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Hard Paint and Soft Paint – What are your polishing choices?


Regular readers of the Ask A Pro Blog have heard us talk about different levels of paint hardness, and what processes we had to use to accommodate the needs on that particular vehicle. And for those of us who detail for a living, we’re well aware of the wide variety of paint hardness and some of the challenges they present, particularly at the far ends of the spectrum (granite-like hardness, or butter softness).

Perhaps the two most frequently asked questions that the blog authors receive are: (1) “How do I know if the paint is soft or hard?”, and (2) “What’s the best combination to use on my hard/soft paint?”. Well, the first question is relatively easy to answer, but the second is not.

First of all there are a lot of trends from the manufacturers that we learn through experience in terms of paint hardness. We have come to learn that manufacturers like Audi, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes typically have hard paint, and Honda/Acura, Toyota/Lexus (most Japanese manufacturers), and Porsche have soft paints. As for the American manufacturers…they’re all across the board from soft to hard and can vary from factory to factory even when dealing with the same car. But these are merely guidelines because while most colors from BMW for instance would be hard paint, their Jet Black is very soft (most companies have at least one car / color that are on the other end of the spectrum than the rest). And the manufacturers can change their paint from year to year, so just because a certain paint code from one manufacturer is really soft for several years, it doesn’t mean that ALL years of that exact paint code/name will be that way. Just to repeat…these are merely guidelines and there are many, many exceptions which is why a thorough test section on each car needs to be performed to determine just how hard or soft a paint is and to establish your proper combination for paint correction.

So the answer to the first question can be handled in two ways. The first is by experience, and knowing a particular car / color / year and how the paint typically reacts. The second is by doing a test section to figure out how the paint is reacting. If you first try a light polish / pad combination and it barely makes a difference at all, then you know it’s a hard paint and you need to work your way up in terms of aggressive combinations to find out what’s going to give you the best cut and finish.

Now for the second question (what’s the best combination…), that’s not as easily answered given the amount of variables we’re typically faced with when polishing. And if I have a go-to combination on a particular car that consistently works well, then you would need to duplicate my choice of machine, backing plate, and technique in addition to the pad/polish combo if you want to get the same results, see my article on The 5 Key Elements of Proper Paint Polishing.

But what about those times when somebody is struggling with compounding on a hard paint, or finish-polishing on a soft paint and they need advice? I’ve received many of these calls / text messages / emails, and it’s not as easy as saying “try this combo…it works great!”. Once again, there are many, many variables, and it becomes a scientific testing procedure to determine what combination of machine, backing plate, pad, polish, and technique is going to work best.

If you’re a detailer working on a wide variety of paint systems and levels of paint correction, then you have to be skilled and knowledgeable on a multitude of machines, pads, polishes, and techniques because you will encounter particularly hard of soft paints that require a lot of trial and error to determine the best course of action. For those who limit themselves to just a few products, they’re simply not going to be able to achieve a high level of performance when faced with the extremes on the hard / soft scale.

All things considered however, we can break down our approach into 2 simple realities when dealing with the fringes of the hardness scale.

Paint Correction on Very Hard Paint:

When dealing with very hard paint, the difficult part is the compounding stage to get a high level of correction. The finish polishing stage however, is usually pretty easy. As we proceed with our test section, we typically spend a lot of time figuring out the best combination to use that will give us a good correction with a finish that will allow us to do just one simple finish polishing stage. We’re trying a variety of machines, pads, polishes, and techniques as we narrow down our process to find the “winner”. So while we try a lot of different combinations, we’re usually very limited on what will actually work the way we want it to.

But as we figure out the finish-polishing stage, we find that we have a lot of choices that get us where we want to be. We can use different machines, different pads, and different polishes, and most of them will clean up the haze leftover from the compounding stage, and restore the gloss and clarity.

Paint Correction on Very Soft Paint:

Dealing with soft paint is just the opposite in that the compounding stage is usually the easy part with a lot of choices, but the finish polishing stage is most difficult and the one we’ll spend the most time on as we determine the best combination to accomplish our goals. Since one of our main goals is to perform just a 2-step polishing process, we’ll find which compounding stage cuts the defects, yet leaves it with the best finish. We have a lot of great compounds available to us these days that provide a good cut with a nice finish, so this part should be relatively easy.

