The Gentle Art of Hand Polishing

The gentle art of hand polishing is often sidelined as a second-best method of achieving the perfect finish on automotive paint. As machine polishers have become more accessible and more competitively priced, one might ask why we carry on with hand polishing at all but there are any number of reasons. For me … simply put, I like to. I enjoy polishing paint by hand and I find that I can maintain a good finish to near perfection with ease.

So, to work …

Firstly, consider the job in hand. At this point I will say that if you have a car that is covered in deep swirls and scratches, hand polishing is not going to be at all easy and might take a long long time to get right. That said, those kind of jobs are also not at all easy with a random orbital machine and will take a lot of time, eased only by experience and skill. There’s no reason why you should not bow out to someone with more experience and a machine polisher to get you up to scratch (so to speak). By all means have a go, but bear a few things in mind. Medium swirls and scratches are well within the scope of hand polishing and light swirling is easy to keep on top of.

Secondly, consider the amount of time it will take. Bear in mind that your own energy levels will be a consideration here as well as environmental considerations - check the weather for both bright sun and rain, since working outside in either conditions will cause problems. Tackle one panel at a time and if you run out of time or energy well no big deal … pick another day and do another panel. For big jobs that involve concentrated work on the whole car, plan to undertake the work over a number of sessions. To be fair, I think one or two top panels per session or one whole side per session. I find sides more difficult to work on.

I will say this - hand polishing is hard work!

You will not do a good job if you are tired and cannot work the polishes through. You will have to repeat the work anyway on that panel so you might as well stop after a good success on one panel than stretch yourself over two and be disappointed. Equipment? Well, if you’re doing sides make sure you have something comfortable to sit on or handy knee pads. Top panels can be worked on from a standing position.

So, we know what we are up against and how much time we have to do the job, or part of the job. We’re happy to split the job up over a number of sessions and we understand that we might need to stop due to energy levels.

What are the “rules” around hand polishing? Well, unsurprisingly they’re much the same as for machine polishing - use the least aggressive pad/polish combination that you think will to the job and increase as necessary, check your work often and be prepared for a number of “hits”.

Before looking at polishes, let’s look at pads. The good old terry pad with a pouch, as sold by Halfords, Tesco, Meguiars and a number of others is a tried and tested applicator, effective and a good pad to have in. A microfibre block is also an excellent choice. Beyond that, there are those hand pads that are made from the same foam as machine pads - applicators like the German applicator or the Sonus SFX Professional pads. Finally, there’s the machine pads themselves which can be attached to finger straps or handles by their velcro. Choose the ones you are most comfortable with - I like the Sonus SFX Professional pads, microfibre blocks and terry pouched pads depending upon the polish being used.

Now, onto the polishes. Polishes can be broadly broken down into a number of categories - heavy, medium, light, fine, finishing, pure and glazing. There are also cleaner polishes that contain chemical cleaners to break down oxidisation and even “dual action” polishes that have a cleaning action and then when continued to work, they break down into a finer polish.

From heavy to fine, compounds should be worked in much the same way. On a surface that has been washed, dried and is free of dust and debris, prime the pad with a quick spritz of QD and then pop a couple of blobs of product onto the pad. Pick a work area between 12″ and 18″ square and rub the polish around that area. Work the polish in a consistent manner, so back and forth over the whole area, then left and right, then diagonal one way and then diagonal the other. Use a firm and even pressure at first and start to lessen up on the pressure as the polish starts to work - some may be hear to be abrading the surface and go quiet after a while. Always “work out” the polish - most polishes will worth through an reveal a glossy finish underneath, but some may be quite oily, especially the finishing polishes and pure polishes. Always read the label, since there may be special instructions, but generally that process will be fine and probably more effective than in a circular manner which is actually very tiring.

I said above that the general rule of thumb is to use the least aggressive pad/polish combo that you think will do the job, but if you are not making progress after a couple of hits, try a different combination by first selecting a pad with more bite and the same product and then a more aggressive product until you get some satisfaction. Also be away that many polishes will need finessing once worked through.

