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Waxing Poetic

by Paul Cartagena

Sitting in a garage tightly latched
was a Jensen whose looks were unmatched.
But its owner found waxing to be ever so taxing,
taking shortcuts his paint was soon scratched.

OK, so I'm not much of a poet. The JHPS isn't for sweet talk anyway. It's for car talk. I'll probably never know what makes a verse sound sweet but I do know that good looking paint makes for a sweeter drive.

So just what makes paint look good? A paint job, like a person, is born, lives its life and then dies. Just as heredity and lifestyle influence a person's looks, a paint job’s looks are come from its chemistry and application (heredity and birth) and by its maintenance (lifestyle). For most of us our paint’s application is already a done deal (original paint or an existing re-spray) so for now we’ll concentrate on lifestyle.

Want to get an idea of just what kind of life most paint jobs have? Just stand at the edge of a parking lot full of cars on a nice sunny day. Some will look nice and new others tired. Then take a walk down the isle and look closely at each one. Look at them from a few different angles. I’ll bet 90% look like crud up close. Even the new ones will mostly appear hazy and swirled. Many seemingly pampered cars have paint that’s living a hard life, destined for an early and ignominious end. How can we treat our paint to a better life? It’s not that hard really, we just need to get to know our paint a little better and treat it with some respect.
Let's look at the life of one hypothetical "enthusiast's" car. Mr. Owner is proud of his car. He always parks it right in front of his house so he can gaze lovingly at its flowing lines and bright chrome as he walks out in the morning to hop in and drive to work. (His two-car garage holds the family mini van on the left and a ceiling high stack of boxes on the right.) He happily drives it back and forth to work every day. Every week he dutifully gives it a bath. Saturday morning he'll park it in the driveway, squirt a little Dawn dishwashing liquid into a bucket and pour in water. He grabs a sponge soaks it in the foamy bucket and gives his car a good sudsing then rinses it. With all the bubbles rinsed off he'll grab some clean rags and wipe it dry. About once a month he'll pull out a can of wax and rub it over the whole car. Then he'll take some more rags and buff off the wax residue, leaving his pride and joy glistening in the sun.

Sounds familiar, right? Sounds OK doesn't it? Maybe to some, but to his paint it's torture. Almost everything he did was some form of paint abuse. Let's look a little closer.

Living on the street may be unavoidable for some but it is bad for all, paint and people alike. Intense sunshine, acid rain, smog, industrial fallout, tree sap, bird poop and all manner of gunk find a home on your paint and eat away at it. Driving is the whole point to having a car but it too exposes paint to more danger like road salts, diesel exhaust, flying grit, asphalt tar and bug splatter. So, washing all that off is good isn't it? Of course it is, but you still need to be careful to do it right or you'll make things worse. Our Mr. Owner made it worse. First, he used dish soap. Don't ever, ever, ever wash you car with dish soap! Dish soap is a powerful chemical stripping agent, formulated to cut through bacon grease and dislodge tuna casserole from ceramics. It will strip off what little wax may be protecting your paint and then attack it, pulling out oils and plasticizers, leaving it etched, dull and lifeless. Then, with the wax gone, the environment will finish off the job. In addition to his chemical attack, our Mr. Owner didn't rinse off the big chunks of dirt before sudsing. In effect he manually ground a bunch of rocks into the car, plowing deep furrows and permanently embedding them in the paint. Then, adding insult to injury, he used common rags to dry it off. Many common fabrics, especially synthetics and blends absorb little water and are actually tougher than the paint surface. When they're dragged across the paint guess, which one gives? Yup, the paint gives, leaving visible scratches. Now, Mr. Owner tries to protect his helpless finish by waxing. Good idea, bad attempt. Mr. Owner waxed his car in the bright sunlight. The wax's chemical process is designed to take place in a controlled manner. If it's exposed to too much light and heat the chemical reaction is too aggressive further damaging the paint and not depositing the protective coating correctly. Also, by waxing the whole car at one time, he allowed the wax residue to dry hard and crusty. Now he has to rub extra vigorously to remove it and using those same scratchy rags no less. Mr. Owner's well intentioned but misguided efforts have reduced his finish to a gritty, swirling, hazy mess. Our Jensen Healeys deserve better than this!

