Step 3: Paint Preparation (Cleaning / Polishing)

Use the right pads
and cloths

Many people are under the impression that washing, waxing and a quick vacuum is all that’s needed to keep a car looking good. While that is certainly a great start, and works fine with relatively new cars, eventually something more will be needed. For instance, all vehicles eventually need to have their paint cleaned.

While it can be time-consuming (at a minimum it will take as long as a good wax job) properly cleaning and preparing your paint for wax is a step that begins to separate the typical weekly wash from something “special”. And the results will show it.

Remember that after cleaning and polishing your paint, you'll want to wax to protect the shine. In my opinion, if you won't have the time to wax, don't polish.

Use only applicator pads designed for applying, and microfiber cloths for removing products.

There are multiple techniques and products for preparing your paint for wax – a few are outlined below.

Using the Clay Bar





Paint cleaning and polishing












Meguiar's 3-Step System

Clay Bar

The clay bar is a very neat product. It is literally a bar of clay (reminds me of Play-Doh) and it is meant to remove above surface contaminants from your paint. It is used after a wash if you feel little bumps on the surface. Even a new car will have these types of contaminants bonded on the paint. There are all kinds of stuff in the air (tree sap, paint overspray, road tar, etc.) that can bond to your paint and withstand a wash. Generally the horizontal parts of the car (hood, roof, trunk) will collect these contaminants more than the sides.

Working in small sections, you use a lubricant, usually a quick detailer product (some people use soapy water) on one area at a time, and then lightly rub a small, flattened piece of clay back and forth over the surface. Then you wipe off the residue with a microfiber or 100% cotton towel. The results are incredible. The paint will feel smooth as glass.

I’ve read on the Internet that some folks are under the impression that the clay bar will actually remove stains and scratches from paint. It won’t. You’ll use other products for that.

By the way, if you drop your clay on the floor while you’re using it, throw it away. It’s very cheap.

Bug and Tar Remover

As the name implies, this product is used to remove those little black, sometimes gooey spots as well as smashed bugs. Some folks suggest using WD40 or even kerosene for this purpose. I don't. And don't use your clay bar.

Paint Cleaners

This is a very broad category of products that are meant to clean the surface far better than soap and water. They range from mild to very aggressive. Always start with the least aggressive product possible.

This is a very important step in the detailing process. And because you really should wax after you clean, it adds quite a bit of time. But cleaning the paint very well before you wax is one of the most important things you can do to maximize shine. Make sure to read the instructions on the container

Removing Scratches

Small scratches in or on the clear coat can be removed using ScratchX from Meguiar’s. You rub just a little on the scratch (it needs to be worked in really well). It may take several applications.

Keep in mind that you can’t actually remove a scratch. What you’re doing is removing a bit of the surface material around the scratch, evening it off, and making the scratch less visible.

Look closely at the area around your door handles. Do you see any small scratches or lines? ScratchX will easily remove those.

When it comes to removing scratches, a good rule of thumb is to
use the least abrasive product that will get the job done.

Sometimes polish, or even wax, will remove a mark or light scratch.

Of course, if a scratch is deep (i.e.: the paint is missing under the clear coat) you will probably need to use touch up paint. Some products claim to "fill" these scratches, but I haven't tried one that really works. If you have, let me know.


The word (and product) “polish” can be confusing. (To be honest, I’m still a little confused.)

Historically, polish has been different things. But in modern car care, polishes are products that improves the shine. They may contain mild abrasives and oils to rejuvenate the paint. After you clean your paint (using anything from a mild to abrasive cleaner), you’ll use polish to create the best shine possible.

This is a good place to note that there are many “combination” products, such as cleaner/wax. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using them. As with many “combos” they may not do either as well as a dedicated process, but it will save lots of time, and may be good enough.

Meguiar's Three-Step System

I'm going to put a little plug in for a set of Meguiar's products call the Three-Step System. To simplify the process of paint cleaning and preparation, Meguiar's labels a paint cleaner as "step 1", a polish as "step 2" and a wax as "step 3". It's a good way for someone new to detailing to start learning the process.

Personally I use this cleaner and polish, but use different waxes (depending on vehicle and my mood).

Meguiar's also sells a combination "cleaner/wax", a good choice if you only have the time to apply one product to your vehicle after washing.