Detailing - April 2009

Polish — What's in Yours? Part I
By Kevin Farrell

ost detailers have probably had a debate with somebody, at some point, about the best polish available. The same holds true for waxes. Who has the best polish or wax? These debates are sometimes fun and entertaining, with detailers claiming that they have, or know of, or use the best polish there is, and can make a paint surface look absolutely perfect with their skills and the aid of the product. There are many variables that go into making a paint surface look its absolute best, and all are very important to consider before even starting a discussion of the product being used.


One of the many things to consider to make a paint surface look as perfect as possible is the type of buffer being used. A rotary or high-speed buffer should be used if total paint correction is required. This machine will be more aggressive, but also correct the paint much better than the orbital machines — and do it far faster. The buffer speed must be carefully chosen. If the speed is too high, you will over-heat the clear coat, soften it up too much, leading to harsher swirl marks, marring, and even burning of the clear coat.

Selecting the correct type of pad is critical. If a pad is too aggressive, it will haze and mar the paint surface, regardless of how great the buffing product is. The pressure used when buffing a paint surface is very important. Too much pressure will over-correct and lead to swirls and other problems. However, not enough pressure is equivalent to just smearing the product around and not doing much of anything. In addition, the type of clear coat being worked on will affect the way the surface will look when done. On softer, more sensitive clear coats the buffing process will need to be gentle. On harder, scratch-resistant clear coats you will need to be a little more aggressive with everything to obtain the desired results.

Buffing a paint surface is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Many detailers do it extremely well, but many struggle. Your skill and knowledge of everything involved in the process will go a long way toward achieving a perfect paint finish, but the one variable not yet mentioned — and it is a huge part of the process — is the product you are using and what has gone into it to help make the paint surface shine to a mirror like finish.


Without a buffing product you would not be able to correct a paint surface. Wax is not a buffing product. It only gives protection to the paint surface. If you are using wax to give the paint an added gloss, you simply are not buffing the paint surface properly, or the buffing product is not that good. So, let’s clarify the buffing product categories and see what each one can accomplish before we look at what actually makes a great buffing product.

A compound will do the heavy correction. These products are designed to “cut” deeply into the paint surface and “shave” it down and remove imperfections. I have always compared what buffing products do, especially compounds, to a Zamboni machine on an ice surface. I look at compounding today’s clear coats as being similar to the way they resurface the ice between periods of a hockey game. The Zamboni machine “shaves” the ice and removes the deep marks and imperfections made by the skates. Then a thin layer of water is laid down on top of the ice, the water re-flows into the ice and re-freezes, creating a fresh surface. The same is done while buffing. The abrasives “shave” away the imperfection and the heat created while buffing “re-flows” the clear coat giving it an increased gloss. Compounds, however, are not designed as the final step in the buffing process. The paint surface will still remain a bit hazed and cloudy after a compounding step. The abrasives in compounds are too big and too sharp to leave the paint perfect. To create a perfect paint surface, the polish will always be the key product.

A polish is a much lighter buffing product, but will still perform light to medium paint correction. A polish will also give the paint surface the brilliance it may have been missing and the perfect gloss that every customer and every detailer desires. Don’t mistake a “glaze” for a polish. A glaze does not have any correctional capability. It will leave a great shine and possibly mask some remaining imperfections, so be careful if you use a product like this.

Waxes/Paint Sealants
Waxes and paint sealants will spark the most debate on issues like gloss, protection, and which wax is the best. But many detailers miss the point. If you are seeing a dramatic difference in the finish after applying your wax or paint sealant, you probably did not do a good enough job in preparing the paint. Concentrate more on the other areas of paint correction and this step will not be a huge area of concern. You should not see much of a difference after applying your wax or paint sealant. The best polishes out there will give you what you need with regard to overall paint appearance.

This is why the most important product that you have and you should concentrate on is your polish. You will not need a compound on all cars and, since compounding is not your final step, it’s not the most important product. Again, the wax is for protection only and should not significantly add to the gloss if you have polished the paint surface correctly. Therefore, my biggest concern is always the polish and how good it is. A great polish will make your life a whole lot easier and can make cars look brand new. Let’s look at why this is so, what a great polish will do, and what goes into a great polish.


