Have you ever found yourself way in over your head when fellow car guys talk about their favorite detailing products and techniques? This Ultimate Detailing Dictionary is for you. I’ve put together a list of every detailing-related term and abbreviation I can think of and tried my best to explain each one. You might want to refer to this guide whether you’re a beginner that’s researching DIY detailing on forums or you’re planning on hiring a professional detailer and want to understand what they’re saying.
If you’ve ever asked yourself “what does ______ mean?” regarding terms in the detailing world, your answer should be below!
2 Bucket Wash
One of the safer ways to wash your vehicle. The second bucket used in this method is filled with clean water and used to rinse out your wash mitt before going back into the soapy bucket. This helps to reduce the risk of swirl marks and wash induced marring.
The classic photo primarily used by professionals wanting to market their paint correction services or DIYers looking to show off their hard work. A piece of painter’s tape is laid down the middle of a painted panel before machine polishing to divide the section into a “before and after” scene.
Anything that can abrade, scuff, scour or scratch a surface. We mainly use this term to describe things we use on our paint like compounds, polishes and clay bars. This is also something to keep in mind for interior detailing, such as scrubbing stains from leather seats.
An interior finish very similar to suede. Alcantara is commonly found on higher end vehicles, on places like steering wheels, seats, and armrests. Extra care needs to be taken when cleaning this surface because it can easily become matted down or worn out.
All-In-One (AIO) Polish
These products combine 2 steps of the paint correction process into one – polishing and protecting. Results in terms of both polishing and protecting will not be at the same level as if you performed separate steps, but they will save you a ton of time. All-In-One polishes won’t remove deeper scratches from your paint, but they’re great at bringing gloss and shine back as well as giving a “freshly polished” look.
Example: HD Speed
All Purpose Cleaner. Most detailing product manufacturers have their own version of these cleaners and they all do a similar job. Many of them are sold in 1-gallon jugs and in concentrate form. They can be used on many different parts of your vehicle like the engine, interior, wheels and in some cases even the paint. You can adjust the strength by diluting them accordingly.
Example: Meguiar’s APC
This refers to how fast you move the polisher across a panel when polishing your paint. There’s a couple schools of thought on this and it really comes down to your preferred technique as well as the specific paint you’re working on. Some detailers prefer to use a slow arm speed with light pressure to allow the compound and pad to do the work, while others choose to “hammer down” with a fast arm speed and moderate pressure to control heat and save time.
The part of a DA polisher that the pad attaches to. They typically have a velcro face to grab and hold the pad. These can be swapped out for different sizes to accept different size pads.
Example: Lake Country Backing Plate
On modern paint systems, there will be 2 separate coats of paint. A base coat for the color, and a clear coat on top for protection and shine.
Metallic particles that come off of the pads and rotors of your vehicles’ brakes. This is what makes your wheels turn black over time if you don’t clean them properly. Brake dust is nasty stuff. It will actually embed itself into the pores of your paint and can even stain a surface permanently if it’s left on for long enough (especially in high heat)
Every detailer’s worst nightmare. Burning through the paint means that you’ve gone too far with machine polishing and burned through the clear coat, exposing the base coat. There’s no quick or cheap fix for this situation. Burn through your paint and you’ll be making a trip to the body shop for a paint job.
Typically found in paste form, carnauba waxes offer some of the deepest, warmest shine out of any protective product for your paint. They’re made from the same natural wax that protects the leaves on Brazilian palm trees. Mother Nature uses it to protect the leaves of the trees from the sun and the rain. Water repels off the leaves and in turn, falls to the ground to hydrate the roots. We use it to make our cars shiny to impress people.
Example: McKee’s 37 Trademark Carnauba Paste Wax
A handy tool for interior cleaning that combines a water/cleaner source with a vacuum. Essentially, they allow you to spray cleaner into your carpet and vacuum up the excess in one motion. These machines can be quite expensive on the professional level.
Example: Bissell Little Green Machine
A coating that you apply to your paint instead of a wax or sealant. Once fully cured, it hardens and provides much stronger and longer lasting protection than other options. Manufacturers have different lifespan claims for their products, but in general, they’re measured in years rather than weeks or months. Compounding or wet sanding is required to remove them, so your paint needs to be polished to perfection before coating to make sure you aren’t locking any scratches in.
