How To Prepare Your Car For Polishing: THE GUIDE

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preparing a car for polishing,

The key to any auto detailing task is preparation. That especially counts if you’re going to polish or compound your vehicle. Today, I will show you four easy steps you should take to prepare your car for polishing.

To prepare your car for polishing or compounding, do the following:

  1. Thoroughly wash the car
  2. Clay bar the whole car
  3. Wipe the car with a 50/50 mix of distilled water and rubbing alcohol
  4. Tape the delicate areas and materials (plastics, rubber…)

Okay, that was the short answer, but I want to dive deeper into this topic and explain to you in detail why you need to take those steps. Also, I want to show you which things you should pay attention to when preparing your car for polishing or compounding.

Without a well-prepared surface, when polishing your car, you can cause even more damage to the paint. So, make sure not to skip any of the steps. That’s the only way to get the perfect polishing results. 

1. Thoroughly Wash The Car

washing the car before polishing,

First things first, you need to remove all the dirt, dust, and grime from your vehicle. The main goal is to get a clean paint as possible, and you’ll be able to do it with a thorough proper car wash (check my guide here).

Here’s a quick guide:

  • Pre-rinse the car
  • Pre-wash the car with snow foam
  • Rinse it again
  • Wash the vehicle with a car soap for stripping waxes and sealants
  • Rinse the car
  • Dry the vehicle with a microfiber towel

Usually, I suggest using pH-neutral car soaps that won’t damage waxes, sealants, and glazes, but this time is different. To prepare your car for polishing, you should remove all protectants from the car’s paint.

So, use some car soap for stripping off waxes and sealants. I like to use Chemical Guys Clean Slate (check the price on Amazon now) for this purpose, but any other similar product will work.

If you leave waxes and sealants on the paint, they’ll stay between the polishing pad and the color. That way, you’ll have to clean the pads all the time, and the polishing process will take much more time than usual. Also, the results won’t be nearly as good.

When you finish washing and drying your vehicle and the paint is spotless from dirt and debris, you can continue to the next step.

2. Clay Bar The Vehicle

claying the car, using clay bar to remove paint contaminants,

Even though the paint is clean from all the dirt and grime, there’s probably still plenty of contaminants on it. Especially if the car was neglected, or it was never clayed before.

Claying the vehicle will remove all the contaminants from the paint and make it the cleanest possible. Also, claying helps to remove waxes and sealants from the color. 

Before I tell you how you should clay your vehicle, you need to know what type of clay bar should you use. 

Usually, there are three types of clay bars:

  • Fine: for newer cars that don’t have plenty of contaminants on the paint
  • Medium: for cars that have plenty of contaminants, but the color is not that bad
  • Heavy-duty: for old vehicles that have been neglected for years and have very contaminated paint

My recommendation is to use medium or light for most vehicles. You’ll rarely need a hard clay bar.

So, for claying your car, you’ll need the following:

  • Clay bar (fine, medium, or heavy-duty)
  • Clay bar lubricant
  • Few microfiber towels

How To Clay Your Car

There are only a few steps you should follow when claying your vehicle. It’s pretty simple and doesn’t require any special knowledge. 

Here they are:

  1. Start from the top to the bottom.
  2. Use plenty of clay bar lubricant to avoid scratching the paint. Spray it onto the surface, and start claying.
  3. With clay bar, go only in straight directions: up and down, left and right. Don’t make circular motions.
  4. Don’t use too much pressure. Just gently press the clay bar.
  5. Work in small 2×2 sections.
  6. Whenever you finish one panel, wipe it with a clean and dry microfiber towel.
  7. After each panel, fold the clay to get the clean clay again.
  8. If the clay bar falls to the floor, it’ll be full of dirt particles. In that case, take another one.

It’s not rocket science. You only need to be careful and “detailed.” That’s the golden rule of auto detailing, I think.

Before claying, the paint will feel rough and raspy, and that’s because of contamination. When you finish claying, run your fingers through the paint, it should have a smooth feeling. That means that the color is clean from any contaminants.

3. Mix Distilled Water and Rubbing Alcohol (50/50) And Clean The Car Again

wiping the car with isopropyl alcohol and distilled water, removing oils and waxes from paint,

When you’re finished with claying, the paint will be almost 100% clean. However, if you have wax or sealant on your car, there’s a chance that it’s still on the paint, especially if you had sealants since they are harder to remove than waxes.

Again, to begin polishing your car, you should get rid of all paint protectants, and that’s the reason why I’m doing this final step.

Even if the car didn’t have any protection before, I’d still do this step. It’s because there might be some oils on the paint, and this mix will remove them too. 

To ensure that there are no paint protectants and oils on the paint, I mix rubbing alcohol with a distilled water in a 50/50 ratio. 

Then, I use that to gently “wash” the car once more. That way, I’ll be 100% sure that nothing will be between my polish pad and the paint.

Follow these steps:

  • Mix isopropyl alcohol and distilled water. You can mix it in a spray bottle. I always use a 50/50 ratio.
  • Spray one panel and gently wipe it off with a clean microfiber towel.
  • Make sure to work on one panel at a time.

The best thing about rubbing alcohol is that it’s self evaporating, so it’ll quickly dry on the surface. Wiping it off with a clean microfiber towel will be enough to get the paint dry. 

Also, it leaves no residue, which means that the paint will be 1000% clean after wiping it with an isopropyl and distilled water mix. 

4. Tape Delicate Areas and Materials

taping car before polishing,

The last step is taping all the delicate areas and materials. I like to tape some sharp edges and tape all the plastics and rubber that may contact a polisher.

Polishes and compounds can be dangerous for plastics and rubber. They can leave marks on plastics and rubber that are very hard to remove. 

Also, if there are some highly sharp edges on the paint, you might want to tape them too. Those sharp edges may get burned when polishing, especially if you’re a complete beginner working with a rotary. 

Of course, if you’re skilled, you can do it without taping, but you’ll have to be extra careful. 

I think that it’s much easier to tape everything before polishing or compounding, so you’re entirely safe to work. 

Frequently Asked Questions

As a complete beginner, I always had tons of questions. That’s the reason why I decided to write another few hundred words more and answer the most common questions about this topic.

Why Do I Need To Tape Delicate Areas?

Well, it’s not obligatory, but I suggest you tape delicate edges or materials of your vehicle. That way, you’ll prevent doing any damage to your car when polishing. I like to protect plastics around the doors, windows, and some sharp edges that might get burned during the polishing process.

What if I don’t prep the car before polishing?

Without preparation, the dirt, waxes, sealants, and oils will be between the polishing pad and your paint. That way, the dirt will trap inside the polishing pad, and you’ll scratch the car even more. NOTHING should be between the polishing pad and the paint (except the polish paste, of course).

Will clay bar scratch my paint?

If you do everything correctly, it shouldn’t scratch the paint. However, if you use a too heavy clay bar and don’t use enough clay lubricant, there’s a chance of making some additional scratches to the clear coat. That’s why I always recommend going with a medium clay bar.

How to tell if the paint is contaminated?

To check if the paint is contaminated, we use the method called the Baggie test. Run your fingers on the paint. If you have a rough, raspy feeling, the color is contaminated. If the paint feels very smooth, it’s nice and clean (you’ll get that feeling after claying the car).

Why it’s important to work in small 2×2 sections when claying the car?

If you work on a large panel, the clay bar lubricant will dry, and it won’t act as a lubricant anymore. The surface needs to be wet all the time, which is why you should work in small 2×2 sections.

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