Auto Detailing Paint Correction Explained: Learn How the Process Works

Paint Correction Explained for Auto Detailing Professionals and Vehicle Owners by OCDCarCare Los Angeles Training Classes.

By Christopher Brown of 

Detailing Paint Correction explained simply and effectively… not the easiest task, but we’ll give it a go.

Successful auto detailing businesses clearly define and effectively explain their paint correction services to all potential clients. It’s arguably one of the most critical steps in sales, customer service, and client satisfaction for all paint correction services.

If vehicle owners clearly understand the types of services offered by detailing businesses, then both parties communicate easily. This allows vehicle owners and professional detailers to find and agree on appropriate services, setting straightforward expectations. Lastly, informed consumers provide insights, helping detailers to find the best paint correction level for each vehicle and its owner’s specific preferences.

It would seem simple to find a consistent definition of paint correction in auto detailing, but it’s not. If you individually polled a group of 40 random detailers, their answers may yield between 30-40 different definitions.

The goal of this article, for both vehicle owners and auto detailing professionals, is to:

  • simply and comprehensively explain what professional auto detailing paint correction is
  • explore how the detailing paint correction processes works
  • explain the aesthetic benefits of paint correction for vehicle surfaces

What is Paint Correction in Auto Detailing? | Defining the Process

Auto Detailing Paint Correction (aka Buffing or Polishing) is one or more processes which permanently remove imperfections from vehicle surfaces. Specialized polishing machines remove a small amount of the paint’s clear coat, restoring a bright, reflective, smooth finish.

Common automotive surface imperfections, also called paint defects, include light to medium scratches or small imperfections from environmental contaminants which damaged the top layer of paint: the clear coat. (a more comprehensive explanation of the process is provided below)

A very CRITICAL distinction of paint correction, polishing, or buffing is the phrase and concept of permanent defect removal.

Defects are permanently (forever) removed from automotive surfaces via paint correction. This is an important distinction because some auto detailing products and processes temporarily hide defects, leaving them for rediscovery when the product wares off.

The temporary hiding of defects frequently occurs with the application of a glaze, a product exclusively designed to temporary fill surfaces. Filling or covering up of defects also occurs with many wax or sealant products.

Paint Correction methods remove defects on many automotive and vehicle surfaces. The most common paint correction surfaces include: automotive clear coat, single stage paint, exterior clear plastics (headlights or taillights), and gel coat.

Common Vehicle Surface Defects Removed by Auto Detailing Paint Correction

The list of all automotive surface defects, potentially removed by detailing paint correction, is entirely too long to include here.

The following list features of the most common defects found on daily driven vehicles. Walk the parking lot of any large home improvement store and you’ll quickly find these common surface defects on many vehicles.

The most common defects removed by auto detailing paint correction to improve a vehicle’s appearance include:

  • Swirl Marks (small all direction scratches)
  • Marring (dull abrasion which leaves the surface looking matte/whiteish)
  • RIDS (Random Isolated Deep Scratches)
  • Bird Etchings (light to medium)
  • Water Spots aka Mineral Etchings (medium to heavy)
  • Paint or Plastic Transfer Marks (friction from an impact transfers paint or plastic onto a surface)
  • Paint Oxidation (light to medium)
  • Sanding Marks left over from the Factory

For a deeper understanding of these defects, and many others frequently found on automotive surfaces, read the OCDCarCare Article Common Auto Detailing Paint Defects & Issues: Identification & Explanation.

The Benefits of Paint Correction to Automotive Surfaces

The positive aesthetic benefits of Paint Correction (Polishing or Buffing a vehicle) are many, including:

  • Enhanced Color: A Brighter & more Vibrant Color.
  • Gloss: How well a surface reflects light and appears shiny
  • Reflectivity (distinction of image): The ability, and accuracy, of a surface to reflect objects
  • ** Clarity: The quality of a surface’s transparency **
  • Best Preparation of the Surface for Optimal Bonding of Ceramic Nano Coatings or other protection such as waxes or sealants

‘Clarity,’ the measure of a surface’s transparency, has a set of asterisks around it for a reason.

If the surface of a paint layer is not refined, then you cannot accurately judge the level of transparency (clarity) of the layer being examined.

The only way to judge the ‘clarity’ of clear coat is with a refined, smooth, and glossy surface, free of all defects. This is the only surface condition which allows light to accurately illuminate the clear coat’s true state. Only after refining the outermost facing surface of clear coat, can light penetrate inside, revealing the layer’s full and true optical characteristics. Only these conditions enable the human eye to examine the full layer of clear coat and inspect its level of ‘clarity,’ (aka transparency) top to bottom.

Therefore, what most detailers define as ‘clarity’ is simply a highly refined, defect free, and glossy surface.

Most major OEM vehicle manufacturers use high-quality clear coats sourced from major automotive paint manufacturers. Therefore, the clarity of the paint is generally not an issue and doesn’t require much discussion. This fact has not prevented the term ‘clarity’ from becoming a common buzz word for paint correction processes and product marketing. Even though the concept of ‘clarity’ is not an applicable in those contexts since the product alone does not impart more transparency to the clear coat.

