How To Polish a Car Yourself

How To Polish a Car Yourself
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Maintaining the factory shine on your ride is no easy task.

The paint on your car, truck or SUV is under constant attack from the sun and road debris. Learning how to polish a car will help you restore that stunning factory look. It can be done right at home with basic tools, some elbow grease and the proper know-how.

Let’s look at what car polish is, why you need it and how to polish a car like a professional.

What is car polish?

Car polish is a mildly abrasive liquid or paste that is designed to bring back the luster to paint by removing scratches and imperfections from the clear coat of your vehicle. Many DIY-ers confuse car wax and car polish. While both of these products are crucial to maintaining the overall appearance of your car, they are not the same.

Car polish is primarily used to remove surface imperfections, while car wax is used to help protect the surface from future damage. To take that protection a step further, some drivers opt for a ceramic coating.

Why do cars need to be polished?

There are four main layers in a vehicle’s paint:

  • Substrate: your vehicle’s body metal
  • Primer: used to help prepare the substrate for paint
  • Basecoat: highly pigmented, this is the color layer
  • Clear coat: pigment-free paint that’s designed to protect and preserve the basecoat and provide an appropriate level of shine

Over time, the clear coat can become scratched, oxidized and marred by everything from the sun to road debris. As a result, the paint will look dull and lack the shine the vehicle had when it was new. On a microscopic level, dull paint is actually caused by myriad scratches on the surface of the clear coat that block the base coat from shining through.

Polish eliminates these tiny surface scratches by removing a small (measured in microns) amount of the clear coat’s dull surface. This leaves behind a lustrous shine. Think of sanding down a piece of rough wood to make it smooth.

How to polish a car

First off, you’ll want to gather the proper tools:

  • Two buckets for washing
  • Hose
  • Quality wash mitt
  • Orbital buffer (for powered polishing)
  • Applicator pads (for powered polishing)
  • Microfiber towels
  • Microfiber buffing pads (for hand polishing)
  • Polish

When choosing a polish, there are two types that DIY-ers can choose from.

  • Polish: less abrasive, useful when surface damage is minimal
  • Polishing compound: more abrasive, useful when there is deeper scratching on the surface

For the best results in the shortest amount of time, you can’t beat a powered polisher. But there are those who still enjoy the meticulous process of polishing by hand. We’re going to cover both old-school hand polishing and using a professional style orbital polisher in the steps below.

1. Wash the car

Although it’s tempting to jump right into the polishing process, first you’ll need to give your car a thorough cleaning.

To minimize the chances of scratching your car during the wash process, use two buckets: one with soap and water and the other with only clean water. As you wash, continuously dunk your mitt in the clean water to rinse off any debris before going in for more soap. Work in sections and always in the shade, never the direct sun.

Once you’re done with a thorough cleaning, dry your car using a chamois mit or full-size chamois. The last thing you want is water spots to contend with as you polish your vehicle.

2. Apply the polish

You have a choice here: go with the classic approach of applying the polish by hand or use an orbital buffer.

Choosing between the two methods comes down to personal preference and the ability of the person applying the polish. Hand polishing is seen as a tactile experience that can better connect the owner with their vehicle. In addition, hand polishing is also much more forgiving for beginners than the orbital buffer.

On the other hand, orbital polishing takes some serious skill and practice to get right. The advantage of the orbital polisher is that, in skilled hands, it delivers fast, consistent results. But the first few times may be a challenge for the uninitiated.

How to polish a car by hand

Start by applying around a tablespoon of polish to the applicator pad. Apply the polish in circular motions, working in small sections at a time. If you work in sections that are too large, the polish may dry too quickly.

Since the pad is dry to start, you’ll notice that the applicator will dry up quickly at first, and then you will need to use less product as the applicator pad becomes saturated. Don’t use your fingertips; instead, try to use the flat part of your fingers and palm to ensure even pressure. Apply until only a thin film or haze remains.

Use a microfiber buffing cloth to remove the hazy polish in each small section you’ve just worked on. Continue this process until the entire vehicle is done. Work quickly and do not let the polish dry. If you do, you’ll be left with haze and not the deep shine you’re looking for.

How to polish a car with an orbital buffer

Much like hand polishing, you’ll want to work in small sections to avoid the polish drying too quickly. Pour a moderate amount of product directly onto the section that you’re polishing. Use a slightly damp application pad, and run the orbital buffer at medium speed. If you go too fast, you risk overheating the paint’s surface and actually damaging the clear coat.

To avoid swirl marks, work parallel to the vehicle’s surface and apply constant pressure. As you continue this motion, you’ll notice the vehicle’s surface will be warm to the touch. This is normal. Once you notice that the scratches or swirl marks are gone and the shine is coming through, stop. It’s time to move on.

As you move through the process, you’ll notice that the application pad will become gummy and loaded with compound and other debris. Make sure you use a high-pressure hose or pressure washer to continually rinse out the pad as it gets gunked up. Move on until the entire vehicle is complete.

3. Wash the vehicle again

Regardless of which polishing method you use, you’ll want to give your vehicle a thorough rinse and wash again after the polishing process is completed. Make sure to dry the vehicle thoroughly after this step.

4. Apply a wax coat

Now that you’ve put all this hard work into polishing and shining your vehicle, it’s time to protect it with wax.

If using an orbital polisher, mount a soft foam pad and use a 60:40 mixture of finishing paste and wax. If applying wax by hand, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and use a clean soft foam pad to apply the wax to the entire vehicle.

Once dry (whether using an orbital polisher or by hand), use a microfiber towel to remove all wax from the vehicle’s surface. Turn the towel as you proceed to ensure that wax isn’t gunking up the microfiber and making your job more difficult.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is there a difference between a buffer and a polisher?

Yes, a polisher is a tool generally used by professionals in body shops. It has a high-torque motor and is designed to get out the sanding marks on paint and other major damage. A buffer is a less powerful tool with less torque and is better suited for DIY-ers.

Is it better to polish a car by hand?

Polishing a car by hand is more time-consuming, and much more forgiving than using an orbital polisher. However, if you’re experienced with an orbital machine, you can achieve similar or superior results in less time.

Can buffing damage car paint?

Yes, buffers are powerful tools and they can heat up the surface of the paint so much that the paint actually burns. Follow instructions carefully and you’ll avoid damaging your ride.

How long does it take to polish a car by hand?

Set aside around five hours to complete the full process of polishing a car by hand. If your vehicle is particularly damaged, or large, expect to add on an hour or two. Using an orbital polisher can reduce the time by about an hour and a half.


About Bumper

At Bumper, we are on a mission to bring vehicle history reports and ownership up to speed with modern times. A vehicle is one of the most expensive purchases you'll likely make, and you deserve to have access to the same tools and information the pros use to make the right decisions.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.