Keeping your paint in excellent condition needn't take extreme amounts of time or money. High quality materials are never cheap, but we're talking car wax here, they aren't terribly expensive. Even if you use the most expensive materials around you won't be using much. Jensens are small cars.

Before we dive too deep into the how-to we need to mention terminology. The activity of improving and maintaining the appearance of a vehicle's surfaces is commonly called detailing. You can detail interiors, undercarriages, engine bays and exteriors, but we'll stick to exterior paint surfaces for now. There are lots of companies that make detailing products. By and large all company's products do the same things but no two companies use the exact same words exactly the same way to describe the same kinds of products or activities. Even within a single company's product offerings descriptions can vary. This can lead to a lot of confusion when comparing products.

I will try to keep as consistent as possible in my terms. I generally like the terminology used by the Meguiar's company and I'll try to stick close to it. They make a wide range of products and their wording tends to be pretty consistent. Just remember that different manufacturers word things differently. Read labels carefully when buying products to make sure they are actually meant to do what you're looking for.

The steps in paint care can be broken into 5 general groups, washing, surface preparation, polishing, protecting and maintaining.

Washing removes dirt and contaminants that are resting on the surface of the paint. This basically means rinsing and washing with a mild soap and water. All companies make some kind of wash that won't strip wax or attack paint. High performance car washes also provide high lubricity to minimize scratching when wiping the car with suds.
Surface preparation processes remove contaminants that are bonded to the paint and leave a smooth clean surface. Paint cleaners chemically dislodge and dissolve embedded contaminants and light paint oxidation. Compounds are abrasives used to grind away surface imperfections. Compounds come in many different levels of aggressiveness to address different sizes of problems. Very small scratches, often called swirls and moderate oxidation can be removed with very lightly aggressive abrasives. Deep scratches and paint runs may require very heavily aggressive abrasives. Be extremely careful with any compounds because you can easily grind your way completely through you paint! You'll also see the words "cut" or "cutting" used quite a bit. They're just more terms for abrasive grinding compounds. Bug and tar removers are paint-safe solvents for dissolving goo. Clay products are used to dislodge stubborn contaminants by making them stick in the clay and release from the finish.

Polishing sort of has two meanings. (I told you this was confusing) A pure polish is a chemical that conditions and rejuvenates the paint. Think of it like putting lemon oil on wood furniture or glove oil on a catcher's mitt. Paints are plastics and contain oils and plasticizers that are lost over time. A pure polish replenishes them. "To polish" is to rub polish into the paint. The act of mechanically applying the polish using friction can have the added effect of wearing down surface imperfections. It's sort of like compounding without abrasives. The words polish and polishing are probably the most used and abused words in the industry. Manufacturers mean so many different things when they say them that they are almost universally useless terms. Get to know what a specific manufacture means when you use their products. Swirl removers are usually polishes with very mild or no abrasives.
Protecting simply means waxing. Whether you're using a natural wax or a polymer "sealent" you're more or less doing the same thing. You're putting a protective coating on the surface of the paint that helps seal out contaminants, seal in nutrients and smooth out the surface for a better shine.

Maintaining is what you do to keep all that other stuff you did intact until you do it again. It's like light "touch up" washing, prepping, polishing and waxing in between the real thing. It's important to do spot touch up because very serious paint damage is often caused by localized events such as bird droppings and bug splats. If not cleaned off immediately and protected by fresh wax your paint may be permanently affected.

Although anything you do to maintain your finish can be described in terms of the five basic steps it's actually very unusual to perform all the steps separately. Not all cars need heavy applications of every step every time. Also, most products on the market perform multiple steps. Combining cleaners with compounds, polishes with cleaners or waxes with polishes can reduce the workload significantly while still producing excellent results. Just be aware that this can be taken too far. Some products that say "POLISH" in big print on the bottle are actually cleaner, polish and wax with some compound thrown in. They're often "one size fits all" products that fit all equally poorly.

