Having the results of your DIY paint correction disappear is not a good feeling. Many people find themselves trying to figure out why their swirl marks keep coming back right away. If you’re dealing with this problem, it’s not normal – something has gone wrong.
Swirl marks returning right away are caused by one of two things. Either you didn’t remove them properly in the first place, or you’re creating new ones because of the way you care for your paint. Swirl marks are tiny scratches – they won’t just appear magically on their own.
Dealing with swirl marks that won’t go away can be frustrating. Let’s figure out what’s going wrong in your detailing process and decide how to fix it.
First thing’s first, we have to understand whether your swirl marks are new or old ones that are being revealed again. That will determine whether the problem is in your paint correction process or with the way you’re treating your car afterward. Here are 5 reasons why your swirls might be coming back:
You never got rid of them in the first place
This is actually a very common problem, especially among novice detailers. The excitement of using a polisher on your paint and seeing the shiny results can lead you to believe your swirl marks have been removed instantly. While that might be true, you won’t know for sure unless you purposely look for them. How do you do that?
Any compound, polish, wax, glaze, or sealant has the ability to temporarily fill in scratches and swirl marks. Filling the tiny scratches up with polishing oils or wax will make them disappear but they aren’t actually gone. They’re covered up underneath. Once those leftover polishing oils wear off after a few washes, your swirl marks will return.
This is why it’s important to wipe a panel down with a 50/50 mix of isopropyl alcohol and water or with a purpose made product like CarPro Eraser or Gtechniq Panel Wipe. You need to remove those oils before you can properly inspect your paint for swirls and scratches. Once it’s completely bare, you’ll be able to see the true results of your paint correction.
Another very important factor in inspecting your paint is the lighting you use. Every paint color will respond differently to a light source but it’s safe to say that your cell phone flashlight or halogen work light isn’t going to cut it.
The goal here is to recreate the direct sun as closely as possible. After all, it’s what’s lighting up your car and revealing the swirl marks when you’re out enjoying it. If you can make your paint look good in the sunlight, it’ll look good in almost every possible situation. The sun doesn’t lie.
A regular LED work light will do a decent job on a lot of colors although in most cases the temperature of the light is a bit too blue/white to truly act like the sun. Ideally, something in the 4300k range will be the most accurate.
If you’re having trouble finding swirls and scratches in your paint, Scangrip makes an awesome inspection light called the Sunmatch 3. Yes, it’s a bit expensive but it offers some really great features.
You can adjust the brightness and color temperature to specifically suit the paint color you’re working on. It also has a magnet built in and a tough rubber shell to make it easy to manage while you work.
Paint swell is another reason you could be leaving swirl marks behind when polishing. What is paint swell? Paint expands and contracts according to temperature. If you overheat it due to your polishing technique, the paint will swell – possibly masking remaining defects. When it cools back down, the defects will reappear.
This is more commonly a problem with water spots but the theory is the same regardless. Paint swell is one of the reasons why you shouldn’t be running your polisher too fast with too slow of an arm speed. It’s important to keep moving.
You added new swirls when applying a wax or coating
So you’ve gone through the entire paint correction process and now your paint looks perfect. This is a crucial time where everything you do really matters. One wrong swipe and you can be back to square one with a fresh batch of swirl marks and scratches.
On some paint jobs, this is a real concern and it can be tough to deal with. There are times when it seems as though no matter how lightly you wipe with your towel, it still creates scratches. This happens with extremely soft paints and with colors that reveal every little mark like gloss black.
So how do you wax your car without leaving swirl marks behind? It’s important to save your softest, highest quality towels for this step. You also need to use the least amount of pressure possible. Like barely enough to hold the towel on the paint.
You’ll also want to understand the product’s flash time whether it’s a wax or ceramic coating. Leaving something on the surface for too long will require heavier pressure or scrubbing to remove. It’s important to remove it at just the right time if you’re dealing with extra soft paint.
Improper washing technique
So the swirls were gone after you polished it. They were still gone after you protected it. If you’re noticing they’re back after your first wash, I’m sorry to tell you this but your washing procedure is causing damage.
Improper washing is one of the biggest culprits for swirl marks in the first place. That doesn’t just mean taking your vehicle through a car wash with brushes either. You can do a proper hand wash with the 2 bucket method and still scratch your car if you slip up on a seemingly minor detail. Especially if the paint is soft and easy to scratch.
Improper drying technique
Just like with washing, if you’re using the wrong products and techniques to dry your car it won’t take long for swirl marks to develop all over again. Using a water blade or old chamois will surely ruin the results that you worked so hard for.
Make sure to use high quality microfiber towels along with a drying aid for lubrication when drying your car off. The safest option for drying a car is to blow the water off with something like a Metro Vac or leaf blower without even touching it.
Improper care in general
When it comes to a car that has been through a paint correction, the goal is to touch the paint as little as possible to avoid creating new scratches. That means skipping the dry wipe downs with detail spray or a California duster, leaning on it, touching the door to close it (instead of the handle) and many other things. Simply put – don’t touch it unless you have to.
Spending hours making your paint look flawless only to lean on the fender in your jeans is foolish. All of that hard work will go to waste and a new set of swirls and scratches will show up in no time.
For more ways you could be scratching your car without knowing it, make sure to check out this post:
Will swirl marks come back eventually?
The original swirls that you removed will not “come back”. New ones can be caused by improper care though, which will feel like you’re right back at square one.
It really depends on how hard the paint is. Softer paint is easier to scratch, making it difficult to wash your car for years without adding new swirls. Even with proper methods, 10+ years of washing can eventually cause minor marring and swirl marks. It’s inevitable. It doesn’t mean they’ll show up right away though or that paint correction is a waste of time.
There’s always a risk every time you touch your paint. A quick “maintenance polish” every few years is a great way to stay on top of them and keep your car looking swirl free indefinitely.
Can you remove swirl marks by hand?
Technically, you could. But you will absolutely hate your life if you’re trying to perform a paint correction by hand on your entire vehicle. There’s no way to match the effectiveness and efficiency of a machine polisher with your hands. They’re powerful, consistent, and will get the job done in a fraction of the time.
Head over to this post for more on why I think paint correction by hand is a bad idea.
Does a clay bar remove swirl marks?
No, a clay bar will not remove swirl marks from your paint. If anything, it can cause marring in the paint which might look similar to swirl marks (it’s more of a uniform looking haze). Clay bars are abrasive and anything that’s abrasive has the potential to scratch your paint. Clay bars are meant to pull bonded contaminants off your paint, not fix scratches.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: