How to remove swirl marks from paint
IN THIS FREE GUIDE:
- Learn what swirl marks are, and how to eradicate them from your paintwork
- See the different products involved and how they can be used to enhance your vehicle
- Discover how prevention is far better than cure, and how maintenance is always a top priority
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
- Swirl-free paintwork not only looks better but it's actually easier to clean and maintain
- With the correct products and knowledge you can keep any risk to an absolute minimum
- Doing the job yourself can save hundreds on professional detailing
Get the lowdown on how to eradicate swirls with our simple guide
How to effectively remove annoying swirl marks is perhaps the number one question in all of detailing. But the first thing to remember is that there's two simple, but distinctively different, responses. The first is that you can only remove swirls by polishing your paintwork, that's a given. But the second is yet another question - why have you got swirls in the first place? The thing is that both are important to consider on your journey to detailing enlightenment.
The good news though, is no matter how bad these swirls appear to be, they nearly always look far worse than they actually are. Occasional swirl correction is not only safe, relatively straightforward and will enhance the appearance of your paintwork, but it will actively help your vehicle hold its value, too.
So, with that in mind, here's everything you need to know about eradicating those swirl marks…
What are swirl marks?
By far the most common of paint defects, swirl marks are masses of fine scratches in the surface of the top layer of your paintwork. Due to the way light bounces off these in a random fashion these often appear as a messy spider web pattern, and they can be particularly noticeable on darker colours… even if they are just as common on lighter cars. This kind of light refraction has the effect of amplifying the appearance of these kind of surface defects, so, while they can be relatively light scratches that are simple to remove, they can falsely appear to be extremely heavily damaged areas of paintwork, particularly in direct sunlight. And, you know what they say - appearances are everything, aren't they?
These tiny scratches not only look horrendous in any kind of light, but the ridges in the surface also offer a rough finish that allows dirt, water and corrosive contaminants to stick more readily. With it being easier for grime to gain purchase on these surfaces, it's a rather unwelcome bonus that your paintwork will become contaminated more quickly, making it much harder to clean, and often requiring more frequent decontamination with heavy hitting "decon wash' products.
Regardless of the type of paint, swirl marks are always limited to the top layer, and most commonly around 2-4 microns deep. The heaviest swirling can be a little deeper of course, but just as long as it doesn't protrude through the top layer into the coat below (taking these light defects into the realm of deep scratches) they can be effectively removed through polishing.
This also means that in single stage paintwork - which is often found on pre-1980s cars and essentially a single layer of coloured basecoat over the primer coat - the swirls will be in the top of the colour coat. While in more common two stage paintwork, where the top layer is protective clearcoat (lacquer) over the basecoat and primer (what we call a 3-layer substrate) the swirl marks will be limited to the lacquer layer. These are the only layers that you will be polishing.
What causes swirl marks?
Light scratches and swirl marks are chiefly caused by poor wash techniques, with the most obvious being using automated car washes. These utilise large brushes which often hold grit and grime through tackling multiple vehicles and basically whip the defects right into your paintwork. You can never be sure that these are clean to start with because, when you think about it, the majority of people use ACWs when their vehicle is extremely dirty. So it stands to reason that the wash media will pick up some seriously heavy soiling. Worse still, all it takes is the tiniest piece of grit to inflict swirls.
Even hand washing without using safe techniques will inevitably damage paintwork. Dragging contaminants across the surface with a mitt or sponge is a sure-fire way to inflict swirls, and so is washing with a single shampoo bucket where you don't have a separate bucket of fresh water to clean out your mitt after every pass. Even premature contact washing in small circular motions can inflict swirling, and all this is the reason why it's vital to wash correctly, not just before you polish, but even more crucially on maintenance washes. The short of it is that prevention is better than cure, and without mastering the wash stage there's simply no point in polishing your vehicle to remove swirls - after just a couple of washes, you can guarantee they'll be back!
So, what's the perfect "safe' wash on paintwork? Well, it's a two-pronged approach of using the correct techniques and products. After all, a best-case scenario is never having swirl marks in the first place and not having to polish at all.
First and foremost, always perform a thorough prewash. This is where you remove the heaviest soiling before touching the car with your mitt, significantly cutting down the risk.
Rinse away as much dirt and grime as possible with your pressure washer (physical contaminant removal) before utilising a suitable pre-wash cleaner, like Citrus Power Bug and Grime Remover or Dynamite Traffic Film Remover to break down and lift stuck on debris and dirt (chemical contaminant removal). Our pre wash cleaners are designed to dissolve and suspend harmful particles in their respective solutions allowing them to be rinsed away without touching the paintwork.
The second stage is still technically part of the pre-wash and is just as important for a swirl-free wash. Avalanche Snow Foam is citrus infused and works in a similar way to our pre wash cleaners, but because it's a thick foam, it lingers for the maximum possible dwell time to further break down the most stuck-on soiling. Avalanche also works its way into all the nooks and panel gaps to flush out clean away hidden dust and grime that may be blown out later, an attribute that shouldn't be underestimated. Apply over the whole car with your foam lance, leave to dwell letting the Avalanche do its work, and then rinse thoroughly, it really is that simple.
