Image of a classic Shelby Cobra polished and shined for the 2014 SEMA show - premium paint correction.

Polish, Compound, Wax, Buff,… These terms get thrown around a lot during discussions about car detailing. Often, they are used interchangeably without regard to their real meaning. However, they all have very distinct meanings and knowing how they differ can make a world of difference. Whether you have a show car or just want to have your daily car looking it’s best, learning about the detailing process will insure that you are getting the most out of your time and money.

Before we look at the difference between these terms it is best to get an understanding of what paint correction is.

Paint Correction

Picture the painted surface of your car as a smooth, mirror like plane. Over time, dust, dirt, and other contaminants build up on that smooth surface. Unfortunately, the process of washing this dirt and dust away causes the fine particles to act like sandpaper, scratching and digging grooves into the once smooth clearcoat surface. As these fine scratches build up, the surface becomes dull and hazed. Paint correction is the use of specialized machines and polishing agents to slowly remove microscopic layers of clearcoat to once again make the surface smooth and mirror like.

A buffing or polishing machine (here the words are safely used interchangeably), is a handheld machine with a motorized spinning head. Foam or fiber pads are placed on the head and used to spread wax or polishing agents onto the painted surface.

Think of wax as makeup for your car. Though it is often applied with a buffing or polishing machine, it is simply a coating which fills in the scratches – making them harder to see. Over time the wax is worn and washed away, once again, revealing the underlying scratches. In terms of paint correction, wax is purely cosmetic. It will make your car look good for a short time, but does nothing to remove the underlying scratches.

Removing the scratches requires the slow removal of microscopic layers of clear coat to, once again, level out the surface. Compounding agents or leveling agents are specifically formulated liquids that, when added to the rotating pad of a buffing or polishing machine, act as extremely fine grit sandpaper to slowly shave down the clear coat surface.

Once the compounding agents have done the heavy lifting, a polish is then used to remove any final haze and add to the depth and clarity of the finished surface. Think of polish as an even finer grit sandpaper that is used to fine tune the newly leveled surface, revealing a beautiful, highly polished surface.

Paint Protection

Once the painted surface is perfected, it is now ready for a protective layer. Protection comes in the form of waxes and paint sealants. Waxes and sealants are applied in the same way, but offer differing types of protection. Both will protect the painted surface from acid rain, fallout, bird droppings and tree sap. A paint sealant is a synthetic polymer that will provide a high gloss finish yet will last much longer than a wax – up to a year in some cases. It was once the case that though waxes wouldn’t last as long, they would provide a higher gloss and deeper shine. However, paint sealants have come a long way in the last few years – almost making waxes obsolete. Today’s paint sealants have a higher melting point than wax, allowing them to last longer in extreme elements while still providing the depth and shine provided by a wax. Waxes can also be applied over a paint sealant – further protecting the hard work that went into your car.

Taking the sealant process one step further, we enter into the world of polymer coatings. Polymer coatings chemically bond to factory clear coat to provide a permanent protective layer. Here at AQS we specialize in a specific protective coating, Opti-Coat PRO by OPTIMUM Products. Opti-Coat PRO is a ceramic coating that is approximately 100 times thicker than typical wax and sealant products. Opti-Coat PRO is a permanent coating that will protect the factory clear coat from harsh chemicals and environmental fallout, provide increased scratch resistance, easy maintenance and permanent gloss. OPTIMUM Products is so sure about the durability of this coating that it comes with a 5 year warranty.

We can now see that the act of buffing is not synonymous with polishing, compounding, or waxing. Buffing is a generalized term for making a surface smooth and shiny. Compounding and Polishing are similar in that they fall under the paint correction umbrella, yet vary in the amount of surface that they remove. Waxing, sealing, and coating are similar in that they all offer protection for the recently corrected surface.

Each of these processes requires special tools and many years of experience to perfect. Paint correction should always be preceded by a thorough washing and claybar surface preparation to remove any surface contaminants. Any contaminants left on the surface can be picked up by the buffing agents and act like sandpaper – easily ruining a good deal of hard work.

Today’s automotive finishes are complex and designed to look good for many years with minimal effort. However, a professional detailing can bring out the true beauty of your car’s finish – sometimes making it look even better than it did when it was new! Even if you don’t plan on attempting paint correction yourself, knowing what the procedure entails will insure that you get the most out of your detailing dollar.

  1. Paint Correction is a term used for describing the process of polishing car paint using abrasive polishes to permanently remove the imperfections, swirls / scratches, from the surface. This is achieved through machine polishing.