Now that we’re dealing with finish polishing however, we’re usually spending a lot of time testing different combinations of machine, pads, polishes, and techniques in order to (a) bridge the gap between compounding and finishing, and (b) create a perfect finish with the highest level of gloss with no micro-marring. This may sound relatively simple, but when you’re dealing with some of the very soft and finicky paints out there (black in particular), this can be a very time-consuming process. You also need to be very careful because there are a lot of polishes out there that will look perfect when inspecting with your Brinkmann Light from 24″, 12″, or 4″ away, but once you strip off any polishing oils and inspect very closely, you may find light micro-marring that can only be seen from just a few inches away.

Hard vs. Soft Summary

So if you keep the following guidelines in mind when tackling your next project, it should help you better prepare, and hopefully save you some time during your evaluation and testing process.

Hard Paints = Very few choices for the compounding stage (after a lot of testing), but many choices on the finish-polishing stage.

Soft Paints = Many choices for the compounding stage, but very few for the finish polishing stage.

Prepare yourself for these extremes in the hardness scale by learning a wide variety of products and processes. If your product selection is limited, then your performance will be limited as well. Also keep in mind that just because a product works great on a soft (or hard) paint from one manufacturer, it doesn’t guarantee that it will also be the best choice when dealing with a soft or hard paint from another manufacturer…just another variable that we need to deal with!

Todd Cooperider Esoteric Auto Detail
Todd Cooperider
Esoteric Auto Detail
Columbus, Ohio

13 comments on Hard Paint and Soft Paint – What are your polishing choices?

  1. Chris says:

    Nice Write up Todd .it very important diagnose on the first panel what you will use .Also if correcting on first panel to also look a head and polish down after correcting you will have an idea where and what you can do and improve on to get the finished (jeweled look) .


  2. John says:

    Todd…another home run article..!..when in doubt, test, test, test. One thing that I would like to see from the major manufacturers is MORE paint. Clear coats seems to be getting thinner all the time. The paint that drives me crazy is the paint found on some Nissan (and other) cars…”self healing” paint.

  3. Adam B says:

    This is a great help Todd!

    I recently found out my cars paint is a hybrid and has hard/soft properties due to the flexible properties that have been added to the clearcoat, which has been done by adding a resin to it, which allows for the paint to “self-heal.” The paint is so soft it is easily marring by rubbing a microfiber over it, however, when trying to correct the paint it reacts like an extremely hard paint, as even the most aggressive combinations won’t work, and in most cases these aggressive combinations leaves additional marring behind. It is a unique paint that Infiniti decided to only use for the 2008-2009 years. This is just another example of how paints can vary from year to year and manufacture to manufacture, and when engineers decide to create a new sales gimick, it can sometimes backfire and create even bigger headaches.

  4. Marco says:

    Thanks for sharing Todd! Your article are always very informative!


  5. Nathan says:

    Todd- Thanks again for a great article. I have a question regarding the semantics of hard and soft “paint”. Most of these modern surfaces are actually multi-staged and clear-coated, right? Isn’t it the “soft” or “hard” part actually the clear-coat? Why does the clear-coat vary in hardness between paint colours from the same factory? Owning a Jet Black BMW (so soft…) and a Diamond White Mercedes Benz (ROCK HARD!) the issues with hardness come up almost weekly.

  6. Todd S says:

    Very informative article Todd, as always! Thanks for taking the time to write these up, its going to be a big help when I (finally) get around to putting your advice to use on my own car

  7. Matthew S says:

    Great Read as always. Why not start a database hosted here with information from experience. For example you could look up a Lexus GS300 Onyx Black – could tell you you soft paint suggested methods? Just a thought even though their would be no 100%.

  8. Tomato says:

    Another excellently detailed article on Detailing!! Thanks Todd I’ve read your posting backwards, forwards and every way inbetween. Really appreciate how you take time off to post up knowing how hectic a schedule you must have. Please keep these coming 🙂


    DFW, Texas

  9. sm says:

    Have you reviewed Carpro Fixer. Is it possible to make 1-step polish with it to soft paint?

  10. Caleb Valero says:

    You mentioned a brinkmannlight, I looked on their website and the have a lot, there’s one specific light for paint correction you can recommend ?

    • Jamal Ateeq says:

      Hi. Just bought a Flex XC3401. what products would you recommend for polishing, glazing waxing and sealant for each of Audi A4 phantom black and Mercedes non-metallic jupiter red.
      Thanks and appreciate your help

  11. ahmosawi says:

    hey guys, Great read. can anyone help me to find the best compound and finishing polish for Nissan patrol specially black color as its too soft and from first wiping with microfiber towels all swirls come up again.

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