Car Polishing By Hand – Is It An Effective Option?

Want to give your car back its shine and luster, but don’t want to spend money on auto polishers? In this article, I will tell you about the aspects and features of hand polishing. 

Hand polishing is effective, as it smoothes the clear coat and makes small scratches disappear. Nevertheless, it takes much more time than polishing with a machine and it also delivers a less reliable result.

Below I have prepared for you 10 unique tables and charts that will give you all the answers about the effectiveness of polishing by hand. Read on to save up to 12 hours of searching for information (I did it for you).

Pros and Cons of polishing by hand

How do you evaluate effectiveness?  Cost, time, the result? I’ve prepared graphs, tables, and lists for you to understand whether hand polishing is worth your efforts. 

 The below table shows you the pros and cons of polishing by hand: 

EffectiveNot Effective
Money savingsNot a productive use of time
Training not requiredCan not remove deep paint scratches
Paint-saving methodMore physical labor
Pros and Cons of Hand Polishing

Now, let’s briefly discuss every aspect.

Money savings

Polishing by hand will save you a lot of money, which makes it extremely attractive for beginners. There is no need to invest a few hundred dollars in a polishing machine if you want to polish your car by hand. The only equipment you need will be polishing pads and polishing compounds.

Training not required

Polishing by hand is unlikely to inflict major damages to the car and this is the reason why it does not require extensive training. If you are a beginner, you can easily start polishing your car by hand without learning how to use the machine.

Paint-saving method

Polishing removes a certain amount of clearcoat. With revealed paint, the car becomes more attractive. You put the car in danger by taking too much off. For example, the sun’s rays will penetrate the deeper layers and the paint will fade. However, what makes hand polishing effective is the safety of clearcoat. You’re not likely to endanger the clearcoat working by hand.

Not a productive use of time

If you are a beginner, a complete polishing procedure along with preparation can take up to 6-8 hours of time. Professionals work faster, up to 4-5 hours. However, hand polishing always takes longer than using a machine. For those who prioritize saving time, it is better to use a machine.

Can not remove deep paint scratches

For scratches deep enough, to hear distinguishable click-click sound running a fingernail across them, using handwork is not effective. Hand polishing works well for small swirls, minor scratches, which are only visible if you look closely.

More physical labor

Hand polishing can be a labor-intensive activity in which you have to move around constantly. Be prepared to spend 4 to 8 hours on your feet. From this point of view, the efficiency of a hand polish is low. With equal effort and time, you can do 2 to 5 machine polishes.

Time it takes to polish a car by hand

One of the biggest aspects of polishing a car by hand is the amount of time it takes. I asked 15 car enthusiasts about this topic and here is how long it takes them to polish a car.

With experience, a person begins to polish faster. This applies to both the hand method and the machine method. Below you will see a graph of the time spent on polishing by more experienced users.

For your convenience, I have compared the results of the last two tables. 

Here are some facts based on the results of 15 automobilists. I split them into two main groups. Beginners  — those who just started using a method. Experts  — spent some time mastering a method.

Here is the composition:

Beginners  — 4 individualsBeginners  — 5 individuals
Experts  — 3 individualsExperts  — 3 individuals
15 individuals sorted by groups (according to their experince and used method)
  • Hand polishing has become 23% faster over time. Experts compared to beginners (both Hand-users)
  • Polishing with a machine became 48% faster. Experts compared to beginners (both Machine-users)
  • New users of machines polish up to 30% faster than newbie hand polishers
  • Experienced machine users polish 92.5% quicker than expert hand polishers

Based on this little experiment I concluded that the use of manual labor in terms of time is less efficient in both the long and short term.

Detailed Hand Polishing and Machine Polishing Comparison

In order to understand just how effective polishing a car by hand really is, I decided to compare it to the most used polishing technique: polishing a car with a machine. 

I compared different aspects of these two methods and graded them from A to F. 

(A is maximum, F is minimum)

Polishing By HandMachine Polishing
MoneyB (pads and chemicals)C (extra equipment)
Training neededA (not required)F (a lot of practice)
Risk of damaging the carB (almost no risk)D (High risk)
Paint preservationAB
Long-term usageDA
Tiny scratches, swirlsAA
Deep scratchesFA
In-depth Comparison of Hand Polishing and Machine Polishing

As you can see, I rated both hand polishing and machine polishing equally (first of all, based on numbers and facts, and then on my own opinion).

Polishing by hand takes a lot more time and is less reliable than polishing with a machine. Nevertheless, polishing by hand can remove small scratches and is less likely to inflict damage to your car.

Now let’s speak about the main aspects in detail to see which is best for you.


Automatic car wash or spinning brush heads may cause straightforward scratches which can be removed by polishing. The only pending question is which type: by hand or machine?

First, you need to assess the “seriousness” of the damage inflicted.

Deep scratches are usually easy to identify using the finger rule. Run your fingernail across the scratch. If you get a distinguishable click-click sound, it’s probably a deep scratch. The more resistance you feel, the deeper the scrape is. In that case, hand polishing won’t solve the problem (not effective).

If there is no sound, but the scratch is visible with the naked eye from a distance of 1-2 meters, it is most likely medium-depth scratches. In that case, hand polishing is also unlikely to help, but machine polishing will. You may want to run a water test. Wipe the scratch and the small area around it dry. Then spray the area with water from a sprinkler. If the scratch is no longer visible when filled with water, then you have a good chance of making that scratch less noticeable or removing it completely with a machine polish.

For minor scratches and flaws, which are only visible if you look closely, hand polishing will be the most effective method of eliminating problems. 

Paint Preservation

What are your goals for the polishing process? Maybe you want to remove scratches or give your car a shine? But I’m sure that you also want to save the color of your car, avoiding unnecessary workshop visits and repainting costs (thus, making polishing inefficient).

What is going on with paint while you cover it with compound and rubbing all over?

This is how your paintwork looks under a microscope:

The most important thing here is clearcoat (protective varnish-like layer)

Polishing removes a certain amount of clearcoat. With revealed paint, the car becomes more attractive. You put the car in danger by taking too much off. For example, the sun’s rays will penetrate the deeper layers and the paint will begin to fade. However, what makes hand polishing effective is the safety of clearcoat. You’re not likely to endanger the clearcoat (unlike working with a machine).

The usual thickness for a clearcoat is 50µm (fold it and you will get A4 thickness).  A safe zone to remove is about half (handwork is less risky from this perspective making it more effective) Until then, you won’t have any serious and uncomfortable problems with the paint.

Useful tip:  2 mils = 50µm. Manufacturers often refer to mils instead of µm. 

Here is a table of how  much coat the different types of compounds take-off (based on the results of other automobilists):

Type of PolishingPolishing ImpactCompound ImpactBuffing Impact
By HandModerate (1.5 to 2µm)Aggressive(3 to 5µm)Easy(0.25 to 0.75µm)
MachineModerate(2.5 to 3µm)Aggressive(4.5 to 8µm)Easy(0.5 to 1µm)
Comparison of much coat the different types of compounds take-off

As you can see from the above table, in terms of preservation and care, handwork is always ahead of machines. From this point of view, you can put a + in the old school hand method rating. Your paint will survive up to 15 years(handwork)  with care and polishing once a year (1 to 2 times per year is recommended). For a machined approach, the duration of the paint lasts up to 10 years.

The more often you polish, the faster the resin clearcoat layer wears off. A simple calculation shows that you will use 15µm to 20µm within 10 hand sessions. This is a safe zone for most cars, but not all manufacturers apply a 50µm coating.  For example, Toyota, Subaru, Chevrolet may use 38µm or higher. (Meaning that for some models of cars handwork is more efficient because of money saved on equipment and painting)

Useful tip:  You are less likely to forfeit the warranty using more gentle hand polishing. Depletion of the clearcoat by more than 20% (about 0.4mil or 10µm) will not only deprive you of the official license from the manufacturer but will also cause a premature failure. 

Long-term Usage & Risks

Hand polishing entails no risk with a soft foam or microfiber applicator pad when applying the polish product. You cannot damage the deeper layers with a hand polish because there is not enough speed and force to allow the abrasive particles to penetrate too deeply.

The machine can remove the protective layer in the blink of an eye when using too aggressive products and an applicator pad (the rotation speed of about 1500 rpm does the job). Even professionals sometimes make mistakes with the selection of applicators and compounds for polishing, not to mention beginners.

Useful tip: you may want to consider dual-actions polishers for a good start. They are less risky than professional machines but still provide better performance than hand polishing. The best long-term option is rotary polishers though. 


If you are ready to take the path of trial and error, if you are eager to constantly experiment with equipment, accessories, compound products, then the best long-term solution is to choose machine polishing, which brings more stable and tangible results. For beginners and enthusiasts of consistency, a hand polish is more suitable, although it will take more effort and time.

How to Increase Efficiency Working by Hand?

One of the major reasons behind polishing is removing scratches and swirls to make the car glossy and shiny. General rule to make hand polishing more effective, is to properly combine applicator pads with polishing compounds.

Here’s what swirls look like:

The swirl removing process will boil down to handling unevenness and roughness that the eye sees as swirls. To achieve that,  prepare polishing pads, buffers, and compound products to work with. Choosing proper supplies will help you to maximize the effectiveness of working by hand.


