How to Polish a Car

Affiliate link notice: we earn from qualifying purchases.

Home » Blog » How-to Guide » How to Polish a Car

There's nothing more aggravating than seeing a scratch on your vehicle, whether it's brand new or a few years old. Fortunately, there is a car detailing technique known as paint correction utilizing a polisher tool combined with a polishing pad and compound liquid that can remedy your scratch problem.

Unfortunately, determining which combination of polishing pad and compound to use to repair a scratch or simply rejuvenate existing paintwork can be difficult. Without car detailing experience or training, this is a task that most likely should be left to the professionals.

To keep things simple, in this article, we'll look at how to do a finishing polish on a car using the right materials and procedures. This is the most basic paint correction that you may do on your car, and it has the lowest risk of causing user error in terms of burning your paint.

Keep in mind that paint correction with a polisher is more of an art and takes many hours to master. Before diving into the full repair on your vehicle, keep this in mind.

Benefits to polishing a car

There are a few benefits to polishing a car:

  • Removes scratches and swirls
  • Rejuvenates faded and oxidized paint
  • Restores lost clarity and shine
  • Enhances the overall appearance of the vehicle
Finishing Polish

Paint correction vs. polishing

Paint correction is the term used for removing or minimizing swirls, scratches, and other paint defects using a polisher. It typically refers to the use of a rotary buffer/polisher or even a dual-action polisher.

Polishing, on the other hand, generally refers to the finishing stage of a paint correction and is considered less aggressive than paint correction.

In this regard, the polish will remove the paint defects caused by aggressive paint correction and provide a high-gloss finish.

As an example, in our working shop (JREK Autocare) we offer an express buff service which is essentially a finishing polish and is designed to clean up the paintwork from snowbrush marks -- something that is commonplace from winter driving. This is the kind of polishing process we'll go through in further detail below.

What are the different levels of paint correction?

There are typically four levels of paint correction, starting with the most aggressive:

  1. Wet-sanding: three-stage
  2. Cut & Polish: two-stage
  3. Single Stage Polish: 1-step paint correction
  4. Paint Enhancement: finishing polish (express buff)

Our Ultimate Guide to Paint Correction offers more in-depth information regarding this topic and is worth exploring in more detail:


Graphic chart from our pro detail course (coming soon)

When would you polish and how often on your car?

It comes down to the level of paint correction you plan to complete on your vehicle which will dictate when and how often it can be completed. Remember that a polisher in combination with pad and compound will remove a certain amount of clear coat on your vehicle's paintwork.

Because your vehicle has a limited amount of clear coat, there is a limit to the amount of paint correction that can be done on the paintwork before it has to be repainted.

For the sake of this article, we will be describing how to complete a paint enhancement: finishing polish in more detail below. This is the least aggressive form of paint correction and can typically be completed more often as the speed of the polisher will be at its lowest setting while using the least aggressive pad and compound.

Choosing the right polishing pad and compound

There are a variety of different polishing pads on the market, and each has its specific purpose. The most common types of polishing pads are made from foam, wool, or microfiber.

Foam pads

Amazon Your Garage

They come in both dense and light varieties. The dense foam is good for removing swirls and scratches, while the light foam is better for a finishing polish which helps to enhance overall gloss and shine.

For this article, a finishing polish would use an ultra-fine pad (e.g. Rupes White Pad).

Wool and microfiber pads

Both pads are good for removing oxidation, swirls, and scratches. They come in different levels of coarseness, so be sure to select the right one for your needs.

Our What are Different Purposes for Polisher Pad Selection article offers more in-depth information regarding the different pads available, how they work and their specific benefits.

Compound selection

Just as there are a variety of different polishing pads, there are also a variety of compounds available on the market. The compound you select should be based on the condition of your paint and the pad you're using.

For example, how to complete the finishing polish, which we'll cover in detail below. You would be using a less dense foam pad (e.g. Rupes White Pad) with a less aggressive compound (e.g. Meguiars 205)

Our What are the Differences in Polishing Compounds article provides a more in-depth look at different compounds and how to select the most appropriate one for your specific needs and requirements,

Required product & tools to polish a car

There are a few essential items you will need to complete the finishing polish on your car.

Polishing supplies

Rupes Mark 3 Bigfoot

The mark 3 bigfoot is a great tool for all your polishing needs. It can be used on all types of painted surfaces, including recently painted paintwork and the polisher is very user-friendly, even for those who don't have much experience.

Rupes White Pad

The white pad is a must-have for any car enthusiast. It can be used to remove extremely fine defects until it has that show-winning shine!

Meguiars 205

This ultra finishing polish compound produces deep reflections and high gloss. It's easy to use, so you can get a stunning shine in no time! 

Microfiber Towels

An essential reusable and washable cloth to remove the compound once it has been applied to the paintwork.