Obviously safe washing doesn't stop there, and here's where you can get on to the contact wash. Again, when you make physical contact with your paintwork is when it's most at risk, but there are a few things you can do to cut down on the chance of inflicting swirls. The first of course is using Lather Car Shampoo. This has been formulated as a powerful cleaner to break down and lift remaining grime, but it's also classed as a lubricant which means it forms a slippery barrier between the contaminants and your paintwork so they don't come in contact when the suds are rinsed away.
It's also important to use two Detailing Buckets, every time you wash. One for your shampoo solution, and one with fresh clean water to rinse out your mitt (ridding it of any dirt picked up along the way) each time you need to load up with more shampoo. This technique is absolutely vital, and don't forget that this doesn't include the third bucket - the one you'll use for your wheels before you even start the pre-wash on your paintwork!
Wash Mitts are also a vital tool in the swirl-free wash arsenal, and we've developed a whole range with different attributes suited for different tasks. Two things they all have in common though, is that they're soft on surfaces and designed to lift particles and hold them away from paintwork deep within their fibres, until they're rinsed out. A traditional sponge can't do that and instead simply pushes grime around. Added to the fact that many are too hard and scratchy for paintwork, is why we'll take a mitt every time.
One other thing about mitts, along with all detailing cloths in general - if you drop "em, bin "em! Picking up grime off of the floor is a common mistake, and it only takes a second to transfer that back onto your paintwork. If yours accidentally hits the deck, you can never quite guarantee you've cleaned it out effectively.
Take the right path
First of all washing in straight, sweeping lines rather than circular motions can significantly cut down on swirl marks, but what's even more crucial is that you take the correct path round the vehicle. Basically, speaking this is where you work on the cleanest parts of the vehicle first, to prevent transfer of grime from dirtier areas to cleaner areas. Usually you'll start on the roof, following with the windscreen, bonnet, upper sides, front bumper, rear end and lower sides… but, of course, use your best judgement.
To dry or decon?When your contact wash is complete, you can then rinse and dry, or move on to a 3-stage decontamination before removing those swirls. This "decon washing' is a technique used to remove heavily imbedded contaminants using specialist decontamination products. This process involves using Iron Out Contaminant Remover to eradicate ferrous metal deposits, followed by ObliTARate Tar & Glue Remover for sticky residues, and a Clay Bar (or Clay Pad) along with Glide Clay Lube to physically pull out any other particles, like tree sap, bird dropping residue or overspray.
These steps are always vital to follow before any polishing can take place, simply to prevent moving these contaminants around and inflicting more damage. You can learn more about 3-stage contamination in our full article here - How to Safely Decontaminate Paintwork
How are swirl marks removed?
Now you've mastered your washing, it's back to those swirl marks, and these can only be removed through surface abrasion using a suitable polish or compound. These types of abrasive products are designed to take away a microscopic layer off the top of the surface to create a perfectly level finish. So, technically at least, you're not physically removing the actual swirl marks at all, you're removing the surface of the paintwork around them, down to the bottom of the deepest swirl mark, until the swirls simply disappear. This also makes light reflect from the surface in a more uniform fashion, making the paintwork appear deeper and shinier.
In any case this is the reason why having enough paintwork to polish is a chief concern, and the reason that professional detailers, who won't know the history of the vehicle, use paint depth gauges to ensure there's enough of a layer to level out without burning through to the one underneath, whether that's primer on single stage paintwork, or colour coat on two stage paintwork.
As a rule of thumb, clearcoat layers are around 70 microns thick, while single stage basecoat will be around 40-50 microns thick. This is of course, before a car has been polished, so, even though you're only taking away a few microns every time you correct your swirl marks, you can see why it's important not to carry out paint correction or polishing every time you wash your car. Eventually your paintwork will become so thin, polishing will be a risk, and that's the reason why correction is an occasional job, a couple of times a year at most - if you polished away a couple of microns every week, you soon have no paintwork left! It's also another reason why correct maintenance is so important.
Choosing the right products
There are of course a few other variables that need to be considered, and these will directly influence the products you use. Perhaps the most important is the severity of the swirls, as the deepest defects will need more "cut' and hence a coarser compound or polish to take away more of the top layer to level the surface. Essentially compounds and polishes are the same thing and have a different level of cut according to the size of the abrasive particles and the larger they are, they more they will score away the surface. Think of it like the difference between using very coarse and very fine sandpaper, only on a microscopic level.
Many loosely refer to a coarser product as a compound and a finer product as a polish, but this is only a very loose term. Technically they're both the same thing, and what needs to be considered is their coarseness - a coarse restoring compound will cut quickly, but need following stages with finer and finer compounds to refine the finish - a bit like the difference between finishing a piece of wood with a fine sandpaper or an angle grinder. Usually extremely coarse compounds are reserved for extreme restoration jobs and even heavier swirl marks can be tackled with medium-fine products.
