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The 5 Key Elements to Proper and Effective Paint Polishing


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.

  1. Your choice of machine. Are you using a rotary, a dual action, or perhaps a forced rotation D/A?
  2. Your choice of backing plate
  3. Your choice of polishing pad.
  4. Your choice of polish / compound.
  5. 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.


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

10 comments on The 5 Key Elements to Proper and Effective Paint Polishing

  1. John says:

    Great article..!…one the best I’ve ever read on the subject. Todd, how can I get some information on your classes?

    • Todd Cooperider says:

      Thank you John. You can go to my website, and there’s a page specifically for training with all of the contact information listed.

  2. Anthony says:

    I ’ve been reading and reading and now I can honestly say I more confused about which route I should go, so i guess i just need to ask the question.

    Vehicle: Infiniti G37 – Platinum Silver,
    Condition: Very Good – Good
    Visible Defects – Light oxidation spots, only became visible after I clayed, very light swirls under the right light and angle, moderate swirls on outer door frame, light bumper paint chips.
    Storage: Garage kept during work, outside when home.
    Maintenance: minimum 3 hours every week, washing (2bucket), wax monthly, spray wax every wash.
    Location: Tropics

    I bought the car used but Its my baby and I really want to get a best out of the paint, and have no issues spending hours to doing it right.

    So, after all this my question is how do I get the best out my silver car, what polisher would you recommend, pad combo and polish?

    I was thinking of get a PC7424XP, and the following SI 1500 (PO83), FF 3000 (PO85U), SF 4500 (PO85RD), BF Wet Diamond and DoDo Juice Light Fantastic.

    For the light rust spots I’m thinking Iron X would get the trick done, I am correct here?

    This would be my fist time using a machine and from folks out there is seems starting with a PC is the way to go

    Thank you and nice job, love the articles, a video or two would be nice too.

  3. Bud Abraham says:

    Todd nice article. For me it is a bit more simple. There are typically 3 steps:

    1. Correction of a problem
    2. Swirl-Removal & Polish
    3. Protect

    CORRECTION is done with a rotary buffer, in most cases the dual-action buffer with a cutting pad will work. The key is picking the right pad for the paint finish and problem. Next is picking the right compound either heavy, medium, light or microfine.

    This is easy a rotary or dual action tool, soft foam polishing pad 80-90 ppsi and a swirl remover/polish, not a filler.*

    *you can use a filler on dark cars after this step to get a perfect finish.

    PROTECTION is done with a wax or sealant applied by hand, orbital or dual action. I prefer sealants in that they are easier to apply and remove and last longer. A good wax might last 30-45 days if not washed too many times.

    As you say a tech has to know his paint finishes, be able to diagnose the problem, know his tools, pads and compounds and choose the the correct items.
    NOTE: Always take the least aggressive approach when not certain: tool, pad, compound.

    By the way less confusing to call a correction product a compound.


    Bud Abraham

  4. Mike Cardenas says:

    Fantastic Article Todd! It’s always amazing to me how many various factors can affect the correction process. Just recently, I’ve had two of the same type of vehicle, same year, same model and the same color and each of them reacted differently. I tried to repeat the same process that I used on the first car to the second car and the paint was harder on the second. The vehicle had repainted and after some adjustments in my approach, it corrected perfectly. As you had mentioned, there are so many variables involved. Most people are under the impression that its just get a buffer and start correcting but its just not that simple. You sometimes have to be a “car whisperer” and figure out what works best. Great write up!

  5. ted Park says:

    This goes to strengthen the notion that detailing is as much art as it is science. However, it’s a very esoteric subject. Even people who are total car nutz, often time have little to no understanding of paint care,washing and even more so detailing. Trying to convince someone to pay $500+ for paint correction is often met with disbelief.

  6. Jim Phillips says:

    I read your article and the one reoccurring thing that stood out, for me, was the often mentioned “paint hardness or softness” I just do my own cars and sometimes my daughters car so I am not dealing with numerous cars and I guess I fall into “one size fits all” approach. Just how do you tell if the car you are working on has hard or soft paint so I can adjust what I am doing? I liked your example about your assistant and changing her pressure on the PC. I just plod along and probably not getting the best out of what I am doing.
    Jim Phillips

  7. Tomato says:

    Thanks again Todd! What you’ve explained here is exactly what occurred to me while trying to correct a M5. What had worked many many times on other cars wasn’t even putting a dent in the M5. Left with my tail between my legs but also left me hungry for knowledge on how to never let it happen again. Simply put in my opinion your the best Master Detailer around and I enjoy learning from you. As you’ve stated on here and also Experience has taught me that Mixing It Up is a MUST. Thanks Again…


    DFW, Tx.

  8. Pablo says:

    Hi todd, my name is Pablo from argentina, i have some troubles on what referes to the amount of dust i leave wile working with the rotary machine.. i dont know if its beacuse the speed .. or maybe im heating the surface to much so the compound drys and turns into dust .. any advise ?

    thanks a lot ! and i admire all your work realy much !



  9. Barry Willis says:

    I just received the DetailedImage.com Porter Cable starter kit and am a bit confused–no, a lot confused–by the pads. I read on the website that certain colors are for various purposes, I see quite a bit of differences in the pads sent to me in the kit. Perhaps you can explain.
    Two Orange pads: H20-2155, and 76-2455. They are the same color but do not appear identical.
    Two blue pads (perhaps one is cyan?):H20-9155, and 76-9455. the color and appearances is different between the two.
    I received a white pad 76-6455.
    I received a white pad with a backing plate attached (no number). What’s it for? Is it supposed to be out-of-round?
    I received a black pad 76-7455
    I received a yellow pad 76-5455.
    I sure need some clarification on these pads before I start using them on my cars. I see NO INSTRUCTIONS anywhere to help me. I expected a DVD with this kit but did not receive one.
    Thanks, Barry

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