Here’s How To Polish a Car Like a Pro

Enjoy the detailing.

byCorey Forde|
Cleaning & Detailing photo

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Believe it or not, there are people who actually enjoy detailing their cars—people who delight in the process and who enjoy spending the time to polish every surface of their vehicle. It’s tedious, but they love it. And we know those people exist because we’re those people. 

That might sound like torture for you, but there are some pretty great reasons to polish your car, such as preserving your paint and being a big ego boost because, afterward, you can cruise around town in a clean car. Oh yeah, you know you see me.

You could pay someone to polish your car, but because the process is pretty straightforward, you can also do it yourself. Either way, it isn’t taxing, as long as you know the basics. So hop aboard; The Drive’s awesome info team is here to teach you the ins and outs of polishing a car so you’ll be riding clean in no time.

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Car Polishing Basics

Estimated Time Needed:  Approximately two hours, depending on the weather, the size of your vehicle, the age of the vehicle, and its color. 

Skill Level: Beginner

Vehicle System: Exterior 

What Does it Mean to Polish a Car?  

Car polish is a mid liquid abrasive that fills and smooths many exterior imperfections that occur naturally (or not) over time. Polish also fixes the issue of oxidation and paint fade, and it’s especially important when dealing with older cars, which often have lacquer paint jobs. 

Common Car Polishing Problems

Polishing a car is pretty easy, but you can really mess up the paint if you’re not careful. Here are a few of the pitfalls most commonly associated with car polishing. 

  • No matter how you’re polishing, you can overwork the polish in an area. The process of polishing is designed to heat up the paint, so it’s important not to spend too much time in one spot or you’ll fry the paint.
  • Some people get a little overzealous and try to coat the entire vehicle with polish before spending any time working it into the paint. Don’t be that guy. The only thing that applying too much polish will accomplish is creating a big, dried up mess for you to clean up later.

Car Polishing Safety

Working on your car can be dangerous and messy, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to ensure you don’t die, get maimed, or lose a finger and that you keep your jeans, shirt, and skin spotless—hopefully.

  • Avoid getting polish and other cleaning solutions on your skin. They can cause rashes or burns.
  • If you’re using an electric rotary polisher, it’s essential to keep your hair, jewelry, clothing, pets, and anything else you care about away from the spinning disc. It’s not a saw, but it’ll tangle with loose materials such as hair in a hurry.
  • Most car wash and car care products are safe for the environment, but it’s still a good idea not to carelessly dispose of any polishing byproducts.
  • Working in a covered space can be great to help protect your new polish job and prevent premature drying, but don’t try working in an enclosed space where fumes can accumulate.
Sometimes, good old elbow grease is best., DepositPhotos

Everything You’ll Need To Polish A Car

Fortunately, polishing a car doesn’t take an army of different tools and supplies, but you will need a few things to get started. We’re not psychic, nor are we snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done.

Tools List

Parts List 

Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)

You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking that’s well-ventilated. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.

Here’s How To Polish A Car

Grab your supplies and park the vehicle in a shaded spot, if at all possible. Polishing isn’t difficult, but you’ll need to give yourself all the time you can to spread the polish and work it into the paint before it dries. 

With that out of the way, let’s get into the details!

Polish a Car By Hand

  1. Remove any nearby objects that don’t need to be polished. Even if you’re working by hand, polishing a vehicle is a messy business and you don’t want to make a mess of everything around you.
  2. Wash your car. Make sure to clean away dirt and debris. Rinse thoroughly with water and dry with a microfiber cloth to remove as much moisture as possible.
  3. Put a small amount of polish on the applicator pad. Since it’s like a sponge, the pad will absorb quite a bit of polish, but you’ll be able to cut back as you work.
  4. Working in small sections, spread the polish into the paint in regular, circular motions
  5. Using a clean microfiber cloth, buff the polish into a shine, area by area. 

Polish a Car With a Rotary Polisher 

  1. Move or mask anything that isn’t going to be polished. Using a rotating polisher is extremely messy.
  2. Wash your car and rinse thoroughly with clean water. Do not dry the car.
  3. Install a new polishing pad on the rotary tool and apply a decent amount of polish to a small area of your vehicle.
  4. Using the rotating polisher, spread the polish across the area you’re working with.

    a. Keep the spinning wheel as close to parallel to the surface as possible.b. Apply constant pressure with the polisher and move evenly across the surface of the car.c. The vehicle’s clear coat will heat up and will become warm to the touch. This is when scratches and other damage will begin disappearing.d. As the polish is absorbed and removed by the polishing pad, the newly shined paint will start to show. As this happens, move to a new area and repeat the process.

