How to Compound and Polish a Car

by Richard Rowe

Polishing isn't a passive procedure like washing or waxing; you're not simply removing dirt and grime or adding a wax that you can remove later. Polishing is part of a comprehensive detailing plan, and is something like minor bodywork. Polishing a car is essentially sanding the paint back to its original shine using fine sandpaper known as polishing compound. While you will need to use caution when machine polishing, there's no better way to return your paint to like-new or even better-than-new condition.

Wash the car thoroughly using car wash detergent and a soft mitt or brush. Rinse the car; wash it again using fresh water and soap and a clean mitt or brush. Rinse the car and dry it with a chamois or compressed air. Allow the car to air dry in a dust-free area.

Use a polymer clay bar and clay bar lubricant to remove wax and embedded debris from the paint. Lightly mist an area about three feet square with lubricant, and glide the bar gently across the surface until the bar stops sticking and the surface feels smooth. Wash, rinse and dry the car again.

Assess your car's degree of paint damage to determine how aggressive a pad and polishing compound you'll need. Polishing pads and compounds come in varying levels of aggressiveness, and each compound is designed to work with a different type of pad. Follow your manufacturer's recommendations for pad and polishing combinations.

Apply the polishing compound to your foam or cotton pad until the pad discolors. The amount will vary depending upon whether you opt to use a bar-type compound or a liquid compound. Start with the most aggressive compound and pad combination that you need to remove the deepest scratches.

Turn the polishing machine on and lay it on the car, allowing the weight of the polisher to do the work. There's some technique here. Work the polisher back and forth in an S pattern, allowing the strokes to overlap. Keep a light hand on the buffer; you'll be able to feel once the polishing pad stops "grabbing" the paint and starts to move more freely. This tells you that that area is smooth. Reapply the polishing compound as necessary.

Allow the polish to dry to a haze, and then buff it off the car with a clean microfiber towel. Make sure that you get all of it off. Once the polish is off, the car's paint will appear hazy and ruined. Don't freak out; this is normal for the first stage of polishing.

Repeat the polishing and buffing procedure with a less aggressive pad and compound. Be very careful around the edges of the panels, as the point-contact pressure will be greatest here. High point-contact pressure will increase the risk of burning through the clear coat or color coat. If you burn through the clear coat, it's time for a new paint job. Repeat this procedure in two or three stages using a less aggressive compound for each stage until the paint is glossy and smooth.

Hand polish the car using a lightweight liquid polish and a microfiber towel. Apply the polish, work the paint smooth and buff the car for the last time. Wash the car thoroughly to remove all traces of polish, and pay attention to how the water beads on the car as you rinse it. If the water beads and sticks to a spot instead of rolling off, hand-polish that area and rewash it to ensure it's smooth.

Allow the car to air dry, then two or three coats of your wax of choice. Natural carnauba wax leaves a softer shine, and looks good on warmer colors like red, yellow, orange, brown, copper and bronze. Synthetic polymer wax will leave a hard, glass-like shine and looks better on cooler colors like blue, green, purple and silver. Black or white could go either way, depending on the look you're after.

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About the Author

Richard Rowe has been writing professionally since 2007, specializing in automotive topics. He has worked as a tractor-trailer driver and mechanic, a rigger at a fire engine factory and as a race-car driver and builder. Rowe studied engineering, philosophy and American literature at Central Florida Community College.

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