Difference Between Waxing, Polishing And Your Paint Job


Before we look at the basic difference between Polishing and Waxing you need to understand the application method. If the Dual Action machine method is used you should look at the Pad comparison chart I created from the link here. This is a critical step to understand as the pad is the item in direct contact with the paint. Get it wrong and you may need professional help to sort it out for you.

First the misconception of ‘Polishing’ and ‘Waxing’ are the same thing! They’re not.

Polishing Pads or Cutting Pads or Compounding Pads,: Choosing your correct pad and polish combo is critical, using a waxing or ‘finishing’ soft or super soft pad won’t do much at all, and you will be there a while wasting your time. The courser polishing pads or ‘cutting’ pads are designed to work the product to the paint and not just apply it.

Waxing Pads or Finishing Pads: Most of the waxing or ‘finishing’ pads are soft or super soft, they are designed primarily to apply the product to the surface and not ‘work’ the product into the paint as such.

A little common sense; before you decide to polish, you must wash the car thoroughly. I won’t go into the full details of how to wash your car, but I will touch on the main points before the polish and the eventual choice of pads. You can use waterless washing if you want of course, but applying waterless washing tends to add an element of protection to the paint.

An ideal prep for a polish is to use a pre washing “Snow Foam” first if you can. This tends to remove the worst of the debris on the car as a touchless process. If you don’t have access to a snow foam, then at least rinse the car first and then wash the car using the two bucket method with a wash mitt, not a sponge. Remember that a good quality shampoo should nourish the paint and prepare it for a wax layering process, it shouldn’t remove the wax that is already on the paint surface. The least amount of contact with the dirty paint is desirable.

Remove any wax that is on the surface of the car’s paint. This is a separate step after washing using a specific product just for that wax removing job. However, some of the cheap and nasty car washing products will also remove the wax at the same time as washing, saving you that extra wax stripping step. Use a proper de-wax wash product like Chemical Guys ‘Clean Slate’ to leave the paint bare to the elements. Don’t be tempted to use cheap washing up detergents to wash the car, as they themselves can also be abrasive and often contain salt.

Once the car is washed clean, there is a step that is often overlooked before polishing; the ‘Clay bar’. This is as it sounds, a piece of soft clay which is flattened out into a thin pad and rubbed over the surface of the paint using fingertips. This clay lifts the stubborn contaminates and they in turn stick to the clay. Use the clay with a recommended lubrication and turn frequently to a fresh piece of the clay when it becomes dirty. If you drop the clay bar, Never Ever pick it up and re-use it on the car, get a fresh piece and continue. If you dive straight into the polishing stage you could end up dragging these foreign particles over your paint making things worse. It’s always best to try and get the paint as smooth as possible first before you tackle that polish stage. I have review links to a great clay bar from Bilt Hamber here and pretty poor clay bar from Auto Finesse here. Choose wisely, not all clay bars are the same, some work and some really don’t. A Clay Bar will also remove wax as well. Rinse the car and dry thoroughly.

Tip: Polishing is an acquired skill and shouldn’t be taken on with a slap dash approach. Go to a scrap yard, get an old fender or hood and practice on that first. Practice on an old car, or a favour to mates old car. With a heavy cutting compound, or an overly abrasive pad along with undue pressure being applied during the polishing process, there is every chance that such an abrasive combination could take the paint of your car. Rule of thumb is that a polish cleans the paint with mild to very abrasive product.

Some polishes are known to have fillers to hide imperfections and to give a richer look to the surface paint of the car. Auto Finesse ‘Tripple’ is such an example or Meguiar’s ‘3 in 1’.

Another step than can be used instead of a polish is a ‘Glaze’. This can be applied by hand or a DA machine. This product is a filler for fine scratches or swirl marks. This will only mask the problem of damaged paint. It certainly won’t cure or fix the problem like a proper paint correction or polish would.

What is Polish and Polishing?

Depending on the paint condition this will determine the pad and polish product you will need to use.

Polish, or sometimes referred to as a ‘compound’ is usually in the form of a liquid which contains a varying degree of abrasive content. The polish abrasiveness is also referred to as it’s ‘Cutting’ strength. During a polish you are in effect removing microns of your paint, the harsher the abrasive or cutting, the more of the paint or clear coat will be removed. Polishing can also restore the shine of the paint on your car from a faded or neglected surface. If you see some slight discoloration, damaged paint from bird lime or similar, or when you think there is a lot of dirt that has got stuck on the surface that won’t be removed after a wash with a good shampoo, it may be better to go for the polish. Small scratches can be reduced or removed after a polish. This can also be known as a ‘paint correction’.

