Terminology & Acronyms
Summary: Here you'll find a quick reference guide to common auto detailing terminology and acronyms.
A collection of commonly used terms, acronyms, and phrases, along with their definitions.
|Using masking tape, a panel is divided in two, with one side corrected and the other not, used to highlight the before and after of, typically, polishing.
|Generally speaking, anything that can scratch the surface, such as sandpaper, dirt etc. Often used to describe a product that’s designed to do this, such as a polishing compound.
|Anything lower than 7 on the pH scale. The most common example is acidic wheel cleaner.
|Work a product into the surface mechanically. Examples include a contact wash of exterior paintwork, working wheel cleaner in with a brush etc.
|A polish that includes a sealant. The idea is that you can polish and protect the paint, all in one product.
|Alcantara (Synthetic Suede)
|Alcantara is a brand name for a synthetic, microfiber fabric that mimics the appearance and feel of suede leather, whilst easier to maintain and more durable (although special care should still be taken). Also known as: Micro-suede, Ultrasuede, Dinamica.
|Anything higher than 7 on the pH scale. Alkaline products are sometimes incorrectly referred to as “caustic”, and whilst this can be true, is not always the case, see definition of “caustic”.
|APC (All Purpose Cleaner)
|As the name suggests, a cleaner designed for all purposes. Not all APCs are created equal though, and despite the name, may NOT be suitable for all purposes.
|A plate that holds the pad on to a polisher. One side is bolted to the machine, the other is coated with Velcro to grip the pad. Depending on the machine, these can be changed out for different sizes, designs etc.
|A non-SI unit of pressure, defined as 100,000 Pascal (100 kPa). See Pascal, PSI.
|When water is applied to a hydrophobic surface, it can “bead”, meaning the water forms very small droplets that don’t want to “wet” the paint. This is often desirable, as it means water will very freely run off the paint, preventing it from leaving dirt and minerals behind, as well as making drying the car easier.
|If something is biodegradable, it can be broken down by natural processes, such as bacteria. Not all biodegradable products are equal though, as some require specific temperatures and bacteria; meaning they must be industrially processed to be truly biodegradable.
|A very fine dust comprised of iron from the rotor and materials from the brake pads. Not only is it visually unappealing, leaving it on the wheel’s surface can lead to premature corrosion.
|Buff off/buffing off refers to the action or removing leftover product, following an application of wax/sealant or after polishing.
|A somewhat outdated term that generally refers to a machine used for polishing or applying wax to a vehicle’s paintwork.
|Referring to polishing; the act of polishing too aggressively and “burning through” the clearcoat, down to the lower layers: paint, basecoat or even the bare metal. Avoid this by measuring the paint thickness and DOING A TEST SPOT.
|A wax of the leaves of the palm “Copernicia prunifera”, native to Brazil. It’s a hard, durable wax that was* prized in car waxes due to how long it would last, whilst still giving great gloss and depth. *Waxes are generally considered obsolete now, as synthetic sealants outperform them in almost every aspect. Most people are unable to tell the difference between a waxed car, and a synthetically sealed car.
|Often used as a marketing buzzword, refers to products that contain SiO2. Also known as Quartz, Silica, Glass. Many products are sold with this buzzword, due to the popularity of true Ceramic Coatings, however they will typically not provide anywhere near the same level of protection and durability that a true coating will.
|A very durable and long-lasting paint sealant, typically applied professionally, however there are more and more “prosumer” grade coatings being released each year, designed to be applied at home, some are even able to be applied outdoors, whereas some professional coatings must be applied indoors and can require specialist training and equipment.
|A generic term often used to describe cleaning products.
|Clay (Bar, Towel, Mitt)
|Clay is a product, similar in appearance and feel to a hard plasticine, that is used to remove embedded contaminants from paint, which cannot be removed via regular contact washing.
|The clear, top-most layer of modern* automotive paint. Also known simply as “clear”, “topcoat”, “lacquer”. *Older paint didn’t have a clear coat layer (see “Single Stage”).