Different paints require different treatments. Some might be quite okay after a fine polish and not need finessing. Some might show up very light marring after such a polish and really benefit from a finishing polish. Likewise, some finishes might well be a little dry and benefit from an oil-rich pure polish to really bring the life back. Once polished, a glaze is a very good step which adds a lot of gloss and wetness regardless of paint colour or finish - a step well worth doing.

Only when you are happy with the finish on a panel should you proceed to the wax or sealant and lock in your hard work. Understand that a car might take you a number of sessions and so you should concentrate on the work one panel at a time.

The last thing to consider when hand polishing is polishes with a filling content. Now we’ve polished our car properly with abrasive compounds and found out what hard work it is, it’s not a task that we want to have to undertake often or maybe even not again on that car. We do want to keep it looking good and there no reason not to use polishes with a filler content - as a general rule of thumb, polishes that call themselves a “wax polish” or an “all in one” will contain some fillers and do a light polish, fill in swirls and leave behind a limited layer of protection. These products can be used every so often to reduce the appearance of swirls that will undoubtedly plague your car again at some point. Some glazes also contain fillers or are heavy in oils that lessen the appearance of swirls.

When actually selecting polishes, it is wise to look at the instructions and to do some reading around their suitability for hand use. Almost all fine, finishing, pure and glazing polishes are going to work well by hand, but take some care in selecting anything more abrasive than that - often a little friction and machine power is needed to actually break down the compounds and work them. You might not be able to do this by hand and the compound will actually inflict greater swirls and scratches into the paint. If unsure, try it out in a inconspicuous place and inspect the results carefully.

I hope this has given a few pointers and some confidence to undertake the job with a product that is actually going to remove those swirls and scratches, rather than fill them.

It is possible by hand, very rewarding, but be under no illusion - it is hard work.

If the abrasives are not broken down adequately, the surface will be marred and appear to have a haze or dense swirling. Often, lighter polishes can lessen this effect and dedicated hand polishes such as Autoglym Super Resin Polish or Autosmart Platinum will lessen further, if not negate, through fillers.

So, onto which polishes should be used?

The word to look out for is “nano”, or the term “super micro abrasive technology”. Nano polishes use abrasives that are nano in size - this means they are smaller than micro, super-micro in fact. Mathematically, nano refers a millionth of a millimetre!

While the size might not be exactly that, the abrasives are so small they do not leave their own marring. The other advantage of nano polishes is that because the polishes do not need breaking down, they can be worked for as little time as needed if the situation warrants and so, you won’t end up over-doing an area just to get a clean finish.

Some nano polishes can be worked on using a light spritz of distilled water. Use distilled water so that you do not risk working suspended minerals into the paintwork which might create its own marring. Gtechniq P1 is one such example of this, Optimum Hyper Compound Spray and Hyper Spray Polish another couple.

So, which nano polishes can be used?

Well, Meguiars make a good range:
… and then some dedicated to hand use:
Others include Gtechniq, Optimum and Scholl Concepts.

These polishes are very much dependent upon the firmness of the pad to provide the cut. I highly recommend the Sonus SFX Professional hand foam pad which has a firmer yellow side and a softer black side.

Using the same polish, such as Meguiars ScratchX, on the yellow side will produce a deeper bite than on the black side. The same polish can in fact be used to remove heavy swirling and light scratches and then the pad flipped over to the softer side to finish out to a high dazzling gloss.

My recommendation would be to start with Meguiars ScratchX and use that one polish to tackle both types of polishing. If you are working on excessively swirled or weathered paint then step up to Meguiars Ultimate Compound or Meguiars #105 on the yellow side of the pad, finishing out with ScratchX on the black side. Furthermore, soft paint finishes, single stage or other delicate deep pigment paint finishes might need a softer polish again, so Meguiars Ultimate Polish or Meguiars #205 used on the black side of the pad will deliver a crystal pure finish.

Meguiars D151 is an especially useful polish, combining all the relevant requirements for a hand polish - variable cut depending upon the firmness of the pad used and a sealant left behind to protect the paintwork. In essence, this is a cleaner wax that utilises the benefit of nano abrasives.