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Let's establish some basic rules for polishing:

Polishing rule 1: Use the least aggressive tool or polishing material necessary to get the job done. Hand polishing is the least aggressive, followed by a dual-action (DA) polisher, followed by a rotary buffer.

Polishing rule 2: Do not mix polishing materials. Do not use the same polishing pad or cloth with multiple abrasive materials.

Polishing rule 3: Work in good lighting conditions, and frequently check your work. You will rue the day you polish through your paint because you couldn't see what you were doing or polished in one area too long.

Polishing with a rotary buffer requires skill and training. We're going to discuss the proper use of this versatile tool later in the chapter. For most car appearance enthusiasts, a rotary buffer is not a necessary tool. It is essential for professional detailers and painters, who need to properly machine-compound a car.

Polishing with a dual-action machine is a great way for most car appearance enthusiasts to create a perfect paint finish without a lot of elbow grease. Although a dual-action polisher does not have the power and speed of a rotary buffer, it also does not have the potential liabilities.

Hand polishing is the best way to polish when time and effort is not a concern. All polishing jobs require a final hand polishing step to completely remove wheel marks left by machine polishing.

Polishing Basics
No matter what method of polishing you choose (hand, dual-action polisher or rotary buffer), the basic process is the same. You start by removing imperfections, and gradually decrease abrasive materials until you have achieved fully glazed paint. In this section I'll address hand polishing specifically, but, as I have said, the basics are the same. I'll go into machine polishing in the next section.

Removing Imperfections
If your car's paint has minor surface scratches (micro marring, swirl marks, etch marks, water spots), then you should start by spot treating each imperfection with a fine compound. Never compound the entire car unless it is absolutely necessary for problems like these:

* Severe water spots or swirl marks
* Heavy oxidation due to sun and weather exposure
* Heavy swirl marks or other micro marring
* Poor repaint or paint repair blending
* Poor surface finish (orange peel)
* Heavy surface pitting from sand or road stones

Sonus SFX-1 Restore Polish will remove minor scratches and scuffs by hand with very little effort.

Most detailers I know compound by hand incorrectly. In fact, most compound manufacturers do not give proper instructions. Rubbing compound is nothing more than a fine sandpaper in paste form. Compounds should be used in the same way and with the same respect as a sandpaper.

My dad taught me to use a flat household sponge to apply compound. This method works okay, because flat sponges are fairly dense and remain flat on the paint surface. Today, we have a wide variety of foam applicators. I like a dense, single-sided foam applicator with a handle, as I believe they reduce the risk of thin spots or rubbing through the clearcoat or top color coat of paint. Pressure is consistent across the area of the foam applicator, resulting in a very flat surface, which will ultimately increase reflection and gloss.

Before compounding, you must protect all trim that you don't want compounded with masking tape. If you don't mask off the trim, your cleanup work will increase significantly, and you risk damaging the trim. As an example, rubbing compound will quickly make flat or textured black trim very shiny and smooth. So, please take the time to do the job right, and use a little masking tape. When compounding by hand, it's not necessary to mask off everything as you would when compounding by machine, but you should mask the surface trim.

Apply a small dab of compound to the pad itself, not to the car, and begin polishing a panel. Use light pressure, medium speed, straight-line hand strokes (front to rear). Compound no more than a 2' by 2' area at a time. If you're spot-treating small scratches, keep the compounding to the area being treated. Compounds work fast. Make no more than 12 to 15 passes (hand strokes) with the compound before buffing off and checking your work. All you're trying to do is cut down a small amount of the paint surface to remove the imperfections and level the paint.

Here are some tips for better compounding results:

1. I have found that lightly spraying the polishing pad with a quick shot of detailing spray makes it much easier to apply any compound. One quick shot will do (just enough to make it slightly damp, not wet).
2. Stay away from sharp edges on the body of the car. The paint in these areas will be thin. Don't make it thinner by compounding it.
3. Compound using a dense foam applicator with a handle. It's safer, and the results will be much better.
4. If you're trying to remove a deep scratch (you can feel it with your fingernail), don't try to do more than lessen its appearance.**If you compound to the full depth of the scratch, you may cause the paint to fail. Better to be safe than sorry.
5. Buff away the compound residue with a quality microfiber detailing towel.

Compounding may cause your paint to haze slightly or lose its high gloss. This is okay, because the next step is to reglaze the paint with a grade 2 polish, like Sonus SFX-2 Enhance.

