Should You Polish Your Car Before You Apply Wax? Steps Explained

You should polish your car before you apply wax. If you wax your vehicle before polishing it, you are putting the vehicle detailing process out of order.

The basic detailing process of a vehicle includes the prep work, washing the vehicle, polishing, and applying wax, in that order.

Reversing the order of the wax application and polishing essentially undoes the work you will have done to get the vehicle to its last stages of detailing. Depending on what kind of products you use and how much time you have available, this could be costly, both monetarily and temporally.

What Happens if you Apply Wax Before Polishing?

Since the goal of polishing a car in the first place is to remove paint surface blemishes, applying wax before polishing is complete would reverse the detailing process.

Not only does polishing a vehicle remove surface scratches, oxidation, and other paint blemishes, polishing a car that has been waxed will also remove the wax.

Wax is applied to a vehicle to add a protective layer over the top of the paint. Polish easily removes wax since it technically also removes a small portion of the clear coat as well.

What is Vehicle Polishing?

rubbing vs polishing compound

Polishing is the process of grinding down a small portion of the clear coat of a vehicle in order to smooth out surface blemishes and oxidation. This is usually accomplished by hand or by using a motorized tool called a polisher or buffer coupled with a polishing compound ranging from fine to coarse.

Using a tool is usually much easier than buffing by hand since motorized buffers have a spinning head with a buffing pad attached and hand polishing relies on one’s own technique and strength. A variety of buffing heads and polishing compounds can be used depending on each individual’s needs.

A variety of buffing machines are also available depending on how extensive a vehicle’s paint damage is and how experienced an individual is when it comes to paint correction.

In order for polishing to be done correctly, the applicable surfaces must be cleaned and free of dirt so the polishing process can be as effective as possible. The main purpose of polishing is to create an ideal surface for the next step of detailing.

What is Vehicle Waxing?

car wax

Waxing is the process of applying a protective layer over a vehicle’s paint as a finishing detailing touch. Paint sealant can also be applied the same way, and the two types of protection vary in slight ways, but car wax is one of the most popular detailing products sold.

Its ingredients not only provide protection for a vehicle’s paint, but they also provide shine and depth to the color as well. Many waxes even contain color enhancers to try and keep the paint as healthy as possible.

Once the vehicle paint surface is polished, wax can be applied over the resulting smooth surface and will stick better. Sometimes, car wash soaps are marketed as two-in-one products that both wash and wax a vehicle at the same time; however, these products are not nearly effective as a wash, polish, and wax completed at several steps.

This is partly because very few products are able to do two separate jobs perfectly, but it is also because vehicle waxing without polishing first is less effective.

How Do You Polish a Car?

Polishing a vehicle can be difficult if you do not have experience or if you do not know what you are doing. Because polishing involves removing a small portion of the clear coat, there could be severe consequences for completing the job improperly. 

As with most work with just about any vehicle, preparation is required. To adequately prepare for polishing, a vehicle must be cleaned thoroughly.

A two or three-bucket car wash is the best way to do this. Professional washing is also an option if you are willing to spend the money to do so.

The other part of preparation is the selection of products. You will need to choose the polishing product to use as well as the method with which to apply the product.

Polishing machines can be bought relatively inexpensively and are easier to use than the alternative of manual buffing and polishing.

The compound you choose is also important since some compounds are more aggressive than others.

Finally, a buffing pad or microfiber cloth will need to be used regardless of whether or not you use a machine.

The second part of polishing is the application of the polisher onto the vehicle. Spread some of the polishing product onto the polishing pad. If you are polishing by hand, work the product into the surface in small circular motions. If you are using a machine, the same general concept applies, but the machine will be moving when it is on.

Make sure that you do not place the machine over the same area for more time than needed since friction will build. Once the initial application is complete, you will need to continue to work the product onto the surface until no more polishing product is visible and the paint is shiny.

How Do You Wax a Car?

waxing process

After polishing your car, you should wax it for the best car detailing results and keep your vehicle protected, at least for a while. Wax is like covering your vehicle in a thin, protective sheet. If applied correctly, it can protect your vehicle for anywhere between one week to about six weeks. Waxing a car is not that difficult, but it looks slightly different depending on what wax product you buy since there are three main types of vehicle wax: Spray-on, liquid, and paste.

Spray-on wax is the easiest type of wax to apply, usually the least expensive to buy, but is also the least effective. To use it, you should spray the wax onto the surfaces to be waxed and use a damp microfiber cloth to work it using circular motions. Any residual wax should be buffed in with a different clean microfiber cloth.

Liquid and paste waxes are usually more effective since they are thicker, more concentrated, and generally use better formulas. They both take longer to apply since they are applied directly to whatever microfiber cloth you choose to use. It is always a good idea to have a few extra microfiber cloths handy as well, just in case the one you use becomes too saturated.

Once applied to the microfiber cloth, the application process is similar to the polishing process. Buff the paste into the desired surface until the paint is shiny and there is no more residue on the surface.

Liquid and Paste wax can also be applied by a buffing machine. If you choose to use a machine, it should be a standard orbital buffing machine since they are usually not as strong and aggressive as other types of buffers.

Regardless of the method of application, the wax should be worked into the paint surface in small sections by using small circular motions.

Final Thoughts

Whenever you are detailing your vehicle, you should always polish it before you wax it. Polishing involves removing a small portion of the clear coat of the vehicle by smoothing out shallow imperfections and prepping it for the last part of the detailing process: waxing.

If you wax your vehicle before polishing it, the polishing process will remove all of the wax you just applied and will not allow your other detailing work to be protected.

Waxing is not necessary after polishing, nor is polishing necessary before waxing, but both complement each other, and completing both will yield the best detailing results possible.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
The Vehicle Lab looks to cover all aspects of the automotive industry: News, Maintenance & Repair Guides, and Product Reviews
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