Example: Gtechniq Crystal Serum Light
This is a clay-like substance that we use to pull embedded contaminants out of our paint. If you think of bonded contaminants as sharp spikes stuck in the paint, the clay grabs onto the back of them and pulls them out. There are different grades of clay as far as aggressiveness goes, as well as a few alternatives like sponges, blocks, discs, and mitts.
Example: Wolfgang Clay Bar
Cleaner waxes are like any other wax except for one thing. They contain some type of chemical cleanser and or abrasive that will polish the surface while leaving a layer of protection behind. These cannot be layered like other products because they’ll remove the previous layer every time you try to add a new one.
Example: Meguiar’s Cleaner Wax
Modern paint jobs consist of 2 separate coats: a base coat and a clear coat. The clear coat’s role is to protect the paint from harmful UV rays and chemicals while adding shine and gloss. The clear coat is very thin on factory painted vehicles, so we need to be careful when we polish them.
An abrasive liquid that is used to remove moderate to heavy scratches and defects in the paint. Since these products are fairly aggressive, they usually need to be followed up with a finishing polish to remove the haze or cloudy look caused by the compound.
Example: Jescar Correcting Compound
Some products (like cleaners) are sold in a concentrate. All this means is that they’re meant to be diluted with water. There are a few advantages to this. 1: You aren’t paying to ship water since you add your own. 2: You can control the strength of the product with your dilution ratio. 3: A little goes a long way.
The compounding stage of a paint correction is sometimes referred to as “cutting” the paint. These products offer a pretty strong bite when machine polishing, and allow you to cut into the paint efficiently to remove scratches and defects.
DA (Dual Action) Polisher
A machine polisher that both rotates and oscillates (wiggles). These are much safer to use for beginners and tend to offer a better finish. A dual action polisher reduces the risk of burning through the paint because the pad doesn’t stay in one precise spot when you stop moving your arms. Many professionals have hung up their rotary polishers in favor of modern dual action machines thanks to their ease of use.
Example: Rupes LHR15
The act of removing any contamination such as rail dust, tree sap or industrial fallout from a vehicle’s paint. This can be done chemically with products that melt the particles away, or mechanically with a clay bar.
Many detailers refer to any scratches, marring, sanding marks, or etching in the paint as defects.
Far more than just “washing” a car. Detailing involves breaking the vehicle down into small specific sections and working away at them until they reach the desired result. It requires a lot of focus and endurance to do a thorough job.
A spray-on lubricant that also adds gloss and minor protection. Great for touching up things like fingerprints after a wash, or as a lubricant for a clay bar. Also referred to as “Quick Detailers”.
Example: Adam’s Detail Spray
Mixing a concentrated product with water to the desired strength. Many all purpose cleaners are recommended to be mixed 10:1 and 4:1 depending on the intended use.
A protective product commonly used on tires, rubber, trim, plastic and vinyl. Depending on the product, it might also add some shine to the surface.
Example: Meguiar’s Hyper Dressing
A product that’s either sprayed on the paint or the towel when drying a vehicle after a wash. These add lubrication when you’re drying a panel off with a towel to avoid scratches. They also do a great job of leaving a streak-free finish as well as giving your protection (wax, sealant, or coating) a bit of a boost.
Something that has eaten into the clear coat of your paint. Often caused by eggs, hard water spots, or bird poop that has been left on the vehicle for too long. Some light etching can be repaired by compounding and polishing, but in some cases, it’s too deep into the clear coat to safely remove.
A product used to protect carpet, cloth seats and floor mats. Once applied, liquids will sit on top of the surface rather than soaking into the fibers. This makes stain removal much easier.
Example: Gtechniq I1 Smart Fabric
An attribute of certain polishes, waxes or sealants that fills in or covers up minor scratches in your paint rather than removes them.
The final step in a paint correction that uses the least aggressive polish to perfect any remaining haze in the paint and bring out a truly deep shine. Sometimes referred to as “jewelling”
When the wetting agents of a polish dry out after being worked too long. This makes the polish harder to wipe off the panel so a detail spray or water is sometimes needed for removal.
A tool that connects to a pressure washer and mixes a bottle of soap with pressurized water. It produces thick foam that sticks to the vehicle and aids in the wash process.
