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Polish has come to be almost a generic term that refers to the detailing process as a whole. You might hear someone say "Jane spent three days polishing that car" when in actuality the three days were spent doing a number of detailing tasks.

Polishing, as it applies to car detailing, refers to the act of restoring gloss by removing contaminants, restoring valuable oils and smoothing the paint surface. Most polishes accomplish this by being a mild abrasive and some do it by way of a chemical reaction.


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We have three basic choices when it comes to treating paint surfaces:

  • Polish
  • Cleaner
  • Rubbing compound

Each of these work by removing unwanted paint, in very small amounts, from the surface of the paint. They vary in their "aggressiveness". Rubbing compound removes the most amount of paint for a given application while polishes remove the least, with cleaners somewhere in between. Obviously, removing paint should be taken seriously. The trick is to use a product with the right amount of aggressiveness. For this reason, we recommend starting with an application of polish. If the polish does not seem to have enough of an effect, try an application of cleaner. Using an orbital buffer will make the job go much faster. However, the polish or cleaner should be designed for machine use. If a cleaner or polish application doesn't get the job done, rubbing compound may be the solution. Rubbing compound is a strong abrasive however, and should be taken seriously. For that reason, we recommend that you turn the task over to a professional.

Polishes serve to remove contaminants on the paint surface. This can include airborne pollutants, tree sap, bird droppings and so on. For many detailers, this function can best be accomplished by claying.

You're decision to use polishes or cleaners will depend on the condition of your paint and so it is difficult to give any hard and fast recommendations. If the paint looks dull after washing, a polish application could be the next step. If the paint is very dull, to the point of having a certain amount of roughness to the texture, then an application of cleaner is in order. Prime candidates are cars that have not been detailed for a long time and used or even new car purchases.

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Swirls
Swirls are those nasty circular lines that show up in bright sunlight and go a long way towards preventing your car from looking "right". They are best thought of as microscopic scratches and are usually the result of poor detailing practices. There is a reason why "avoiding scratches" is rule #1!

There are a number of swirl removal products available. Some are basically polishes that work by dulling the edges of the scratches; this might not remove the scratches entirely but it can help out the situation considerably. Others work as fillers, placing material in the scratch so that they effectively disappear. Wax and glazes perform a similar function. If you are not satisfied with the results of your swirl remover treatment, consult a detailing professional.

Oxidation
The finish of a car is always wet, even if it is dry. To make sense of this statement, consider the fact that paint needs certain oils to keep its fresh glossy look. Ultraviolet rays from the sun and smog can dry up these essential oils, and the result is a dull and flat finish known as oxidation. If you could look at oxidized paint under a high powered microscope, you would see a surface that looks dry and cracked like the desert.

When it occurs, oxidation appears as dull and dry spots on the finish and usually is first noticed on the flat horizontal areas of the car. If paint residue appears on your wash mitt, you definitely have an oxidation problem. The solution to oxidation is to remove the uppermost surface of dead paint. To do that we have three basic choices:

Important Notes:

  • Since cleaners and polishes removes paint, they will also remove the wax on top of the paint. Be sure to rewax any area that has had a polish, cleaner or rubbing compound treatment.
  • You won't often need to use a polish or cleaner if you diligently follow the advice in the WebCars! Auto Detailing: Secrets of the Experts page. If you wash your car regularly and maintain a good coat of wax, contaminants won't have the chance to ruin the cars finish.
  • If you have any concerns about your cars surface, consider consulting a detailing professional. Shop around for one with experience and who knows their car surfaces. They'll be able to tell you exactly what your car needs depending on its situation. Paying them to do the work has the distinct advantage of knowing the job will be done correctly. You can then regularly wash and wax the car, having gotten off to a good start by having your paint professionally prepared.

Here is an example of where a cleaner was useful. A piece of rubber lying on the freeway which used to be a part of a trucks' retread tire was kicked up by a car and flew backwards, hitting the fender of this Honda. The sheet metal was not affected, but it left its mark in the surface of the paint. An application of Meguiar's Deep Crystal System Paint Cleaner took care of it nicely. The affected area was then rewaxed.


Polish/Wax Jobs That Set The Standard!
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Super polish/wax job Super polish/wax job
Left: Reflection in the door of a Burgundy Duesenberg. Right: Reflection in the door of a black Lamborghini Countach. The Countach features "scissor" doors which were open (up?) at the time. Both photos were taken at the Pebble Beach Concours D'elegance.
Super polish / wax job Super polish/wax job
Left: A Ferrari Sports Racer. Right: Check out the amazing detail in the reflection!

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