How to polish a car in 5 Easy Steps

The best way to maintain your car’s paintwork is by washing, polishing, and waxing. 

A lot of us tend to wash our cars frequently enough – say every week or two. This is probably because it is just easier to do and more affordable to pay someone (or something) to do it for you.

Although the remaining part of the detailing process is required less frequently than washing, it is no less important. Yet, a lot of us neglect to keep on top of it.

This might be because:

Well, you can achieve excellent results, and within a manageable budget that you will save you having to pay a professional detailer. 

In this guide, we’ll take you step-by-step through how to clean and polish your car and resurrect its amazing paintwork.

How to polish your car

1. How Car Polish Works

Polish is an abrasive product that removes an extremely thin layer of paint from your car. The more abrasive the polish, the more aggressive it will act on your paintwork.

Fine Abrasives

Some polishes are very fine abrasives, and will only “cut” a negligible amount of paint from the surface.

This is mainly down to the abrasive particles being smaller and therefore easier to breakdown during application. These are typically called finishing polishes and tend to give deep glossy finishes and work best on very minor imperfections.

Coarse Abrasives

Other polishes are described as coarser abrasives and tend to contain larger particles that take longer to break down during application.

These particles will cut more of the paint from the surface more effectively than the smaller particles contained in the less abrasive finishing polishes.

In these cases, the finish will appear cloudy and require a follow-up treatment like wax to bring the gloss back to the paintwork.

Polishes of this type are typically called compound polishes and work well on deeper scratches and swirl marks.

Diagram of coarse abrasive versus fine abrasive polishes
Coarse abrasives have larger particles in comparison to fine abrasive polishes

Note, that polishes work by acting on the clear coat layer of the paint. So, if a scratch goes deeper than this, it will be impossible to fix it with a polish.

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2. The Condition Of Your Paint

No Clear Coat

If your paint has no clear coat in places, then you should not use polish.

Polish works by cutting away at the clear coat of the paint, so applying it in this scenario will cause the type of damage that only a body shop would be equipped to repair.

Low Clear Coat

Similar caution should be applied if your paint is noticeably thin. You really don’t want to cut through the clear coat completely.

Types of car paint scratches
Cross-section of the layers of car paintwork with different types of scratches

Hard Paint

If your paint is harder than average then it will benefit from a harsher abrasive polish than a fine one, especially if you want to remove defects.

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3. Be Prepared

Be prepared

Get all the products and equipment you need before you start.

The last thing you want is to be in the middle of the job and realize you don’t have enough polish to finish.

The same also applies if you will be applying the polish by hand or with an orbital buffer – slightly different tools and requirements for each method.

4. Work Area Conditions

You should do this job in a shaded location, and not in rain. Keep out of direct sunlight when polishing your car.

5. Don’t Take On Too Much

bicycle_loaded_carrying_too_much_wtIf you are a beginner then it will be prudent to use polishes that are designed to be applied by hand the first few times.

Hand-applied polishes are usually more forgiving to mistakes than machine applied ones and can still achieve excellent results.

Now you are prepared

Step 1: Wash The Car By Hand

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Step 2: Decontaminate Car Paint

This step will remove all the contaminants that the washing step couldn’t. It is arguably the most important step to achieving the perfect finish.

Chemical Decontamination (Optional)

Clay Bar (Essential)

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Step 3: Polish

There are two main methods with which you can apply your car polish of choice.

Polishing A Car By Hand

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Polishing A Car With A Buffer

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Step 4: Apply Wax

This step will fill in any remaining minor scratches and swirls, and will also add a layer of long-lasting protection that should withstand subsequent washes.

Wax will also enhance the shine even further.

Diagram of a protective layer of wax on paintwork
After the paint is polished, the wax serves to fill in any remaining scratches and provides the paint with protection
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Step 5: Admire The Work

Yep, after all that hard work, you should take a step back and admire. Your car should look miles cleaner and glossier than before.

This should last for at least a couple of months’ worth of washes and drives.


Those of you that followed the guide would surely agree that polishing a car is a step forward process, so long as you prepare and understand the significance of each step. 

That feeling of satisfaction of doing the job yourself is something that you achieved, so enjoy it.

So long as you keep on top of the maintenance, you (and others) will notice amazing results in the longer term. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Polishing Bad For Car Paint?

If your paint has a layer of clear coat, then you should be able to use any polish with confidence.

Equally, as with any polish, caution should also be exercised, especially if you plan on using an orbital buffer to apply the polish for the first time.

Mistakes could lead to burning the painting away, causing the type of damage that only a respray will rectify.

The type of paint is also a factor to consider. If your paint is harder than average, then a more abrasive polish will probably be needed.

How Do You Professionally Polish A Car?

Read this article for step by step instructions on how to achieve a professional level finish. You need to purchase the correct products and equipment which is also listed in the article.

How Often Should I Polish My Car?

It is advised to do a full detail of your car twice a year. Before summer to protect again the sun and heat, and before winter to protect against the wintry weather and salt.

Whenever you do decide to do a full detail, the following jobs should be carried out on your car.

  • Wash your car thoroughly, including wheels
  • Decontaminate your car – including using a clay bar
  • Polish your car
  • Wax your car
  • Clean the interior, especially leather treatment if required
Aside from all of this, it is also advised to reapply wax every two to three months to maintain the protection of the paint, along with treating your leather.

You should do a regular wash of your car every one to two weeks.

All of the above is dependant on the conditions in which you keep your car (garaged, under trees, in direct sunlight, etc), and driving habits (long higher speed journeys tend to result in more insect debris and stone chips damaging your paint.

How Long Does Car Polish Last?

When you apply polish, you should always follow it up with a good quality sealant or wax. This will ensure that your polish lasts for at least two months.

If you don’t use wax or sealant to protect the polish, then the lifespan of the polish will reduce significantly.

Environmental conditions like the weather and debris will also affect the paintwork quicker.

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