When it comes to your vehicle’s paint, there are a lot of issues that can affect the clarity and shine. Scratches, gouges, clouding, poor refinish techniques, oxidation, excessive surface texture (orange peel), swirl marks and the like are just some of the few things among many that can have an adverse effect on your car’s finish. In today’s post, we’ll try to clear up some of the confusion as it relates to paint correction and surface refinement by illustrating some of the common issues you may see when detailing your car, and what we consider best-practices for correcting those issues the right way.

First things first is to identify what issues you have, and what you’re trying to remedy. It’s important to note that some of the terms used to describe an issue are interchangeable and often used to refer to multiple types of blemishes. They can vary widely based on who you are speaking with; what we may define as a swirl mark, others may consider a hologram or even “spider web” scratches. We’ll use pictures to illustrate the individual terms, but keep in mind, there are many different ways to describe what you or your customers are seeing.


System 51 - Swirl Mark

Swirl marks are most commonly caused by a rotary style polisher being used improperly. Rotary polishers are very powerful, effective tools, but when used incorrectly can often cause more damage than they are repairing. What you are typically seeing with a swirl mark is a rotary polisher that had too much pressure being applied to one side of the pad, the RPM setting set too high (or too low), or failure to properly follow the correct steps recommended in the polishing process. To avoid leaving a swirl mark behind when using a rotary style polisher, it is important to remember these facts:

  • Always keep polishing pads as flat as possible to the painted surface. Applying more pressure to one side versus the other, or riding the edge of the pad can create excessive heat that mars the surface and in turn leaves behind a swirl mark.

  • Whichever compounding and polishing product you decide to use, it is important to follow the manufacturer’s suggested speed/RPM settings. Spinning the pad too fast can create excessive heat and friction leaving behind a swirl mark.

  • Follow the recommended steps. Many compounds and polishes have specific steps designed to incrementally remove surface imperfections by stepping down the aggressiveness in each step. Jumping and/or skipping steps does not allow the products to work the surface properly and can leave behind not only swirl marks, but more difficult to remove pad marks as well.


System 51 - Spider Webbing

“Spider Web” scratches, or towel scratches are the most common type of surface imperfections you’ll encounter when correcting the paint on a car, boat or other type of vehicle. They come from a variety of different places: rough or dirty towels, dirty wash mitts/sponges/towels, machine car washes, dirty polishing pads, etc. They are typically shallow, topical scratches that are most easily seen as a halo-effect around a light source (i.e. the sun, inspection light, etc.). Because they are considered a minor imperfection, it is recommended to use a medium grade polish and polishing pad to remove them from the surface.


System 51 - Oxidation

Oxidation typically happens when the clear coat and/or paint has been neglected to the point of degradation and it begins to delaminate from the substrate (paint, primer, or panel below it). As long as the oxidation is topical (has not worn through the clear and/or paint) it can usually be remedied with compounding and polishing. However, if it gets as bad as pictured above, where the clear coat is completely compromised through to the base coat, then the only remedy is to repaint.

ORANGE PEEL (Surface Texture)

System 51 - Orange Peel

Orange peel is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when the surface of your paint has a texture to it that resembles the peel of an orange. It is a product of painting or refinishing and is caused my drops of paint building up higher in certain areas and lower in others as the paint and/or coating is being applied to the surface. The best way to remedy orange peel is by utilizing a very fine grit sand paper to “knock down” or flatten the texture on the surface. From there you would use your compounding and polishing pads to remove the sanding scratches, and bring the shine and reflection back to the surface. Take note though, this is not a job for a novice. We’ll cover the details on texture removal in another post. There are a lot of aspects to take into consideration when attempting to remove surface texture and should only be considered once you feel you have a strong grasp of everything involved.

Keep in mind, when you are compounding and polishing, you are effectively removing coating material (clear coat, paint, etc.) from the surface. By “removing” a scratch, you are actually leveling the surrounding material to the lowest point in that scratch. With that being said, take caution when compounding and polishing. It is very easy to polish, or burn, through a paint job, especially around corners and edges where coating material is thinnest. In addition to that, most new cars come from the factory these days with a very thin coating of paint/clear coat. Pay special attention when polishing on factory paint jobs, for once you burn through, the only remedy is to then repaint that section. Most professional detailers will use a specialty tool called a Dry Film Thickness (DFT) gauge (also called a Coating Thickness Gauge) to determine how much paint is actually on the surface and if it is safe to polish.

While not intended to cover every issue you may come across in your detailing endeavors, we hope this helped clarify some of the more common issues and misconceptions associated with surface refinement. Look for future posts where we’ll take an in-depth look at buffing, compounding and polishing techniques, the most common and best tools to use for specific jobs, and even more involved topics like color sanding and major defect removal.

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