How do you know which steps to perform and how aggressively to perform any one of them? There are no easy answers, just carefully considered choices and practical experience. You need to know the paint on your car. What kind is it? What condition is it in? What products have you already tried? Which ones worked? Which ones didn't? Know somebody whose car looks really good? What do they use? If you were looking for a "one size fits all", "guaranteed or your money back " silver bullet I'm sorry to disappoint you. You can always have your credit card ready for the next infommercial and pour burning lighter fluid on your car. (If you haven't changed your fuel tee yet you can skip the lighter fluid step.)Automotive paint is a sort of plastic skin stretched over the surface of your car. There are numerous chemical formulas for automotive paints but all paint jobs fall into one of two general types, solid colors and clearcoated. Solid colors are a single layer, pigmented all the way through. Clearcoated finishes start with a pigmented base coat and are then covered over with a clear top coat. Clearcoats can give a finish a perpetual "wet look". They also protect the base coat from UV exposure, fading, oxidation and general crud. Clearcoat finishes are standard on all new cars. The original paint applied to your Jensen was one solid color. I would guess that the vast majority of re-sprayed Jensens are also solid colored since clearcoats have only been really wide spread in the re-spray world for the last few years. If your car has a very recent paint job and especially if it's a metallic, yours is probably clearcoated.

Which type of paint you have determines the way you'll car for it. With a solid finish that is severely faded and oxidized it is sometimes possible to make truly amazing improvements in appearance using cleaners and compounds. These products strip off the crusty upper layer of the paint and reveal undamaged paint. You can continue to do this until you run out of paint. Clearcoated finishes are much less prone to fading. Unfortunately once they're faded there's no way to bring them back. The clearcoats are also thinner and softer than a pigmented layer. You can grind all the way through the clear and into the base coat very quickly if you're not careful. Clearcoats show swirls and scratches much more readily than solid colors. That's why so many new cars look so bad so quickly. If you do have a clearcoated finish you must only use products intended for clearcoats and use them carefully, following their manufacturers' directions.

It's easy to find abused clearcoats. Look for cars that have the appearance of frosted edges. Their bodies look like the shores of a salt lake. The protective coating that is supposed to be like Saran Wrap looks more like a giant freezer burn.

If your car is freshly painted ask you painter for recommendations on how and how soon to take care of it. New paint can take many weeks to cure and may be harmed by applying chemicals too early. In the early days of Dealer add-on SuperTerrificPolyAmazingGloatPaintProtectionSealers many finishes were ruined and cars had to be re-sprayed because their paint was sealed before it cured.

Now that we've gone on ad nauseam about what not to do, what to avoid and how things sort of work we only have a couple of things left to do before actually working on the car. You need to figure out what kind of paint you have then you need to decide what you want to accomplish. Is it a solid color (probably if you're doing your Jensen) or is it clearcoated? Are you trying to bring back an abused finish or shine up a healthy one?

Now we can actually get to work. We'll take it through each for now but you can combine steps depending on your car's needs. Gather your supplies together.

  • 1- chemicals. You can find OK stuff at Target or WalMart but you'll find a better selection of better stuff at an auto parts supplier. If you're truly serious go a real automotive detailing or paint supplier.
  • 2- applicators. Some products may come with them. Foam types tend to be the most popular. Your supplier will have something appropriate. Don't mix chemicals on one applicator. Dedicate separate applicators to each product used.
  • 3- a wash mitt or sponge. Don't cheap out here. A good soft one that's intended for paint, won't scratch, lasts a long time and only costs a little more than a crummy one.
  • 4- a bucket. The seriously AR among us will use two, one for clean soapy water and one to rinse the mitt.
  • 5- a water hose. Don't use a high velocity nozzle that blasts water at the car. It may force dirt into the paint instead or rinsing it off. Nozzles with soft rubber tips are available to reduce the risk of scratching from bumping the car.
  • 6- towels for drying off water and removing chemicals. Use only clean soft towels. Fluffy, 100% cotton towels are often recommend. If you use bath towels make sure to remove any labels that might scratch before use. If you use a chamois for drying, natural or synthetic make sure it is clean so you don't rub old dirt into your paint. Also, a chamois needs to be thoroughly moistened to soften it before each use.