|An aggressive polish, used for correcting deep paint defects. See also: Polish, Defect, Finishing.
|A concentrated chemical is one that can be diluted with water. Some can be used in their concentrated form (aka “neat”) for heavier duty work, but this isn’t always the case. Concentrated products are usually better value and take up less shelf space.
|Allowing a product to cure means leaving it for a period of time, during which it will harden and/or adhere to the surface. This length of time is referred to as the “cure time”, during which it is “curing”.
|“Cut” refers to the abrasiveness of a polish. A heavy (or high) cut polish would remove deep defects, whereas a low-cut polish would be used for the final stages to improve the finish and therefore gloss of the paintwork.
|DA (Dual Action Polisher)
|A type of polisher that rotates the pad around its central axis, whilst simultaneously rotating that axis. This results in a movement that somewhat resembles a spirograph. This type of polisher is much safer for rookies to use, as you’re less likely to “burn through” the paint than you are with a rotary polisher.
|Decontamination refers to the act of removing contaminants from the vehicle, typically those which cannot be removed with a normal contact wash, such as: tar, iron, sap etc. This can involve chemicals like iron and tar removers, or products like “clay”.
|Anything in the paintwork that can detract from its appearance, such as swirl marks, scratches, etching, overspray, paint chips etc.
|Detailer (Quick Detailer/Profession)
|Depending on the context, this can refer to a “Quick Detailer”, which is a product designed to seal the paint as well as add shine (some can also be used for very light cleaning); or it can refer to someone whose profession is detailing cars, a “Detailer”.
|In essence, this just means cleaning a car. The distinction tends to be made that “detailing” goes into much more detail than say, valeting.
|A chemical which can combine with both water and dirt simultaneously, allowing the dirt to become, effectively, water soluble.
|Diluting something (typically with water) to make it either ready to use, or less powerful. “Dilution Ratio” would refer to the required/desired ratio of chemical to water, such as 1:30, they can also be expressed as a percentage.
|Diminishing abrasives are abrasives contained in polish which, as you “work” the product into the surface, begin to break down. This means that as you work it in, the polish becomes a lighter and lighter cut.
|Dressing refers to a type of product, typically for plastics and rubber, that apply a certain finish, from matte, to satin, to gloss.
|A product applied to wet paint after it’s been washed that aims to lubricate the towel against the paint as it’s dried.
|Referring to how durable a product (typically wax or sealant) is against degradation from cleaning, UV, chemicals, road salt etc.
|Some chemicals need time to “dwell”, meaning they should be left on for a period of time whilst they chemically do their thing. The “dwell time” can be affected by temperature, with higher temperatures requiring shorter dwell times.
|Etching is a paint defect, resulting from contamination eating into the clear coat. Common examples are bird droppings and sap.
|A term used to describe wet vacuuming carpets and upholstery. An extractor differs from a wet vac in that it can dispense water or cleaning solution as it extracts.
|Fallout is airborne contamination that can land, and settle on, the paint’s surface. Whilst this could be many things, it is typically used to refer specifically to iron contamination, with some iron removers being referred to as a “fallout remover”.
|In detailing, this refers to products, typically polishes, that contain substances designed to “fill” in larger defects, which the polishing didn’t remove. Not to be confused with bodywork filler, or the technical term “fillers” meaning a substance whose only purpose is that of a bulking agent.
|This refers to the final stage of polishing, designed to remove any light defects left behind by a prior, more aggressive cutting compound.
|A product that contains a solvent is “flashing off” whilst the solvent is evaporating, and when they’re all evaporated, it has “flashed off”.
|Foaming is applying a product, usually a pre-wash or contact wash to the exterior using a device such as a foam cannon. The product used for this is known as “snow foam” or simply “foam”. There are devices that can foam many products, such as pump foamers.
|Forced Rotation (Polisher)
|A polisher whose rotation is “forced” meaning it cannot “bog down” under heavy load.
|A rinseless wash method, involving “one bucket of many mitts”, i.e., filling one bucket with a rinseless wash, filling it with ~8 wash mitts and rather than rinsing and reusing a mitt, it is placed aside after use, and a fresh mitt is used instead.
