blank 05/27/11 11:12PM Cleaner, Compounds, Dr.Detail.Car Detailing

Dr Detail....Part 4

Details … Details … Details!


Rx:  Cut that out …


The Law:

Never use a “Cleaner/Compound” more aggressive than you actually need.


The correct material to work your paint surface will get the job done in a reasonable period of time without being too aggressive.  This “Law” will ensure that the job does get done while preserving as much of the original paint thickness as possible, however, there will be times when the right product is still too much.  We’ll discuss more of that later.

Abrasive cleaning

Are you still shaking in your boots after reading the Law?  Let’s look closely at abrasives and try to debunk all the hype.


This phenomenon usually falls into the same category as, “I don’t know art but I know what I like”.  Everybody likes a car that “shines”, but let’s first understand what “Shine” or “Gloss” is.  That will help us understand cleaners and compounds as well.

Scientifically speaking … OK, wake up … it won’t be that dull … “Gloss” is what you perceive when light bounces off a surface.  The flatter and smoother the surface the glossier that surface looks.  Imagine a source of white light (e.g. Drop light. Flashlight, Laser Pointer, whatever) directed at a flat surface at some angle.  If you stand on the opposite side of that surface from the light source you’ll see the light reflected because it bounces off that surface into your eye (so let’s forget the laser pointer for now).  Got that so far?  OK! 

Now image that we can measure that light at the source (and we CAN) as well as at you eye.  Since we can measure both we can compare them.  IF 100% of the light directed at the surface reaches your eye you will have “perfect” gloss.  It doesn’t get any better than that but it ALSO never gets that good!.  The reason is that for 100% of that light to reach your eye, 100% has to be reflected toward your eye, right?  This only happens if the “flat” surface is PERFECTLY flat.  In reality no surface is ever that flat but the flatter we can make a surface the glossier it will look.  Follow me?

Any disturbance of the surface will bounce some of the light away from your eye.  More or worse defects misdirect more light and less light reaches your eye making the surface look dull or less glossy.  In terms of detailing, the flatter and smoother your paint is the better it will shine.  Our job, therefore, is too smooth the paint until it is as close to perfectly flat and smooth (defect free) as possible.


Auto detailing chemists don’t only measure gloss but also what they like to call “Distinctness-Of-Image”.  That means that they want to look into the paint and see if any lettuce is stuck in their teeth after lunch.  The sharper the reflected image of their smiling faces the better the shine.  As an example, think of a nice digital photograph of your car (wife, girlfriend, dog, or the hunk next door for you ladies).  When the photo is taken with a good camera it will be sharp and distinct but taken with a cheapo it may look pixilated.  The edges are not straight and reflections are distorted.  The same effect is seen when the paint surface is orange-peeled or scratched.  To improve the sharpness you’ve got to do some quality work.

Damage Control:

Right about now, someone is asking, “Will it (the Cleaner or Compound) do any damage to my paint”.  Here’s what the Doctor has to say in return, “Your paint IS damaged.  If it isn’t damaged we should skip this step and moving on to the Glaze session”. 

Typical Problems:

You don’t have to have severe “Orange Peel” (look at the skin of an orange) or lots of scratches to have a rough surface sufficient to lower gloss.  A little oxidation will leave microscopic “nubs” on the surface – not smooth or flat.  Clean off the oxidation and now you have microscopic “pores” or “Pits” in the surface.  This is the major reason non-abrasive cleaners don’t give you the best gloss after they’ve removed the oxidation.  Scratches can be big enough to see – know of any? – or they can be so small you can’t see them.  The scratches we normally refer to as “Swirl Marks” are just extremely fine scratches usually only detectable in low light levels from a single light source like the moon or street light at night.  They make a considerable negative impact on gloss.

Other paint damage that requires abrasive cleaning include Bump marring, Acid rain & Bird dropping etching, Pitting, etc. all are damages to your paint caused by normal weathering and abnormal trauma which are usually unavoidable parts of life.  Cleaners and Compounds are abrasive, yes, but milder that what damaged your paint in the first place and will progressively minimize the existing damage until it is removed.

Types of Materials, COMPOUNDS:

There are many, many abrasive cleaners out there but those known best are “Compounds”.  These are the “Elephant Guns” of automotive cleaners.  Avoid them unless they are absolutely necessary because they will aggressively remove paint in the process of smoothing the surface.  If the paint you’re working on is on a car that hasn’t seen any care for the last 5+ years you might consider a “Compound” but hopefully you never have to do that much work.