Park your car where you're going to wash it. They say not to wash your car in direct sunlight. If you've got a car port or big awning to park under that's great but how many of us really do? Someday I'd love to have a garage that I can hose down a car in but for now, and I'm sure for most of you, It's outside. You should at least try not to wash it during the hottest part of the day. Try early morning or late afternoon, maybe even at night.

If you plan on cleaning your wheels or dressing your tires and rubber trim (a subject we'll save for later) do it before you wash and wax. That way you'll wash off any dressing over-spray or wheel dust that might get on the paint and wax residue will be easier to remove from your trim.

Put some wash concentrate into your bucket and fill it with water. Throw your mitt in to soak.
There seems to be some disagreement on whether you should rinse and wash the whole car at once or do sections at a time. Whichever you do the idea is that the car should stay wet and free from water spots and dried soap until you're ready to dry it off. Jensens are small. Unless yours is dark or it's hot you're likely to be able to do it all at once. If there's any chance it will dry before you're ready do smaller sections at a time.

Rinse the car to get all of the loose dirt off and cool the surface. Like we said before, don't try and blast it off. Let the water flow gently over the surface. Be careful not to bump your hose nozzle against the paint. Metal hose ends will gouge your paint.

Start on the top surfaces and work your way down to keep from flowing dirt onto already clean areas. Apply plenty of suds to the surface with the mitt. Wipe the suds on in a regular pattern to be sure you don't miss any areas. Rinse the mitt and soak it in the suds often to release dirt and keep from moving dirt from one part of the car to another. Rinse the whole car well to remove any soap residue. Keep the surface wet. Don't let water drops or soap dry on the paint.

Dry the car completely with soft towels or moistened chamois. If you use bath towels or something similar make sure to remove any tags or labels. They scratch.
If the car isn't already indoors, out of the sun move it there. Don't have a garage? Find one. Relatives, friends, neighbors, whatever, beg borrow or steal some shade. When your paint care chemicals' instructions say they should not be used in direct sunlight they mean it. Hey, you're in a Jensen Healey club. Call up one of your motoring mates and offer him a few pints of Guinness to use his garage.

Your choice for surface prep products will vary wildly depending on the condition of your car. Look at it closely from different angles under different light. You want it to be pristine. Is it scratched? Swirled? Faded? Hazey? Crusty? With the car and your hands washed and dried run the tip of your finger lightly over the surface. How does it feel? It should be smooth as glass. Is it rough? Pitted? Bumpy? Chalky? There are no absolutes. You might have to experiment with several different products to find the one(s) best suited for your paint's condition. Different areas of your car might also have different needs. The horizontal surfaces like the boot and bonnet (trunk and hood) tend to deteriorate faster than the vertical surfaces of the doors and wings (fenders). A surface that's hazey, rough, chalky or bumpy is probably to be oxidized. Try a chemical cleaner to dissolve the oxides. If the surface is scratched or pitted you might have to use an abrasive product like a compound or combination cleaner/compound. Always start with the least aggressive product you can and work your way up until you find the one that's effective. Be extra careful around any edges, curves or bumps in the bodywork. The paint is thinner and their unusual shape means you can wear your way through it very quickly. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions with any product.

Once the surface is silky smooth It's a good idea to "feed and nourish" the paint with a pure polish to replenish oils and plasticizers. Polish will also deepen the paint's color and luster and reduce the visibility of swirling. Using polish isn't hard. Just choose a product and apply per instructions.

Choosing wax or polymer sealant, liquid or paste to protect your paint is largely a matter of taste and experience. Despite what the sales pitch says nothing lasts forever. How long wax does last depends on use, maintenance and environment. It's fairly typical for a car to lose that smooth as glass, water beading quality in anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. As always, apply any waxes per manufacturer's instructions yada, yada, yada. Remove residue with clean, soft, fluffy cloth renewing and replacing the cloth often.
Maintenance in between major care sessions is mostly washing off accumulations of junk and dealing with major localized events. Washing with the same wax safe washes and drying before any spotting occurs will leave the car looking great until the next wax. Removing serious attacks like bird poop and bug splats will probably take more powerful chemicals and will strip the wax in the area. Apply fresh polish and wax locally. There are also specialized spray-on products that can be used to do spot cleaning on paint the same way you clean kitchen counters. You just spray them on and wipe them off.
Speaking of spraying on, most glass cleaners will strip wax and dry out paint. Make sure to keep them off your finish when cleaning windows. Better yet, use a glass cleaner that's specifically formulated not to attack wax and paint.