It's also crucial to consider the type of protection you'll be using after you've cut out those swirls. It goes without saying that you should always safeguard you work and add a protection layer or two, it's simply silly not to. But, what's important here is the type of protection you prefer can affect your choice of compound. Ceramic coatings for example require pre-correction with a product that doesn't contain any waxes or fillers, because these interfere with the chemical bonding process. If you're using a wax protection however, a polish that already contains a wax is fine, you're basically applying up even more protection. You can also use a correction product with no wax content.
Hand or machine?
Hand polishing can be effective, especially on small areas with fine abrasives, and it is possible to remove light swirling in this way. But, due to the way compounds and polishes work, using a machine polisher will usually be the quickest and most effective method.
Through heat and physical friction, the abrasive particles in compounds have to be broken down to create a finer and finer finish as you work them through. On a microscopic level these are smashed together, breaking them up into smaller and smaller particles which cut less and less, and start to refine more and more, this is what gives a compound its "range of cut'. This is also the reason it's important to fully work your compound through - usually indicated by the residue turning clear - for it to "finish down' and create the most refined surface. When using a machine polisher working through this process is quicker and more consistent, and that's why, generally speaking, you'll always get amazing results.
As well as our DPX Dual Action Polisher and MPX Dual Action Polisher, along with a host of polishing pads and accessories, we also stock a full range of compounds and polishes - here's how to choose yours...
Tripple All-in-One Polish
Effective on light swirls, Tripple contains relatively fine abrasives which are easily broken down to create an extremely refined finish. An amazing product for light enhancement and swirl removal, Tripple also contains carnauba wax, meaning it can clean, polish and protect in one application… hence the name.
One Step All-in-One Compound
A unique, next-generation compound, One Step is unlike traditional compounds because of its huge range of cut. Unlike every other compound or polish that has a small range, One Step is capable of starting as a heavy hitting coarse-medium compound but refines down to a fine compound as it's worked through. This means that it's capable of tackling the heaviest swirling and other defects, without the need to change products to a finer compound for refinement. One Step also contains no waxes or fillers, giving a true finish that's perfect for a wax or in preparation of application of a ceramic coating.
Rejuvenate Paintwork Cleanser
Designed primarily for removing paint oxidation and to make the most of the appearance of hard waxes, Rejuvenate is also packed with fine abrasives, allowing it to tackle light swirling. Can be applied by hand or machine and contains no waxes or fillers.
The Revitalise System
Our colour-coded Revitalise System is a collection of products designed for use with a dual action polisher to cover every level of paint correction, from restoring and polishing to final refinement.
Our three stages of compounds range from coarse cut Revitalise No:1 Restoring Compound and medium Revitalise No:2 Polishing Compound to fine Revitalise No:3 Refining Compound. It's unlikely you'll need the coarsest product for swirl mark removal as this one is for heavy restoration and defect removal but our No:3 Refining Compound is effective on light swirling, while our No:2 Polishing compound can deal with heavier swirls (before using No:1 to further refine paintwork to a flawless finish). Again, there are no waxes or fillers in these products, and all compounds and polishing pads are available separately.
The last thing to consider is the actual process and, while it goes without saying that you should always follow the instructions on your product of choice, we can generalise to some extent. Once your vehicle is washed, decontaminated, dried and any areas at risk have been masked up, we can begin…
Step 1 - Test
First of all, always test a small area with your product before attempting the rest of the car. We always recommend starting with the finest compound you have available to see if it has a sufficient level of cut and adjusting from there. Just remember that there's no point going straight in with the coarsest compound out there, if it's not needed to level the surface that far all you'll end up doing is wasting time and product having to refine the paintwork down to flawless afterwards.
In most cases, light swirling will be removed and the paint will be refined using a single product - as we said, despite appearances, most swirl marks are relatively fine defects to begin with.
Step 2 - Correction
Once you have your weapon of choice, it's time to get started… but don't make the mistake of trying to do the whole vehicle at once. To physically work any compound through (and even more so for One Step which will always take a little more to break down) you'll need to tackle and area of around 9 times the size of your pad in a square and perform each pass slowly - around an inch or so of movement a second is about right. It's also important not to overdo it on the product, two or three pea sized amounts on a 5-inch pad is plenty to get you going for smaller pads, use a smaller amount of product.
As a basic guide, start your machine on a low speed on the vehicle to spread the product quickly over the area, before ramping up the speed for a few sets to fully work the compound through. When the residue turns clear, you can make one more slow pass on the a low speed to further refine down the paint.
Step 3 - Remove the Residue
Now it's a case of removing the residue with a fresh microfibre cloth, for the best results it's always worth in investing in new Work Cloths for this job, just to guarantee you don't end up putting any swirls back in. Always look after your microfibres, that's detailer 101!
Step 4 - Check the Results
A dedicated detailing lamp is and invaluable tool, not just for checking your handiwork, but for identifying the worst areas in the first place - you should never polish your car in direct sunlight after all. Our Swirl Spotter and Swirl Seeker Detailing Lights are engineered to emulate strong sunlight, which instantly highlights any imperfections. Always use a light to check before polishing, and one to check after. When you're happy that no further cutting or refinement is needed, you can move on to polishing the next area.
Learn even more…
For more information on removing other defects, including the lowdown on paint types, compounds, polishers, and some top tips to get you started, check out our Basic Guide to Machine Polishing here.