  5. As you move from area to area, you may notice that the polishing pad becomes caked with polish and other detritus. Take care to rinse the pad throughout the process.
  6. Use a microfiber cloth to dry carefully and thoroughly.

You just saved money and time by polishing your own vehicle. Way to go!

Don't work the same spot for too long., DepositPhotos

Pro Tips To Polish A Car

The Drive’s editors have spent our fair share of time polishing cars and fixing botched polish jobs done by people who don’t care to get a job done right. We’ve picked up a few helpful tips over that time that we’d love to share with you here.

  • Work in a shaded area. Shade or a covered space will give you more time to work the polish solution before it dries and becomes a mess.
  • Move quickly and evenly across the surfaces of the car. Spending too much time in one spot can heat up and damage the paint.
  • Keep your polishing pad clean. Gunk and polish residue can build up and scratch your paint
  • Wear old clothing and avoid working near anything that can’t get wet or dirty.  
  • Avoid the edges of the panel you’re working with. The paint can be burned off easily. 
  • Don’t stay in one spot for too long. You will burn your paint. It’s crucial to remember this to avoid a pricey invoice for a new paint job. 
  • Some available polishing kits will provide directions in stages—usually four at max. The higher stages will most likely direct you to repeat the process over a few more times, while upgrading the pads provided, or using different compounds. Most kits will recommend going to Stage 2 at minimum. On lighter colored cars, Stage 2 is just fine. On darker colored cars, or older cars, I recommend going to the final stage as directed. This will make the final result look much better. 

Life Hacks To Polish A Car

The phrase “work smarter, not harder” applies to polishing a car just as it does to anything else. Spend your time wisely and don’t spend money that you don’t have to.

  • Only use small amounts of polish. It goes a long way and being frugal will save money and net a better result.
  • If your paint is in terrible shape, you may need to have parts of it repaired before polishing, or you could end up with bald spots.
  • Work with clean tools. It’s easy to end up rubbing dirt into your vehicle’s paint.


In this video, Larry from AMMO NYC gives an in depth breakdown of the entire process, and explains the reasoning and intricacies behind it. 

FAQs About How to Polish a Car

You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers! 

Q. How Much Does It Cost To Polish A Car?

A. A professional polish can cost anywhere between $50 and $200 or more, depending on the type of car you have, the quality of the shop doing the polish, and the level of wash/detail you’ve chosen.

On the other hand, opting to polish yourself can save big cash. You probably have some of the things you’ll need on hand already, such as a hose and a chamois cloth or microfiber towel. You can expect to spend up to $100 or so to do the job yourself, but that money will buy enough supplies to polish a few times.

Q. How Often Do You Need To Polish A Car?

A. Your car is your baby, apart from your human and fur babies, so we get it, and we understand that you want to keep it looking as pristine as possible. Even so, you should only be polishing your car every 3-4 months. It’s not good for the paint, it’s a waste of time, and you’ll spend money unnecessarily.

Q. How Can Polishing Harm the Paint? 

A. Polishing compounds are abrasive and strip away thin layers of your paint. Continuing to do this over short periods of time can ruin the finish and make your paint extremely weak. This leads to chips, easier scratching, and other issues. 

Q. What’s the Difference Between Polishing and Buffing? 

A. Polishing and buffing are extremely similar, and are sometimes used interchangeably. There’s even a debate among the detailing community on if there is actually a difference! For the most part, the polishing process is known to require coarser compounds, which strip a bit more clear coat and paint compared to buffing. The decision to buff or polish depends on the car and its condition. If you’re interested, check out our guide on How To Buff A Car.

Q. Does it Matter if I Decide to Buff Instead of Polish? 

A. For the average person doing this job on their own, with no professional experience, no. A vast majority of the time, you will achieve the same outcome when polishing or buffing. The choice is yours. The processes are basically the same. It sometimes comes down to the age of your car, the color, and the condition of the paint. 

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