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    I love learning about the process of seemingly every day things like car paint. There’s so much work that goes into such a seemingly simple task – waxing sealing, buffing, painting, compounding all seem like things that wouldn’t play a huge role in paint correction, but in reality play a huge role. Super interesting read – thanks for sharing!

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    Thank you so much for your in depth yet simple expaination of car paint care. I just purchased a 2007 Lexus in excellent condition with the exception of ” spider web” patternswirls in the clear coat. I spent virtually an entire weekend detailing the car including hand waxing. It looked awesome …. until I got the car back into the sunlight! All of the spider webs were still visible 🙁 Following your explanation, I compounded, polished, then waxed and…….voila! Better than new, like a baby’s bottom! I bought a $20 orbital buffer from Walk Mart and $30 in wax, compound, and polish and spent three hours to do all of these steps. Well spent time and money, I couldn’t be happier with the results. I almost forgot to mention the countless hours searching the www trying to find a straight forward answer. Thankfully I came across your blog and i was able to put an end to the madness! Thanks again, your words were like gold to me, take care!

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    Is it best to compound the car and then fix the defects? Or just do paint correction first?

  5. admin

    Great to hear! We’re glad that everything worked out for you.

  6. admin

    Generally, compounding is part of the paint correction process. We always follow the rule of starting with the least aggressive approach first and moving to stronger and stronger abrasives as necessary. As the process of paint correction is actually removing microscopic layers of clear coat, there is a finite amount (or depth) of scratching that can be corrected. The idea is to remove as little clear coat as possible while restoring the finish. Not all defects can be restored with paint correction. Best of luck and remember to take things slow!

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    That was a very interesting read and cleared up a lot of grey areas regarding cutting, polishing and waxing.Thank you.
    Regards Garry.

  8. admin

    We’re glad that you enjoyed it – thanks for the comment Garry!

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    This is very interesting article. I love learning new things when it comes to cars. Awesome!

  10. admin

    We’re glad you enjoyed it – thanks for the comment Steve!

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    93 Dodge Roadtrek van, looked fantastic when purchased few months ago, now a hundred or more tiny little rust spots, most on front of van.

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    Also has fiberglass top, what is best to clean, treat, protect top.
    And what can I do about paint?

  13. admin

    Thanks for checking in Donde! Once rust starts it can be difficult to stop. Your best bet would be to repaint the areas where the paint is failing. Short of that you can try touch-up paint. Addressing large areas with hundreds of rock chips can be achieved by applying the paint with a soft rubber paint squeegee. Once the paint has cured for a few minutes you can remove excess paint by gently rubbing with mineral spirits on a microfiber towel – being careful not to pull the paint out of the rock chips. For the fiberglass, it most likely has a clear coat applied and traditional paint correction techniques should address any oxidation issues. There are a number of consumer products available – look for marine or RV restorer.

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    I was wondering: I just did a paint job on my mustang. It looks great besides some slight orange peel and some runs. I was planning on wetsanding the entire car. Starting with 600 or 800 grit on the runs, then going 1000, 1500, and 2000 grit over the whole car. I could go up to 3000 grit if you think that would be better. My question is: would a rubbing compound be necessary after the sanding, or could move right onto a fine grit polishing compound and achieve good results over the 2000 grit sanding?

  15. admin

    Hello Gordom – thanks for the question! We typically don’t recommend that people attempt wet sanding unless they really know what they are doing and have experience with the products they are using. Having said that (and hopefully removed ourselves from the risk of someone taking our advice to you and applying it to the wrong situation), it really depends on what products you are using – as the terminology often varies between manufacturers. We suggest reading carefully the directions on the bottles of product that you intend to use to determine how much cut each product has. You’ll probably need to use a cutting compound after 2000 grit, but we recommend finishing with 3000 grit. Thanks again for the question – and best of luck! Let us know how it turns out.

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    The car detailing service offered me to include compounding for $70 (honda odyssey) , but did not use and handheld machine. He just applied with hands and sponge (compound was in box , like wax )
    He said there are scratches on the car so compound will hide / fix. He also said compounding is good once in 3 yrs
    Is it worth the price?

