Swirl marks — or buffer marks — have been a big problem in detailing for ages. Even before people began to refer to this business as “detailing,” there were issues with the unnatural, ribbon-like abrasions in the paint surface that make a vehicle look extremely poor and make customers cringe. Some detailers view swirl marks as a major catastrophe, while others view them as a minor obstacle in completing a perfect job. Swirl marks are a reason why some detailers never want to use a high-speed buffer, and why some customers request that their vehicles only be hand polished and waxed.



Instead of limiting ourselves to orbital buffers or hand polishing and waxing, let’s look at what can be expected when using a rotary or high-speed buffer to compound or polish a vehicle. A high-speed buffer, no matter what model is chosen, will only spin in a rotary direction. These machines have powerful, high-torque and high-speed motors which, when combined with other variables, will most likely leave swirl marks in the paint surface if used only slightly incorrectly. However, there is no reason to fear this machine if you know exactly what is happening to the paint surface.



Above: Deeper compound swirls have been placed in the lower portion of this gray scrap hood. They are really noticeable compared to the upper part where there are no swirl marks.

The most important thing to keep in mind when using a high- speed buffer is that there is a possibility of swirl marks being left behind after you are finished buffing. The severity and depth of the swirl marks need to be considered before you can attempt to remove them. If you are heavily compounding the vehicle, or performing any type of aggressive scratch or blemish repair, you most likely will be left with what I call a compound swirl. A compound swirl is a swirl mark that is deeper into the finish. It was probably put in with a heavy-cut wool pad, and a medium- to heavy-cut compound. This type of swirl may be fairly deep into the surface and will leave the paint finish very hazy and cloudy because of the deep cuts in the paint. These swirl marks are generally easy to see and very unsightly. You will most likely need multiple steps to remove them.

A polish swirl is still unsightly, but not as deep into the paint surface. This type of swirl may have been put in with a lighter wool pad, or even a light-cut foam pad. This is a more common swirl mark and is a bit more difficult to see. These swirls are what drive both detailers and customers crazy. This type of swirl may need just one step to correctly remove, though it is more likely that a few steps will still be necessary.




Above: This blue car has very light polish swirl marks in the paint. They may be a bit difficult to see, but look at where the sun hits the hood and then look for light ribbon marks extending off the sunspot. This is a common way many detailers leave a vehicle after buffing.

We need to know about all the possible scenarios that may cause swirl marks. There are a bunch. Detailing is quite unlike professional sports — where a baseball player who has a .350 batting average (but fails 65 percent of the time) or a quarterback who completes 65 percent of his passes (but still fails 35 percent of the time) is an all star. A detailer needs to be sure that 100 percent of all things that cause swirl marks are taken care of to produce a truly perfect, swirl-free paint finish. Detailers need to understand that although they think they are doing everything correctly, there may still be swirls left behind. This list will make you acutely aware of what causes swirls and what needs to be done. Here they are:

  1. Too aggressive pad choice – an aggressive buffing pad, even an aggressive foam pad, will put swirls into the paint.
  2. Too aggressive product choice -a polish, even if it’s labeled a “swirl mark remover” can still put swirls into the paint. You must know your product and what its capabilities are before using it.
  3. Hard backing plate -many detailers do not realize that a very hard and stiff backing plate will make a buffing pad slightly more aggressive and help cause swirl marks. The hard plastic on many backing plates will not “give” and contour around rounded body panels. Combine this with a slightly aggressive pad and/or product, and you have a greater chance for swirl marks.
  4. Too much speed -running a buffer at a very high speed will not get the job done faster; it will just increase the chances of swirl marks and possibly burned paint.
  5. Too much pressure -excessive pressure on the buffer will make more aggressive whatever buffing pad and product you are using. This will also lead to increased heating of the paint surface, further increasing chances of swirl marks.
  6. Too much heat -aggressive pads, products, pressure, and speed on the buffer will generate a vast amount of heat. This quickly softens the clear coat and greatly increases the chances of swirls.
  7. Buffing on the edge -by turning the pad up on its edge you will do a number of things (all bad). You will increase the pressure. You will be buffing without enough product on that part of the pad, and you’ll be driving the edge of the backing plate into the paint surface. All these incorrect techniques will lead to swirl marks. The buffing pad needs to be held as flat as possible against the surface of the paint.
  8. Dry buffing -not using enough product, which acts as a barrier between the pad and paint, will cause dry buffing and most likely cause swirl marks.
  9. Type of clear coat -all vehicles have different clear-coat systems, sometimes even within the same manufacturer. Many of today’s clear coats are of the softer variety such as urethane and powder clears. You need to know how a clear-coat system will react to buffing before going ahead with the entire buffing process. Even the newer scratch-resistant and ceramic clear coats will be susceptible to swirl marks if buffed incorrectly.
  10. Dirty buffing pads -a pad that has been dropped on the floor will pick up dirt, especially if it’s a bit wet with product. Pads that have not been cleaned or washed will become more abrasive, as will pads that are simply sitting in a dirty or dusty shop. Even microscopic dirt and dust on a pad can lead to swirl marks.
  11. Dirty vehicle -a vehicle that has been left sitting around for a while will pick up some dirt or dust. In addition, vehicles that are being detailed outdoors have a tendency to become dusty extremely quickly. The paint needs to be wiped down prior to buffing to prevent the dust and dirt from becoming abrasives that will lead to swirl marks.
  12. Non dedicated buffing pads -there are many varieties of pads that can be used for either light compounding or polishing. If a detailer has been using a particular pad for compounding and then decides to use that same pad for polishing or swirl removal, he needs to be sure that there is no residual compound left in the pad. If any residual compound rises to the top of the pad, you may actually be compounding the vehicle lightly instead of polishing.

    If a pad can be used for both processes, label what the pad is used for on the back to prevent unexpected swirl marks.
  13. Granular laundry detergent -many shops use granular laundry detergent to save costs. Unfortunately, if all the granules do not get dissolved in the wash, they may become embedded in the pad. If any of these particles rise to the top of the pad as you buff, they turn into little abrasives which will cause swirl marks. These are my lucky (or unlucky) 13 causes of swirl marks. Sometimes you know you will be left with swirls, especially after heavy compounding. The problems begin when a detailer does not think he is putting swirls into the paint, or when he thinks he is correctly removing them. You must always be aware of the 13 causes — run a mental checklist to make sure you are doing everything properly. Remember, we must make sure we have taken
    care of all 13 causes to ensure a swirl-free vehicle. Even if we take care of nine, 10, or 11 of them, there are still a couple that may trip us up. Now that we know what causes swirls, how do we correctly remove them?



Above: The same blue car viewed from a slightly different angle. You need a very good eye to see these types — still a polish swirl and very light.

Many times, the first step in swirl-mark removal takes place while you are still compounding! Yes, you read that correctly. Often, while compounding, a detailer is trying to repair an imperfection and a considerable amount of speed and pressure is required to correct the blemish. After the problem is corrected, he will generally move on, leaving behind that panel with considerable haziness and deep swirls. A simple trick is to make sure you still have enough product in that area, lighten up on the pressure, and lower the speed. This will actually start to lighten and help remove the swirls before you ever switch to a polish and a lighter buffing pad. Remember, you must always take your time, move slowly, and realize it may take a number of steps.

Also, you can’t take one drastic step from heavily compounding to final finishing. Just because you are using a softer pad and a “swirl-mark-remover” product, you can’t assume all the swirls will be gone with just this step. Often, you will need a “medium” step, which will include a medium pad before moving on to a final finishing pad. Be sure your polishing product has correction capabilities and is not just a filler product that will give you a great gloss but will not correct the swirls.

Another question many detailers ask is whether an orbital buffer can be used to remove swirl marks? Generally if you are left with compound swirls you will need a high-speed buffer to begin the process. It’s very difficult to remove swirl marks with an orbital buffer, especially if they are fairly deep. An orbital buffer can generally be used if the swirls are polish swirls and very light, and you are using the correct product and buffing pad.



Above: A close view of the ribbon-like look of bad swirl marks.

If the process was done correctly, the swirl marks will not come back. What you have done is level out the surface and remove the swirl marks. The trouble some detailers have with still-remaining swirls is this:

If a detailer has neglected to pay attention to any of the 13 previously listed causes, there is still a chance the swirls will be there. However, they may be hidden. Some products have a lot of silicone, oils, or wax in them and may hide or fill the swirl marks, giving the detailer a false sense that they are gone.

If the lighting is poor, you are already at a disadvantage. Many shops have insufficient lighting to correctly check to make sure the swirls are gone. Fluorescent light is not enough to correctly view the panel. Also, some shops are just plain dark and you will never know if the swirls are gone. I have found that halogen lights help to a degree to simulate sunlight to check if the swirls remain. Fluorescent light shows many imperfections that natural light does not, but this type of light does not pick up fine swirl marks all that well.

You must have a good eye and know what you are looking for. The panel may be shiny and perfect in the shop and it may well have all or “almost” all of the swirls removed. However, for a discerning customer, and a great detailer, almost is not good enough. Know what the swirls look like. Be able to identify them, and know all the reasons they still may be there. Take your time in removing them, and you should be confident that they will never come back.

It is discouraging to think that the swirl marks are gone, only to bring the car outside and see them in direct sunlight. Or worse — having an unhappy customer bring the vehicle back when he finds them.



How many times have you heard a customer say, “The swirl marks came back!”? They did not really come back. They were never gone in the first place! As well as using the methods mentioned previously, you could also use this method of quality control for swirl marks. Fill a spray bottle with a 70-percent water and 30-percent isopropyl alcohol mix. Spray the surface you have just completed and let the solution sit for approximately 15 seconds. Wipe the area with a clean, soft towel and observe. What you have done is remove any silicone, wax, and oils that may have filled the remaining swirls. This is where the halogen lights come in handy. Shine the light directly on the panel and look for fine swirls. If they are still present, you should be able to see them. If you have done the job correctly, you will see a clear bright reflection off the panel with a great shine, depth, and clarity. If you can’t see them now, you have correctly removed them and they won’t come back!



We all know that swirl marks are more easily visible on dark-colored cars. You are seeing them in the clear coat, but the dark background color (the base coat) is a good backdrop. Don’t get lazy and skip a step because you may be work ing on a light-colored vehicle. You may have to look a little harder, but you can still see swirls on a light color. A customer with a good eye will see them, too. Remember that you are buffing the clear, and the same steps and
procedures should be followed regardless of the vehicle color.



Don’t be afraid of swirl marks. Sometimes the biggest mistake you can make when detailing a vehicle is being too timid while buffing the paint. If the surface
needs to be cut into, there is a good chance that some kind of swirl mark will be left behind. If you do not give the paint surface what it
needs to look its best because you are afraid of leaving behind swirl marks, you are cheating both yourself and the customer.

Don’t worry about swirl marks. Be aware of them but don’t be afraid of them. Once you know all the causes of swirl marks and develop a mental checklist of doing everything correctly, you should not have that much trouble producing a perfect swirl-free paint finish.

The key in the buffing process is to know how the paint will react with each step you are performing. Once you know that swirl marks are fairly easy to remove, you will car needs. have the confidence to do what the


Kevin Farrell owns and operates Kleen Car (www.kleencarauto.com), a full- service auto-detailing business located in New Milford, NJ. Kevin is also an instructor for a detailing program he developed for, and in conjunction with, BMW of North America. His background includes auto dealership experience and training through DuPont, General Motors, and I-Car.

Kevin Farrell is the owner of Kleen Car Auto Appearance. He can be contacted at 888.302.6400.