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How do swirl marks appear and how can you prevent them?

June 21st, 2007

Swirl marks are very troubling and we can all understand the pain of seeing them in your vehicle’s clear coat. Swirl marks are basically micro abrasions in the clear coat that can come from a variety of sources. When there are lots of swirls in one area you’ll often have a dull shine and bumpy clear coat at the microscopic level. My personal opinion is that swirl marks are inevitable on some level. I’ve never seen a regularly driven vehicle that had no swirls. A lot of times you can’t see the swirls unless your paint is in direct sunlight or under florescent lights and different colors make them more evident. Generally darker and flatter paints show off imperfections and lighter colors with metallic flake generally hide imperfections better. Now we’ll address where swirls come from, how to remove them and how we can prevent more swirl marks from being added to the clear coat.

First off, never go through a car wash that has any kind of bristles, cloths, chamois, etc. touching your paint. Never use any artificial brush to wash your paint or to remove snow and ice. These will add large sweeping swirl marks that are sure to dull the clear coat quickly. Touch-free car washes pose a lot less risk but can still add fine scratches to the clear coat. Removing contamination with high pressure water runs the risk of grinding contaminates in to the clear coat. Swirls are most commonly added during the washing and drying process so make sure your wash mitt (hopefully not sponge) and drying towels are as clean as possible. If contamination get lodged between your mitt and the paint and they can be grinded into the clear coat which creates fine scratches or swirls. Inspect your washing tools regularly and replace them as they become difficult to clean them completely. One of the safest and best washing tools I can recommend is a Sheepskin Wash Mitt because of its ability to safely break up contamination and easily release contaminates when dipped in water. Its also very thick so it’s less likely to grind in contaminates as it breaks them up. Another great washing tool is the Lake Country Ulti-Mit which is generally more durable and also very safe. The unique cube design helps pull contamination into the grooves and away from the surface touching the paint.

I dry with two Microfiber Waffle Weave Drying Towels, because they are paint safe and absorb so much water. Never use an old bath towel and other recycled towels because they aren’t always paint safe. Some towels have nylon stitching, rough seams, large tags and coarse material that can add fine scratches to the clear coat. I only dry areas that have been washed thoroughly. I don’t use them to clean or dry door jambs, panels underneath the vehicle, exhaust tips, wheels, etc.

Using the two bucket washing method with a Grit Guard Inserts helps minimize the risk of getting contaminates in your wash mitt. This method has one bucket with just water and a Grit Guard in its bottom and another bucket with water and shampoo. To start just dip your mitt in the shampoo and water mix and start washing a panel. After washing a panel, dip the sponge in the bucket with just water and the Grit Guard. Lightly wipe the mitt against the Grit Guard and it will aid in releasing contamination (such as dirt, dust, road grime) into the water and keep them at the bottom of the bucket so they don’t re-contaminate the mitt. Next dip the mitt back in the shampoo bucket and continue washing your vehicle following this method. By keeping your wash mitt cleaner, you will greatly reduce the chance of adding swirls and fine scratches to your clear coat.

This same logic applies to any applicator pad (hand or buffer) and any removal towel you may use. When applying a polish or wax you exert a fair amount of pressure and friction across the clear coat. If there is even a tiny piece of contamination in the applicator pad you could easily be adding fine scratches to the clear coat. If you do this while waxing you may not even see these marks as the wax covers it up as you go. We recommend using a nice and clean applicator pad, preferably microfiber or foam. Also be careful if the applicator has firm edges or seams that could potentially add swirls. When removing the left over wax we recommend removing products with a clean microfiber towel. Quality microfiber towels are paint safe and are highly effective at removing left over product. Inspect your applicator pad and removal towels regularly to ensure they don’t have any contamination stuck in them. If you are unsure if a product is safe to use on your clear coat you can test it by rubbing it against the back of a CD (one you don’t mind potentially scratching). If it adds scratches it is too coarse to be used safely on the clear coat.

To help prevent more swirls from occurring, apply a durable layer of protection to the clear coat like a sealant or wax. When you’re looking to apply the longest lasting protection for your vehicle I typically recommend you apply a coat or multiple coats of a sealant. Sealants are created in labs using synthetic materials to form a very thin protective barrier for your clear coat. During the engineering process they typically only include materials that improve the products shine, durability and ease of use. With improved technological advancements most sealants offer longer lasting protection compared to natural carnauba waxes. Sealants can protect the clear coat for 3 – 6 months while waxes typically protect the paint for 2 weeks to 2 months. Natural waxes are a strong form of protection but they are just not very durable. Therefore you can use natural waxes to protect your paint as well, just plan on more frequent applications. Contamination tends to come off much easier while washing when your vehicle is properly protected, so make sure you paint has a proper coat of protection on today. For maximum protection and shine you can layer coats of wax on top of a coat or multiple coats of sealant.

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