top of page
  • Writer's pictureDave

DIY Car Polishing for Beginners

No matter how careful you are almost every daily-driven vehicle will accumulate scratches over time. Those dreaded paint swirls (spider webs) that are so prominent in sunlight really detract from your vehicle' s appearance. No matter what wax or coating you use to enhance your paint's gloss, unless you get rid of those swirls your paint will never achieve the shine you desire and you are just covering up or sealing in the damage with whatever you apply to your paint.

We frequently hear from customers that they would love to polish their car but are very hesitant to do so from fear of damaging the paint. Yes, you are removing some of your clearcoat layer (paint) in order to remove scratches (and other defects such as bird dropping etching, acid rain water marks etc.). That is where the trepidation comes in... removing paint from your baby! But have no fear! This article will explain just how easy DIY polishing actually is. With the right tool & products you can achieve great results in a few hours!

Picking the Right Polisher

Most "horror stories" you hear regarding failed polishing jobs come from the use of rotary polishers. Rotary polishers have been around for many years and are still used by many professional detailers because they are the fastest way to remove paint scratches. Rotary polishers work just like you may deduce from their name... they spin. This high speed rotating action against the paint tends to generate a fair amount of heat. The hotter your paint gets the faster it will be removed hence the term "burning through the paint". In addition, because you only have that spinning action it can be difficult to keep your buffing pad totally flat on the paint surface. The machine wants to jump around on the paint as it spins. This leads to a tendency to angle the buffer in order to have better control over the spinning pad. This results in less of the pad surface touching the paint, leading to more heat being generated at that smaller contact area . This angling of the machine can often lead to what is known as "buffing trails". Although not that hard to remove it can be a bit tricky if you have only the rotary machine at your disposal and are not skilled in it's use.

Rotary Polisher Action
Rotary Polisher Action

Rotary Polisher Buffing Trails
Rotary Polisher Buffing Trails

Now that you have decided it's not worth it to try this yourself and are picking up the phone to call your local detail shop.. wait! There is a tool that makes polishing a much easier and safe project for even the most novice detailer... the Random Orbital polisher. Random Orbitals (also known as Dual Action) operate much differently than rotary machines do. They do spin like a rotary but they also oscillate. This dual action motion generates much less heat and also enables much better control of the polisher on the paint surface.

Random Orbital Motion

In our opinion the best DIY Random Orbital polisher on the market is the Griot's Garage G9. It has all the power and features you need, comes at a great price and the best warranty in the business!

Pads & Products

Theoretically you can use almost any pad & product to get the job done. However choosing the right pad/product combination will make the job much easier and give you better results.

Buffing Pads

Pads come in a variety of cutting (scratch removal) ability and types. There are foam, wool & microfiber pads available. For dual action machines, the backing plates (where the pads attach to) come in 5"or 6" sizes and on most dual action machines you can easily swap out the backing plate to whichever size you prefer. If you are new to polishing we recommend using foam pads. They are the easiest to work with and also give great results. For most users there are basically 4 levels of pad aggressiveness to consider:

  1. Heavy Cut (fastest at getting rid of scratches)

  2. Medium Cut (great for all-in-one compounds)

  3. Polishing

  4. Waxing (if you are using your polisher to apply liquid wax or sealant)

Note: No two pad manufacturers colour code their pads the same so make sure you purchase pads based on the type you need as opposed to pad colour.

Compounds & Polishes

Similar to pads, polishing products come in different aggressive levels as well. For the DIY'er there are essentially 3 levels to consider:

  1. Compounds (remove scratches)

  2. Polishes (refine the paint & add gloss)

  3. All-in-Ones (provide both the above in one product)

Even if their paint is already in good shape many enthusiasts will periodically perform a polish on their vehicle. Using a polish & polishing pad will remove just a very small amount of clearcoat exposing a fresh layer of paint which brings the gloss back to optimum levels.

You can use either a 3 step or 2 step method to bring that paint back to life:

1) Compound and Polish Steps

  1. Use a compound & cutting pad to remove scratches

  2. Use a polish & polish pad to refine paint

  3. Apply wax, sealant or coating

2) All-in-One Steps

  1. Use All-in-One compound with a medium cut pad

  2. Apply wax, sealant or coating

If you are totally new to car polishing consider the second process. All-in-Ones are very easy to work with. They start out as a compound but as you work the product over the paint the abrasives break down & turn into a polish. Although the scratches will not be removed as quickly as with a dedicated compound/polish process (the abrasives are not as aggressive) you will achieve great overall results and only need to go over the car once using a single product & pad combination.

The Polishing Process

Think of car polishing as similar to sanding wood. Imagine your pad & product combination as being various grits of sandpaper. If you have a scratch on a coffee table to repair the damage you would sand the surface down until the surrounding wood is the same depth as the scratch, thus removing the scratch. If the scratch is deep you will probably want to start with a heavier grit sandpaper to remove the surrounding wood faster (compound & cutting pad). Once the scratch is removed your coffee table surface will be marred by the heavy grit sandpaper so you would follow up with a finer grit sandpaper to smooth out the surface (polish & polishing pad). To speed up the job & make it easier to achieve a level surface you will probably want to use a palm sander (the polisher).

As you can see from the diagram below there are essentially three types of paint scratches:

  1. Paint Swirls - These scratches are normally all over the car and are a result of improper washing EG: brushed automatic car washes. These are the scratches that look like spider webs all over your car in the sunlight. Although they look horrible they are usually not too deep so are the easiest to remove.

  2. RIDS (Random Isolated Deeper Scratches) - Having someone drag a box along the trunk of your car is a good example of RIDS. The dirt on the bottom of the box has created varying depth scratches in the paint, but obviously the scratches are isolated to the area where the box was. Important note on RIDS: It is often better to improve rather than remove. Look at the diagram below. As you can see, after the polishing process some of the RIDS were not fully removed. And there is still enough clearcoat below the scratches that you could fully remove them if you desired. However to fully remove those remnants of the deeper scratches you would have to remove a lot of the remaining clearcoat layer. That gives you much less clearcoat to work with if you happen to get another scratch in that area at a later date . Also keep in mind that although those scratches are not totally gone the polishing process has greatly improved them & made them much less visible.