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Polishing

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Polishing is one of the best ways to improve your finish, but it's also one of the quickest ways to scratch the heck out of it if you aren't careful, so you should proceed with caution! There is lots of misunderstanding about what a polish is. This is compounded by the fact that various manufacturers use the words "polish" and "wax" loosely (or just plain wrong) for marketing purposes. A true polish is an abrasive compound that you rub on the finish of your car to make the finish smoother. Polishes range from quite abrasive, for removing heavy oxidation and similar problems, to barely abrasive at all, for the final step in making the finish as smooth as possible. The polish itself provides no protection; it just makes the surface smoother. Some waxes (notably "cleaner waxes") contain some amount of polish, and those waxes tend to give the average car a better shine because the average car's finish has been neglected and could use some polishing! If the polish you use is truly a polish, you'll still need to wax your car after you polish it.

It's impossible to tell from the label whether a wax contains polish, and this seems to be one of those things where the Internet is really helpful in finding other people who have used the product you're interested in and who can tell you how it performs.

Polishing Notes

I use an orbital buffer, specifically, my Porter-Cable 7424. Initially I had an inexpensive Craftsman 8" orbital buffer. I thought that the bigger buffer pad on the Craftsman would make my job easier. In fact, the 6" pad on the PC is easier to work the contours of the car with. An important accessory not shown in the picture is a "hook and loop" backing plate (i.e., a velcro pad) that attaches to the buffer. You can then attach various buffing and polishing pads to the hook-and-loop pad. You can buy this buffer at Lowes, Home Depot, Amazon, or similar places. I bought mine through Coastal Tool.

You can get dozens of different pads for the PC hook-and-loop buffer system. You want to be careful to use the right pad for what you're trying to do. I'm currently using AutoGeek's Wolfgang EuroTech pads, which are color-coded based on the density of the foam. (This is true of all pad systems that I've seen.) Denser foam will remove deeper scratches, but is also more abrasive. You want to use the least dense foam that will get the job done. There are lots of philosophies about pads. Some manufacturers claim that flat pads distribute pressure and heat better. Some claim that waffle-surface pads dissipate heat better. Some offer conical pads, beveled edges, 2-ply, etc. As far as I can tell, most of those details are BS. The main thing you need to watch out for is that there's enough foam surrounding the backing that you minimize the chance of the backing (or the buffer's mounting plate) coming in contact with the car.

I started out using Griot's Garage's pad system, but now that I've learned more about polishing I can't figure out what they're doing. Most of the foam pad systems come in at least 5 different densities. Griot's systems comes in only 2 densities.

You can also polish by hand. The advantage of polishing by hand is that you don't risk (as much) scratching the heck out of your finish if you get some grit in the pad. The disadvantage is that it can be quite a workout to polish a car well, and machines do a better job if you know what you're doing.

Polishing Technique

I've picked up a few tips.

Most Important: Your car must be absolutely clean before you polish it. If there is any dirt on the car when you begin polishing, polishing will scrub the dirt across your finish and scratch it more. Some people probably think washing the car thoroughly before polishing is good enough, but I want to claybar it before polishing, too, so that I'm starting with the cleanest possible surface.

Don't drop the pad! If you drop the pad, or if the buffer tips over when you set it down and an edge comes in contact with the ground, you're done with that pad until you wash it. It doesn't matter how clean you think it is, if it's come in contact with the ground, it isn't worth taking a chance of scrubbing grit into your finish.

Apply the polish to the pad then smear it on the car before starting the buffer. If you put the polish on the pad and turn the buffer on, you'll be wearing the polish.

Pad cleaning. Clean your pads after each use. I like Snappy Pad Cleaning powder. You dissolve the powder in a 5 gallon bucket. The powder's $3.99 for 3 packs from AutoGeek.

 

Polish Recommendations

I haven't used all that many polishes. Here are a few that I've used.

P21S Gloss Enhancing Paintwork Cleaner. This is a mild polish that can be applied by hand or machine. It claims to be non-abrasive (which is impossible) and it's easy to wipe off, for a polish. (I have yet to find a polish that's as easy to wipe off as the easier waxes are.)
Meguiar's Deep Crystal Polish. This also claims to be non-abrasive, which doesn't make sense for this product either! I've used this product numerous times, and it seems to work well. As far as I can tell, it's a little more abrasive than P21S, though it's hard to say for sure.
Griot's Garage Machine Polish, 1, 2, 3 & 4. Griot's Garage has a polish system that goes from fairly abrasive (Machine Polish 1) to very fine/mild (Machine Polish 4). I've used the Machine Polish 3 and found it to be very mild, as advertised. I haven't used the other Griot's Machine polishes.
Zaino Z-5 Show Car Polish. This is Zaino's synthetic wax that has some polishing compounds built into it. It claims to be non abrasive. I've used this numerous times. It does indeed seem to be nonabrasive, and in fact I'm not convinced that it's doing anything that Zaino Z-2 (Zaino's straight non-polish synthetic wax) isn't doing.

Email me at stevemcc@construx.com.