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Where do swirls come from?

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

It's a question that some people ask, while others think their paint is perfect as it is. Just like in our decontamination post, there are some misconceptions on what can cause swirls or what they actually are.

swirls removal - bare knuckles detail

The picture to the right is years of poor washing and drying techniques. While not every car has swirls to this effect most vehicles do have them. For those that have black vehicles you already know the struggle of keeping your truck or car clean and how quickly swirls can be introduced to your paint. Meanwhile, owners of lighter colored vehicles or heavy metallics in their paint may have yellow cars during pollen season, but swirls are harder to see or notice. So what exactly are swirls? Well in a nutshell they are small scratches in the top layer of your vehicles clear coat , or final layer of paint for single stage vehicles.

What in your life is fast, cheap, and easy that is actually a good thing? But people are religiously taking their 30, 40, 100 thousand dollar vehicle through automatic car washes with big spinning brushes and extremely harsh chemicals. These brushes not only cause swirls in your paint every time you through your car into neutral, but I have personally seen them dent, scratch, and cause serious damage to the exterior of vehicles. Brushes with the long handles are another popular way to wash trucks or larger vehicles, these also cause swirls to your paint. The bristles might feel soft to you hand but on the paint they are scrubbing the dirt on across the surface causing major damage. Dry wiping is another way swirls can be introduced to the paint. Also known as "love marks", those who mean well and are just wanted to "get the dust off" grab a rag and wipe down their paint without any detail spray or waterless wash.

wiping dirt

Car shows are full of people wiping their paint with a "California Duster" to knock the dust off. This lack of lubrication drags the dust/dirt across the surface of the paint, which cause swirls. You wouldn't drag rocks across the surface of your paint would you? Well, dry wiping dirt is doing just that at a much smaller scale. Washing your paint with the wrong wash media like a sponge, house towels, or dirty wash mitts from the last 10 vehicles they were used on. While these definitely aren't all of the ways swirls happened, these are some pretty bigs ones.

"My car is 'NEW', I don't have swirls". This is something we hear often when people call in for a ceramic coating quote. When ceramic coating, we polish the paint to remove any swirls or defects from the paint before applying the semi-permanent protection. But people thing their vehicle is new, so it is perfect. If you purchased your new vehicle from a dealership that was on their lot, their detail washed it and put it on the lot. Depending on what time of year it is there are also detailers that come around and wipe down that vehicle to keep it looking nice. More times than not they are using the same dirty water and rags they used on the last 20 vehicles and as we know from above dirty rags=swirls in the paint. I have even seen dealerships that use brushes to wash the cars with, they use this brush on the wheels, tires, lower and upper parts of the car and its usually on multiple vehicles as well, maybe 100s before the brush is washed.

If you ordered your vehicle tell the dealer to not wash or remove the plastics, this should help lower your chances of swirls in your paint, but even from the factory there are usually sanding marks or other defects that happen that need to be address. This is why we inspect every vehicle before we polish and ceramic coat the paint.

Swirls can be removed through a polishing process called paint correction. You may have heard or even used the term having the swirls "buffed" out. Most detailers or people who "buff" paint make it look good temporarily with hiding the swirls with waxes, glazes, or fillers

paint swirl process

"buff" paint make it look good temporarily with hiding the swirls with waxes, glazes, or fillers in their polishes/compounds. After a few washes all the swirls come back and it somehow looks worse than when you took it in because they use the wrong/dirty pad, or they used a rotary buffer and left swirls or holograms in your paint (see "rotary cutting") Our process leaves the paint swirl free, with real results free from any fillers or coverups. We use special lighting from different angles and lighting temperatures to see different types of not only swirls but deeper scratches and defects in the paint as well.

How do I keep the swirls out of my paint? The question on everyones mind right? While there are methods to reduce the risk of swirls, there are always accidents that can happen but these few tips will tremendously reduce the risk of swirling your paint. The obvious being to not do any of the things mentioned above.

car wash

The not so obvious being to use what is known as the "Two-Bucket Method". The idea is to keep your wash mitts as clean as possible to reduce dirt being put back onto the paint. Bucket #1 is your "wash" bucket with your soap of choice, Bucket #2 is your "rinse" bucket. In both buckets we use the Turbine Dirt Lock, which traps dirt at the bottom of your bucket instead of floating around in the water, which can get reintroduced into your wash mitt. Which leads me to the next point, Wash Mitts. Lambs wool, or soft microfiber. Microfiber is going to be easier to wash and keep clean, we use these at our shop. Lambs wool is going to be more expensive but is very soft and great for softer, black paints, but it is harder to keep clean. Foam cannons are also a great way to had extra lubrication to your paint or help get the initial, heavier dirt off of the paint before you touch it. Using two wash mitts instead of just one also helps with one dedicated to the upper parts of your vehicle and the other for the lower and rear of the vehicle where it is the dirtiest.

Wash wheels separately with separate wash mitt and brushes to ensure you don't introduce the brake dust and grime from your wheels onto your paint. Working in smaller sections and rinsing your mitts out more often is also a great habit to not push more dirt around on the paint and work in straight lines instead of being Mr. Miyagi and working in circular motions. Finally drying your vehicle. The less you touch your paint, the better so using a blower to blow dry your paint is the best way to dry your vehicle. It can also help get in the cracks so there isn't water running down the side of your paint. Also a premium drying towel goes a long way, we swear by the KL!N Drying Duo. You place it on the surface, pull it across and its dry. Car Shammy's or other drying towels like that are too thin and God forbid a small piece of dirt is on the paint and it pulls it across and scratches the paint. The KLIN towel has longer twisted weave nap allows it to safely dry your vehicle.

Have any questions about swirls, wash techniques, or anything else? Ask in the comments below!

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