The majority of the time a Polish will require multiple applications of finer or less course cutting polishes and softer pads to obtain that smooth mirror like surface. Rule of thumb, start soft. If nothing is happening go heavier and work back to the light combo again. If the paint is getting to hot – STOP. Many experienced detailers and car body work painters just know what they need to use.

Why Polish?

Simple answer is that if you see scratches or swirls the polishing step could remove them depending how bad they are of course. This would leave a mirror looking paint if done correctly.

How does it work?

The light hits our eyes at strange angles, which shows up as a scratch, blemish, swirl etc. on the paint work. If the paint is smooth with no marks the light is bounced in an even manor. This is explained a lot better with the help of a little diagram towards the end.

What is Wax (ing)

Wax is just a protective coat to protect the paint of your car from the elements, prolong the longevity and lustre. There are two main products, natural and synthetic. Natural tends to offer the best shine with not much longevity. Synthetic offers the best longevity but not quite a good a shine. There are of course mixtures of the two and hybrids. Some of the ‘hybrids’ are now incorporating the ‘ceramic’ technology which is creeping into the consumer market. Natural waxes are often found at high quality car shows or concours events to show the paint to it’s full extent. Synthetics are for generally for daily cars who also want a nice shine. Waxes have moved on with technology, these waxes often come with UV protection to help stop paint fading in sunlight. They last longer, apply easier and offer great value for money, well in most cases anyway.

There is also another step that can be applied, that is ‘Sealer’. this is applied before the wax as it says coats the paint job to protect it better than a wax – so it’s said. Sealers do one job only and not designed for pure shine. More to protect what you already have before the shine is applied.

Waxes come in two main application forms; liquid or paste.

Paste wax or hard wax, is more of the traditional method and often classed as old school. Often requiring application, curing and then buffing to a shine, often repeated to build up the protection or shine. Usually the enthusiasts or connoisseur’s choice. These products are best applied as ‘a little goes a long way’.

Liquid wax or soft wax, is the modern approach. They tend to be quicker, easier and generally don’t require cure time or additional applications, also know as ‘wipe on, wipe off’ products. The down side is that you tend to use more of the product.

Why Wax?

Waxing protects the car from elements and even sunlight. It also makes the car look good and helps to retain the vehicles value.

How does it work?

The wax forms a protective barrier between the paint job and the elements.

There is no right or wrong for the type of waxing you take, what ever suits you. I have it on good authority that there are no differences between the paste wax and the liquid waxes apart from composition. The only real choice you have is what you want the wax to do, last, shine or a bit of an all rounder?

Understanding the paint problems

I found these various diagrams to show what the polishing is designed to do. Make the paint as smooth as possible, then protect it with wax (or sealer).

They say a picture speaks a thousand words and I think these pictures do just that to explain it better way than I ever could.

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Some examples of things that can damage the paint and how badly, and yes that does say ‘fingernails’!

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As I mentioned earlier on how the eye sees the light. If light reflects badly and is distorted instead of a bouncing straight back, that is when you get to see the marks on the paint as shown here:

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Various way to fix this is the buffing with pads to get to the bottom of the damage to leave a smooth even reflective area. As I have already explained, things likes glazes, sealants and waxes can help along with disguising these areas of damage to make the light reflect in a much more uniform manor. Thus making the surface look smooth and shiny again.

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Then we get a little more techy with the thicknesses of paint and how the paints are applied. Of course the different applications of paint (Single coat, 2 pack, water based, cellulose etc.), amount of paint applied, types of paint; solid, metallic, pearlescent, matte, special mix custom. The type of primer, fillers, top coats, clear coats all need their own types of care. For some one product may not work the same on another manufacturers paint etc. Some manufacturer paints are known as hard paints, while others are considerably softer. This diagram shows the generic application of thicknesses, these vary wildly depending who done what. Some respray jobs cost £2,000 and others £20,000 and that’s for a good for a reason.

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The ‘basics’ of the paint application;

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Don’t worry that is as technical as it will get about paint and the theories behind it. After all we are just looking at the comparison of pads to ‘fix’ the paint, according to my very own comparison chart above.

When I mentioned the combination of products and pads above, this is the visual representation of just that.

Not all these DA pads are for polishing or cutting alone. Oh no, Many people use the much softer pads to apply the waxes to the car for a much easier, smoother and even application of wax. I have a link here on 10 wax comparisons in a mega test.