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Getting To Grips With Car Detailing: What’s The Difference Between Polishing And Finishing?

There are dozens of car care products available on the market. So many that it isn’t always easy to pick out the right ones for the right job.

When it comes to detailing, for example, a common question we get asked is the difference between polishing and finishing products. This can be a confusing one because the finishing products category actually includes things that are to all intents and purposes polishes, and other products that do other jobs.

A helpful way to understand the relationship between polishes and finishes is to see them all as part of a single body care spectrum. Polishes are all about restoring paintwork to a pristine ‘as new’ condition, rubbing out defects and making everything gleam and shine. Finishes apply the final touches, whether that’s achieving a very fine final buff or protecting the newly restored coat.

Polishes come in different grades depending on how course or fine they are. In a nutshell, the coarser grades that are used to remove more obvious blemishes are the products that get categorised as ‘polishes’, while the finest cuts that provide the smoothest finishes are labelled – you guessed it – ‘finishing’ products.

Let’s take a closer look at these differences.

Polishing Products

General understanding of what polishing is has been distorted by the domestic chore involving a soft cloth and furniture spray that a lot of people call ‘polishing’ but which in truth is more about removing dust. True polishing, whether it involves wood, metal or any other type of material, is the process of smoothing a surface using an abrasive.

For car detailing, if your bodywork is showing visible scratches or obvious imperfections where foreign materials have become ingrained in the paint, the starting point is polishing. There are three broad categories of polishing product to consider:

  • Clay bars and decontamination pads: Strictly speaking, these are preparatory products used to remove debris and contaminants that have become stuck to your paintwork. But using them is an important step to avoid polishing foreign materials into your paintwork.
  • Cutting compounds: These are the most abrasive, coarse polishing products used for tackling the deepest marks on bodywork.
  • Cutting polishes: These are moderately coarse and are a good starting point for general polishing.

Polishing can be done by hand, but it is much more efficient to use a polishing or wheeling machine, a device with a rotary wheel to which you add a polishing pad. With the addition of cutting compound/polish and water, the friction from the fast-spinning pad heats up the clear top layer of bodywork paint to the point where it becomes fluid, smoothing over marks and gouges as you move the wheeler.

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The fact that you’re actually altering the surface of your paintwork as you polish needs to be treated with respect. You can draw an analogy with taking sandpaper to the surface of a table. The coarser the sandpaper, the more material you are going to remove. This is fine if the table is old, stained and covered in uneven peeling paintwork. But if you take coarse sandpaper to a table top that is in good nick that just needs a bit of a buff, you are actually going to do more harm than good.

The golden rule is to err on the side of caution and start with a finer cut of polish. Only use the most abrasive cuts for the worst defects that you cannot get out with finer polishes. Also, don’t be tempted to over-polish – do it too often and you will just end up damaging the paintwork. Once a year is usually fine.

Finishing Products

Even the finest polishing compounds and cutting polishes are much more abrasive than the products you will find listed as ‘finishing’ polishes. As the name suggests, finishing products are designed to be used at the end of the polishing process. They don’t offer much ‘cut’ – i.e. don’t expect them to buff out large marks – but they will provide a nice smooth finish and, in many cases, add a layer of protection to your bodywork.

Finishing products come in a number of different varieties and are designed to do different jobs. This is where it is particularly important to understand the products you are buying and get the right one for the task in hand. Some finishers, for example, are designed to give a very lightly abrasive polish to follow on from using a coarser cut – a little like using smooth sandpaper to provide a final buff. Others, like wax and sealants, are intended to protect and seal the new coat you’ve achieved by polishing.

Some finishers, like quick detailing spray, can either be used as a post-polish or they can be used more regularly to give your car a little pick-me-up in between the next full polish. While detailing spray will remove very minor defects in paint, it won’t cut into the paint deep enough to pose any danger of damaging the paintwork. Other products, on the other hand, including pre-wax cleaners, are designed to be used after cutting polishes rather than on their own.

Waxes and sealants are used at the very final stage of the polishing process, with the advice being that you should thoroughly clean your vehicle and let it dry in between applying a finishing polish and a wax or sealant.

Both do the same job broadly speaking – protecting the surface of your paintwork from things that will damage it chemically, like road pollution, bird droppings, tree sap etc. Wax is best reapplied on a regular basis, whereas sealants will last for anything up to a year.

Waxes and sealants both come in a number of forms. Car waxes are available as pastes, sprays and liquids, while sealants come as sprays and liquids. Sprays have the advantage of being easy to apply, but liquids are more concentrated and will go further. Paste waxes, meanwhile, take a bit more effort to apply but will last longer than other types of wax.

Find out more about finishing products, polishes and other car detailing solutions at Slim’s.

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