How To Polish a Car by Hand

hand polishing a car
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Though some die-hard car enthusiasts may have the courage and stamina to polish their entire car by hand, most of us aren’t that brave and will use a car polisher instead. Especially for large surfaces like a hood or car door, it’s easier to use a car polisher to get an even, consistent finish without swirl marks.

However, to correct a minor swirl mark, a light superficial scratch, a dull spot or to remove a water spot, using the manual polishing approach you’ll need to unpack much less gear, waste less polishing product and you won’t have to clean your polishing pads when you’re done. It’s a lot faster with less hassle.
There’s no risk of slinging polishing products round your entire garage either. 

Sometimes it’s more precise and safer too. For example when the imperfection is situated near a delicate edge or trim, or when your car paint is old, thin or in bad shape. In these situations, manual polishing is the way to go.

Check out our video on how to polish your car by hand. Or if you prefer reading, you can follow the steps below:

How To Polish Your Car By Hand Like A Professional Detailer

Preparation

To get professional results, preparation is key. If you don’t clean the car surface you want to hand polish meticulously first, you’ll end up with more scratches instead of less. That’s where most people go wrong.

1. Wash your car

Washing a car before clay barring it

First of all, wash your car or the area you want to correct thoroughly to remove all road grime and coarse dirt. 

2. Clay bar your car

Using a clay bar on a car

The clay barring process will remove stubborn minute contaminants that can’t be washed off. 
If you polish your car or the area you want to correct without clay barring first, you’ll run the risk of marring and scratching your paint if those contaminants work loose and get caught in your polishing pad or towel during polishing. With those contaminants removed by clay barring, polishing will be much faster and easier too.

3. Get everything you need to polish your car by hand

Products needed to polish your car by hand

These are the only things you’re gonna need:

Here’s How to Polish your car in 6 easy Steps

Step 1: Park your car in the shade, away from trees

Polishing your car by hand in the shade

The heat from direct sun softens your car paint in summer, making it more prone to abrasion and scratches. 
Intense sunlight will also evaporate your product before you can work it, potentially leaving marks and spots. That’s why you should never correct your car paint in direct sunlight on a warm summer’s day. 
However, in late autumn or early spring the sun is too weak to heat your car paint, so you should be OK. Gently touch the car surface to make sure it isn’t hot and use common sense. 

If you don’t have a place in the shade, it’s better to wash and clay bar your car on an overcast day or early in the morning when it’s cool.

It’s not a good idea to park your car under trees when you’re detailing it. There’s always stuff falling from trees like tree sap, dead foliage, bird droppings… If this stuff accidentally gets caught in your wash mitt, towel, clay bar or polishing pad while you’re working, it will scratch your car paint.

If you have access to a large enclosed garage with good lighting, it’s best to park it there for the actual polishing phase. Inside you have almost 100% dust control, which is a huge bonus. 
Outside there’s always a risk of the wind picking up and blowing stuff on your immaculately cleaned car surface. There’s also bugs and birds doing “their thing”.

Step 2: Saturate your polishing pad or towel with polish

Saturate the pad with polish

Put on a pair of nitrile gloves to avoid skin contact with chemicals and polishing agents. 

If the spot you want to correct is smaller than a few inches, we recommend to only polish with one or two finger(s) wrapped in an edgeless microfiber towel. 
Add only one or two drops of polish. No need to saturate anything but about 2” x 2” of towel contact surface you’re using.

If the area is larger, but smaller than 1’ x 1’ a small hand polishing pad works best because it is pliable to the desired shape and size. 
Add a few drops of polish till the desired contact surface is saturated. No need to moisten the whole pad.

For areas larger than 1’ x 1’ or to polish your whole car, best use a hex applicator because it spreads pressure equally over the surface for a nice uniform result. It also counters muscle fatigue for larger jobs.
Put 4-5 pea-size dots on the dry pad surface to start with and spread the polish evenly on the pad. Each time before you start polishing a new 2’ x 2’ area add about 3 pea-size dots. 
Check your hex pad frequently for caked up old polish and paint dust. This build-up will prevent the pad and polish from doing their job efficiently. If you leave it on, your pad won’t cut as well as it should. 
You can remove this gunk simply by brushing over the pad’s surface with a small coarse brush like the pad conditioning brush that is included with most polishers.

