Scared to Polish Your Car?

Machine polishing can seem daunting at first. Most people recognize that there are risks involved and that mistakes could be costly, so it’s no wonder that the first baby steps in machine polishing can feel like a giant leap to some. It seems like there’s just too much to learn!

Welcome, then, to the most reassuring introductory blog about machine polishing on the whole internet. In a few short paragraphs, with absolutely zero jargon, I’m going to make machine polishing for the first time sound like the easy, safe, and rewarding process that it really is.

What are Paint Defects?

Super-fine surface flaws such as scratches, wash marring, swirl marks, and stains that corrupt the very top surface of your paintwork and combine to leave it looking tired and unpleasant, lacking in luster.

What is Machine Polishing?

‘Polishing’ is all about abrasion – slightly wearing away the paint surface to make it smoother (and shinier). ‘Machine polishing’ is using a machine to do the job more efficiently and neatly than you can do it by hand.

Why Machine Polish Paint?

Machine polishing your paint will wear away a very fine amount of the surface material. If your paint surface is scratched, stained, hazy, or dull, what’s left behind after machine polishing will be shiny, glossy, and beautiful.

Why Do I Need to Start Machine Polishing?

I would recommend a complete beginner look into acquiring an 8 or 9mm random orbital polisher, a medium cutting compound, a finishing polish, and a handful of Lake Country SDO Orange and Black pads. You will need a stack of clean microfiber towels and a roll of low-tack masking tape. And, if you have a portable LED spotlight, you’re practically a pro already!

How Should I Machine Polish for the First Time?

Prepare Your Vehicle

Clean your car, making sure to get rid of tar spots and bugs, and any other stuck junk from the paint surface. There are tar and glue removers available that will help with this. After washing and rinsing, dry the car off and park it somewhere shaded and shielded from the elements. Next, it would be a good idea to clay the painted panels. This involves thoroughly rubbing the paint surface with a clay towel or clay bar (and a clay lubricant), which draws embedded microscopic dirt, fallout, and other foreign particles out from the paint. Afterward, your paint should feel extremely slick and smooth.

Prepare Your Equipment & Working Area

Make sure your machine polisher, pads, cloths, and compounds (one medium cut compound, one very fine polish) can be picked up and put down comfortably—somewhere they’ll all stay clean—while you’re working. This could be a special cart or workbench, plastic box, or a cupboard—it’s up to you. Ideally your car will be somewhere cool, and shielded from the elements.  Dust-free helps, so if you can work indoors that’s an advantage.  Get your favorite station, podcast, or playlist up and running.

Prepare Your Test Zone

Before we begin, I’ve got to make some assumptions here. I’ve got to assume that your paintwork is in ‘normal’ condition—by which I mean it’s not flaking off the panel, showing signs of unprofessional repair work, or key-scratched to oblivion. Challenges like those require experienced technicians to assess and rectify. We need to be talking about minor swirl marks, haziness, dullness, or staining here!

Let’s practice on a nice wide flat section of the hood. Take your Orange SDO pad and visualize a square or rectangle approximately 9 to 12 times the size of the pad. Mask the outline of the shape if it helps. 

(Avoid polishing over swage lines and creases at this stage – paint on those is usually slightly thinner, AND the shape creates low surface area / higher pressure contact points thereby increasing cut.  Swage lines should be polished ‘up to,’ but not ‘over’, to avoid removing too much material.)

It's Time to Be Brave...

Line your Orange SDO pad up centrally on the machine polisher backing plate, and prime it by spreading the medium cutting compound lightly across the whole pad face. Keeping a comfortable and relaxed posture, put pad to paintwork in the top left-hand corner of your section.

With the polisher speed set around halfway, using just a little more downward pressure than the weight of the machine, work the section in overlapping motions, allowing the pad to travel at around two or three ‘pad widths per second’:

• left to right
• move down half a pad width
• right to left
• down half a pad width
• left to right
• back to the start
• repeat for around 90 seconds

If you find the polisher jumping around awkwardly, try increasing the speed a little more.  If it feels like it’s going crazy fast, reduce it.  An ideal speed would likely be in the 2500 – 3000 opm range, if your polisher has those ratings to refer to.

Try to work methodically – robotically, even – so that your section is polished equally (and when it comes to polishing the next section, have that overlap the previous one by half a pad width and you’ll maintain consistent results).

