A Guide To Polishing Pads & How They Work

What Is a Polishing Pad?

The term "polishing pad" typically refers to machine polishing pads, with foam pads being the most commonly used for paint correction and refinement. However, the term can also include foam and microfibre pads and applicators used for hand polishing, glazing, and spot defect removal. Some pads, such as the Auto Finesse Spot Pads, can be used for both hand and machine polishing.

Polishing pads can be divided into categories based on their size and materials used. In the detailing world, there are three types of pads available: foam, microfibre, and wool. The latter two are more aggressive and used for heavy cutting and spot defect removal, while foam pads are available in different types to handle everything from cutting to refining and finishing.

Most modern pads use a hook and loop design to stick to the backing plate on the machine. These pads typically come in 5-inch, 3-inch, and 1-inch sizes to fit the most common machine polisher sizes, although other sizes are available. Some foam pads can screw directly to a machine polisher, but these are primarily used by refinishers in body shops to make freshly sprayed panels flat and relatively free of orange peel, and are not typically used for paint refinement in the detailing world.

How Do Polishing Pads Work?

Polishing pads are similar to abrasives, such as sandpaper, but much finer. When used in combination with abrasive products like polish or compound, they work to break down and fully work through surfaces, correcting or refining them in the process. However, the performance of the pads themselves is just as critical as the product used on them. This combination of product and pad determines the effect on the surface. By using a different pad with the same polishing product, one can slightly vary the results to account for different types of paint and varying levels of defect.

Types of Polishing Pads - Microfibre & Wool 

Microfibre and Wool Pads are not technically abrasive, but they can be extremely aggressive when used with the right compound or polish, providing the abrasive product with more bite. This is because the natural or synthetic fibres have a larger surface area than foam, leading to increased physical contact with the surface and more friction. In essence, this increased heat helps to cut through more of the clearcoat/paint in a shorter amount of time.

Wool pads are generally the most aggressive and are primarily designed for use with rotary polishers. They can easily cut through heavy defects but leave behind abrasions and holograms that require additional refinement.

Microfibre pads are slightly less aggressive and can cut through heavier defects, leaving behind micro-scratches and a cloudy surface that will need further refinement for a flawless finish. However, microfibre pads can be used with dual-action polishers, making them a slightly safer option.

While wool and microfibre spot pads are commonly used by detailers, they are generally only used when foam pads are not sufficient for cutting through particularly heavy defects in an extensive multi-stage correction. Foam pads are more commonly used for cutting medium to light defects, unless the paint shows significant damage or the vehicle has fresh paint that needs to be effectively flattened and polished. Softer foam pads are always used for finishing, glazing, and polishing on single-stage enhancements.

Foam Polishing Pads

Foam pads are the go-to choice for detailers due to their versatility, as they come in a wide range of cuts that cater to every essential stage of paint refinement.

A foam pad's level of abrasiveness is dependent on its design, which is specifically tailored to its intended use in the correction process. From extreme cutting and flattening in a body shop to a detailer's preferred stages of cutting, polishing, and refining paint to perfection, the foam's density and structure dictate how it contacts the surface and its ability to generate and retain heat.

Denser, harder foam is ideal for cutting because it provides more abrasion, greater surface contact, and increased heat generation. Less dense foam pads, on the other hand, are more appropriate for paint refinement and finishing. It's important to note that even these processes still involve cutting, albeit at a finer and proportionally less aggressive level as you move from stage to stage.

Think of multi-stage polishing as a method of correcting heavier defects first and then refining the slighter defects left behind by the previous stage. The more aggressive the pad, the more severe the defect it can eliminate, but the greater the defects it will leave behind for the next stage to address, until the imperfections are refined to a degree that renders them invisible to the naked eye.

Denim Pad

Aggressive denim faced pads are designed to gently eliminate heavy orange peel in the top layer of your paint without sanding. Geared towards low-quality aftermarket re-paints where orange peel is common, the bumpy texture reduces the paint’s ability to shine which makes the paint reflection appear dull, lifeless and blurry. Equivalent to 2000 grit sandpaper, Denim Pads remove the bumpy texture of severe orange peel, paint runs, and dust nibs quickly without leaving sanding marks. Apart from the levelling ability of sandpaper, this pad combines the polishing ability of a compound, meaning that while removing orange peel and deep defects, the pad polishes the paint at the same time.

Glass Polishing Pad 

Glass surfaces require specialized glass polishing pads that are designed to polish without scratching or damaging the surface. Unlike paint, glass is harder but more fragile, and therefore requires the right tools and techniques for correction. Glass heats up very quickly and can easily break if too much pressure is applied during polishing. Using specialized glass polish and glass polishing pads, such as the CARPRO glass rayon polishing pads, can provide excellent results with minimal heat build-up and without compromising the safety of the glass surface. To ensure optimal results, it's essential to thoroughly clean the glass surface before polishing.

Why Does Density Matter? 

Density is a critical factor in determining the foam pad's aggressiveness on painted surfaces. Stiffer foam is typically more aggressive, making denser pads ideal for cutting, while softer pads are better suited for refinement and finishing. However, what's not commonly known is that the density of foam changes during use, especially as it heats up and becomes saturated with polishing products. This leads to a reduction in cutting performance, which is why new, dry pads are typically more effective than used ones. To maintain cutting effectiveness, it's essential to clean pads between polishing sets.

When determining how many pads to use for a vehicle, it's essential to consider the density changes that occur during use. While it may not always be practical, using one pad for each area or panel results in the most efficient cut. Simply put, the more pads used during a detail, the faster the job will be completed.

Keeping Your Pads Clean 

Cleaning of foam pads is crucial to maintain their performance and prevent them from getting clogged or saturated with spent product during use. To do this, simply hold a Pad Cleaning Brush against the pad and run the machine to remove any contaminants.


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