Wash supplies

You will need to wash your vehicle before starting the finishing polish on your vehicle. Our article How to Hand Wash a Car offers excellent insight into how to complete this detailing task, along with the appropriate product and supplies to complete.

Steps to polishing a car

Take note that this is an overview of the steps to complete a finishing polish on your vehicle.

Time required for finishing polish

An important aspect to consider before we begin. You should plan to have the appropriate amount of time allocated to complete the finishing polish as it's a detailing task that needs to be completed in one session e.g. doesn't work to start the polish and go for a drive halfway through the polishing process.

The estimated time for the overall finishing polish is 4 hours

Vehicle placement

Since you will be working around the vehicle, it's important to place it in an area that offers ample space. The work area should be free of any obstructions and you should also have easy access to water and a power source for your tools. Additionally, you should be in a shaded area outside of direct sunlight. Lastly, ensure you have appropriate lighting so that you can visually inspect your work as you polish.

Product and supply setup for polishing

Now that you have all the necessary supplies, it's time to set up your work area. This includes setting up your tools and products within easy reach. Here's a suggested setup:

  1. Connect hoses, pressure washer and polisher to water and electrical sources.
  2. Place all of your supplies, including washing products and polishing materials, in an easily accessible location. For each detailing operation, you'll need easy access to each item.

The estimated time for this task is 15 minutes

Washing steps

Begin by washing your car to remove all dirt and contaminants from the surface. As was previously mentioned, you can refer to our How to Hand Wash a Car article for a more detailed explanation of these steps.

The estimated time for this task is 1 hour

Finishing polishing steps

  1. With painter's tape, tape off any trim areas that you do not want the compound to touch.
  2. Once your polishing pad is connected to the polisher it's time to polish!
  3. Apply the compound to the pad, using an appropriate amount based on how severe the paint defects are.
  4. Work methodically around the vehicle e.g. working clockwise and from top to bottom.
  5. Start polishing at the lowest speed and using a side-to-side and up-and-down pattern. Use a four-pass approach per section. Up-and-down twice and side-to-side twice.
  6. Wipe-off compound with clean microfiber and reapply compound after each section is complete.
  7. Clean your pad often. This can be completed by running a clean microfiber over the pad or using an air compressor.
  8. Once polishing is completed, you can apply paint protection at this point. Ceramic sealant is the most user-friendly and we've linked to our Ultimate Guide on Paint Protection for more information.

The estimated time for this task is 2.75 hours

Polishing notes

  1. Remember that a finishing polish is meant to clean up the paintwork. With that in mind, it's important to understand that you remain consistent with the four-pass approach as you work each section of the vehicle.
  2. Stick to paintwork, avoid any plastic and rubber trims -- that is what painter's tape is for. A pencil eraser can be used to remove compound that stains trims or plastic should you have such an incident.
  3. The preferred approach to end the overall process is to apply paint protection after the finishing polish. We've linked to our Ultimate Guide to Paint Protection for more information. The ceramic sealant is the most user-friendly paint protection you can go with!

Frequently asked polishing questions

What is the difference between car polish and wax?

The main difference between car polish and wax is that wax is a standalone product while polish is used in conjunction with other products to achieve superior results. Polishing compound (used in conjunction with a polishing pad) helps remove swirls, scratches, and oxidation from the paintwork, whereas wax provides a layer of protection on top of the existing paint finish.

Should you wax or polish a car first?

You polish first then apply paint protection as indicated in the polishing steps above. The main reason for this is that polishing will correct the paint imperfections and wax will then add a layer of protection over the paintwork.

Can you polish a car by hand?

Yes, you can polish a car by hand; however, it is not recommended as it is a time-consuming process and requires some skill. For best results, use a polisher.

Does polishing damage car paint?

No, polishing will not damage car paint if performed correctly. It can improve the appearance of the paintwork by removing swirls, scratches, and oxidation.

Alternatively, if polishing is not done correctly, such as running at too high of a speed, it can burn the paint which would require re-painting.

Final thoughts

Polishing your car is an important step in maintaining its appearance. It can improve the overall look of the paintwork by removing swirls, scratches, and oxidation.

For the sake of simplicity of this article, we went over how to complete a finishing polish. This level of paint correction is best suited for cars that have light paint defects. If your car has more severe paint defects, then you will need to use a more aggressive level of paint correction, something not discussed in this article as it is a more advanced detailing technique.

We also recommend applying paint protection after the polish. Our Ultimate Guide to Paint Protection provides in-depth information on the different types of paint protection products available.

We hope you found this article helpful! If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to us. Thanks for reading!

Other useful content

Here are some other articles that you may find interesting and useful (click to access):

  • How to Hand Wash a Car
  • How to Wax Your Car
  • Ultimate Guide to Paint Correction
  • Ultimate Guide to Paint Protection