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Getting lost in all the car detailing terms and acronyms? Well you’re in the right place. I’ve compiled this epic list of terms and acronyms to lay it all out for you. I’ve even given the best examples of products for each relevant term so you save your imagination for more important things!
Table of Contents
- 2 Bucket Wash
- 50/50 Shot
- Alcantara / Ultrasuede
- All-In-One (AIO) Polish
- Arm Speed
- Backing Plate
- Base Coat
- Brake Dust
- Bucket Dolly
- Carnauba Wax
- Carpet Extractor
- Ceramic Coating
- Clay Bar
- Clay Towel / Clay Mitt
- Cleaner Wax
- Clear Coat
- DA (Dual Action) Orbital Polisher
- Detail Brush
- Detail Spray
- Diminishing Abrasive
- Drying Aid
- Dwell Time
- Fabric Guard
- Foam Cannon
- Foam Gun
- Foam Lance
- Forced Rotation Polisher
- Free Spinning Polisher
- Gel Coat
- Grit Guard
- Headlight Restoration
- High Spot
- Holograms / Buffer Trails
- IPA Wipedown
- Iron/Fallout Remover
- Long Throw Polisher
- One Step Correction
- Orange Peel
- Pad Priming / Seasoning
- Paint Correction
- Paint Prep
- PTG or Paint Thickness Gauge
- Paint Sealant
- Paint Protection Film (PPF)
- Rinseless Wash
- Road Grime / Road Film
- Rotary Polisher
- Section Pass
- Single Pass
- Single Stage Paint
- Spray Wax
- Swirl Marks (Spider Webbing)
- Tire Browning or Tire Blooming
- Tire Shine
- Tire Sling
- UV Rays
- Wash Mitt
- Water Based
- Water Beading
- Water Sheeting
- Water Spots
- Waterless Wash
- Wet Sanding
- Working Time
2 Bucket Wash
This is a washing method where you use two buckets, one for rinse water, and the other for your clean, soapy water. The benefit is you keep grit rinsed from your wash mit in a separate bucket from the one you reload your wash mit with so that you’re not re-introducing abrasive dirt to your paintwork. I recommend using grit guards to the bottom of each bucket to add extra protection in keeping dirt off your wash mit once it’s rinsed off.
A photograph depicting paintwork that is one half cleaned and corrected of scratches to show a before and after. Usually painters tape is applied down the paintwork to separate the untouched side from the finished side.
Products or substances that can scratch, mar, or microscopically remove paint and other surfaces. Often used to describe polishes and compounds since they make paint shinier by removing microscopic layers until the visible scratches are no longer visible and the paint is level.
Working a product into a surface such as scrubbing a carpet cleaner into the carpet or mixing shampoo with a bucket of water.
Alcantara / Ultrasuede
Synthetic upholstery commonly used in automotive interiors that resembles Suede. Made from microfibers instead of leather. Commonly referred to as Micro-suede or Ultrasuede, though to be called Alcantara it has to be made in Italy. Commonly used on steering wheels, shift knobs and boots, and seats. Extra care is needed when detailing this material which I explain here: Cleaning & Maintaining Alcantara & Suede Interiors: A Guide
All-In-One (AIO) Polish
A product that combines polishing and protecting in one compound. This allows you to correct minor scratches and then protect the paint saving the step of having to apply a wax or sealant afterward. While the polishing action in these products is mild and wont remove bad scratches and marring they will save you time on good condition paint.
Stands for All Purpose Cleaner. These are usually very alkaline cleaners that are meant to be used on a variety of surfaces to remove the widest range of dirt and stains. Some APC come concentrated so you can dilute them to suit what you’re cleaning.
How fast you move your arms, and subsequently the polisher, when performing paint correction with a rotary or dual action orbital polisher.