Example: MTM Foam Cannon
The same concept as a foam cannon with one main difference: it connects to a traditional garden hose instead of a pressure washer. These don’t produce the same amount of foam as a cannon but are often good enough to get the job done.
Example: Chemical Guys Foam Gun
Forced Rotation Polisher
A gear driven machine that will continue to spin on the panel regardless of how much pressure you put on it.
Example: Flex 3401
Free Spinning Polisher
These polishers will stall out if you’re near an edge or body line, or if you put too much pressure on them. This allows for an extra level of safety when polishing your paint.
Example: Griot’s Garage Dual Action Polisher
A protective coating on resin finishes. Commonly found on boat hulls and carbon fiber pieces.
Plastic traps that are put in the bottom of a wash bucket to collect dirt. These add safety to your wash process by keeping the dirt away from your wash mitt as you dunk it back in.
Example: Grit Guard
Grams per Square Meter. In the detailing world, this is how we measure (and advertise) how thick and fluffy a microfiber towel is.
1. When a wax or sealant is ready to be buffed off the panel, they will form a haze
2. Aggressive compounding can scuff the surface of the paint leaving behind a cloudy, hazy finish. This is normal when digging in to remove deeper scratches, or working with soft paint. Following up with a finishing polish will remove the haze and reveal a perfectly clear finish.
Headlights with clear plastic housings tend to age over time, turning cloudy and/or yellow. This means the UV coating has failed on them. That coating can be compounded or sanded off, and the headlights can be restored to a new, clear finish.
Applying ceramic coatings to the paint is a slightly different process than using a wax or sealant. If you miss a spot when buffing the wax off, you can just go back later on and remove it fairly easily. With a ceramic coating, any excess product that’s left to dry will bond to the surface and sometimes have a rainbow effect to it. This is known as a high spot in the coating and will need to be compounded or sanded to be removed.
Holograms / Buffer Trails
The biggest sign of a lazy/inexperienced detailer or painter, usually caused by improper use of a rotary style buffer. Either they used a dirty pad, or they didn’t follow a wool pad with a lighter polishing step to remove them. Holograms can sometimes appear as swirl mark scratches, but as you move your eyes across the panel, the marks will dance and have a ghost effect. In more extreme cases, these can be referred to as buffer trails because you can literally see the path the polisher moved across the vehicle. Holograms and buffer trails can be removed with a proper paint correction.
When a protective product is applied to a surface (like a wax or ceramic coating) it becomes hydrophobic (repels water). Any water will bead up and run off rather than standing on the panel.
IPA = Isopropyl Alcohol (rubbing alcohol). It’s very common to use a mixture of this diluted with water to prep painted panels before polishing, between polishing steps, and before adding protection. An IPA mixture will remove leftover waxes and oils, taking it down to the bare paint.
Iron particles and industrial fallout come in a few different forms. Brake dust and railway dust are 2 common ones. These products remove iron and fallout chemically by melting it off the surface during the washing phase. They will turn red or purple when they come into contact with iron or fallout, and they also smell awful. The use of these products is considered the chemical form of decontaminating the paint.
Example: CarPro IronX
Long Throw Polisher
The new breed of high end dual action polishers feature a long throw. This refers to how far the pad oscillates when spinning. The measured throw on these typically starts at double what a short throw polisher would have, and goes up from there. These machines are beneficial because more movement = more work getting done quicker.
Example: Rupes LHR21
Last Step Product. This refers to the final step of a paint correction – protection. When a paint job is considered “LSP-ready”, that means it’s ready to have a wax, sealant, or ceramic coating applied.
Marring is a collection of thousands or even millions of scratches that produce a dull or hazy finish on your paint. This can be caused by improper washing, compounding, and even the use of a clay bar. A light finishing polish will take care of this and reveal a perfect finish.
The industry’s standard material for towels. Cotton terry cloth towels are rougher and don’t grab and hold as well. Microfiber is a mix of polyester and polyamide (usually 70/30 or 80/20 blends). The highest quality of microfiber typically comes from Korea. Microfiber can also be found in some wash mitts, buffing pads, and brushes.
