Removing Swirl Marks and Scratches

Any discussion on removing swirl marks and scratches remains a frustrating display of just how much confusion still exists in this industry.

swirl marks and scratches

"Hey Darren, I heard you should never apply wax or polish in a circular pattern because this will cause swirl marks!"

This is claim that can be seen and heard in the ever-growing group of what I call "detail hacks" that can be found on YouTube.

Swirl marks are NOT caused by applying products in a circular pattern!

This is simply bad information that appears to be sound thinking, but is really just false information. What any of us were taught if we watched the iconic movie "Karate Kid", was in fact, appropriate. Wax on, wax off!

What are Swirl Marks:
Bad information, repeated by misinformed people

The problem is also compounded by the fact that the term swirl mark carries no definitive definition among car owners and experts alike, so this term is often used when trying to identify certain problems when it comes to clear coat or car paint (two additional areas that carry massive amounts of confusion), but used in a variety of ways, to label a variety of problems.

There just simply seems to be no consistent definition of terms. If none of us can agree on what we are talking about, then how are we to reach conclusions as to proper strategies moving forward.

  • What are swirl marks?
  • What are cobwebs or spider webbing on car paint?
  • What are car paint scratches?
  • Can swirl marks and scratches be fixed?

These along with other questions will be answered as go into a deeper understanding of some of the common problems to removing swirls marks and scratches from car paint.

Removing Swirl Marks and Scratches:
What you need to know

What you need to know and accept first and foremost is that the world of cosmetic car care, like virtually every other topic of life, is an industry with massive amounts of hype and self-promotion.

Very few industry leaders or manufacturers themselves are interested in educating you as a car owner.

If only we could standardize the terminology within this industry so we all started at common ground before debating products, techniques, or tools!

Any discussion on removing swirl marks and paint scratches will prove complicated enough without adding the additional task of debating the definition of terms within this industry.

But that is a reality we must face.

What are Swirl Marks?

In the most basic and common applications, swirl marks are the overall appearance to the paint of your car that is caused by the reflection of light from the thousands of micro-scratches that are present on your car paint.

T repeat myself from the introduction, the biggest problem is no common accepted use of the label: swirl marks.

People use this term to identify and describe a variety of car paint problems.

This affect is also commonly referred to as cob-webbing or spider-webbing to car paint. This affect is produced as light reflects from the thousands of micro-scratches that can be found on virtually every car in varying degrees.

what are swirl marks on car paintClassic "spider webbing" or "cobwebbing" effect on the trunk of this black Mercedes when viewed in direct sunlight

The term "swirl" is a result of these micro-scratches appearing as a circular pattern in the paint. This pattern is literally caused by the reflections of the individual scratches themselves, and the light source being circular in shape.

But to confuse a term that finds itself already suffering from an identity crises, is the fact that these micro-scratches only appear in a true circular pattern as a result of the light source being round in shape - the most common example being that of the sun - otherwise this pattern of cob-webbing effect would not appear circular in shape at all.

Try viewing any car using artificial lighting from a source that is not circular in shape - like rectangular fluorescent lighting or a square LED light -  and you will observe the absence of this circular or swirled effect.

What Causes Swirl Marks?

Swirl marks is simply another name for the thousands of micro-scratches that have been put into your clear coat as a natural byproduct of traditional car washing, car drying, and even waxing your car.

Anytime you touch your car to wipe, rub, or apply, you will run the risk of putting more and more of these micro-scratches into the clear coat surface.

Despite the endless claims put out by the countless so-called experts and YouTube Hacks, swirl marks are not a result of applying wax or polish in a circular pattern.

This worn out advice of the YouTube hacks to never polish or apply car wax in a circular pattern is simply false.

Any actual and discernible circular pattern created by polishing or waxing in a circular manner would be a direct result of scratching the paint with a very harsh applicator pad or cloth, or very aggressive compounds.

This specific affect should not be confused by the swirled appearance produced by thousands upon thousands of micro-scratches that true industry experts would rightfully label as cob-webbing or spider-webbing.

Are Swirl Marks Fact or Fiction?


This pattern will be revealed on virtually every car when viewed in direct sunlight.

The problem is more about improper use of the term swirl marks. It is common practice for the inexperienced car owner when observing their car paint in direct sunlight, to label this basic and natural appearance as swirl marks.

This swirled or circular pattern of the scratches naturally present on any car paint surface is a direct result of the sun being round in shape. If the sun were any other shape, this swirled or circular pattern would not be created.

The added confusion develops when you view the surface of your paint using some form of artificial lighting that is not concentrated or focused from a round light source.