Attachment for rotary and dual action orbital polishers that helps hold the pad. One side has that spindle or arbor that attaches to the polisher. The other side has hook and loop (also known as velcro) to hold the pad. Backing plates are often flexible and can be purchased in a variety of diameters to match different sized pads. A good rule of thumb is to use a backing plate that is 1/4″ to 1/2″ smaller in diameter than the pad you’re running. This prevents the backing plate from making contact with the paint during use and leaving mark. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Car Buffers
The layer of paint on top of the primer but below the clear coat on a modern paint job. In the case of a metallic or pearl paint job the base coat is often below metallic flake or pearl coat. It’s the coat that gives your car is primary color.
Microscopic particles discharged from your brake pads and brake rotors when you apply the brakes. Over time these particles build up on your wheels and other parts giving them a brownish black appearance. Brake dust is very corrosive and should be removed asap or it will pit and damage your paint and metal parts.
Platform with casters that you set your wash buckets in so you can roll them around rather than having to pick them up and carry them.
When you polish through your clearcoat and hit the basecoat or primer. This is most common to rotary polishers since the pad moves at extreme speed in one direction and builds up heat at the outer edge which cuts through paint extremely fast. The wobling motion of dual action orbital polishers helps prevent this which is why they are a popular choice for beginners and experts that aren’t looking for speed.
Wax that contains Carnauba which is also called Brazil wax and palm wax. It’s a wax of the leaves of the palm Copernicia prunifera, a plant native to and grown only in the northeastern Brazil. It is obtained from the leaves of the carnauba palm by collecting and drying them, beating them to loosen the wax, then refining and bleaching the wax. The wax is very hard so it’s mixed with other compounds to make it into either a paste or liquid. The wax increases the gloss and hydrophobicity of paint and other materials. Learn more at The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Car Wax
Machine that applies water and then removes it with very deep suction. Some units are heated and can even inject soap into the water stream. Commonly used to clean carpets and some upholstery to deep clean the fibers of the fabric.
A polymer coating that you apply to your paint that acts as a microscopic clear coat increasing the gloss of the paint and protecting it from the elements. Other names for these coatings are Quartz, SiO2, and Glass. The coatings are usually suspended in a solvent that evaporates allowing the coating to cure to the paint. Ceramic Paint Coatings are meant to replace waxing and sealants. Most coating longevity is measured in years whereas waxes and sealants usually only last weeks to months. Learn more at Guide to Protective Paint Ceramic Coatings
Polymer bar with the consistency of modeling clay. You rub them on your paint with a lubricating spray to pull out and abrade away contaminants that embed themselves in your paint. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Clay Bars
Clay Towel / Clay Mitt
A towel or mitt that is coated on one side with a special polymer that acts like a clay bar when rubbed on paint with a lubricant. The benefit to clay towels and mitts is they are washable, unlike clay bars which must be disposed of if they are dropped or get dirty.
Wax that contains solvents or abrasives to remove microscopic layers of paint to help clean and lightly polish surface while applying a layer of wax. Popular on single stage paints. Not recommended for use on paint that has been corrected since the paint doesn’t need any more corrective work. Learn more at The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Car Wax
The top coat on modern multi stage paint jobs. This is a very thin layer applied over the base coat (and any metallic or pearl coats) to provide UV, chemical, and abraisive protection. It also adds the gloss that gives paint that wet look.
Another name for an aggressively abrasive polish. Usually the word compound refers to the most aggressive polishes whereas the word polish refers to the less aggressive polishes. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Compounds and Polishes
A product that can be diluted, usually with water. Concentrated chemicals have the benefit of you being able to control the strength of the chemical as well as you not having to pay to ship water in already mixed products. So you get more control and you save a lot of money. Win/win.
The level of abrasiveness of a polish. A higher cut means the polish is more abrasive and will remove paint, plastic, or glass faster. A lower cut means it is less abrasive. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Compounds and Polishes
The act of removing paint through polishing. Also a term for the stage of paint correction where you’re removing heavy scratches and other blemishes using an aggressively abrasive compound. Cutting is usually followed by “polishing.”
