As mentioned in the March issue, two of the International Detailing Association’s Certification Tests — the “Paint Correction and Protection” and the “Detailing Terminology” tests — contain an extensive overlap of knowledge. Thus, for this last entry of the Study Guide, I will finish the discussion of vehicle paint that covers both of these tests.

In this month’s column, I will cover three areas related to paint: paint technology, equipment for paint correction and protection, and chemicals used for paint.


Modern automotive paint systems fall into two basic categories: single stage and basecoat-clear coat.

Both systems start with applications of undercoats to the substrate, which is the generic name of the material to be painted. These days, substrate can be any number of materials other than sheet metal, including aluminum, plastic, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. The undercoats include sealing agents, surfacing agents, and primers, all of which prepare the substrate to receive the paint. For us detailers, who are dealing with the top surface of the paint, the exact make-up of the undercoats is not important.

The single-stage paint system involves spraying several thick layers of colored or pigmented paint onto the undercoat. The color of the paint is exactly what the final car color is intended to be. This is the system that was used for almost all cars manufactured before the 1980s.

The basecoat-clear-coat system, on the other hand, consists of two distinct layers. The first is a thin base of color. Onto this layer is sprayed multiple thick coats of clear, non-pigmented paint. Most modern factory-produced vehicles are sprayed with this paint system.

From the detailer’s perspective, there is little difference between the two paint systems when it comes to general maintenance like waxing and light polishing. However, for deeper damage, the exact type of buffing procedures that are used may be determined by the type of paint system. For example, oxidation on a single-stage paint system typically requires some kind of buffing off of the dull paint, perhaps followed by polishing or finishing to bring out the original shine.

Removing oxidation in clear coat, on the other hand, is usually impossible, since clear-coat oxidation resides within the clear layers of paint, not at the top and certainly not within the color layer. The appearance of lightly oxidized clear coats can sometimes be temporarily improved using polishing, waxing, and glazing techniques.


There is more information about this topic included in the September and October 2012 issues of this magazine. For a complete discussion, refer back to this column as it appears in those issues.

The equipment used by professional detailers for working on paint falls into two categories: simple rotary and augmented rotary.

We know the simple rotary buffer as the “high-speed” buffer, because some models can be set as high as 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) and old-school “wheel jockeys” like to rev up these machines to “get the paint hot.” Current wisdom regarding high-speed buffing is to keep the rpm below 1,800. The higher the rpm, the greater the chance of damaging the paint.

Experienced detailing technicians like the simple rotary polisher for its ability to quickly remove imperfections in the paint. Nonetheless, the most recent additions to the augmented rotary polishers are proving to be effective at removing paint imperfections. We now have dual-action polishers that spin in a rotary motion as well as oscillate, making it a great tool for removing minor imperfections, light polishing, and applying wax or sealant.

A cousin to the dual-action polisher is the orbital buffer, whose pad travels in random ellipses about the center of the head, simulating circular hand motion. It is another great tool for light polishing or wax application. New on the scene are forced-orbit and long-throw polishers that are offering yet more options for the discriminating detailer.


Vehicle paint damage can be corrected by one of three basic categories of paint-related detailing chemicals: glaze, polish, and compound. The choice of chemical depends on the extent of the damage and the desired outcome.

Glaze works to make the paint surface look better by temporarily filling in the minor imperfections and scratches. The purpose of polish is to clean and shine the paint surface using mild abrasives and solvent cleaners. Polishes come in many forms, including heavier polishes that are nearly as strong as compounds, and also mild polishes that are designed for use just before applying protection. These include swirl removers and “finishing” polishes.

A compound is a chemical for paint correction that is designed to remove moderate to heavy paint imperfections. Compounds are typically more aggressive than polishes and contain medium to strong abrasives. With the right buffing-machine pad, a compound can remove light to moderate scratches and help smooth out deeper scratches. But because a compound is so aggressive, it tends to leave behind its own minor scratches, which must be removed using a milder polish. Because compounds are the most aggressive paint correction chemical for the paint, they are typically only used when absolutely necessary.

Anytime detailing clay, polish, or compound is used, it should be followed with a protective product like wax or sealant. A wax is composed of natural or synthetic resins in a solvent base.

The resins are what provide the barrier between the paint surface and the environment. The solvent is simply the liquid that helps you apply the resins, which would otherwise be in a powder form. Wax comes in cream, paste, or liquid form.

Another category of protective products is paint sealers or sealants. The typical paint sealant uses a synthetic or polymer resin in a solvent base. The polymers are different than resins typically found in wax — once the polymers dry on the paint surface, the molecules link up in a net across the surface and form chemical bonds to the paint. The resulting layer provides better protection than wax and can last twice as long.

Speaking of durability, wax provides short- to medium-term protection, perhaps from one to six months. Sealants provide long-term protection from three to 12 months.

Another note: you may have seen the term “body shop safe” on the bottles of some of your favorite products. This is a generic term used to indicate that the chemical does not contain silicone, wax, or other ingredients that might interfere with proper adhesion during vehicle painting and thus would not be used in or near a body shop.


Most chemicals available to the detailing industry are by nature combination products. For example, most waxes have some minor polishing capability.

A common example is a cleaner-wax, which provides very light polishing capability and a protective shine in a single application.

Combination products are handy for one-step processes on vehicles with only minor paint problems or for customers who are not willing to pay for multiple paint rejuvenation steps. Keep in mind, however, that anytime two chemicals are combined, the effectiveness of each individual chemical is somewhat reduced. For example, a polish-wax product will not polish as well as a true-cut polish and will not protect as well as a simple wax.

For the best results, it is better to use the necessary products one at a time. And it is important to use the correct order of steps. For example, a vehicle with heavy oxidation should first be compounded; then polished using an appropriate mid-grade polish, swirl-removing polish, and/or finishing polish; and then protected with wax or sealant. Waxing a car immediately after compounding will hide compounding scratches that will re-appear the first time the car is washed.


The true detailing professional is distinguished by his or her ability to choose the correct chemical and tool to handle the condition of the paint. Thus, it is important to discuss typical paint finishing progressions.

Vehicle paint that is already in great condition probably only needs an application of wax, perhaps using an orbital polisher. Vehicle paint that has minor imperfections can be made to look much better by using a one-step product with your choice of augmented polisher. Better yet, a two-step approach can be taken by first polishing the paint with a simple rotary or dual-action buffer, followed by application of wax.

More extensively damaged paint will likely require a three-step procedure that starts with a good buff, using an appropriate compound or polish. Follow this with a polish step to remove any micro scratching or swirls left behind by the buffing. Finally, apply a coat of wax to protect the freshly renewed paint surface.


This concludes the study guide for the IDA certification tests. The first in the series was published in the July 2012 issue of Auto Laundry News, and additional entries appeared semi-regularly up to this month. I hope this guide has been helpful to those attempting to complete the certification process, as well as providing information to the detailing industry in general.

The International Detailing Association offers its Certified Detailer program to both members and non-members. It is the only independent certification currently available to professional detailers. The program currently consists of 10 tests that assess the taker’s background knowledge of detailing. Get more information or sign up for the tests at

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.