Say Goodbye to Swirl Marks

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Say Goodbye to Swirl Marks
Using the right technique can cut down on unsightly "spider webs"

By Art Riddle

How often has a vehicle left a detail shop with that beautiful mirror-like finish only to return in a week with swirl marks? Among the various exterior detailing or reconditioning problems, a common challenge to almost all detailers is unsightly swirl marks on painted surfaces. There are temporary solutions, but how can you eliminate them? Better yet, how can they be prevented? Before we look at the answers to these problems, let's first define what swirl marks are and look at their various causes.

Because of contrast and reflectivity, dark-colored vehicles exhibit swirl marks more readily than light colors--yet these painted surface imperfections can be the same. There are a couple of different types of swirl marks. First, what is commonly referred to as "spider webbing" is a condition characterized by small, shallow scratches. These are usually caused by tiny abrasive dust and dirt particles that do not pre-rinse off when the vehicle is washed by hand or machine, which are then moved along the surface of the paint. The results are hairline scratches. Even when a vehicle is driven, some of these airborne particles can hit portions of the painted surfaces, leaving tiny scratches.

Present paint-coating technology, chemistry or mechanical washing cannot completely prevent this problem. However, some of the newer automotive paint coatings are more scratch resistant, but recent advances in chemical and mechanical system technology have helped in minimizing this problem.

Secondly, excessive detail product or chemical residues such as oils, silicones or waxes can cause superficial swirl marks. These residues remain on the paint surfaces sometimes in patterns left by hand-application motion or mechanical buffers. The oily residues usually have not had proper "drying" time before attempting to wipe off the excess; therefore it streaks and smears. In many cases when wax products are applied on hot surfaces, solvents can evaporate too quickly and leave residues that are difficult to remove.

The most common and the most severe swirl mark conditions are primarily caused by high speed buffing with wool pads. These "C-swirls" are named for the C-shaped pattern that is created. C-swirls are also created by

  • heavy abrasion compounds
  • pressure or friction of buffing application
  • angle of buffing application
  • speed and direction of buffing application.

Synthetic fiber or wool blend buffing pads can help reduce friction and therefore lessen the severity of C-swirls but may still leave some marks that need to be removed.

Each of these factors determines the severity of depth, width and length of these patterned scratches as well as the quantity. In any case, these swirl marks or patterned scratches are unsightly and counterproductive. While C-swirls are sometimes an unavoidable result of reconditioning a vehicle, especially when removing heavy scratches or acid rain damage, minimizing the friction created by the buffing process and training employees on proper use of high-speed buffers can reduce swirl removal time.

Use the right equipment

Removing swirl marks requires either a high-speed or heavy-duty orbital buffer, a foam cutting pad or a foam cutting bonnet, and a medium or light grade (fine particle) compound product. Light-duty orbital and dual action (DA) buffers are fine for waxing or light polishing but they are not as effective for compounding or severe swirl removal. The usual precautions regarding paint type and depth should be taken into consideration.

To remove spider webbing, first wash the vehicle to remove any surface soil. In some cases, applying a clay type process to the painted surface to remove stubborn particles may be required. A heavy-duty orbital works well for this condition or for a high-speed buffer, use a slower speed (1200-1800 RPMs). Using either buffer, move the buffer slowly and allow it to work the spider webbing scratches smooth.

To remove excessive residues of polishes or other products from painted surfaces, make sure that the product used has had adequate time to dry or haze before attempting to remove. Temperature and humidity play a large role in determining when a specific product is cured. If it is an oily substance, use a terry towel to help absorb excessive residues when removing. If it is excessive wax that has already hardened, re-apply a light coat on the troubled areas and remove as soon as possible. One way to easily prevent conditions of either too oily or too excessive wax is to apply less product. Many of us tend to use more product than is necessary, which causes more work than we need to do.

C-swirl damage is treated similarly to spider web swirl removal. When using a high-speed polisher, again, use a foam-cutting pad and a medium grade (fine particle) compound and slower buffing RPMs 1200-1800. A common mistake when using this popular method is that many technicians move the buffer too fast and try to buff too large of an area at once. Therefore, it does not allow the equipment and chemistry to do their respective jobs efficiently. Select a two-foot square area to be buffed and slow down the movement of the buffer, overlapping each buffing path. Slow, methodical buffing in a checkerboard fashion will assist you by evenly cross cutting to efficiently remove swirls.

The heavy-duty orbital is another excellent tool and method for removing swirl marks. Using a foam cutting bonnet allows a high-quality medium grade compound to be very effective in eliminating swirl marks and other medium to light scratches. Again, move the buffer slowly in a checkerboard fashion, achieving an even cross cut and allowing the buffer and chemistry to do the work. These machines operate in a random motion; therefore, they don't leave a patterned swirl mark. Occasionally, dust or an abrasive particle can get caught between the bonnet and the paint surface while buffing, resulting in a small fishhook shaped scratch. These types of faint scratches are normally infrequent and are generally undetectable.

Use caution in selecting a product to remove swirl marks. Some so-called "swirl remover" products only fill in these light scratches with clear materials that produce an illusion that the swirl is gone. These types of products produce a good shine and are okay as long as they are not expected to last. Once washing or sometimes even a good rain removes these materials, the swirl marks reappear. If unsure whether the product used is filling in or actually removing the swirl, wipe a small area with a safe body solvent after the product has been applied. This will remove any fill-in materials and indicate if the swirls reappear.

While some customers actually expect subtle swirl marks as evidence that their vehicles have been buffed, once they see a truly finished, glass-smooth shine, they'll recognize your skill and ability and will no doubt be back for repeat services. Proper buffing technique, training, practice and product knowledge will help eliminate our industry's age-old problem of swirl marks.

Art Riddle is a 20-year veteran of the detail industry and is currently Detail Team Director for the Vehicle Care Division of Ecolab, Inc in Tucson, AZ.

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