  17. admin

    Hello Jackie – thanks for the question! Honestly, this sounds a little suspicious to us. The process of paint correction (compounding and polishing to minimize fine scratches in the clear coat layer) on an entire vehicle really requires the assistance of a machine. It might be possible to address a small area of the vehicle by hand, but impractical on any more than that. Remember that compounds and polishes use abrasives to remove microscopic layers of clear coat to minimize or remove scratches. Waxes and sealants can be used to fill in any remaining scratches and protect the corrected surface. This diagram shows the difference between compounds or polishes and waxes, sealants, or coatings. The blue dotted line in the diagram indicates where paint correction is used to remove clear coat to below the level of most of the shallow scratches and to minimize the deeper scratches. Then, a wax or sealant can be applied to fill in any remaining scratches and leave a smooth glass-like surface.
    Diagram illustrating paint correction and wax application
    Typically, a wax will last one to three months and will get removed with the next wash. A sealant can last longer – three to six months. Once this protective layer is removed, the fine scratches that were not removed with paint correction will again be visible. At this point is necessary to re-apply a protective layer to minimize any new scratching. A permanent ceramic coating (such as Opti-Coat PRO) can be applied to a corrected surface to provide a permanent protection.
    So, as for a hand correction lasting for three years? We’re not convinced. They most likely hand applied a polish (minimal abrasive for very minor correction) with a wax or sealant (for shine and protection). And was it worth the price? This depends on what else was provided. If it was $70 for a full detail as well as a polish/wax, then that was a pretty good deal. If it was an additional $70 on top of the cost of the detail, then perhaps not the best deal – but not horrible. Chances are, you received a polish/wax application at a price that one would expect to pay. We’re not sure that you received a true paint correction – depending on the level of correction, this would be much more costly. A true paint correction can take hours, if not days – and is usually assessed at an hourly rate.

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    Hi. I hope this thread is still active.
    I have invested in an orbital buffing machine with a few different pads. I currently have cleaner wax and deep crystal carnuba wax. I know I need to get some cut & polish to use as the first step in the process.
    I usually hand apply and polish the paint using the cleaner wax and then apply the carnuba wax to seal it off (all by hand). It works but it can be better which is why I’ve bought a machine buffer.
    May you recommend or suggest the best way to go about doing this properly? My aim is to bring back the showroom shine to reasonably good paint.

  19. admin

    Hello Michael, Yup – still active!
    Though, answering your question is extremely difficult. Our paint correction specialists have spent years learning their craft and honing their skills. We could probably write a book to answer your question! Paint correction is really about feel – experienced detailers can feel what the machine is doing. They almost instinctively know when to be more aggressive and when to back off. We’d suggest learning about your machine by first exploring YouTube – there are a lot of great “how to” videos out there. Then practice on a panel that you aren’t worried about – any local body shop probably has a pile of old scrap metal laying around the back of the shop. Pick up a fender that you can play with first. We always suggest using the least aggressive method first and gradual step up if you need it. Remember that friction and heat can damage paint very quickly! Best of luck!

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    Should you wet sand before clear coat is applied on a new paint job? Also what is this clay thing about?

  21. admin

    Hello Mike – Thanks for the questions. Sanding base coat isn’t usually recommended – unless you have an issue in the base coat that you are trying to correct. In which case you would re-apply more base coat in the areas that you corrected. Though the ultimate decision comes down to the paint system that you are using – we always suggest following the manufacturer’s recommendations. And, automotive clay is just that, a clay-like substance that when gently rubbed over a lubricated painted surface will remove microscopic contaminants and debris that are embedded in the cured clear coat. This is an important step when polishing clear coat as polishing over this debris will end up picking it up into your polishing wheel and could cause more scratching. We’ve written an article about automotive clay that you might find informative. Hope this helps!

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    hello, i just clayed, compounded and polished my car. Should i wash it before i apply a wax?

    Thank you

  23. admin

    Hello Joe – Thanks for the question! And to answer – yes, you should give the car a quick, gentle wash before applying wax or sealant. You’ll want to wash to remove any of the remaining compound and polish residue before applying your top coat. Thanks again!

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    I am from India & in car care business for a very long time. In India Each one of body shop uses wet sanding & polishing compound for a new paint. But in Canada, body shops does not use wet sanding & polishing compound. Which way is better, I could not understand.

  25. admin

    Hello Dinesh – thanks for the question! Unfortunately, we can’t speak to the body shop practices in India or Canada, or for the body shop down the street. We can really only speak to our own practices with any authority. However, whichever practice is used, ultimately we all seek the same goal – a long lasting beautiful finish. Our suggestion is to follow the practices recommended by the manufacturer of the products that you are using. In our case, we spray Sherwin Williams products and follow their recommendations for finishing. Best of luck to you – and thanks again for the question!

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    Brilliant coverage!!!

  27. AQS

    Thanks Tom!