DA (Dual Action) Orbital Polisher
Type of polisher that rotates the pad on an orbit instead of a perfect circle. These polishers build up heat at the center of the pad rather than the perimeter like rotary polishers. The center of the pad moves much slower than the outside of pad which lowers the risk of burning through the paint. DA polishers are much safer than rotary polishers in the hands of a novice. DA polishers with a foam pad can also finish out nicer than a rotary with less effort so many professionals use them as well. Learn more at: Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Car Buffers
Removing microscopic dirt and particles from your paint that have become embedded. Usually a chemical like an Iron Remover or an abrasive like a Clay Bar are used to decon the paint.
Anything in the paint, glass, or plastic that shouldn’t be there. This includes scratches, marring, pitting, etching, paint runs, and chips.
Restoring and maintaining every aspect of vehicle to as perfect as possible. This is more than just washing the car. It’s making sure everything is clean, defect free, and treated for future protection.
Generic term for many different kinds of brushes used to perfectly clean tight spaces such as between interior panels, between buttons, inside lugnut holes, stitching on leather, etc…
A spray, usually containing a wax or sealant, that is used to add a quick shine to paint and provide lubricity for things like clay baring and dusting. Also referred to as Quick Detailers and even Spray Wax in some cases.
Mixing a concentrated product with something else, typically water, to achieve a desired concentration. In detailing it’s usually diluting a cleaner to lower the cleaning strength so you don’t damage or discolor a surface while cleaning it. There are also protectants that you dilute to decrease their sheen and soaps that you dilute to decrease their sudsing.
Abrasives inside polishes that wear down as they are worked and provide a lighter cut over time.
Product that you apply to surfaces to protect and restore their appearance and/or increase their shine. Commonly used on tires, rubber, plastic, and even leather.
Product that you spray on your paint when drying that adds lubricity to protect it from scratches as well as reducing streaks. Quick Detail Sprays are a common drying aid.
The time a product is meant to sit before being removing or washed away. Think of it as the time a product is meant to soak before or after you agitate it.
When a substance has eaten into the surface of paint, plastic, or glass. Commonly caused by bug guts, hard water, minerals, industrial fallout, and bird droppings. Much like a scratch, it’s physical damage that can only be removed by compounding and polishing the paint.
Chemical that decreases the absorption properties of fabrics in carpet and upholstery. Commonly referred to as Scotch Guard, which is actually the brand name of a particular fabric guard. Fabric guards make it harder for stains to set in and for liquids to soak in which makes cleaning them up easier.
Compounds inside some polishes, glazes, and waxes that fill in scratches to help hide them. Most commonly found in glazes. It’s generally better to remove the scratches by polishes than it is to fill them using a glaze since filling them is only a very temporary fix.
The second step in correcting paint, after compounding. This step removes the micro-marring caused by the more aggressive compounds and pads.
When the solvents in a polish or paint coating evaporate.
A pressure washer attachment that mixes soap with water and foams it to leave a thick layer of suds. Learn more at Guide to Foam Guns and Foam Cannons
A garden hose attachment that mixes soap with water and foams it to leave a thick layer of suds. The suds produces by a foam gun are not as intense as those produced by a foam cannon on a pressure washer. Learn more at Guide to Foam Guns and Foam Cannons
An incorrect term used to describe a foam gun. The lance the technically the extension on the end of a pressure washer gun. You can either install a foam cannon on the end of the lance or you can remove the lance and install it on the end of the gun.
Forced Rotation Polisher
A polisher that forces the pad to rotate in one direction. You cannot stop the pad from spinning by applying pressure like you can on a typical dual action random orbital polisher. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Car Buffers
Free Spinning Polisher
The typical action of most dual action orbital polishers. The pad is rotated by whipping around an orbit at high speed. The pad itself is not forced to rotate so you can stall it by applying pressure. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Car Buffers
Protective coating applied to resin finishes. Commonly found on fiberglass boat hulls and campers as well as fiber glass and carbon fiber parts. It’s similar in appearance to clearcoat.
Plastic inserts placed into the bottom of wash and rinse buckets that act as baffles to keep dirt in the bottom of the bucket instead of letting recirculate through the water to be loaded back onto the wash mitt and, subsequently, the paint. For as cheap as they are, there is no good reason to not use them. Learn more at The Importance of a Grit Guard
Stands for Grams per Square Meter. It’s a measurement of the density and plushness of fabrics such as microfiber towels. Learn more about microfiber here: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Microfiber
Used to describe a foggy appearance to either a topical coating like wax or to paint, plastics, and glass. When waxing with traditional carnauba waxes hazing is a sign the wax is ready to be buffed off. To remove haze from paint, plastics, or glass you’re usually polishing.
Removing the damaged clear coat (UV protective layer) on headlight lenses by sanding and polishing and then re-clearcoating them to return them to like new clarity. Learn more at How to Clean Headlights and Restore Them
Excess sealant or paint coating on the surface of paint, plastic, or glass that needs to be buffed off to avoid altering the appearance of the coating as it dries. Once dry you’ll have to polish the coating the remove the high spot so it’s best to remove them asap.
Holograms / Buffer Trails
The remnants of improper polishing, most often with a rotary polisher. These are seen in paint as cascading swirls that you can see when looking at the paint from different angles.
A water repelling, low surface energy surface that resists wetting. This causes the ubiquitous “water beading” that many people desire from waxes, sealants, and ceramic paint coatings.
Stands for IPA = Isopropyl Alcohol (rubbing alcohol). An IPA Wipedown is wiping down the paint of a car with a 50/50 dillution of IPA and water to removing polishing oils so that you can apply your last step product such as a wax, sealant, or paint coating.
Chemicals applied to paint that remove iron particles and industrial fallout that embed into your paint from brake dust, rail dust, and rain. These chemical help in the chemical decontamination of paint and are often referred to as “decons.” Most of the iron removers are formulated to change colors when they come in contact with iron to show that the product is working. Be careful, as these chemicals can stain concrete.
Long Throw Polisher
A type of orbital polisher that positions the center rotation point of the pad further out than the standard orbital polisher. Standard or “short throw” polishers are between 4mm and 10mm of throw. Long Throw polishers are typically between 12mm and 21mm of throw. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Car Buffers
Stands for Last Step Product. These are products you put on at the very end of paint, plastic, or glass detailing such as waxes, sealants, and ceramic coatings.
Another name for lots of little defects such as scratches in paint.
Microscopic marring usually caused by an aggressive polishing compound or pad, especially microfiber pads. You remove micro-marring by using a lighter cut polish and a softer pad.
Microfiber is a specific type of very fine synthetic textile fiber. Modern microfibers are finer than 1 denier, a unit of measure for fiber that equals 1 gram per 9000 meters of fiber. To better understand that, a strand of silk is roughly 1 denier. Microfiber is finer than silk!
Microfiber can be made of several different materials, including polyamide (nylon), polyester, and polypropylene (Prolen). Most common microfiber towels sold for automotive detailing are a combination of polyester and polyamide. The polyester provides the structure of the towel. The introduction of polyamide to the towel increases density and absorption.
Microfibers are used in everything from towels to wash mitts to Alcantara. Learn more at The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Microfiber
One Step Correction
Only using either a compound or finer polish when correcting paint. On lighter cars, such as silver or white, the polishing step often gives diminishing returns since you can’t see the micromarring left by the compounding step. In this case you can skip straight to an LSP.
Texture in automotive paint that resembles the surface of an orange. Most factory paint jobs will have some degree of orange peel to them. You can remove orange peel by wet sanding the top layer of paint, usually clear coat, but it leaves a very thin layer of clearcoat behind and should be done with extreme care.
Describes residue on a surface caused by the spraying of a paint or chemical (such as a quick detailer or paint coating) near that surface. Sometimes overspray can be wiped off. Sometimes you have to polish it off.