Example: The Rag Company Wizard
One Step Correction
Skipping the heavier compounding stage and jumping straight to a polish is known as a one step paint correction. This is a bit misleading because that one step is always followed by a separate protection step when adding a wax, sealant or ceramic coating. Often confused with an All-In-One polish. A one step correction will remove light scratches and swirl marks, making it a great option for newer vehicles with paint that’s already in good shape.
A texture in the clear coat that looks like, you guessed it, the peel of an orange. Many modern paint jobs come from the factory with orange peel because of the water based paint the government forces them to use. Heavy orange peel can also be a sign of an aftermarket paint job that wasn’t sanded down and leveled thoroughly. Wet sanding can remove orange peel, but involves removing clear coat in order to level the surface.
When someone is spray painting near a vehicle, the cloud of paint in the air can attach itself to your vehicle. This can be caused by a body shop painting a specific section of a vehicle and not properly masking off the rest, or a nearby building being painted on a windy day. There’s good news though – overspray can often be removed with a clay bar and some elbow grease.
When a raw material or painted surface is worn by the sun over the years, it dries out. This is common on single stage paints and on bare aluminum.
Pad Priming / Seasoning
This is a bit of a controversial subject when it comes to paint correction. Many believe that a pad and polish combination will work more efficiently if the product is spread out evenly across the pad. Pad priming or seasoning simply involves using a little extra polish and working it into the pad with your hand.
Removing scratches or defects in a paint job using thorough, separate steps such as sanding, compounding, and polishing. Usually done with a machine – either a rotary or a dual action polisher. Paint correction is expensive because it isn’t learned overnight. It takes careful consideration to know what defects are safe to remove, as well as managing heat and contamination. A paint correction job will always end with a new layer of protection – wax, sealant, or a ceramic coating.
In most cases this will set the clock on your vehicle’s appearance back to zero, and sometimes even make it look better than new. The tradeoff is that it can and will remove a certain amount of your vehicle’s clear coat.
A product that is wiped on a panel to remove any remaining waxes or oils before polishing or protecting it.
Example: CarPro Eraser
Paint Thickness Gauge
An electronic meter used to measure how thick the paint is on a surface. Most gauges will show a combined reading of all the layers including primer, base coat, and clear coat. Expensive units can actually break each layer down, giving a more accurate idea of how much clear coat there is to work with. Sometimes abbreviated to “PTG” on the internet.
Example: DeFelsko Paint Thickness Gauge
A man-made, or synthetic version of a wax. These products are designed specifically to protect automotive paint. Because of that, they’re much more durable than wax, lasting 6+ months vs a few weeks.
Example: Jescar Powerlock
A product with a reading of 7 on the pH scale. Numbers 0-6 are acidic and 8-14 are alkaline. PH-neutral is a common phrase when referring to a product that won’t strip your wax or sealant from your paint.
A product consisting of light physical and/or chemical abrasives used to refine a painted surface. Often confused with wax, polishes are strictly used to remove light scratches and marring. They leave behind no protection.
Example: Sonax Perfect Finish
Pigtails look like a curved scratch in sort of a pattern. These can be caused by a body shop using a dual action sanding machine and not removing all of the sanding marks by polishing afterward. They can also be caused by aggressive compounding with a dual action polisher.
Paint Protection Film (PPF)
Paint protection film, also referred to as PPF or Clear Bra, is the ultimate in protection for your paint. It’s a thick, clear plastic film that is applied over top of the vehicle’s paint job. It’s most commonly used on the front end of vehicles as well as any area that’s susceptible to rock chips. The thick plastic absorbs the impact of something that would normally scratch your paint. PPF can be used as a sacrificial layer in order to save the paint. If it gets damaged, it can be peeled off and replaced. Some PPFs are even self-healing and scratches can be removed from them with a heat gun. Many high end vehicle owners choose to wrap their entire vehicle with paint protection film.
Random Isolated Deep Scratches. While swirl marks and holograms are more uniform in appearance, RIDS tend to be scratches that stand out on their own. These can be some of the hardest defects to remove during a paint correction. Often, a detailer will choose to round off the edges of a deep scratch to make it less noticeable rather than remove enough clear coat for the scratch to completely disappear.
Not to be confused with a waterless wash, rinseless wash products still require a bucket full of water. These products are highly engineered to break down and encapsulate dirt, and buff to a clean shine after without a final rinsing step.