The polishing pad is designed to apply polishing compounds to the surface of the сar. Most often they are round in shape. The most popular material is microfiber, so the manufacturers advise using the pad once

Make sure not to overdo the removal of the outer layer. Here is a list of different foam pads and their effect on the surface: (the idea behind this table is to give you information about proper pads for maximum efficiency working by hand)

YellowHeavy Cutting PadRemoves severe oxidation, scrapes, swirls
OrangeMedium to Heavy Cutting PadRemoves Scrapes
GreenHeavy Polishing PadRemoves swirls, less aggressive
WhiteMedium to Light Polishing PadLight cutting, start polish with this one
BlueGlaze & Cleaner Foam PadFine polishes and glaze
BlackFinishing Foam PadSoft, perfect finishing
RedUltra Fine Finishing PadUltra-soft(equivalent of leveling wool pad)
Different foam pads. Depending on situation you should choose a proper pad.

Assuming you noticed a lot of swirls on the hood and that your paint might look better overall. In that case, my advice is to use the yellow pad first (remove the problematic layer) then go over the hood with the orange pad (smooth out the remaining scratches) and finally go to the white pad to smooth out the last bumps and give the car a shiny look with minimal noticeable imperfections.

If you just want to lightly refresh the look (no big, deep imperfections on the hood), then start with the white pad and then apply glaze or wax for extra protection along with the soft & gentle black pad.

The polishing compound has a lot of names (often called cutting because it “cuts” the outer layer) but the essence remains unchanged. Liquid polishers, as well as paste-based, have abrasive particles in composition which penetrate the clearcoat. There are 5 types of compounds based on the strength of penetration ability  ( more strength = more aggressive compound) 

It is important not only to choose the right compound but also to combine it with the applicator pad. This is done to maximize the efficiency of hand polishing. For example, if you have an old paint layer (it may have been worn out over the years or for other reasons), it is not a good idea to choose an aggressive cutting polish and apply it with a yellow applicator pad. 

Normal PaintThin PaintVery Thin PaintRepainted & Old Cars
100 to 200µm80 to 100µm80 and less200µm+
Thickness of Paintwork

In general, you can combine the degree of aggressiveness of the compound on the paint with the applicator. For example, a white applicator pad with medium aggressiveness may be applied with heavy compounds to achieve the best efficiency (about 1400-1900 grit). For your convenience, I’ve included a table with the grit values.

Surface FlawsPolishing Compound Grit Abrasives  MicronsPad Selection
Very Fine Scrape1800 to 2200 Grit Abrasive8 to 9µmMedium White Pad
Light Oxidation1800 to 2200 Grit Abrasive8 to 9µmMedium White Pad or Gentle Cutting Pad Orange
Mid Scrapes Mid Oxidation  Water Slicks1400 to 1600 Grit Abrasive12µmOrange Par for Light Cutting
Deep Scrapes Strong Oxidation Orange Peel Acid Rain Mid Effect1100 to 1300 Grit Abrasive15µmYellow Cutting Pad
Deep Paint Scrapes Strong Oxidation Acid Rain Serious Effect900 to 1100 Grit Abrasive18µmWool Pad or Red Pad for leveling
Great Combinations of Pads and Compound Products to Make Polishing Effective

Buffing Towel or Pad is a must to remove the residual. Buffing of the haze is the last step. For hand polishing, it’s common to use a buffing wheel.

Related questions

How Not to Over-Polishing the Car?

Excessive polishing is bad for the paint. Use these tips to avoid damaging the coating:

  • Schedule a wash once a week
  • Use paint sealant twice a year
  • Polish 2-3 times a year with a non-abrasive polish or glaze
  • Clean paint 1-2 times a year using detailing clay
  • Make a gentle polishing once a year (abrasive)

What Is The Difference Between Polishing And Buffing?

Polishing and buffing are used to refresh the appearance of the painting by removing the clearcoat layer. Polishing implies grinding the surface with medium and fine grit abrasives. While buffing refers to mixing very fine abrasives with buffing compounds and then applying them to the surface. Thus, buffing takes less material, being a more smooth procedure than polishing.

Should I Compound The Car Before Hand Polishing?

The compound is used to repair more serious defects than polishing. The coarser grit of abrasives allows you to penetrate deeper into the paint layers and remove serious scratches. If there are scratches on the car that polishing did not cope with, it makes sense to apply compound, and remove the small flaws afterward.

Will Polishing My Car Burn The Paint?

Removing a thin part of the protective coat with a microfibre applicator will not burn the paint. However, you put the painting at risk using rotary machines.

Key Takeaways:

  • Sticky stains like tar, sap, and spray paint can be removed by hand
  • Hand polishing is effective vs clearcoat flaking, oxidation, scratches
  • For the damage deep enough to feel by hand consider machined polishing or compounding
  • Beginners with machine polish up to 30% faster than by hand
  • Experts polish up to 92% faster using rotary or dual action polishers
  • Hand polishing is less coat damaging than machine polishing
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge