What Are Swirls And Scratches?


Swirls, scratches and holograms.

Automotive paint is a scratch sensitive surface and if not handled with care it be damaged and dulled easily. Swirls and scratches are a type of paint defect that can be polished and easily removed from your car to restore your paint to its natural beauty and shine. Swirls and scratches can most easily be seen in bright lighting and in direct sunlight. They cause your paint to look covered in spider webs, dull, discolored and rough.

The most common causes of swirls and scratches are from improper washing and drying methods and tools, automatic car washes and the improper use of rotary buffers. The major theme behind scratching paint is rubbing or dragging dirt and grit against the paint. It’s important to use the right products, tools and techniques to safely complete the task at hand to ensure your paint stays looking it’s best.

Examples Of Swirls, Scratches and Other Paint Defects

Example #1: 2003 VW GTI Daily Driver

This 2003 VW GTI has never been polished and the paint shows it. Over time improper washing, automatic car washes and being exposed to the elements has taken it’s toll on the paint. The is fairly oxidized but still had a decent amount of gloss after being fully decontaminated after it’s thorough wash.

The Entire Before And After Gallery Located Here: 2003 VW GTI Photo Gallery.

Example #2: 2006 Nissan Altima Limo

This 2006 Nissan Altima is used by a limo service and is constantly being washed and wiped clean to keep up with customers expectations of being driven around in a nice, clean car. Unfortunately due to the many miles this car has seen (almost 200k) the paint isn’t in the best shape and is covered in millions of scratches and swirls. It was previously detailed and polished incorrectly which is why it was covered in holograms, also known as buffer trails from the incorrect use of a rotary buffer.

Holograms/Buffer Trails.

A deeper scratch surrounded by lighter swirls and scratches.

Example #3: 2013 Hyundai Equus New Car

This 2013 Hyundai Equus with 180 miles on it was brought to me for a New Car Protection detail which included a full detail, paint coating and a one step paint correction to remove light imperfections and to enhance the gloss of the paint. The car did not have many defects or scratches but every panel did have some issues that were polished to perfection.

The Entire Before And After Gallery Located Here: 2013 Hyundai Equus Photo Gallery.

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Flawless paint up close, in direct sunlight.

Example #4: 2006 Ford F-150 Work Truck

This 2006 Ford F-150 is a work truck and has seen some time off road. It had several very long deep scratches along the passenger’s side from tree branches, the entire truck was covered in swirls and scratches and the paint was dull and oxidized. It was polished to 90%+ defect free and the cloudy, hazy paint was restored to a better than new level.

The Entire Before And After Gallery Located Here: 2006 Ford F-150 Photo Gallery.

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50/50 before and after correction.

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Example #5: 2004 Ford F-250 Work Truck

This 2004 Ford F250 has a lot of the same issues work trucks have. The paint was severally oxidized, contaminated and covered in water spot etching, swirls and scratches. The paint was restored and coated to better than new condition.

The Entire Before And After Gallery Located Here: 2004 Ford F-250 Photo Gallery.

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50/50 before and after correction.

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Case Studies: What Cause Swirls And Scratches?

Scenario #1: Light Dust

You’ve driven your vehicle several times after using the two-bucket method to wash your vehicle earlier in the week and a light layer of dust has accumulated on the surface. To remove the layer of dust you grab a microfiber towel and dry wipe all the dust from the surface.

I hope you cringed at the thought of not using any type of lubrication to encapsulate and lift the dust from the surface before using a microfiber towel to wipe the paint. On a non-scratch sensitive surface this level of grit might not scratch the surface but with a sensitive surface like automotive paint it is a recipe for disaster. If you didn’t see anything wrong with this scenario here’s why it was not the best way to remove the light dust from the vehicle.

As the microfiber towel was wiped across the surface it was instantly turned into fine sandpaper, which was then continuously rubbed against the paint until all the dust was removed. The proper way to remove dust, dirt and other grime from your paint is to use a detailing product that will encapsulate and lift the dirt from the surface while providing sufficient lubrication to safely pick up the dirt with a microfiber towel. Depending on the level of dust and dirt on the surface you could use a number of products such as a quick detailer, rinseless wash solution, waterless wash solution or do a quick two-bucket maintenance wash with car shampoo to safely clean your vehicle. Always use the proper lubrication, clean microfiber towels and proper washing techniques to safely clean your vehicle.