Refine the Paint Finish
If your car did not require compounding to remove surface imperfections, that's great. You're way ahead of the game. Let's get started on learning hand polishing techniques.
The purpose of polishing is not to fix paint imperfections. That's what we used the fine compound for in the previous step. Polishing is used to refine the paint surface and to begin the process of glazing. When a paint is fully glazed, it has taken on all of the natural gloss and reflection it can without assistance from a wax or sealant.

Just as with compounding, you need to adjust your thinking with polishing. Many people and product manufacturers suggest using a terry cloth towel or terry cloth applicator to apply polish. This is no longer the best polishing tool.

Today, the best tool for polishing is a high-quality foam applicator. Likewise, for buffing off polish residue, do not use terry cloth or flat cotton toweling. A good microfiber polishing cloth is far superior and is many times less abrasive than cotton terry cloth toweling.

The procedure for polishing is not much different than it is for compounding. The idea is to keep the polishing applicator as flat to the paint surface as possible.

Machine Polishing
Most professional detailers use rotary buffers and dual-action polishers to polish paint. The overwhelming reason is time. To do the job properly by hand would be prohibitively expensive. It's also true that some jobs will get better results with a machine in the hands of a professional.

There are basically two kinds of polishing machines: rotary buffers and dual-action (orbital) polishers. A professional painter's rotary buffer is little more than a body grinder with a polishing pad in place of the grinding disc. These are high-power, variable-speed motors that give a professional painter or detailer a lot of flexibility. Rotary buffers have a straight drive to the polishing head (i.e., the polishing pad connects directly to the shaft of the motor), whereas dual-action polishers have a special drive head that causes the polishing disk to run in an orbital pattern while also rotating.

Rotary buffers are for trained professionals and serious enthusiasts with experience. The possibility of ruining a paint job with a rotary buffer is very high when a powerful, rotating machine is put in the hands of an unskilled person. Rotary buffers spin at speeds up to 3600 rpm. One small slip, and you'll pop off a molding, burn a hole in your paint, or break off a windshield wiper. I've seen each of these mishaps, so I know it can happen. That said, the rotary buffer is my tool of choice. I put myself in the category of a serious enthusiast with lots of experience, and I have had two minor mishaps in 20 years. For me the result is worth the small risk.

A good dual-action polisher can also deliver great results on all but the worst paint finishes. For this reason alone, I think most enthusiasts and novice detailers should invest in a dual-action polisher, not a rotary buffer.

Polishing machines can be purchased for as little as $50 or as much as $300. The difference in capability is significant. At the low end are low-power orbital polishers. These machines are designed for the average car owner who wants an easier way to polish and wax his or her car. Although they will make the job of polishing and waxing easier, they will not improve the resulting finish of your car. At the high end you will find multipurpose detailing machines, like the Porter Cable 7424, that polish, buff, and scrub carpet and upholstery.*

Buffing & Polishing Pads
There are two basic pad types: cutting and polishing. A cutting pad is used with a polish or machine cleaning compound to remove oxidation and fine scratches. Cutting pads make quick work, but will leave noticeable swirl marks, especially on dark finishes. After buffing with a cutting pad, you will need to make a second pass with a polishing pad and glaze to remove swirl marks and improve luster.

Cutting pads, also called leveling pads, should be wool. There are a lot of synthetic "wool" pads on the market. Don't touch them! Nothing beats lamb's wool. Nothing is safer than lamb's wool.

Polishing pads, often called finishing or waxing pads, are foam rubber. These are the only pads safe to use on a clearcoat finish. Do not use a cutting pad on a clearcoat finish. That said, some expert body shops will use a cutting pad on a clearcoat finish when blending a repair

Compounds, Polishes & Glazes
Always use the least abrasive polish necessary to get the job done. No matter what you might have read or seen on TV, no single polish can do it all. You may need two, even three products to get the desired results. Any polish you use with a buffer or rotary polisher should state "for machine use" in the instructions.

I know I've said it before, but I feel it's worth repeating: Be very careful using a rubbing compound with a machine. A rubbing compound is nothing more than sandpaper in liquid form. If your paint needs light compounding, it's best to do it by hand. If you must use a buffer or rotary polisher, compound flat areas only and stay away from edges.

Next up from rubbing compounds are cleaners. Paint cleaners are basically a fine cut compound for polishing paint with heavy or moderate oxidation. Paint cleaner polishes will quickly remove the top layer of dead paint, revealing paint that can be rejuvenated.

Polishes are the paint finish workhorse. Unlike rubbing compounds and cleaners, a polish has very little cutting action. A good machine polish will remove small blemishes and restore gloss. A quality polish contains oils to lubricate paint surface for the best polishing action and a high-gloss finish.