Example: Optimum No Rinse
Road Grime / Traffic Film
Most people know of this, but don’t truly understand what it is. Yes, it’s the grime you get on your vehicle after driving in the rain. But what’s it made of? Mud, asphalt oils, engine oil, transmission fluid, gear oil, coolant, brake fluid, just to name a few. Anything that may have leaked from a vehicle gets pulled up into the standing water on the road when it rains. Then your tires fling it up all over your vehicle. This is nasty stuff, and in some cases, PH-neutral soaps aren’t strong enough to get rid of it.
A high powered machine that only spins one way, like a drill. These can be very useful tools or incredibly dangerous tools, depending on the hands they’re in. When used properly, they can remove sanding marks and scratches like nothing else. They’ll also burn through your paint in seconds if you don’t know what you’re doing. Rotary polishers are very common in body shops, but many detailers have hung them up in favor of long throw dual action polishers.
Example: Flex Rotary Polisher
A term used to describe how many times someone has run a buffer across a panel during a paint correction. When using a cross-hatch pattern, typically a section pass will include running left-right across the panel, then up-down, and one more left-right. In this example, the section pass includes 3 separate passes. It’s usually recommended to work in a 2′ by 2′ section, but every situation is different.
Single Stage Paint
Single stage paint includes both the base and clear in one layer of paint. Most modern paint systems have switched to separate base/clear layers so single stage isn’t as common. It was much more prevalent with older cars, although some manufacturers still use it on certain colors.
Most of these products are actually synthetic (man-made) so it would make more sense to call them spray sealants. These are great to use as drying aids or to quickly top up the protection on your paint.
Example: Meguiar’s X-Press Spray Wax
Swirl Marks (Spider Webbing)
This is a type of scratch that you’ll find on nearly every daily driver on the road. They appear in uniform across the paintwork and seem to be circular in shape. They actually aren’t. These are made up of thousands of tiny scratches, that reflect in the shape of the light source (the sun or a round light bulb). They also make it look as though your paint has cobwebs all over it. Swirl marks are caused mainly by improper washing and they work together to give your paint an overall dull finish. Removing these with a paint correction will make your vehicle look like it’s been freshly painted.
This phrase was coined from the use of greasy tire dressings that were applied too thick and not allowed to dry before driving. The product pools in the treads and letters of the tire and as soon as the wheel turns, it slings up onto the paint.
Ultraviolet rays from the sun. This is the leading cause of clear coat failure and can cause other damage like faded headlights or a cracked dashboard. UV rays are no joke.
A product or dressing that’s made with water rather than petroleum or silicone. Water based products are typically easier to work with and remove when necessary but don’t last as long as others.
Water behavior of a hydrophobic surface. Water will form tiny “beads” on a paint job that’s protected with a good wax, sealant or ceramic coating.
The downside to water beads, is that they act as a magnifying glass when the sun comes out. When the minerals in the water or the dirt and contaminants on the surface are allowed to dry after being wet, they form a watermark. In minor cases, these will be removed with a simple wash or water spot removal product. In more serious cases, they can etch into the paint and will need to be compounded or polished off (if they can be removed at all).
Water behavior of an unprotected painted surface. When the paint is left bare, water will sit on top of it and pool. This is a clear sign that your wax or sealant has worn off or been removed. Some ceramic coatings use water sheeting in a good way – the surface is so hydrophobic that water just falls off immediately.
A spray-on product used to wash your car. This avoids any buckets or hoses but isn’t necessarily the safest option for dirty vehicles. Waterless washes are extremely convenient but at the cost of potential scratches.
Example: Optimum Opti Clean
Using sandpaper on a block or DA machine with water as a lubricant to level the surface of your paint. Like rotary polishers, wet sanding can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. It can also produce amazing results if you do.
The amount of time a product needs to be on your vehicle in order to do its job. This can be different depending on the type of product. A wheel cleaner’s working time means it needs to be able to sit and eat into the brake dust. A compound’s working time refers to how long you can keep buffing before it either flashes or becomes ineffective.
I looked online as well as in books to make sure I didn’t miss any terms or acronyms but if there’s anything that you don’t see listed here, I’ll gladly update this detailing dictionary. Feel free to send me an email or comment below with anything you need help with and I’ll get to it as soon as I can.