Examples of this would be rectangular overhead fluorescent lights, or a square LED light. When viewing the paint surface of a car under these conditions it will not reveal a swirled, radial, or circular pattern.

What are Car Paint Holograms?

car paint holograms

In simplest of terms, holograms or hologramming is an effect resembling reflective patterns of light that appear to "float" just above the actual surface of car paint.

As you change viewing perspective, the hologram pattern also appears to move as they "float" across the surface of the car paint in direct relation to how you change viewing perspectives.

You could relate this appearance of the individual hologram trails to vapor trails produce by airplanes, or cloud trails in the sky.

Most often these hologram trails will form a grid pattern as a result of the pattern typically used by a person as they polish section to section of a car while using a rotary polisher.

What Causes Holograms in Car Paint?

removing swirl marks and scratches from car paint

Holograms in car paint are a direct result of improper use of a rotary (high-speed) machine car polisher. Unlike dual-action car buffers that move/spin in two distinct movements, rotary car buffers spin at just a single axis point.

Holograms like the ones pictured on the hood of this black Mercedes, are unique to the single spinning action of a rotary car buffer.

Unlike swirl marks that are created over time, holograms are a direct result of a specific moment.

Difference Between Car Paint Scratches and Swirl Marks

If you have been following along, you may have a pretty good idea as to why I am listing this question with regards to removing swirl marks and scratches.

The term "scratches" is a very loaded statement due to the fact that virtually every person you ask would deliver a different response as to what exactly is a car paint scratch.

Are you talking about specific scratches found randomly on your car, or an overall appearance to your car paint that looks as though the entire surface of your paint is made up of countless micro-scratches.

car paint cobwebbing spider webbing

It is hard to adopt a strategy for removing swirl marks and scratches if you are unable to identify what is actually going on with your car. Most car owners simply do not know how to look at car paint and properly judge and identify exactly what is going on.

Often a person will use terms they don't fully understand, along with generalized terms in an effort at describing an unwanted affect that they have hopes in fixing. Hence the commonly used term of removing swirl marks and scratches from a car.

For the context of this page on removing swirl marks and scratches, I am referring to the unwanted affect of your overall paint that is more accurately labeled as cob-webbing or spider-webbing affect.

If you have specific car paint scratches, but find that the overall condition of your car paint is acceptable, then you can go to my car paint scratch repair page.

Removing Swirl Marks and Scratches

Now we come to the million dollar question of removing swirl marks and scratches. There is a very simple explanation of how to do this that you might find shocking as a car owner:

"To permanently remove swirl marks and paint scratches you need to scratch your way to success."

When it comes to removing swirl marks and scratches as part of an overall affect of your car paint, the best way to remove these uninvited swirl marks and scratches is through machine polishing of your car paint.

In simple terms the goal of this page is about the best way of removing swirl marks and scratches that we have identified as an overall unwanted appearance to your car's paint.

Paint Enhancement Versus Paint Correction

When it comes to removing swirl marks and scratches in car paint, you have two basic choices as your starting point. Each possibility will require different "tools" and different products.

  1. Temporary (referred to as Paint Enhancement)
  2. Permanent (referred to as Paint Correction)

Temporary: If you are looking for the simplest, easiest way to fix swirl marks and scratches you can default to your choice in what you may consider as the best car wax or paint sealant.

Both these types of products will naturally conceal and hide paint defects. But with that said, each situation will be unique and there is no car wax or paint sealant that has the ability to hide or conceal every type of paint defect, blemish, swirl mark, or scratch.

ceram X car polish to remove swirl marks and scratches

Because of these limitations of car waxes and sealants, these simply represent a temporary "improvement" to a problem that requires different technology to deliver lasting results.

Permanent: If you are looking to realize permanent results, you will need abrasives in the form of a compound or polish.

Since I am vehemently opposed to traditional compounds due to the unseen negative effects these have the ability to do to car paint/clear coats, I will lead with car polish.

A true car polish will be formulated with some type of abrasive technology that allows you as the user to scratch your way to success. It is only by "scratching" with the deliberate action of abrasive technology in the form of a polish, that you can permanently remove unwanted paint defects.

Diminishing Abrasive Technology (DAT) has been the default of most compounds and polishes. These are still formulated today and companies still use this severely outdated technology since it has such a long history of use (old habits and thinking die a very slow death).

It also allows companies to sell you more stuff rather than less stuff. Stuff in the form of multiple grades of compounds and polishes.

