Beginner’s Guide To Detailing: Polishing (Part 2)

Authors: Super User

Beginners Guide to PolishingSo you know you need to polish and don’t know where to start. You are not alone. When it comes to polishing, I can’t stress enough how much that old idiom “better safe than sorry” comes in to play. Before we dive in, let me state that this article will demonstrate the right way to begin a polishing procedure and layout a clear plan of action for you to follow the next time you’re looking to revive your worn out paintwork.

The myth that is “machine polishing”

To better understand the topics I’m about to cover, I need to backup a bit and show you why the most common approach to polishing is (unfortunately) flawed. First of all, there is a largely ill-conceived notion that polishing is “easy.” This is completely false. When you grab a machine and put it on your car’s finish, you are being abrasive… meaning care and attention is required. Did you know that the majority of swirl marks and holograms aren’t caused by the car wash, but improper buffer use? It’s true, and it’s the primary reason that many new cars come coated in swirls. Let me set you straight and make this point clear: with proper maintenance and protection, you can get away with only hand polishing your car. And I do stand by that, so I’d love to discuss in the comments if you disagree.

The Proper Polishing Process

Because you can never be too careful, it’s important to follow proper procedure rather than jumping right in..

1. Clay the car. Always clay before any polishing procedure so that all embedded contaminants are removed from your paint before you get aggressive. Neglecting to do so can cause swirl marks, which become hidden by the polish. This means they wont show up for a few months (or until the product has broken down). Check out our Clay Bar Guide.

2. Hand polish. Before grabbing a machine buffer, see if the problem can be cured by hand. A lot of times you’ll be able to remove light swirls, minor scratching, holograms, and more without the use of a machine. If you can’t, that’s fine… but it’s best to start with the least aggressive approach and then move up if needed. Hand polishing may or may not include multiple products, but as a rule of thumb, you’ll want to start with the least gritty polish (you can usually feel this by putting a bit on your finger) and, again, move up from there. If you do end up needing a stronger hand polish, you’ll want to follow that up with the lighter polish to smooth out the more delicate imperfections.

GLAZE & SEAL.If the hand polishing procedure works, you’re now ready to use a finishing glaze to fill in any remaining imperfections that may be too small (or deep) for a polish to remove. Then you’ll want to seal with a long lasting paint sealant to protect your car. Always, always, always protect after polishing to lock in your hard work and to keep the surface free from future damage.

3. Machine polishing. So hand polishing may have helped, but the scratches are just a bit deeper than your elbow grease can manage. Now you can grab a machine so long as you’re confident using one—I recommend Cyclos (or any orbital dual-action polisher) because they are extremely simple and get the job done without using excessive heat or speed. Just like when hand polishing, you’ll want to start with a light polish or compound at first, and move up as needed. After the major issues are tackled, move back down with a lighter polish to further perfect the surface.

GLAZE & SEAL. Yes, it’s so important I’m listing it twice. Make sure you do this after machine polishing, too.

4. Wet sanding. If nothing works and you can still see some minor scratches in the finish, science would say that the ones you see are deeper than your clear coat. This means no polishing procedure is going to be able to resurface the scratch, and you’ll need either touch up paint or professional wet sanding. For now, given this article is aimed toward beginners, this is as much as I want to talk about wet sanding.


The main idea behind the polishing decision tree is that you don’t always need to machine polish your car’s finish. Often you will find that you can get the exact same results by hand if you take your time. If you do need a machine, use a dual-action polisher like the Cyclo. All too often people grab a high-speed machine and end up prematurely butchering the finish. Save yourself the headache and follow the decision tree provided. If you want to keep your car more than two or three years, you’ll be glad you did.