Step 3: Start polishing in straight lines

Polishing by hand

As a default approach, always start with the least aggressive pad combined with the finest polish. Use coarser pads and polish only if the “soft” approach isn’t sufficient or if the imperfection is severe.

The ideal polishing technique is always the same regardless of the size or condition of the surface you want to polish:

 

  • Polish in straight lines, up and down and side to side applying light to moderate pressure. Don’t polish randomly, because minute scratches and swirls will be more visible compared to when you polish in straight lines. 
  • Keep a close eye on your pad or towel and working surface and add polish before the pad runs dry. When the polishing pad or towel runs dry, you’ll mar your car paint.
  • After a couple of passes in each orientation and having covered the whole intended area, gently wipe the working area clean with a fresh edgeless microfiber towel.

Step 4: Assess the result

If the result is satisfactory, carry on with the same technique if there’s more to be polished.
If the result is underwhelming, you can try doing more passes or applying a little more pressure till you get it right, but don’t overdo it! 

Step 5: Adjust if necessary

Polishing deep scratches

If that still doesn’t work, you can step up to a medium grade pad with medium grade polish for a heavier paint correction. 
You can also use a coarse grade polish to correct small scratches or blemishes, or to revive dull old car paint. 

It’s very important to take your time to assess what you’re doing and to only gradually step it up (if you have to), because heavier polishes or compounds with assorted pads remove much more paint than fine polish does. Remember there’s only so much paint on your car and it doesn’t grow back! 

When you’ve used a medium or coarse polish or a compound, you’ll have to finish with a fine grade finishing polish to get a professional mirror-like finish. If you don’t, you won’t get that concours result.

Again, check your pads frequently for caked up old polish and paint dust, because this build-up will prevent the pad and polish from doing their job efficiently. If you leave it on, your pad won’t cut as well as it should. 

Step 6: Polish the rest of your car

Polishing the rest of the car

Once you’ve worked out which combination works best for your type of paint, it’s an easy ride: continue with the same technique until you’ve removed all imperfections… or until you’ve polished your whole car, if you have the time and stamina…

When you’ve cleared all or most blemishes from your car paint, it’s the ideal moment to apply a protective coating. A wax, sealant, ceramic or graphene protective coating will help preserve your paint in this beautiful concours condition for up to several years!

Now sit back and enjoy your hard-earned result over a hot mug of coffee or while enjoying a cold beer… Life is good today!

Happy detailing!

FAQ

Why do you polish in straight lines and not in swirls? 

If you like to polish in swirling motions, that’s just fine. You’re not harming your car paint in any way. Some people think that’s an easier technique. It’s a personal preference I guess. 

The reason why we don’t recommend that technique is that no matter which polish or compound you use and how careful you work, there will always be minute scratches and swirls left after the final finishing polish. That’s just the nature of polishing, it’s by abrasion using a compound that you remove larger scratches. In turn, this compound will leave smaller scratches. Then you use a fine finishing polish to remove those. But, no matter how fine the polish, it too will leave minute scratches. Though you won’t notice them inside your garage or on a cloudy day, they can be seen in full sunlight because the sun reflects in the tiny scratch marks. If you look closer, you will see that not all scratches can be seen at once because only the ones in the right angle toward the sun will reflect light. When you change your viewing position, you will see that the scratches or swirls will “disappear” because they are no longer in the right angle to reflect light. However, from your new viewing angle, new scratches will appear that weren’t visible first because they now reflect sunlight. And so on…

When you polish in swirls randomly, scratches will be seen from all angles because an orbital scratch always reflects light from some point, no matter what your viewing angle is.  

When you polish in straight motions in a crosshatch pattern, you will notice that these minute polishing scratches are much less visible from most viewing angles. That’s because most of them (depending on how straight your polishing technique is) will only be visible from two distinct angles that line up with the crosshatch pattern. That’s why in our experience, a crosshatch pattern is the way to go.

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