When the surface of a material such as paint, plastic, or metal oxidizes or breaks down from exposure to the elements. Usually cases a hazing of the surface that needs to be removed by chemical or mechanical means such as polishing.
Pad Priming / Seasoning
Applying a thin layer of polish to a dry pad to prep it for polishing. This allows the first pass of polish to work into the paint longer without immediately being absorbed by the pad.
Compounding and Polishing paint to remove as many defects as possible, restoring it to like new or better appearance. Paint correction’s are usually measured in percentages. A 90% correction means 90% of blemishes were removed. Some blemishes are too deep to safely remove so you’ll almost never see a 100% paint correction.
Chemical that removes waxes, oils, and grease to prepare the paint for application of a coating or other lsp. Sometimes referred to as a wax and grease remover.
PTG or Paint Thickness Gauge
Meter designed to measure how thick the paint is on a surface. Quality Paint Thickness Gauges can tell you how thick each layer is. Being able to tell how thick your clearcoat is tells you how aggressive you can be in polishing defects before compromising your paint.
Product similar to wax, for protecting paint, that is made mostly of synthetic compounds. Paint Sealants are engineered to last longer than your typical carnauba wax. Learn more at The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Paint Sealants
The measure of how acidic or basic a compound is. A measure of 0-6 is considered acidic. A measure of 7 is Neutral. A measure of 8-14 is considered basic or alkaline. Many car shampoos are marketed as pH Neutral which means they are designed to not eat away at waxes and other compounds you may have on your paint.
Product that contains microscopic abrasives designed to remove very fine layers of a surface to remove scratches and other defects. Both Compounds and Polishes are forms of Polish. They are just names people use to describe more and less aggressive cuts of a polish. The words Polish, Wax, and Sealant are not interchangeable. They are different products. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Compounds and Polishes
Paint Protection Film (PPF)
Translucent film applied to paint to protect it from impacts and scratches. It acts as a sacrificial layer. You can apply PPF to the front of the vehicle and impact zones such as side mirrors and headlights and rocker panels as well as wrap the entire vehicle. While PPF isn’t cheap, it’s cheaper than a new paint job when you ruin yours with rock chips and scratches.
Stands for Random Isolated Deep Scratches. These are scratches that aren’t easily removed during paint correction because they are very deep. They do not appear uniformly on the car like the typical star bursts and holograms from improper washing and polishing. They usually stand out from the rest of the defects on the car.
Product designed to allow washing of a car without the need to rinse in order to leave a streak free finish. These products are designed with high lubricity and can even contain waxes and other compounds to enhance the finish after washing. Rinseless Washes are commonly concentrated so you can use them for a variety of things from washing the car to using it as a clay bar lubricant. Learn more at The Complete Guide to Rinseless Bucket Washing
Road Grime / Road Film
Contaminants that build up on vehicles that are driven, usually in rain and other adverse conditions. The film is made up of all the pollutants that land and the ground and end up the rain water that sits on top and is slung onto cars as they are driven. These pollutants can be anything from oil and transmission fluid to brake dust, rust, rubber, and other nasty stuff. Road Film is most noticeable on windshields since it blurs your view and reduces your wipers ability to shed water from the glass.
Type of polisher that spins in only one direction on a fixed axis. They don’t wobble about an orbit like random orbital polisher. Think power drill. They are highly effective at removing paint quickly due to the speed of the pad and heat generated at the perimeter of the pad. Though, with great power comes great responsibility. The high speed and heat can quickly burn through paint and leave buffer trails in the hands of a novice. Learn more at Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Car Buffers
Describes when you move a polisher back and forth, or front to back on a surface with enough single overlapping passes to cover the entire section one time. It usually takes 6-8 section passes to correct a mildly neglected section of a panel with an appropriately abrasive compound.
Describes when you move a polisher across a section from one side to the other in one direction.