How the Auto Detailing Paint Correction Process Works

Prior to automotive detailing paint correction, surfaces require proper preparation to ensure both accurate evaluation and optimal results.

Critical Surface Preparation Steps Prior to the Correction Processes

Prior to polishing surfaces, the entire vehicle requires a thorough cleaning with a minimum series of washing and decontamination steps. This allows auto detailers to reveal the actual state of surfaces, without surface contamination or products that may hide imperfections.

Additionally, thoroughly removing all surface contamination ensures the highest quality work. Otherwise the contamination is removed later during the physical paint correction phase. If left on surfaces contamination has the ability to diminish paint correction’s quality, decrease efficiency, and cause more work– effectively raising service costs for vehicle owners.

The following steps prepare vehicle surfaces for automotive paint correction:

  • Thorough Washing of all surfaces & crevices to remove any loose surface contamination
  • A physical decontamination using a clay bar, or synthetic clay mitt, to remove topical bonded contamination
  • A ferrous iron removal step which pulls tiny (baby powder like) particles of metal out of the porous paint system & wheels
  • Spot removal of any Tar, Tree Sap, or other physical contamination stuck to surfaces after wash & decon steps above
  • A final inspection to ensure no contamination is present on vehicle surfaces

How Paint Correction Removes Defects from Automotive Surfaces

As discussed, Paint Correction permanently removes defects from automotive surfaces via abrasion. A detailer uses a combination of machine, pad, and correction liquid to remove defects contained within the clear coat (top) layer of the vehicle’s paint system.

The amount of clear coat removal, necessary to refine a vehicle’s surface, is completely dependent on the average depth of the defects contained within that clear coat. Since every vehicle surface is unique it requires independent evaluation to determine the amount of defects to remove.

A safe approach to paint correction is to find the appropriate level of defect removal which is the least aggressive with maximum impact, according to the job’s defined goal.

In other words, leave as much Clear Coat on the vehicle as possible to achieve the customer’s goal.

Clear Coat’s only function is to protect the Base Coat (color coat) beneath it. That’s it!

This means clear coat is VITAL to the long-term protection (anti-corrosion, etc.) and beauty of painted panels.

Therefore, for responsible auto detailers, the goal is to preserve as much of the vehicle’s clear coat as possible. This ensures the longevity of the customer’s paint system. Unnecessarily removing too much clear coat is detrimental to the vehicle’s long-term paint longevity. If too much is removed during paint correction there is no replacement, even if applying a ceramic coating.

This concept of detailing paint preservation is further reinforced since most auto manufacturers have applied significantly less clear coat to OEM finishes over the twenty years.

For single stage paint, the paint correction goal is similar. Remove as little paint as possible to obtain the maximum progress toward the defined customer goals. However, single stage paint only contains one layer of paint to remove; there is no clear coat. That’s why a used pad’s color matches the color of the vehicle’s paint system.

Finding The Appropriate Level of Correction for Vehicle Surfaces

For detailers to effectively evaluate the proper level of paint correction required for a job, they must properly identify & understand nuances about the following:

  • The types of defects which exist upon the surface
  • The severity of these defects
  • The concentration of the individual defect types
  • The depth at which these defects exist within the clear coat
  • The amount of paint on the painted substrate (panel composition)
  • The level of defects which require removal

Detailers, who know and understanding these variables, can quickly test a paint system to find the best combination for each vehicle. They key is using the optimal combo of machine, pad, product, and technique for maximum defect removal, while removing as little clear coat as possible.

Goals of Paint Correction for Professional Auto Detailers

The goals of paint porrection services depend on customer needs & wants, physical factors of the vehicle, a detailing company’s business model and their service capabilities.

Generally, auto detailing paint correction project goals depend on:

  • The Customer’s Goal or Vison for the Finished Vehicle
  • The Service Budget of the Customer
  • The Starting Condition of the Surfaces
  • The Knowledge & Capability of the Detailer’s Paint Correction/Polishing/Buffing Skills
  • The Type of Protection Added After Paint Correction Services

Detailers who consider all these aspects of paint correction, should have enough information to effectively create a custom service plan for any vehicle.

Typical Stages, Levels, or Steps of Auto Detailing Paint Correction

Within auto detailing there are varying levels of paint correction, which also referred to as stages or steps. The level of paint correction required for a vehicle depends on starting surface condition, type of protection added after, and the customer’s desired result.

Included here are the most popular levels/stages/steps of auto detailing paint correction that exist in the industry. The level of effectiveness of these processes may vary depending on each businesses offerings and skill. Therefore, specifics mentioned here are averages, not absolutes.

Detailing Paint Correction Explained: Learn how the process works to improves vehicle surfaces by OCDCarCare Los Angeles Detailing Training Classes.