Carefully unmask your section, and gently / gradually (don’t scrub hard) wipe away your compound residue with a clean microfiber towel, flipping it if necessary to inspect your results.

What to Expect From Beginner Machine Polishing

Now you have experienced paint correction, and I bet it wasn’t so scary after all. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see a clear change in the glossiness of the paint you just polished. You may notice that the surface defects that were there—the swirls, stains, haze, etc.—have been partially (or even fully) removed. So, does this mean you removed a lot of paint? Isn’t that dangerous?

Is Machine Polishing Safe?

If you closely followed the guidance above, I would confidently predict that:
  • You removed less than one micron of clearcoat from your vehicle. One micron is around 2% of the depth of standard OEM clearcoat. One micron is around 3% of the thickness of a dollar bill.
  • The paint never got more than ‘warm’ (and nor was it supposed to – there is no need for the paint to get hot). However, if it did get warm to the touch, do not be alarmed. Clearcoat is baked at around 60 degrees Celsius / 140 Fahrenheit in the production process. Dark-colored cars on hot sunny days can hit 85C / 185F on their top surfaces, which is hot enough to feel like a burn if you touch it.
  • It’s likely that you didn’t achieve ‘full’ correction.

What is 'Full Correction'?

‘Full correction’ is what we call it when we polish away (remember: it’s all just abrasion) every single visible defect from the paint surface. This is where it’s possible to make a big mistake. In fact, I wrote a blog about it already!

When paint defects are very minor (shallow), full correction is safe to attempt. The problem is, it is not possible to accurately measure the depth of a scratch. So, if you try to be a hero and it turns out your defects approach, or exceed, the depth of all the clearcoat, then you cannot achieve full correction because there will be no clearcoat left. That’s called ‘screwing up.’  So, remember: it’s OK to improve rather than perfect.

Back to you and your test patch – it’s likely that some of your surface defects are deeper into the surface than would be removed by one gentle pass, and if so, you have a choice. You can either:

A) Go again, removing more clearcoat to further / fully remove the visible defects
B) Stop because you’re happy enough with the improvement / results already
C) Move to a refining stage to achieve an even deeper, more ‘pure’ gloss

Why Do I Need to Refine With a Machine Polisher?

All that work you did with the Orange SDO pad and medium cutting compound should have made the paint more glossy and shiny. However, now try masking halfway through it and repeat the process on one half using the Black SDO pad and a finishing polish. The likelihood (especially if you’re working on a darker colored car) is that you’ll see another improvement, and this is because although the correction work you did the first time around removed some of the defects, it left behind a faint and uniform haze all of its own making. Switching to the less aggressive polish and pad rectifies that haze and takes you even closer to ‘pure’ gloss. Best of all, in the refining process, you’ll remove so little paint material that it will be unmeasurable in any meaningful way. Basically, nothing at all. Nada. You have nothing to fear, so take the free win!


I hope this blog has relaxed your machine polishing anxieties. Our Standard Duty Orbital (SDO) pads have been specifically designed to make machine polishing as safe and accessible as can be—and by starting out with the Orange and Black SDO pads, in particular, you’ll discover quickly that there’s nothing to be afraid of. So, take that first step. I promise it’s tiny.

You can do it!

Related Posts

Why Would I Need an HDO Pad?

Written for the IDA Detail Dialogue, Published December 2022 In detailing, we naturally obsess over tiny details – hence the name, I suppose. A smudge, fingerprint, speck, or stain can

Read More >

The Most Important Thing To Polish?

Polishing glass ranks as one of the most overlooked detailing skills and services. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing to have pure transparent glass, it’s incredibly important–literally a matter of life

Read More >

Preparing a Car for a Show

I don’t really talk much about it these days but my experience working with / around cars goes back a looooooong way, and actually included organizing car shows. I would

Read More >

Why Would I Need an HDO Pad?

Written for the IDA Detail Dialogue, Published December 2022 In detailing, we naturally obsess over tiny details – hence the name, I suppose. A smudge, fingerprint, speck, or stain can

Read More >

The Most Important Thing To Polish?

Polishing glass ranks as one of the most overlooked detailing skills and services. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing to have pure transparent glass, it’s incredibly important–literally a matter of life

Read More >
Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top