The logic behind varying grades of compounds and polishes is sound logic and it replicates what most people are familiar with when it comes to uses different grits of sanding paper.

Start with aggressive, and transition down to finer and finer. Start with aggressive to do the "heavy lifting" and transition to finer and finer until you have achieved desired results by sanding your way to success.

Not only do companies employ this strategy with their individual compounds and polishes (Diminishing Abrasive Technology), but teach this strategy through the use of their polishing systems that include varying grades of compounds/polishes.

Once again... great if you are the company selling this stuff, but not so great as the end user looking to "keep it simple".

The Original Single Product Polish (SPP)
Ceram-X Polish

One of the biggest challenges you will face as you go about removing swirl marks and scratches through machine polishing will be the endless debate as to which is the best car polish to do this.

For me that has always been about finding the best balance between a compound that can do heavy lifting, and a polish that can do the fine tuning.

The industry would have you believe that you need separate and dedicated compounds and polishes that range in their aggressiveness. This strategy is based on the same strategy as using different grits of sand paper when sanding away unwanted blemishes and defects in the material you are working on (wood, paint, metal, etc.)

But this strategy is outdated. No longer do you need multiple products in the form of compounds and polishes to perform any type of paint correction, or specifically in this case, removing swirl marks and scratches.

This is where the age of the Single Product Polish will make your life easier, better, and less complicated. Now you can perform all stages of paint correction and/or defect removal with the use of a single polish.

A single product that has the ability to perform heavy defect removal (swirl marks/scratches/etc.) and finish to a swirl free finish (or more accurately, a hologram free finish).

Despite this technology having been developed over 20 years ago by formulator Tom Horvath of System One (The name has since been changed to ClearCoat Solutions, Inc., AKA: CSi), the industry has been very resistant to embrace this new technology.

The industry as a whole wants to maintain its ability to sell you multiple products, rather than a single product. And the added insult is the hypocrisy the industry is now guilty of with developing their own version of a single product polish, while still maintaining their massive product line of compounds and polishes.

"If a polish company can produce a Single Product Polish that truly does work, then why do they continue to make and sell you multiple compounds and polishes?"

Either their single product polish works or it doesn't.

Ceram X removing swirl marks and scratches

Ceram-X Car Polish:

  • Uses Controlled Abrasive technology (CAT)
  • True waterborne technology (formulated with the water molecule as the "carrier")
  • No solvent smell (Is not formulated using traditional heavy solvents of other products)
  • Can be used in direct sunlight (possible due in large part to being true waterborne technology)
  • Safe and effective on any paint type, any clear coat type (with the exception of matte paint finishes)
  • Does the heavy lifting of traditional compounds, while able to do the fine tuning of traditional polishes
  • Saves time and money over traditional multiple product systems

Darren's Disclaimer: I was introduced to this product over 15 years ago and have used it ever since. Due to the many winning attributes of this polish which I came to refer to as my "sure thing" (can work in any condition on any paint), I have subsequently put my own "skin in the game" by investing some of my money into this company.

Some may look at that as a biased perspective, some may look at that as a smart investment move. Only you can decide.

Removing Swirl Marks and Scratches:
Tools required

For true paint correction of swirl marks and scratches in your paint, you will need the following:

  • Machine polisher
  • Car polish
  • Polishing pads
  • Micro-fiber cloths

Darren's Note: While you may be one of those people who have been frightened away by the used-up advice from so-called experts on YouTube, the reality is that by using the right type of machine polisher (more on that as follows) you can achieve professional results right out of the gate as a true beginner.

If you think you are able to achieve the same results by polishing your car by hand as you would with a machine polisher, you are in for a yet another disappointment in life. Your hand will never replicate the speed, duration, and consistent action of a machine polisher.

Professional Car Buffer

Maxshine M15 Pro Series II DA Dual Action Polisher, 1000W

  • Professional grade car polisher
  • 15 mm throw
  • When you are ready to get serious

Darren's Note: There are endless car buffers to choose from (buffers and polishers are the same thing. Some companies call it a buffer, some call it a polisher) and you could spend an entire week searching and reviewing the "best car buffer" and find yourself stuck getting no closer to your real goals.

I prefer this over many other buffers as it represent the winning balance between cost and feature. It is easy to over-pay for some of the other hyped-up buffers with social clout, but as a beginner you don't have to over-think it at the beginning.

Just know moving forward that many guys consider buffers as more toys to buy, and will continue to buy more and more of these toys regardless of use.

This is me saying that I want you to begin polishing sooner, not later and it is easy to get sucked into the marketing machine about which buffer s the best.