|Similar to fillers, a glaze is a product whose purpose is to fill in light defects and scratches. These products typically have a very low durability.
|Grit Guard (generic term)
|Whilst Grit Guard is a brand name, it is commonly used to refer to devices placed in wash buckets designed to trap sediment below them, preventing it from being reintroduced to the wash media, as it could potentially scratch the paintwork.
|GSM stands for Grams per Square Meter, commonly in reference to microfiber towels, and is a measurement of the density of the towel.
|Hard water refers to water that contains a lot of dissolved minerals, like Calcium and Magnesium. Hard water can, if left to dry on the paintwork, leave mineral deposits behind which are very hard and often require strong acidic products to remove them.
|A wax will “haze” over once the product has cured, and usually indicates that it’s ready to be removed or “buffed off”.
|After applying a sealant or ceramic coating, “high spots” are removed to ensure the product is evenly distributed, otherwise it will result in an uneven appearance.
|A paint defect that may be left behind after polishing, which will require removing.
|Hydrophobicity is the “water repellent” characteristic of waxes, sealants and coatings that prevents water from “wetting” the surface.
|Stands for Isopropyl Alcohol. Sometimes used in a DIY solution, in place of a dedicated panel prep spray.
|Iron Remover (Fallout Remover)
|A chemical which will dissolve iron particles, usually turning a violet colour as it does so. Usually used as part of a decontamination wash, prior to claying the vehicle.
|Stands for Last Step Product and refers to the last product used on the exterior, such as a wax, sealant, or coating.
|Small defects in the paint, like scratches and swirls. Commonly used in reference to the scratches that can be left behind following a clay treatment.
|The opposite of gloss, a flat, non-shiny surface.
|A synthetic textile used in various applications.
|MSDS (aka SDS)
|Stands for Material Safety Data Sheet. A technical document that lists known harmful substances, advises on precautions and some basic properties, like pH, flash point, boiling point etc.
|Stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer. Refers to manufacturers of parts that are fitted to the vehicles when new. An “OEM” part would be considered “factory standard”.
|A polish that will achieve desired outcome in “one step”. This could be one that uses “diminishing” abrasives to give a finer and finer cut down to a fine polish, or one that gives the desired outcome in “one step” meaning a “two step” process isn’t required.
|A paint texture that isn’t smooth, and the surface finish resembles that of an orange peel. This is sometimes intentionally done by the manufacturer on certain parts of the car; however, it can be a defect resulting from a poorly done respray.
|A defect leftover after a car has had new paint sprayed on.
|Over time, chemicals in paint (either single stage, or clear coated) will react with the oxygen in the atmosphere and become dull and faded.
|Most commonly foam, however microfiber and wool designs do exist, all serving different purposes. Polish is applied directly to the pad, prior to beginning any paint correction. See TEST SPOT GUIDE.
|A device used to clean polish residue from a polishing pad, allowing the pad to be reused.
|Paint is “corrected” by removing paint defects such as swirl marks, etching and scratches. This is usually done by “compounding” the surface flat, then “polishing” it to a smooth, glossy finish. In more extreme cases, wet sanding may be required, followed by compounding, and polishing.
|Paint Protection Film (PPF)
|A clear film, similar to a “vinyl wrap” (except much thicker), that is used to protect the exterior of the car from scratches, stone chips etc. whilst not (usually) altering the appearance of the car.
|A “Paint Thickness Gauge” will give a measurement of the thickness of paint on the car. This is important to know when correcting paint to ensure you don’t “burn through”.
|Panel Prep/Paint Prep/Panel Wipe is a solvent mixture used to ensure the surface is completely free of any oils that may prevent an LSP from bonding correctly.
|The SI unit for pressure. Defined as one Newton (N) per square metre (m)
|Oil based solvents sometimes found in tar removers.
|A scale from 1 to 14 used to denote how acidic or basic a chemical is, with 7 being neutral. Moving towards 1 increases acidity, moving above 7 increases alkalinity.
