’ll notice the spacing between each circle – like welding spacing – that’s typically how fast you should move. You can see this when you polish and adjust as you go. Experience is the only thing that will teach you how slow or fast to go here.

The time spent on a panel will be determined by the condition of your paint. In the Lexus’s case – I spent about 5 minutes on each panel. That was sufficient enough to get rid of 95% of the swirls that have been on it. If you’re unsure at first, especially if it’s your first time, I would recommend trying it out and once you feel you’ve done “something” to it, stop, wipe off the polish and inspect your results under good lighting. If you still see swirls, then you didn’t work the polish in enough/stay on the panel long enough. Go at it again.

Again, this is where experience plays a big role – knowing when to stop or when to keep going. The one good thing if you choose to go with an orbital is that even if you did stay on “too long”, the chances of damage are extremely low.

Another weapon I have in my arsenal is a light abrasive polish. Poorboys SSR1. Many hardcore detailers recommend doing multiple passes with polish starting with the most abrasive and then working your way down to the least abrasive to get a true, glossy finish. I’ve only had to do this once and that was on paint that was in very bad condition.

With most my cars, one pass is enough to get rid of everything that I need to get rid of. I would recommend sticking with one polish and getting the hang of that before moving onto stepping through polishes.

Here are my finishing pads – black and blue. Like I said, I interchange between the two – I don’t notice a huge difference. If I am doing both a sealant and a wax, then I would use blue for my sealant and black for my wax. The good thing about using a pad and your orbital with wax is that you don’t need a lot and it spreads the product very evenly compared to using your hands and an applicator. Totally up to you here…

I’ll talk about 2 different waxes here. The first is Auto Glym HD wax. For the amount of money this is, it’s not great but it’s not terrible either. It works on all types of paint colours and it’s just meh to me. It lasts almost two months if you wash regularly and if it rains a lot.

My most recent favourite is Soft 99 Fusso Coat wax. It’s a fluorine polymer so it lasts quite long compared to other waxes that I’ve used. It claims up to 12 months, but I think that’s a little overstating it… It’s probably true if the car is kept in the garage most of the time and driven once a month.

Either way, this comes in two varieties – a dark and a light – this is for dark coloured cars, and as you might have guessed, the other is for lighter coloured cars. My results on the Lexus RX330 have been extremely positive – through our harsh winter, it lasted about 4 months. It’s been about 7 months since then and even after a wash now, the paint is still slightly slick and just a tiny bit water-repellent. This will be the first time that I will have used it on the FRS, so we’ll see how it goes.

Most waxes require you to apply and leave it on for anywhere from 5-20 minutes. I usually do 15-20 minutes for all waxes that I use. My one key recommendation is NOT to apply the wax on too thick. This is a common problem for newbies and it was for me when I first started because I always thought “the more, the better”. This is absolutely not true!!

Wax does not require thick layers to work “better”. The application of wax is to apply a THIN layer onto the clearcoat so that it can adhere and do it’s magic. More of the product won’t make more of it adhere – you’re wiping it all off at the end of the day. Which leads me to my next point – If you decide to apply way more than you need, then RIP your arm. You only have to make that mistake a few times to know never to heavily apply wax again.

If you’ve applied a nice thin layer, you’ll notice that it’s easier to wipe away and your cloth should glide across the paint like butter. Another key thing to ensure you’re doing is flipping your cloth regularly while wiping away wax (and polish) to ensure that the fibers are clean and ready to grab the product off the paint. If you continue using the same side, you’ll notice that you’ll have difficulty wiping the product as you go and it’ll start to dust on you and that’s not what you want. When I’m done wiping the product off the whole car, I like to take a brand new microfiber cloth to wipe the car down one more time. You often get grease-like marks leftover after your first pass of removing the wax and using a new cloth removes all of that and leaves and perfectly glossy surface.

Another shot of the freshly polished and waxed tail light. See? Doesn’t a clean car just look so much better? You don’t need to see any of the aftermarket parts in this picture and it’s immediately more attractive to look at because of paint that’s in good condition. This brings me back to my point about properly caring for your paint for car shows – far too often, there are cars that could look incredible but have a serious lack of attention to their paint. I’ve said it a million times, but I’ll say it again – if your car is clean and your paint is flawless, it’ll be 100x more attractive to the public and it will always look better than the car that has neglected bodywork.

Please, please, please clean your door jams, clean your trunk jam, clean the gaps in between each panel, clean your windshield wipers… Every little detail counts. Even if you’re not looking at it, someone out there is! It may even all be in the mind, but a clean and flawless looking car even feels better to drive. Trust me – you won’t regret it.

My last few words are just some other recommendations that I’ve picked up over the years…

After you’ve spent the last few hours tirelessly working away and tackling those swirls and then protecting your paint – you’re probably left with results you never imagined you could have done. Sometimes after a hardcore session of polishing, you’re left with polish dust all over your windows, in your jams, and in places that can get annoying. Once you’ve finished everything – feel free to do one last wash.

I know, the last thing you want to do is wet or touch the paint you worked so hard to fix. But if you’re careful in your ways – the only thing that will come of it is that you get to see your work in action – the water beading, the polish dust all gone, and the feeling of drying a freshly waxed car. If you’ve done it all right, then most of the water you just used to rinse the car will have run off because of the awesome wax job you just did.

Lastly, I like to take the car out into the sun where I can inspect every inch of paint one last time to see if there’s any spot that I missed. I mean, it’s up to you to decide to bring it back in to go and catch the spots that were overlooked or you can leave it 🙂

I’m hoping that gives a general guideline on how I detail my car. If I’ve missed anything, feel free to comment or send me an email and I’d be happy to help you through it. Most of what I’ve learned is through trial and error and sometimes, frustratingly enough, poor results. The least you can do is ask so you don’t experience the same negative outcome.

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