Car Polish

CSI Ceram-X Car Polish 62-203-Quart - Single Product Polish (SPP) Superior Single Polish Replaces The Countless compounds/Polishes You Think You Need

  • The original Single Product Polish
  • Accomplish all stages of polishing with this single polish
  • Can be used by hand or machine
  • Can be used on any paint type, soft or hard clear coats (no polish is intended for matte paint finishes)
  • Can be used in direct sunlight on hot paint
  • Can be used with any pad type: wool, foam, micro-fiber, etc.
  • Easy clean-up (no rock-hard compound residue. Cleans easily with water)

Darren's Note: This polish can perform at any level of requirements, from absolute beginner, to Concours perfection. Used by high-end car restoration to paint and body to professional detailing.

This has been my "go-to" car polish for over 15 years as I know it will perform in any situation.

Buffing Pads

Lake Country 5.5" x .875" CCS Cutback DA Polishing Kit (Orange, White, Black)

  • Perfect buffing pad kit for beginners
  • 3 pads (soft, medium, firm)
  • Made for any 5" baking plate (hook and loop)

Darren's Note: The pads are perfect for anyone, but I choose them for beginners as it allows you as a beginner to choose the pad density you are most comfortable with.

The firmest pad is the one I recommend for anyone as it will provide the most working action being a firmer pad. I realize you may be exceptionally fearful at the beginning, but the pad density is not going to make you any less safe, so you might as well get the best results from the start.

And by "best results", I mean providing the aggressiveness you need to actually put the abrasives in the polish I recommend to work in removing swirl marks and scratches.

The softer pads will still work, but will require more polishing time to produce the lasting results you want. You can always follow up with the softest pad to perform what people refer to as "jeweling" the paint.

Buffing Pad Cleaning Brush

Adam's Microfiber Pad Conditioning Brush - Dense, Strong Bristles Removes Dried Polish and Compounds During Polishing - Keeps Microfiber Pads Clean When Job is Finished

  • You will need some kind of pad cleaning tool
  • Can be used on any foam or micro-fiber polishing pads
  • You adjust pressure against pad as you need

Darren's Note: You will need to keep your pad clean from polish residue as you are working. I typically use this about every 3-4 times I apply polish to the pass as I am working.

As you continue to apply more polish as you work form section to section on your car, the old polish will accumulate on the pad. While you may think that the more polish that builds up, the less polish you will use moving forward, this is not the case.

You need to keep the pad fresh with consistent cleanings during use, so that you are working with fresh polish rather than "wadded-up" polish.

Simply hold this against the polishing pad while the buffer is on ( I usually hold polisher against one leg for leverage, and then hold the brush against the pad while it is moving to release dried and spent polish.

Micro-Fiber Cloths

Kirkland Signature Ultra High Pile Premium Microfiber Towels, 36 Count (Pack of 1), Yellow - 713160

  • The exact micro-fibers cloths I use for 80% of my detailing work
  • Ideal micro-fiber for the removal of polish
  • The winning balance between quality and cost

Darren's Note: As a beginner you are going to read and listen to endless debates on the "best micro-fiber" just like every other area of detailing. But reading the endless reviews will not get you any closer to your desired outcome.

Not only are these micro-fibers from Kirkland represent quality, but the price is so great I treat these like disposable cloths.

What I actually do is reserve any virgin cloth for the most delicate of work like when I am polishing a car to remove the polish, and then as they get washed, I down grade them to other detail jobs.

If you want to maintain any type of micro-fiber cloth, the are a few guidelines you will need to follow:

  • Wash them in cool water
  • You can use regular laundry detergent or a dedicated cleaner
  • Don't add any fabric softener to wash/or dryer sheets when drying
  • Dry them on cool to warm setting

Using hot water, and most specifically hot air to dry them, will make the micro-fibers brittle and stiff. These brittle fibers will shed as you use them in a very unique and different way then traditional "linting" of more traditional cloths.

Removing Swirl Marks and Scratches

Now that you have the equipment, tools, and polish, it is time to start removing swirl marks and scratches. But before you actually attempt to polish your car to do this, I need to help you manage your expectations.

If you are a beginner, this is all going to be so new to you that when it comes down to taking a polisher to your car, the questions and concerns will keep coming:

  • How much polish do I use?
  • What speed setting do I set my buffer to?
  • How much pressure to I apply to the buffer?
  • How long do I polish a specific section?

These, along with many more questions will be natural for any beginner who is attempting to polish their car for the first time with the direct goal of removing swirl marks and scratches.