Why is one product better than another? Aren’t all polishes the same? Won’t they all perform? You may just buy the cheapest one from a local distributor, or go with a well-known name and assume that it’s the best. You may think that its only the skill of the detailer that determines how well a car is buffed and that the wax is the most important product and polishes are just a prelude to the wax and do not make a difference. If that’s the case, you should start paying more attention to polish and know what to look for regarding its performance.

Perfection in any endeavor is very difficult. Only the most dedicated people reach perfection in anything that they do. Show performers, musicians, athletes, presidents, and of course, we detailers, all have off days. It’s normal and many assume that perfection may never be attained. No product will ever be perfect and perform flawlessly on each and every car, each and every time.

In making a buffing product, most notably a polish, its almost impossible — almost — to achieve perfection. There are certain things that a polish must do to be called perfect — or as close to perfect as possible. I have always been very demanding of any product I purchase because I want the vehicle to look its absolute best, and I want to be able to get the job done in an efficient manner. For making a perfect polish, my list of specifications is long. The product would have to meet every demand to be considered perfect.


There are 13 specifications I expect a polish — and a buffing product for that matter — to meet, and it must comply with each and every one of the specified items to be considered a truly great polish:

  1. The polish must work as advertised. If a manufacturer advertises that its polish can remove up to 1200 grit sand scratches, yet finish off near flawlessly, the customer will expect nothing less.
  2. The polish should have a fairly long working time — it should not evaporate and disappear with just a couple of buffing passes. If the product dries too quickly, you end up dry buffing. This can cause abnormal swirling, hazing of the clear coat, clogging of the pad, and possibly burning of the paint. There must always be a barrier of product between the paint surface and the pad to buff correctly and do a great job.
  3. There should be no dusting. This is a pet peeve of mine as this wastes time and makes a mess on the vehicle. A great polish will not create dust.
  4. The polish must create a great shine and gloss. Regardless of its correction capabilities, it must leave a flawless shine behind. This makes any remaining buffing steps easier and faster.
  5. The polish must work on all paint systems. There are many types of clear coat that are now being used, as well as the older, single-stage paint systems that you may still encounter. There is no need to have a different polish for all these paints. A great polish will work on all paint systems.
  6. The polish must work with all buffers — rotary buffer as well as an orbital buffer — and accomplish the same things. There is never a need for a polish that will only work with a specific buffer.
  7. The polish must work at all speeds on a buffer. Buffing at high speeds generally is not recommended, but for detailers who choose a higher speed, the polish must still work. If a detailer chooses a slower speed, such as 1,000 RPM, the polish must still do its job even though less friction and heat will be created.
  8. The polish must work with all buffing pads. It should work well with a wool pad for more correction and still be smooth, and it must work with all the different foam pads that are now available.
  9. The polish should stay where it’s applied. It should not be too watery and run down the side of the car. If you place a stripe of polish horizontally on a side panel, it should stay right there. This makes the entire buffing process much faster with far less mess.
  10. The polish should not clog the buffing pad. If you use foam pads almost exclusively, you do not want to keep cleaning the pad or changing pads because they get too clogged. Clogged pads will also cause “buffer bounce,” which is annoying and potentially dangerous.
  11. The polish has to wipe off easily. After working hard to remove paint imperfections, you do not want to struggle and rub too hard into the paint to get the product off the car. The residue left behind should never dry and harden too much.
  12. The polish should not splatter. Some polishes liquefy when heat is created and then they will spray and splatter all over. This creates a huge mess and lots of cleanup after you are done buffing. The polish should have a good consistency and keep that consistency no matter how long you spend buffing an area.
  13. Finally, the polish should leave behind very light swirls if you were being aggressive with it, such as using it with a wool pad to remove imperfections. However, if you are using it to “remove” swirl marks, it must be able to eliminate them, not just fill them in or hide them. The finish should be swirl-free and perfect when the polishing steps are completed.


In next month’s issue of Auto Laundry News, we’ll examine the abrasive content in polish and provide information on how to objectively test one polish against another.

Kevin Farrell owns and operates Kleen Car (, a full-service auto-detailing business located in New Milford, NJ. Kevin is also an instructor for a detailing program he developed for, in and in conjunction with, BMW of North America. His background includes auto dealership experience and training through DuPont, General Motors, and I-Car.

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