The One Step Paint Correction Process

A professional auto detailing One Step Paint Correction is the process of combining one machine, one pad, and one correction liquid together in a single procedure to remove paint defects. The moment any variable between the machine, pad, or liquid combination changes, and is used within an additional  process, the ‘one step’ becomes a multiple step paint correction.

The goal of a One Step Paint Correction, like all polishing, depends on the goals of the overall paint correction project. These variables are listed above, in the previous section.

A one step paint correction is limited in and will not remove all defects from most automotive surfaces. It will only remove all defects from vehicles with very agreeable paint systems that have very few light defects. These vehicles amount to less than 1% of all vehicles on the road.

The defect removal capability of a one step paint correction completely depends on the knowledge and skill of the detailer wielding the polisher. In general, do not expect more than 30-50% defect removal from most auto detailing businesses offering a one step paint correction.

The Two Step Paint Correction Process

A professional auto detailing Two Step Paint Correction typically divides the duties of paint correction into two distinct phases or steps:

  • step one: heavy defect removal aka compounding
  • step two: refinement aka finish polishing

The first step, compounding, is commonly much more labor intensive of the two processes because it’s focus is removing the heavier and/or deeper defects. This is why pricing for a two step paint correction is significantly higher, and takes longer to complete, than a one step paint correction.

The second step, finish polishing, refines the hard work of the compounding step. Finish polishing is the most rewarding process that benefits both detailers and vehicle owners. It’s the ‘sexy step’ that showcases all surface refinement including color, gloss, and distinction of image. As a result a two step paint corrections frequently transform vehicles to look their all-time best!

Like the one step, the capability of defect removal of a two step paint correction is completely dependent on the knowledge and skill of the detailer wielding the polisher. In general, do not expect more than 50-85% defect removal from most auto detailing businesses.

‘Gloss or Paint Enhancement’ Paint Polishing Services

Some auto detailing business offer an entry level paint polishing service known as either a ‘gloss enhancement’ or a ‘paint enhancement.’

A ‘gloss enhancement’ is designed as a lower cost and quick turn around paint polishing option for consumers. A reason why its not labeled as a paint correction is because the focus is not defect removal. Therefore, the name is believed to limit the expectations of the customer in relation to the lower cost of services.

A gloss enhancement (paint enhancement) polishing service is intended to ‘clean up’ paint, creating a more shiny and vibrant color. Therefore, expected defect removal level may reach 20-40%, depending on surface conditions and paint system type.

However, with proper knowledge and technical proficiency, it is very possible to increase the effectiveness of the ‘gloss enhancement’ morphing it into a one step paint correction with a minimal increase to labor.

Ceramic Coatings: the Best Protection to Maximize a Paint Correction’s Aesthetics & Longevity

After paint correction, the application of a ceramic nano coating is the best choice to maximize and ensure long term beauty and protection for automotive finishes. Ceramic coatings further maximize a vehicle’s aesthetics after paint correction by enriching paint color and amplifying gloss. Most importantly, ceramic coatings provide the greatest duration and widest spectrum of non-impact related protection for painted surfaces.

Ceramic nano coatings maximize non-impact paint protection in the following areas:

  • Longevity: measured in years, not weeks or months like waxes or sealants
  • Protection Capabilities: UV, chemical, and paint strength ‘enhancement’
  • Beauty: coatings amplify paint correction results, increasing paint’s gloss levels and reflectivity
  • Hydrophobics (water behavior): make applied surfaces faster and easier to clean than ever before

The list above clearly illustrates why a ceramic coating is the most logical choice to complete any paint correction process.

In short, ceramic nano coatings magnify the beauty and provide the greatest protection to any paint correction service. Protecting a fresh paint correction without a coating is as antiquated as running your business with a landline phone. Compared to a modern smart mobile phone a landline is antiquated and completely inadequate for the demands of the modern world. That logic carries over to any protection added to a fresh paint correction, other than a ceramic nano coating.

Overview of Paint Correction for Automotive Surfaces

Hopefully this article has effectively explained the paint correction process for auto detailing professionals and consumers alike.

To review, paint correction is the permanent removal of defects from automotive surfaces via machine abrasion. Typically, two levels of paint correction exist a two step and a single step. The two step paint correction tackles much heavier and a greater quantity of defects. Because of this it tends to have a more dramatic aesthetic improvement on vehicle surfaces.

Paint correction is best performed by a skilled professional auto detailer. That detailer’s primary concern should aim to fulfill the client’s goal or vision of the vehicle. Just as important is leaving the maximum amount of clear coat on the vehicle to provide paint system longevity.

Finally, the best means of protecting a vehicle after a paint correction is the application of a ceramic nano coating. Coatings are superior to waxes and sealants in all aspects. Superior aspects include: longevity, types of protection, gloss enhancement, and making surfaces easier and faster to clean than ever before.

“ALWAYS Keep Learning to Strengthen Your Passion & Your Business.”

© Christopher Brown – OCDCarCare Los Angeles

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Christopher Brown