There have been many questions and comments about proper paint polishing and how to get the best results. What polish should I use for this car, or what pad works best with this compound, or a multitude of similar issues. Typically, we as pro detailers may give some general advice, but inevitably we tell people “it depends”.
And what we mean by that is there are so many variables, that you can’t always give absolute answers. The level of correction you’re going for is a factor, the condition of the paint is a factor, whether it’s OEM or aftermarket paint is a factor, the working conditions are factors (working in a temperature-controlled environment versus outside in the heat and humidity), and the list goes on and on.
But when we really break it all down, we discover that there are 5 key elements to proper and effective paint polishing. And the variables that I previously mentioned all intertwine with these 5 key elements.
At the Esoteric Elite Detailer Academy, we spend a lot of time covering this topic because by truly understanding the relationship of one element to the other, we know how to react to the demands of the paint and plan our approach accordingly. In the class we have ample time to discuss this thoroughly, but I may only have a few minutes for you, the reader, so I’ll summarize accordingly so that you at least get a good understanding of how it all works.
The 5 Key Elements to Proper and Effective Paint Polishing
The basic principle is this…get all of the elements correct, and you will successfully accomplish all of your polishing goals. But if you choose just one of the elements incorrectly, then it can have a negative impact on your results.
- Your choice of machine. Are you using a rotary, a dual action, or perhaps a forced rotation D/A?
- Your choice of backing plate
- Your choice of polishing pad.
- Your choice of polish / compound.
- Your technique.
All of these elements are very closely related, and in some cases you can even have several “correct” choices within each element and still achieve great results. But in other cases, even missing a sub-element can make all of the difference (for instance…the right polish, but using too much or too little).
Now that I’ve listed them all out, let’s take a little closer look at each one, and explore some of our options and decisions we need to make in order to achieve the desired results.
1. Your choice of machine.
While it may look simple and in many cases interchangeable between a rotary polisher, a dual-action polisher, or a forced-rotation dual-action polisher, you very well may be surprised at just how much of a difference your choice of machine makes depending on the paint you’re working with, and whether you’re doing compounding or finish-polishing. You’ll run into some paints that simply do not like the action of a rotary, and only a dual action will get the job done. On other paints, you may find just the opposite (some aftermarket paints in particular). Especially if you’re working on a car / paint system that you’re not familiar with, it requires a scientific approach during your test sections to determine what’s going to work best on that paint, on that particular day. During my last training class, we were working on a black Porsche that simply did not like the sheering action of the rotary during finish-polishing. Regardless of what changes we made in the other 4 elements, the fact was that the rotary machine was the wrong choice for that particular car. And for those who choose to limit themselves to just one type of machine, there will be cars that they won’t be able to achieve the highest level of correction or finishing.
2. Your choice of backing plate.
I think the backing plate is one of the most underrated elements that we work with, and one that many take for granted. Each backing plate is a little different than the other, and some are designed for very specific applications. One of the reasons why the aftermarket backing plate business is so big is because the ones that come with the machines are usually sub-par. How do you know which backing plate is the right one, or one that will work best for you? Well a lot of that comes with experience working with different ones, and finding out how the results vary when all other elements remain the same. One example would be the backing plate of choice when working with Meguiar’s Micro Fiber Cutting Discs. By using their backing plate (designed for the MF system), you will achieve your greatest amount of cut with best finish in my experience. If you go with one that’s too soft, or provides too much flex, then the cut you will achieve could vary greatly (you could lose upwards of 20-30% cutting capacity). And when working with a rotary, this can vary quite a bit too and your backing plate choice can be dependent upon which pad and polish you’re using, or on whether you’re compounding or finish polishing.