I will break this down simplistic possible to help you get started sooner rather than later. I will also add that as a warning, it is next to impossible to fully prepare and educate a person on a task within the 3 dimensional world, through 2 dimensional text found on this or any other website.

But here we go:

  1. Pre-wash your car
  2. Use detailing clay to remove all bonded paint contaminants (this will give you a much better polishing experience as well as a very needed step for the health of your car's paint)
  3. Work with your car in a shaded area
  4. Attach backing plate if it is not already attached (the above polisher will come with a 5" backing plate)
  5. Attach polishing pad to backing plate so that ad is centered on backing plate
  6. Apply 12-16 pea size drops of polish somewhat evenly spaced on face of polishing pad
  7. Set polisher to a speed setting of 4
  8. With both hands, place polisher face onto panel of car
  9. Turn polisher on while maintaining control of polisher
  10. Apply enough pressure to polisher to maintain control, as well as a few pounds of downward force
  11. Visually section off a 2' x 2' square section of your car to be the initial area of removing swirl marks and scratches in your car paint
  12. Move polisher while it is running back and forth from left to right until the entire 2' x 2' section has been polished, then switch to an up and down pattern while machine continues to run until you have polished the entire 2' x2' section again (this means that each area within this section will have been officially polished twice since you have overlapped the entire 2' x 2' section using up and down, and left to right movements all while the polisher remains on)
  13. Once you have finished this 2' x 2' section, use one of your brand new micro-fiber cloths to wipe polish off
  14. Check your results in both natural, direct sunlight as well as an artificial light source such as a hand held LED light
  15. If you decide that additional polishing will be required for removing swirl marks and scratches to a more significant degree is needed, simple repeat steps
  16. As a basic rule, I use the pad cleaning brush to remove spent polish after every second application of polish (you don't have to go crazy with this part as you are simply releasing the majority of spent polish, and not trying make your pad perfectly clean each time)

Darren's Note: This is the part where I come in and help you to manage your expectations. Regardless of the polish, buffing pad, or buffer you choose, not every paint defect, blemish, or scratch will be capable of being polished away, or that you would necessarily want to polish away.

If you accept that you are "micro-scratching" your way to success, then you need to realize that the more you polish in trying to remove swirl marks and scratches, the progressively thinner your clear coat will become.

Clear coat thickness is a great thing and you will want to retain as much of the original thickness as possible. But like every area of life, you will have to decide the winning balance of trade-off's.

In removing swirl marks and scratches from your car paint, you are trading the thickness of your clear coat (paint), for enhanced visual appearance by removing swirl marks and scratches.

For this reason you will not want to keep polishing your paint in the quest for truly flawless paint at a minimum.

Often, swirl marks and scratches may prove so significant that your clear coat will be rendered completely gone through excessive polishing.

That is the trade-off only you can decide and your situation will be unique to any other persons situation. Not all scratches will be capable of being removed through polishing, and in most cases there will be scratches too deep for removal.

As a rule when a person asks about removing swirl marks and scratches, the kind of scratches they are referring to are micro-scratches that make up the entire paint finishes as compared to independent or isolated random scratches of the deeper kind.

In the business as detailers, these deeper scratches that are independent and isolated are referred to as random isolated deeper scratches (RIDS).

What I need to emphasize is that some scratches are simply too deep to be "corrected". Once again, some scratches are too deep to be safely polished away.

As a beginner it is important to apply what you might call appropriate expectations. What this means is that you should accept the following:

  • You will never know for certain how thick the clear coat on your car is (unless you are willing to spends thousand of dollars on a very sophisticated digital measuring device, there is no way to know unless you were willing to destroy a section of your clear coat to measure)
  • Not all scratches are created equally (some are hairline, some a deep and wide gouges, some are deep at one end and shallow at the other end - anything goes)
  • Some scratches are too deep to remove
  • Scratches that can be removed should perhaps not be removed entirely do to thinning out the clear coat too much
  • Some clear coats are harder than others and will require more work to produce results (Despite the chatter from non-professionals, it is incorrect to label a specific ca manufacturer or country as always having either soft or hard clears)

Removing Swirl Marks and Scratches Summary

If you have made it this far down this age, you deserve a medal of tenacity and determination. Clearly you stand as the fringe of a "drive-by society" that has very little discipline required for deeper understanding of knowledge.

I may have destabilized your current thinking on this somewhat complex subject. By all means use my contact form to let me know of your thoughts on anything contained on this page.

I always welcome opposing opinions as this helps me continue to develop my own skills and knowledge.
I wish you much success in your detailing efforts!


Darren Priest

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