Single Stage Paint
Automotive paint that mixes the base coat and clear coat in one layer. This was common on older cars, especially red. Single Stage Paint doesn’t have the wet, coated in “glass” look to it. It’s more of a waxy shine. Single stage paint will turn your pads the same color as your paint as you polish since you’re removing pigmented paint.
Stands for Super Micro Abrasive Technology. It’s a term for micro abrasives in a polish that don’t break down as they are worked (non-diminishing abrasives).
Typically synthetic sealants in a thin spray-able form, though some containing carnauba wax do exist. These are also commonly referred to as quick detail sprays. They make great drying aids and clay bar lubricants.
Swirl Marks (Spider Webbing)
The stereotypical star burst scratches you see on neglected vehicles that have been improperly washed. They appear as tiny scratches that radiate from light sources such as street lamps, the sun, and shop lighting. The scratches will appear to move with the light. These scratches can usually be removed successfully during a paint correction, unlike the RIDS mentioned earlier.
Tire Browning or Tire Blooming
The brown appearance that builds up on the outside of tires from the Antiozonants in the rubber working their way to the outside of the tire where they make contact with the ozone and turn brown. This is not a bad thing, it just looks bad. Fortunately, you can mask the appearance using a quality tire dressing. Learn more at Guide to Tire Cleaning and Detailing
Another name for Tire Dressings that usually refers the Tire Dressings that leave a glossy or greasy appearance to tires. I personally detest the high gloss products. I much prefer a dark, satin look to tires so they look new and not like a kids blow up toy.
Typically tire dressing that has slung from the tires onto the paint and plastic around the fender wells. Most common on with the “wet look” dressings (commonly called Tire Shine) that are applied thick and don’t dry or adhere well to the tires before the car is driven.
Ultraviolet rays emitted from the sun. UV is the primary cause of automotive materials breaking down such as your clear coat, leather, headlight lenses, and convertible tops. The clear coat on your paint and headlights contains UV blockers to keep UV from damaging the materials underneath so it’s important to protect and care for these layers.
A mitt, usually made of wool or chenille microfiber, for hand washing your car.
A product that is made with water rather than petroleum or silicone. Water based products are usually more eco friendly and easier to work with, though they wont last as long petroleum based products, but that’s something that’s slowly changing as automotive chemical technology progresses.
When water forms tiny droplets on a surface that’s hydrophobic such as wax, sealant, or ceramic coating. The most familiar form is the tiny droplets of water that sit on top of a freshly waxed car.
When water runs off of a surface in large sheet, pulling the surrounding water with it rather than breaking into tiny droplets or sticking to the surface.
Spots left behind after water containing minerals and contaminants has dried. This can be reduced by washing with filtered and softened water. When left for an extended period of time Water Spots can etch into the surface and require polishing to remove.
Washing product designed to be sprayed onto very mildly dirty paint and then wiped off to clean the paint. The product has high lubricity and breaks down the dirt to avoid scratches during the wash. Not recommended on heavily soiled cars because the risk of scratching the paint is too high. Waterless washes are very eco friendly since they require buckets of water and hoses spraying gallons upon gallons of water. They are also beneficial in washing cars that you don’t want full of excess water such as classic cars that are susceptible to rusting. Learn more at Ultimate Waterless Car Wash Guide
Example: Optimum Opti Clean
Using sandpaper with water. You must use sandpaper designed for use with water or the paper will fall apart. The water washes away the removed particles of the surface you’re sanding so it doesn’t clog the paper. Because of this you can remove more material faster and at a much finer level than dry sanding.
The time a product is designed to be applied to your vehicle before removing, washing, or buffing away. The term is dependent on the product you’re using. For example, the working time of an iron remover is how long it’s meant to sit before rinsing. The working time of a polish is how long you can polish before the polish abrasives diminish or the polish dries up. With some products the term is interchangeable with Dwell Time.
See a term or acronym that’s missing? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll add it to the list. Admittedly this list is very US centric so I’m sure I’ve missed some of the terms that are more common across the pond. Don’t hesitate to share them with everyone!