Scenario #2: Car Covers

You just bought a car cover because you don’t have anywhere indoors to store your vehicle during bad weather. You notice it’s supposed to snow tomorrow morning and you don’t have time to wash your vehicle before putting on your car cover but do so anyway.

Most people would never consider that a car cover would do the opposite of protecting their vehicle but when mixed with a dirty car it’s a perfect way to scratch and swirl your paint. The same logic applies to this scenario as in the last, with the car cover being dry and rubbing against dirty paint this acts as sandpaper on sensitive automotive paint. Not only does this scratch your vehicle but now the inside of your car cover is covered in dirt so you have to wash it (if possible) to remove whatever is embedded in the fibers. I personally only recommend car covers for storing your vehicle for several weeks or longer and prepping the vehicle thoroughly before storage to ensure the inside of your cover stays clean and your paint stays scratch free. It’s also important to pay close attention when putting your cover on your vehicle as to not let the inside of the cover touch the ground and pick up whatever was on the ground, which will now be rubbed against your vehicle.

Scenario #3: Improper Wash Tools & Methods

It’s a nice day outside and you decide to wash your vehicle and take advantage of the nice weather. You grab a single bucket, a microfiber wash mitt, car soap and a large terry cloth bath towel. You proceed to wash your car using only a single bucket, which over time becomes dirty from dunking your wash mitt between body panels as you wash the vehicle. After you’re done washing you rinse the vehicle and dry the car with your terry cloth bath towel.

There are several mistakes with the way the vehicle was washed, but a couple things that were done correctly. Let’s start with the things that were done correctly. The microfiber wash mitt is a great choice because it is soft and gentle on scratch sensitive surfaces such as automotive paint. Washing the vehicle panel by panel is another great strategy as it insures your wash mitt never gets too dirty before being rinsed, which prevents dirt from accumulating in the mitt that could later mar or scratch the paint. Also, rinsing the entire vehicle off after washing is great for removing any left over dirt or car soap.

Now onto the areas that need some improvement. Using a single bucket to wash a car wash seems like a no brainer but the issue with a single bucket is that once your wash mitt touches dirty paint and you go back to dunk your wash mitt back into the bucket, any dirt that is on the mitt is released and it contaminates your only bucket. A better solution is to use two buckets, one for your car wash soap that always stays clean and another as a rinse bucket which will get dirty. By separating the two steps you are preventing old dirt and grit from being introduced back onto your paint potentially causing damage.

Another step to help prevent old dirt and grit from being introduced to your paint is to use a grit guard in the bottom of both buckets, which traps grit at the bottom of the bucket. So when you dunk your wash mitt into the water the grit isn’t swirling around as you agitate the water. Another great thing about using a grit guard is that it gives you a place to rub your wash mitt so you can agitate and release all the dirt your wash mitt is holding. It’s really a necessity if you want to absolutely minimize the chances of scratching and swirling your paint.

Using a terry cloth towel on automotive paint will damage your paint. Terry cloth is not soft enough to be used on such a sensitive surface and due to the cloth’s cylindrical fiber shape it does not pick up dirt and much as it just pushes it around. On the other hand, microfiber of typically 300 GSM (grams per square meter) quality or higher will not scratch your paint. Microfiber is shaped like an asterisk, this allows it to pick up and grab dirt as well as absorb 7 times its weight in water.

Want to learn more about microfiber towels? Check out this article: The Microfiber Manifesto: Everything You Need To Know About Microfiber Towels.

Scenario #4: Automatic Car Washes

It’s below freezing outside and you want to get the salt off of your vehicle as soon as possible. You head to the nearest car wash and go through the swirling brushes and mop like strips that rub against your paint. When you’re finished an employee of the car wash dries your car by hand and you’re on your way home with a clean car.

By now you can imagine what the result is going to be from this scenario. Every portion of your vehicle that was touched by the mechanisms inside the car wash or the employee is going to be scratched and swirled. I cover this subject in-depth in this article: The Automatic Car Wash: How To Ruin Your Vehicle.

If you have any questions or comments please don’t hesitant to contact me via Facebook at Facebook.com/IncrediblyDetailed, Twitter at Twitter.com/IDAutoDetailing, E-mail at Scott@IncrediblyDetailed.com or leave a comment below.




— By  Scott Race  |  Owner & Operator