Here are the Rules of Thumb I like to use:

Condition 1:

No gloss and oxidized paint can be dislodged by rubbing with hand

Solution 1:

Most aggressive compound (e.g. Meguiars Diamond Cut M85 or the new M105)


Condition 2:

Little to no gloss and paint is still well bonded

Solution 2:

Less aggressive compound (e.g. Meguiars Compound Power Cleaner M84)


Condition 3:

Some gloss but very rough surface

Solution 3:

Heavy Cleaner (e.g. Meguiars M04 Heavy Cut Cleaner)


Condition 4:

Good gloss but slightly rough surface (oxidized)

Solution 4:

Lightest Cleaner (e.g. Meguiars M02 Fine Cut Cleaner)


Condition 5:

Tons of gloss but could use a little help with Swirl Marks

Solution 5:

Cleaner/Glaze (e.g. Meguiars M09 Swirl Mark Remover)

Today, cleaners & compounds fall into two primary camps:

1) “Rocks in a bottle” and

2) those that break down in size as you work. 

Most manufacturers make camp #1 type products.  Where the formulation will begin cutting at a given level and continue to cut at that level until it’s expended.  That’s in keeping with tradition and still very effective.  The result is a fine pattern of cutting marks left behind in a clean surface.  That, too, is OK because our original problem is now gone and we have a lesser problem to deal with. 

The 2nd class of products start cutting at one level and finish as they dry up at a completely different, finer level because the abrasives break down (or ”up” if you will) by the mechanical effort exerted during the cutting process.  They tend to remove and refine their own marks and leave a much finer pattern when finished.  The drawback is that the time that they spend at the higher levels of aggression may not be long enough to get the job done in one pass.  This has seldom been the case in the Doctor’s experience but it’s the only drawback he can think of.  Otherwise they may require a moment longer working time but they reduce the Cleaner/Glaze step significantly.


·    Always work with a clean surface, but skip the Clay Bar if you’re going to cut.

·    As always work with clean fabrics no matter how bad your paint.

·    You’ll want microfiber to wipe down your cleaned surface.

Working by Hand:

You can apply the material to your fabric or the paint … your choice.  Use material sparingly and work small areas about 2 feet square.  If heavily oxidized work in a still smaller area.  Work with a circular motion and press down.  You are asking the cleaning material to “cut” the paint surface.  With the proper material selection the cut will be finer than the problem and will result in a net surface improvement.  It is always a matter of reducing the problem, usually in one of more steps, until it’s gone.  The heavier the problem the more steps until the surface is as flat and smooth as possible.

Working by Machine:

If using a machine, a Rotary is the best choice.  Any machine with an orbital motion will not be as efficient.  You can get the job done if you have no choice and a machine is better than by hand but rotary is the motion of choice.  Dual Action (DA) polishers offer a rotary motion but easily stall out if any pressure is applied while working leaving you with an orbital.  Wonderful machines but a rotary will do this job better.

For heavy compounding use a wool pad.  Every little fiber on a wool pad will cut along with the compound.  Use that to your advantage.  You will not need as aggressive a compound on a wool pad as you would on a foam pad. 

You can start by laying a thin line to cleaner down on your paint about a foot long and picking it up on your pad as you work.  Since machine rotate clockwise, to do this just lift the NE corner of the pad a little off the surface and run it over the line of material.  If done properly (practice) you can avoid most of the sling and splatter.

If you’re using a DA (Dual Action) type polisher, put the material on the pad, NOT the surface, place the pad on the surface and turn on the machine.  Hence – no splatter!

Apply ample material to pad or paint to stay open or wet for as long as it takes to do the job in each 2’x 2’area.  If it dries up on you before the problem is solved your skimping a little too much.  If you find that your pad is loading up and needs to be cleaned frequently, you’re using too much material.  Most of you will fall into this category.  Always use less than you think you need until proven wrong.

Machine No-Nos:

A word here about buffer/polishers … to the Novice they can be scary.  For years you’ve heard that buffers can 1)  Burn you paint & 2)  Cut through your paint.  That’s absolutely true, however, professionals around the world use these machine every day to come up with the most brilliant and beautiful paint creations that God has granted man to be a part of!

How do they manage the Beast?  It’s simple, really, and the Doctor has the drug!

1).  The Burn

What does it take for anything to burn?  Where are our firefighters when you need them?  You need fuel and a source of ignition (in deference to our Firefighters, when discussing forest or structure fires you also need Oxygen but not all “burning” or “decomposition” requires Oxygen).  What does the source of ignition do?  It raises the temperature of the fuel until a chemical reaction can take place resulting in decomposition.  So … paint doesn’t “burn” or “decompose” until it gets hot enough.  A buffer can change the temperature of the paint through fiction until it decomposes, especially using a wool pad, high machine speed and abrasive material.  The result is a discoloration of the paint. 

So, how do you avoid it?  Lift up the buffer and feel the paint!  If it’s too hot to touch you’re doing something wrong.  Keep the pad moving across the surface you’re buffing to avoid heating it up.  It doesn’t have to be fast, just keep it moving.  Ta Da!  No burn!