|A liquid substance containing abrasives designed to remove defects from paintwork. “Polish” is sometimes used to refer only to fine-grade polishes that are used to give the final appearance of the paintwork, whereas “compound” is the heavier cut abrasive used in the step before, however they are both polishes, just different grades. Polishes, whilst improving the surface of the paint, offer no protection and are not the same as waxes, see “AIO” for the exception.
|Technically speaking a molecular structure comprising of long chains of repeating subunits. Plastics are a polymer, but they also appear naturally, such as in wood or rubber. In detailing, polymer is sometimes used to describe the chemical makeup of a product, usually a sealant.
|Stands for Personal Protective Equipment and refers to things such as, masks, goggles and gloves which are worn to protect the wearer from potential injury such as solvent inhalation, debris, and chemical burns.
|A chemical applied to the paintwork, often left to dwell for a period of time, before being rinsed off without any agitation. Their purpose is to remove as much dirt as possible prior to a contact wash, avoiding damage to the paintwork.
|Prime (Pad Priming)
|“Priming the pad” refers to applying a generous amount of polish to a clean pad prior to the normal application of polish. This allows the pad to hold more polish on the contact surface rather than absorbing it all.
|Primer is applied to the surface prior to the application of the colour coat, to promote adhesion to the bodywork.
|Stands for Pounds per Square Inch, a unit of pressure measurement.
|Refers to cleaning chemicals that do not require rinsing with clean water after use.
|A build up of dirt and contaminants that coat the paintwork following driving. Can be comprised of dust, oils, road salt etc. Build up is usually worse in winter due to wetter roads that may be salted in colder climates.
|A polisher where the pad rotates about only one axis, unlike a DA which rotates about two. They behave more like an angle grinder in use and are much more aggressive than DA machines. Due to an increase in DA machine performance, and their increased safety, the use of rotary polishers is becoming rarer, however they can “cut” through the defects much faster than a DA, in a pair of skilled hands. Because of their high cutting power, the risk of “burning through” paintwork is greatly increased, and the use of rotary machines is usually reserved for professionals.
|A product applied to the paintwork to improve its appearance as well as leaving a hydrophobic surface. Most sealants come in a spray trigger bottle, but they can also come in paste and aerosol forms.
|A generic term for a cleaning agent, most commonly used in reference to chemicals used for a contact wash or carpet cleaning. Sometimes also referred to as “soap”.
|Sheeting refers to the way in which water runs off a surface. Unlike beading, where the water forms small droplets prior to running off the surface, when water “sheets” it will stay as one contiguous mass prior to running off.
|A polymer compound. In detailing, the term “silicone free” is used to describe the products which don’t contain those compounds. It’s often recommended to avoid silicone containing products, particularly on the interior, as they leave a shiny, slick, oily finish.
|Single Stage (Paint)
|Single stage paint doesn’t have a dedicated clear coat. Whilst there are some exceptions, single stage paint isn’t used on modern cars any more. Single stage paint was common until the 1980s, so if you’re polishing an older car, you should take care to research the paint type used, and how to polish it.
|A solvent is something which can dissolve something else. Water is a common solvent, as are alcohol and petroleum.
|A spray wax/sealant is one that can be applied by spraying the product, either onto the panel or the applicator, as opposed to a paste, where the applicator is “dipped” into the product prior to application.
|A product which reduces surface tension, allowing it to properly “wet” the surface.
|Very common paint defects most commonly caused by poor wash technique.
|The “throw” of a DA Polisher refers to the distance the pad moves, relative to the central axis of the machine. A longer throw machine will create more friction, and therefore “cut” faster than a shorter throw machine.
|See road film.
|Two Bucket Wash
|During a contact wash, two buckets are used: one for the shampoo and one for rinsing out the wash media. The purpose of this is to release the dirt into one bucket before reloading with shampoo, thereby reducing the chance of swirling the paint.
|A polishing process where paint correction is performed in “two steps”, usually compounding then a finishing polish.