Preventing Paint Burns
Buffing or burning through your car's paint is perhaps the greatest danger in using a machine. The risk of paint damage can be largely diminished if you follow a few simple rules.

A paint burn is caused by heat buildup on the buffing pad due to friction. Paint burning occurs on the edges of a body panel, not in the middle. I cannot recall seeing a buffer burn though paint in the middle of a hood, door or fender. It is the small surface area of the buffing pad edge that builds heat quickly, making a burn possible.

To prevent burns, you need to know how the rotary buffer works. With few exceptions, buffers rotate clockwise. When using a buffer, lift the left side of the buffer slightly (a half inch or so). Move the buffer in smooth left to right strokes. It is best to focus pad contact on the 12 o'clock to the 4 o'clock quadrant (i.e., the right edge when looking at the top of the buffer). In this way, the buffing pad will always rotate off the edge of a panel.

The reason for lifting the left side of the buffer is to prevent the trailing edge of the buffing pad from driving into a body panel edge. The trailing edge of the pad driving into a body edge creates so much friction it can rapidly burn through the finish. By rolling the right side of the pad off the body panel edge and lifting the left side, you can significantly reduce the risk of burning.

To further reduce the risk of burning, buff up to edges and body ridges, not on them. When buffing raised peaks or body lines, keep the buffing pad as flat as possible, and slow the buffer speed. Keep the buffing machine moving at all times. If you allow the buffing pad to spin in one spot for more than a few seconds, you're inviting disaster. Other tricks include opening the door, trunk or hood slightly. This gives you an edge to roll off of when buffing. Always slow buffer speed when approaching an edge.

The operating speed of your buffer is very important. I highly recommend using slower speeds. Speeds between 1200 and 2000 rpm are sufficient on most modern finishes. The slower speeds can also be used on older finishes to achieve good results. Just remember, slower speeds create less friction, thereby reducing the chance of burns.

Machine Polishing Techniques
Safety first. Wear goggles or work glasses when buffing. Remove all hand and wrist jewelry.

Just like polishing and waxing by hand, buff a section at a time. Always start with the least abrasive polish you can. Polish a section more than once if the results are not satisfactory. If you are not getting the result you want, try a slightly more abrasive polish. Like I said, it is unlikely that a single polish will do it all. For example, the front of your car gets the most damage. It may require a medium-grit polish to bring the front areas up to par, while the remainder of the car buffs up fine with a mild polish.

To properly machine polish, you will need your polish in a squeeze bottle. Squeeze a couple of lines (6 to 9 inches) of polish on the panel you want to polish. Pre-lubricate your buffing pad with a shot or two of water or detailing spray. Start the machine slowly, with the pad on the panel to the right of the lines of polish. Lift the left side of the pad slightly, and slowly move into the polish. The rotating pad will pull the polish in and begin distributing it on the paint.

If you're brand new to machine polishing, don't worry. Start learning by applying a single line of polish around the edge of the buffing pad (as shown above). Don't use too much polish, or it will splatter everywhere and take too long to buff out. The amount I have applied here will be enough to buff a complete fender on a small car. Before starting the polisher or rotary buffer, lay the pad on the paint surface to be worked and spread the polish around.

Once the polish is distributed over the area you're working on, you can begin to increase speed a bit. If you're using a rotary buffer, do not run above 1500 to 1800 rpm. If you're using a Porter Cable 7424 dual-action buffer, there's no reason to run the machine higher than 4.5. Work the polish in well, using overlapping left-to-right and top-to-bottom passes. There's no need to rush, but remember to keep the pad moving.

As the polish begins to "buff out," and the shine on the paint begins to come up, the polish and buffer have done their work. Don't keep buffing the dry panel. It's no longer productive, and you risk burning the paint. If you're not happy with the results, add more polish and keep going. Remember to stay off the edges!

When working on top panels like the hood, trunk or top, you can keep the electrical cord from rubbing on your freshly polished paint by draping it over your shoulder. It's also best to remove your belt or anything else you might be wearing that would damage your paint.

Be sure to check your buffing pad periodically, as it will become caked with polish. Use a pad spur to clean it. Lay the buffer across the top of your leg and turn the machine on. Gently press the pad spur into the pad, starting at the outer edge, and run it into the center. Foam pads can be cleaned with soap and water for end-of-day cleanup. Allow pads to drip dry.

Machine polishing is messy. The polish will fling off about 6 feet or so. You can prevent the splatter mess on your car by using an old sheet. Simply cover the area of the car you're not working on. Cover the things in your garage you don't want splattered, too.
 
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