2).  Cutting Through

Your paint was once liquid.  No surprise there, right?  When it was wet it was applied to flat areas and curved areas alike.  The hardest curves were the most difficult to cover because the paint tended to flow away from them as it leveled out.  It’s like balancing a ball on the tip of a pencil.  So, on the sharpest edges of your car’s surface the paint is relatively thin compared to flat areas.  This is where you are most likely to cut through your paint.  (FREE TIP:  Watch a detailer and see how he handles edges or corners with his polisher.  If he spends significant time running the buffer over the edges – find another Detailer).  When you paint a room, don’t you cut in the edges around window and ceiling with a small brush and extra care?  Do the same with your paint.  Finish edges and corners by hand.

CAUTION – Think About It First:

Abrasives only remove.  They can’t add paint where it’s missing like in a scratch.  So think about it.  To smooth out a scratch you have to remove some more paint.  How much is OK and how much is too much?  If it’s going into a show to be judged you’ll want to remove as much as it takes to level the paint to the bottom of the scratch and how much paint remains is of less importance.  For the rest of us the best advice is to just settle for improving the appearance of the scratch.  If it disappears to the glance of a stranger, even if you can still find it, you’ve probably reached the best compromise.  When machining, tip your pad up a little so that all the pad motion is across the scratch not with it.  Working across the scratch will tend to round the edges, helping it disappear, whereas working in the same direction as the scratch will tend to deepen it.

Let’s stop here and restate the Doctor’s Law of Cleaning.  “Use the least abrasive material that will do the job in a reasonable period of time.”  You may quote me any time you like.  My 1972 Datsun 240Z still has its original paint.  Need I say more?  Selection of the best cleaner depends on paint condition and the equipment you have available.  Generally compounds require a machine but with proper successive steps good results can be achieved by hand as well.

Types of Materials, CLEANERS:

Let’s briefly look at Cleaners which are still abrasive yet fall into classes of aggression that can be far less than that of a Compound.

Cleaners are milder in aggression than compounds.  Look at my Rule of Thumb again.  If you have conditions 3 through 5 you don’t need a compound.  Find a mild paint cleaner instead and preserve the paint thickness (Meguiars make a nice range of Cleaners with their M02, Fine Cut, M01, Medium Cut and M04, Heavy Cut Cleaner array).  The mildest of cleaners may leave no marks behind at all.  Cleaners can also be used with a foam pad.  Now is the time to avoid the cut of the wool fibers if you don’t need it.

Types of Materials, CLEANER WAXES:

Cleaners can be found “neat”, sans wax”, (“sin cera” the root of our word “sincere” – look it up) or with wax., known as Cleaner Waxes.  Unless you have virtually zero time to spend on your car or are trying to pound out 25 cars a day you should consider leaving Cleaner Waxes on the shelf. 

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with them but consider the following.  You may have a lightly oxidized paint and so you grab the Cleaner Wax for an hour before heading for a date.  As you start working the paint you see the oxidation cleaning up but it takes a bit of work.  Know why?  The wax and glazes in the formula are lubricating the surface and interfering with the cutting action.  OK, now you’re getting to the point where the 2’x 2’ area is coming to a finish and you’re expecting the wax to build and leave a lot of gloss.  Well the gloss is there but maybe a little disappointing.  Know why?  The residual abrasive is trying to take it back off again!  See what I mean?  OK, OK.  You only had an hour before your date and you gave the paint some protection.  Good for you!  No, I mean it!  But when a high quality finish is desired, do each step separately.

There’s no RTL for this – Stand back and think it through:

Finally, when is the right product still too aggressive?.  If the paint problem that you want to work out is in the wrong place, the material you would have to use to remove it may leave you with a bigger problem.  You have to be willing to ask, “Is the problem so onerous to me that I just can’t live with it and am I willing to jeopardize the paint job to try and remove it”?  How deep IS that scratch?  How thin IS the paint under those small scratches?

This just happened this week.  A silver paint job had a few innocent looking scratches.  Owner: “Will they come out”? 

Detailer: Sure, but do they have to?  I think I see some discoloration among them that could be primer”. 

Owner: “Well, try anyway”. 

Detailer: “(unprintable)”!

One pass and the discoloration popped up bigger than before. 

Detailer:  Yep, primer.  Shoulda’ lived with the scratches”.

Let the shine begin!

So if you need to cut … do it!  Gloss doesn’t just happen like S___ does.  There is probably no step that develops gloss as effectively as the cutting and smoothing step if required. 

Remember, this is the first step in a process and you don’t have a finished surface yet.  You’ll have pad, compounding, cutting and/or swirl marks – BUT – the original problem is gone and the residual problem will easily be dealt with in our next session on Cleaner/Glazes.  The following steps will build on the results of a good cut and the results can be spectacular.

Please submit your questions for this column at and we’ll cover them in a future column.  You can also submit your own testimonials and comments about the subjects covered here and we’ll try to publish them as well.

Thanx, until next week,

Dr. Detail

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