Summary: Learn how to remove swirls and scratches by correcting your paint with this step-by-step guide.
Paint correction is done to remove swirls and micro scratches as well as oxidation and haze on paint. Check out the Surface Damage Field Guide to determine if you need to correct your vehicle’s paint.
Paint correction takes several hours including all of the prep work to wash and clay before starting. Plan your weekend accordingly!
You’ll be using a dual action orbital polisher, also known as a DA. There are many makes and models but they all work in pretty much the same way. In addition to spinning the pad, it rotates the pad around a circle to simulate how it would move if you were hand polishing. Try drawing a curly line in a circle – that’s similar to the path that the pad will follow. This allows you to have power spread over an area without breaking the limit to burn through your clear coat.
Backing Plates and Sizing
Polishers can come in multiple backing plate sizes. The most common are 6 inch (150 mm); 5 inch (125 mm); and 3 inch (75 mm). There are smaller varieties of pads for micro-polishing, but those aren’t necessary to start out. A towel with some polish will do fine for small areas like behind door handles.
Six inch backing plates are large flat surfaces such as boats and RVs. They’re not a good starting point for standard vehicle detailing.
Five inch backing plates can get into most spaces and do the majority of what you need, but you will need to work in smaller sections.
Three inch backing plates are great for very small areas and highly curved panels, but doing something larger takes a very long time and a lot of extra pads.
If you can, get a machine that can do 5 inch and 3 inch backing plates. If you can only pick one, go for 5 inch.
Dual action polishers come in different orbit sizes. The higher the orbit size, the worse the finish but the faster the cut. If you are a beginner, an 8-15 mm orbit is perfect. Higher orbit sizes are for gelcoat (such as on boats) or very heavy cutting.
The Test Spot
Check out the Recommended Kits article for good, well-reviewed equipment that’s recommended by the community. You’ll need the following:
- 1 pad in each hardness (finish, medium, heavy, wool/microfiber (optional), in case heavy doesn’t cut it you can order it later.
- All the polishes you want to try (finish, medium cut, heavy cut)
- Paint inspection light
- Panel prep spray (PPS)
- Towels for polish removal
- A dual action polishing machine
Pads are often color-coded by manufacturer based on how abrasive they are, but that system isn’t universal between companies. Be careful when ordering that you’re getting the right type of pad!
The first step of paint correction is performing a test spot to see what your paint needs and what polishes and pads will get you the results you want. Check out the Test Spot Guide for more details.
Do’s and Don’ts of Paint Correction
- Wear proper PPE and take breaks. Paint correction is strenuous and it’s okay to split over multiple days. Wear gloves, earplugs, and a particle mask.
- Take time with your test spot. If the vehicle has any kind of repaint, do a test spot on each panel to ensure the best results.
- Clean your pads often, or switch to a new/clean one on each body panel.
- Switch pads more often when doing heavy cutting.
- Buy enough pads to do the job. You need at least 6 per hardness to start out and the test spot will only use one. Catch them on sale to get a bunch at once.
- Use a panel prep spray to check your results. Some polish residue can hide defects.
- Watch your heat. Cold polishing is good polishing! Pads can overheat and polish residue is more difficult to remove if it cooks.
- Advanced technique: Play with the machine settings and pressure. These can impact the result as much as the polish and pad combination. A DA will stop spinning if enough pressure is applied. You can also vary how quickly or slow you move across the panel. Quicker movements mean less cut.
- Recommendation: Buy System 4000 if you plan to polish more than one vehicle.
- Don’t be cheap when it comes to supplies. Paint correction is a luxury, and it’s worth saving up to get the right products. High quality pads and polish will lead to a better result, whereas cheap pads can break apart and degrade with poor or worse results.
- Don’t chase perfection to an unrealistic level. Sometimes 75% improvement is the best possible result. More gloss is an improvement on its own.
- Don’t overwork the pad. Give it time to cool down for 30 minutes between each use (note: does not apply if using System 4000).
- Don’t mix products on the same pad.
- Don’t do paint correction in poor lighting. It’s difficult to see defects and haze.
- Don’t polish over plastics, rubber trim, or decals. Use blue painters tape to protect edges of headlights, windows, etc.
- Don’t linger or use pressure on panel edges. The paint is thinner on edges and easier to burn through.
Words only go so far in explaining good technique. Polishing is best learned by doing, and second best by watching others. We recommend the following YouTube channels for instructional videos that show good techniques after reviewing many others.