|Tyres contain antiozonants to protect the rubber. These react with the ozone in the air and turn brown as they do so. Cleaning the tyre and applying a dressing will improve the appearance of the tyre.
|A product used to improve the appearance of tyres, ranging from matte to glossy finishes. Some dressings will also keep the tyre looking cleaner for longer.
|Applying a thick tyre dressing, too much dressing, or not allowing time for the product to adhere to the tyre prior to driving can cause the dressing to “sling” resulting in the product being flung onto the bodywork and leaving an ununiform finish on the tyre.
|Ultraviolet (UV) rays are emitted from the sun and can degrade surfaces such as paint, interior, leather, headlights. Parking in shade or a garage is advised the protect against UV, but this isn’t always possible.
|Refers to materials used to clean the car, such as mitts, sponges, towels etc.
|If a liquid is referred to as “water based” it means that the active ingredients are in a water solution, rather than using another solvent. Water based products are often dilutable and better for the environment, although this isn’t always the case.
|See mineral deposits.
|A waterless wash is one which can be done without the use of running water. Waterless washes are usually only advised for very well-maintained cars, and even then only if absolutely necessary as without the large amounts of water usually used in a clean, it increases the chances of scratching the car.
|Wax is applied to the paintwork to improve the appearance and protect the paint. Wax is quickly becoming obsolete, as sealants and coatings provide far greater durability and any difference in appearance is unnoticeable to almost all people.
|Wet (a surface)
|“Wetting” the surface usually refers to paintwork which is “hydrophilic” (the opposite of “hydrophobic”) meaning water can maintain contact with the surface, rather than running off. A poorly maintained, unprotected car will “wet” in the rain, whereas a protected car will cause the water to “bead” as the coating is hydrophobic.
|The process of using an abrasive medium like sandpaper, whilst using water (usually with some detergent) to provide lubrication and prevent material build-up.
|This refers to the time in which a product is to be used for. Depending on context, this can be the amount of time the product requires to do its job (see “dwell time” as an example). It can also refer to the amount of time a product has before it becomes unusable (like a polish drying up).
Here you’ll find a quick reference guide to common auto detailing terminology and acronyms.
|A chunk of clay (similar to modeling clay), used to remove stubborn surface contaminants after washing.
|A thin, transparent film applied to a vehicle to protect from rock chips and scratches.
|A product used to protect and dress a surface such as plastic and rubber with a specific finish.
|An uneven section of clear coat or paint caused by a chemical (usually an acid) eating away at the surface.
|Last Step Product (LSP)
|The last product applied to the surface of a vehicle. Generally a wax, sealant, or coating.
|A synthetic liquid applied to the surface of a vehicle to protect it long-term, usually lasting for a year or more.
|A solution used to wash a vehicle with little to no water and no rinsing afterward.
|A paste or liquid used to protect painted surfaces, usually lasting a few months.
- 105 = Meguiars #105 compound
- 205 = Meguiars #205 polish
- AG = AutoGeek (brand/website)
- AIO = All In One
- APC = All Purpose Cleaner
- BC/CC = Base Coat / Clear Coat
- BF = Blackfire (brand name)
- CG = Chemical Guys (brand name)
- CP = CarPro (brand name)
- DA = Dual Action, referring to a dual action orbital polisher
- DD = Detailers Domain (website)
- DI = Detailed Image (website)
- IPA = Isopropyl Alcohol
- LSP = Last Step Product, referring to wax, sealant, or a coating (applied as the last step you do when detailing)
- Megs = Meguiars (brand name)
- MF = Microfiber
- ONR (also ONRWW) = Optimum No Rinse Waterless Wash
- OTC = Over The Counter, referring to a product that’s frequently available at physical retailers
- PC = Porter Cable, a tool company that makes awesome polishers
- QD = Quick Detailer, referring to the product, not our speed 😉
- RIDS = Random Isolated Deep Scratches, meaning scratches that can’t be polished or compounded out.
- SW = Speed Wash, similar to QD/WW.
- TRC = The Rag Company (brand name)
- WG = Wolfgang (brand name)
- WW = Waterless Wash