3. Your choice of polishing pad.
For those who have a nice selection of pads, you know right away that your results can and will vary greatly from pad to pad. And the “right” choice of pad with one paint type doesn’t mean that it will be the right choice on another paint type. While I can do most of my work with just a small selection of pads, I still run into jobs or paint types that throw me a curve ball, and I need to make some unconventional choices to achieve my goals. Get to know the cutting and finishing capabilities and tendencies of a variety of pads so that you have alternatives to reach for when you’re not getting the desired results.
4. Your choice of polish / compound.
There are so many (good) choices out there right now for compounds and polishes that it can become overwhelming if you let it. While on one hand I teach detailers to have a strong understanding of a variety of polishes so that they have their bases covered, I do think there’s a limit. If you have too many, it can have a tendency to cloud your vision a bit, and you may simply know less about the characteristics of more polishes.
Your choice of polish or compound can have a significant impact on your results, particularly when you’re dealing with the fringes of the cutting scale (heavy cut, or super-fine finishing). When you’re dealing with the middle range for one-step polishes, your choices are far greater. But when you need major correction on hard paints, or fine finishing on soft paints, your choices are very narrow. Choose wisely and you will be rewarded with great results. Choose poorly, and your results won’t be as great, and you could very well spend way more time than necessary too.
Always remember that there’s no one “magical” polish or compound for every paint. You may find one that works perfectly for you 90% of the time, but for those other 10% paints, you’ll need to have some alternatives that you know and trust. For any detailer that sticks to one polish, I’ll guarantee that there will be some cars out there where they don’t make look as good. When people ask me what brand I like to use, I tell them: “many”.
Another aspect of your choice of polish is the amount that you use. This could actually be categorized in the “Technique” element as well, but I’ll go ahead and mention it here. If you have all 5 elements correct, but you’re using too much (very common mistake) or too little product, your results will suffer.
5. Your technique.
I’ve seen many times where people say that “it’s all in the technique”. To this I have to disagree, because this is just one of the 5 key elements that dictates the kind of results you’re going to get. In some cases the results are weighted in the technique category, but it’s not everything.
But…if you have all 4 elements correct, and your technique is off, you could be seriously missing out on results! I was recently working on a car with my assistant in the shop, and I first figured out the 5 elements that would best work on that car given all of our other variables (condition, level we were taking it to, etc). I told her exactly what we needed to do, and she proceeded with polishing. This was her first significant correction job, and she was very happy with her results on the first few panels. But a little later she said that she was checking her work, and realized that it wasn’t correcting as well as when she started. After evaluating the surface, I told her to increase her pressure just a little bit. She did, and the results improved by 25%…all with a slight increase in pressure (technique). So in this case she had the right machine, backing plate, pad, and polish, but she just slightly fell off on her technique and it made all the difference in the world.
The technique can be dependent upon the type of paint you’re working on (hard or soft), it can be dependent upon the machine you’re working with, and it can be dependent on the pad / polish selection as well. As you can see, it’s all very much related to one another and you need to learn what works best in which instances.
By now you should be getting a much better idea of just how much is involved when developing the right system for paint polishing…it’s not just a matter of picking up a machine, slapping some polish on a pad, and creating art. There are so many variables involved, and you need to have a full understanding of how all of the 5 elements relate to one another in order to get the most out of your polishing session. And when you’re doing a test section to find out the best combination to use for that day, you need to be scientific in your approach to develop the best system. If you start changing multiple elements at the same time, you’ll never know what’s working and what’s not.
Now I’m sure some of you reading this hoped that by the end of the article you would be enlightened on how to perfectly polish paint simply by following the 5 Key Elements. If that’s the case, then you may be a bit disappointed right now because there’s no one magical combination.
What I have provided you with however is a better understanding of what goes into paint polishing, and a solid blueprint for you to determine how to get the most out of your next session(s). Articles like these are designed to be informative and educational, but they’re also written to be thought-provoking so that you have the tools to make the right decisions yourself.
So remember…get the 5 Key Elements to Proper and Effective Paint Polishing correct and you will be rewarded with art. But if you get just one of these key elements incorrect, then expect your results to fall short of potential.