When I was starting out, the single most confusing thing to understand is what products do what. I feel like it may be getting a little easier, or maybe I just can’t get back into that beginner mindset.
So let’s clear some things up. This is a bit long so grab a snack because it is a lot of good info or at least info that would have helped me when I was starting out.
First, let’s talk about the difference between “professional” products you can get at a place like Detailed Image, and the “Enthusiast” products that are at most auto parts/big box retail stores. One of the main questions I get from people is, “Do you HAVE to buy the expensive products or can I get away with what is at my local store?” I get the want to be able to use these products, they are easy to acquire, they are names they’ve seen all their lives and on the surface seem so much cheaper. Not to mention the mindset that these must be good or the stores wouldn’t carry them.
The answer to that question is no, you don’t HAVE to. Good technique with a decent product will outperform bad technique with good product every time. Are they a few tiers below in quality? Yes, but you can still get good results. The reason these products and brands have been staples for so long is because they do a decent job and to the average consumer their car comes out looking great. The same way cars come out of the factory with more orange peel than ever, brands can get away with it because most people don’t even notice the difference.
In regards to price though, that isn’t as cut and dry as it seems. Car shampoo is probably the best example of this.
You can get a 64oz bottle of a popular shampoo at the store for only $12.99
A bottle of P&S Shampoo is $30.99!
Seems way more expensive right? Let’s break down the numbers assuming you are using a standard 5 gallon bucket and not foaming the car down.
- Dilutes 1:25
- Price per oz: $0.20
- Price per wash: $1.01
- P&S Shampoo:
- Dilutes: 1:200
- Price per oz: $0.24
Price per wash: $0.64
The concentration options in professional products, while they seem more expensive initially, are actually MUCH cheaper in many cases because a little goes a long way.
Next, let’s talk about what products do what. When I was starting out there were a lot of products that would say, Polish out those scratches with carnauba wax glaze! This makes no sense because that is three products that are contradicting each other if that’s actually what it was. The secret is, it’s not. It’s a wax with some fillers in it. So let’s break down a few terms.
- Wax: A protective layer that goes on top of your paint. It will NOT remove any type of scratches. It can FILL IN some light scratches which make it look like they are removed, but over time as the wax breaks down they will “come back” because they never actually went anywhere.
- Sealant: A synthetic, longer lasting and more durable replacement to wax.
- Glaze: Is this even a thing anymore? I was never big into it but basically, it is just for helping fill in scratches and swirls and offers no protection, in fact, you have to add protection on top or it will deteriorate very quickly.
- Polish: An abrasive liquid, think extremely fine liquid sandpaper. Removes light swirls.
- Compound: A more abrasive version of polish. No protection and almost always has to be followed up with a polish as it will leave some haze of its own. Just like how rough sandpaper will leave behind more lines than fine.
- Coating: Typically an Si02, Silica, based product with extreme protection and gloss. Varying level of products from easy to use spray on, to professional applied viscous liquids that last years. The main difference being the concentration of Si02 within the product’s makeup.
These are definitions, they are not interpretations. So when a product says it’s a “wax glaze polish”, it’s not. The same product won’t remove imperfections, but then fill in imperfections and leave behind a level of protection that will last months by itself. The same way that 4 in 1 shampoo isn’t doing you any favors, you know who I’m talking to. Yes, there are some products like CarPro Essence which seems to contradict what I’m saying and is a great product, but that is for prepping prior to coating, you would just use that and be done.
When it comes to paint correction (the remove of scratches and swirls via compound/polish), this is probably the most confusing and the most frustrating to learn. Mainly because you ask people and they say you just have to have experience or something along those lines. You may feel like they are just trying to gatekeep their info or don’t want to help, and they might be, but it is still a very true statement. Look at it this way, if you want to wash a car, you can approach almost every car the same way and get the same results. That is why drive trough car washes are so successful. However, paint correction is much more finicky. To the point where you could have the same car, in the same color, same year, in the same condition, and have to use two different methods to get the same results. it could depend which factory the car was made in, what type of paint was used (surprisingly it’s not always the same), how it was prepped and finished down at the factory, where in the line it was when curing, etc, etc.
So what do you do? The method I use is have one method that seems to work on a lot of cars like Menzerna 400 with a microfiber pad and Menzerna 3500 on a yellow foam pad . Start with the least aggressive methods first on a test spot, so Menzerna 3500 and if most of the swirls remain, step up to Menzerna 400. Then follow up with Menzerna 3500 to prefect it. Sometimes I may have to step up to Menzerna 300 if I need to get more aggressive, then go back down to 400 and 3500. Try to have the least amount of different polishes/compounds/pads as possible. You can always adjust pressure and arm speed to adjust results up or down. Chasing the perfect product will make it very hard to understand what is happening to replicate results in a multitude of situations.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, it sounds like I just told you a system that works all the time, what about all this finicky stuff you were talking about earlier? This may apply to many situations, but knowing when to use which product and when to know when you need to make a change is what takes experience. Then you have a small amount of situations where I would have to use 400 on a blue foam cutting pad. This is due to the microfiber pad being thinner and generating more heat, and on some cars this will have an adverse affect where the compound can’t “cut” because the heat is making the paint too soft. Like cutting through warm butter is much easier, but also is more messy and will not leave a clean cut. So the foam dissipates the heat better, thus getting a better cut, even though in a vacuum is a less abrasive pad. I spent hours on a Miata trying to figure this out back in the day when I was new. A MIATA. You know how small a Miata is? Was I driving myself crazy? Absolutely. With the amount of time I spent you would have thought I was prepping it for Pebble Beach. Would I have ever tried that on my own? Probably not, but I was able to call up another detailer who made that suggestion, because he had much more experience than me, and worked like a charm. Over time you understand how all these products and tools work on a deeper level, and these adjustments just come naturally because you know the extent of your options that are more like a venn diagram that a step by step.
One more thing to note, is find a good community for info. People here at Detailed Image are a great example and their blog has a ton of good info from some amazing detailers.. Not a group of people on a forum who will flame you for even asking. Be open to new ideas, as there are many ways to get the same results, and don’t let contradictory product labels confuse you, they are just using as many buzzwords as they can.
Lastly, have fun! If you made it this far into this post then you are probably really into detailing, don’t let the confusion deter you. Once you get into it, it all sates to make sense and if you are a little nerdy about it like me, can be even more fun.