There, now your car is beautiful. You feel better. Your Jensen feels better. Everybody that sees you driving along envies you. Happy Motoring.

A couple of odds and ends:
One question that always comes up is "hand application or machine?" The fact is that you can achieve very good results either way. There are excellent products designed for hand application. There are excellent products designed for machine application. There are some that can be applied either way. You need to choose the right products for the way you choose to work and apply them correctly.

There does appear to be a consensus among product manufacturers and high-end detailers when is comes to extremes. They generally seem to agree that when you're trying to revive a severely deteriorated finish or when you're trying to achieve that best of show winning gloss a machine, operated by a skilled craftsman, using the right products, gives the best finish possible. They believe that machines provide superior consistency and control. It is also universally agreed that when used carelessly machines are the fastest and most efficient means of destroying your finish.

As with any auto maintenance tasks different people will feel different levels comfort with various detailing activities. Just as with align boring an engine block, power buffing an oxidized finish requires equipment and know-how that some would prefer to leave to professionals (although both can be lots of fun once you get the hang of them). If your finish is really deteriorated and you don't want the adventure of potentially burning through it yourself you should consider having it detailed by an experienced professional.
You can get excellent results at a reasonable cost by paying the pro to do the extensive job initially and then doing the regular maintenance yourself. As with any service professional choose one on the basis of high quality work and customer service. Don't cheap out! Get referrals if you can and personally inspect examples of his/her work. Find one who actually listens to you and take the time to answer questions clearly. Don't go to a high volume car wash for delicate detailing unless you personally know and trust the quality of their individual handwork.

After all this babbling you may be either wondering what products I use or why anyone would care what I have to say. First off I need to point out that I'm not some great guru of paint care. I don't work for anybody who details cars or sells detailing products. I'm a gearhead like you learning a little bit at a time just like everybody else. The preceding stuff is stolen from and common to numerous product manufacturers, suppliers and detailers. It' sort of a conglomeration of stuff that most professionals seem to agree on with a few individuals' suggestions thrown in. Remember, if it's stolen from one source it's plagiarism, if it's stolen from many it's research. Mostly I read the labels on the bottles.

With that caveat in place I'll say that I really like the Meguiar's company and their products. There are a lot of other excellent products and manufacturers out there and I highly recommend trying any and all of them. It's just that for me personally, Meguiar's has the best combination of product and service. They have a huge and comprehensive range of products for the enthusiast, professional detailer, show car fanatic, automotive paint shop and auto manufacturer. Their stuff always does what they say it will and always does it well. Their stuff is available all over from a variety of sources. Best of all for a beginner like me, if you're confused about what product to use when you can call them on their dime at 1-800-545-3321 and talk to a real live human being who will explain it to you. They're even local, out of Irvine, CA.

Where to get stuff:

Like I said, you can find OK stuff at department, grocery and drug stores but you'll find a better selection of better stuff at an automotive parts, detailing or paint supplier. That goes for hardware like brushes, pads and power buffers as well as the chemicals. Check the phone book. Unless you're way out in the boondocks you'll probably have several professional sources near by.

If you want to try Meguiar's their website has a dealer locator. If you're here in Orange County, Ca. check out Detailing Depot/Mar-Co Distribution & Carnuba Store (don't ask me why they have two and a half names). They're at 2146 Newport Blvd. Suite "B" in Costa Mesa, (949) 574-7676. They're a car nut's kind of place, a simple storefront with a bunch of shelves loaded with professional detailing chemicals, supplies and tools. You want bottles, jugs or drums of wax served to you on a palette along with a few hundred sheets of #3000 sandpaper? You're in the right place. They carry, Meguiar's, AutoGlym, Mark V, Lexol, Blue Magic, 3M and more. Some sites of interest:




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