Foam vs Microfiber Polishing Pads: Which to Use


When machine polishing a car, one of the most crucial decisions you’ll need to make is which pad to use. The two most popular materials used for polishing pads are foam and microfiber, but what are the differences between them? In this article, I’ll compare these two types of machine polishing pad and highlight which type of pad to use in different situations.

The Quick Answer

Microfiber pads are typically more aggressive than foam pads which means they cut away the paint more quickly. Foam pads are more forgiving so are the best choice for beginners and do not clog up as quickly with the polishing liquid and paint residue or generate as much heat.

Foam PadsMicrofiber Pads
Suit all levels of experienceNot as suitable for beginners
Cut paint more slowlyCut paint more quickly
Less likely to get cloggedCan clog up quickly with residue
Work well with rotary and DA polishersTypically used on DA polishers
Foam vs microfiber machine polishing pads

Foam Pads

Foam pads are generally used for removing light defects and finishing the panel by increasing the level of gloss as opposed to removing heavy scratches. However, there are several types of foam pads which all have different levels of “cut”.

Most brands have several foam pads in the range designed for different situations. Take the Chemical Guy’s Hexlogic range for example which has 7 pads. These pads are color coded and suit the following situations:

Chemical Guys Hexlogic PadDescriptionUsed WithPurpose
YellowHeavy CuttingCompoundsHeavy Defect Removal
OrangeMedium-Heavy CuttingCompoundsMedium-Heavy Defect Removal
GreenHeavy Polishing/ Light CuttingAll-In-One Polish (AOI)Single Stage Enhancement
WhiteMedium-Light PolishingAIO or Finishing PolishSingle Stage Enhancement/ Gloss Enhancement
BlueLight Polishing/ FinishingGlaze/ Cleaner or Finishing PolishFilling/ Gloss Enhancement
BlackFinishingGlazes/ CleanersFilling
RedUltra-Fine FinishingWaxes and SealantsLast-Stage Protection
Chemical Guys Hexlogic Foam Pad Range

Although there are seven pads in the range here, the black and red pads aren’t designed for correction using a machine polisher and instead for filling and applying waxes. So if you were to use this range for correction you’d have the choice of the blue, white, green, orange and yellow pads.

As you can tell by the descriptions, there is a huge difference between using a yellow pad and a blue pad since one is designed for heavy cutting and the other for gloss enhancement. Hence, the generalisation that “foam pads are for finishing” is far too simplistic.

It’s possible to use foam pads on a car to do a single-step enhancement, or two-stage correction, it depends on which pad (and polish) you’re using.

Finishing vs Cutting Foam Pads

So what’s the difference between a foam pad designed for aggressive cutting and one designed for finishing and gloss-enhancement? There are two main factors to consider here:

  • Density: the denser the pad, the harder it will be and the faster it will cut the paint. Hence, finishing pads are more soft compared to heavy cutting pads which are much firmer.
  • Thickness: the thicker the pad, the more cushioning it provides and pressure-relief. Finishing pads are thicker than cutting pads because they reduce the pressure of the machine and make it less aggressive.
  • Coarseness: some foams are coarser than others. The coarser the foam, the faster it’ll cut. Hence, cutting pads tend to be a bit rougher than finishing pads.

Advantages of Foam Pads

  • Foam pads are not as aggressive as wool and microfiber pads so cut the paint more slowly. This helps to improve the gloss levels and makes them more suitable for beginners.
  • Foam pads don’t get as hot as pads made from other materials.
  • Foam pads are easy to clean (particularly open-cell pads) by using compressed air, a pad washer or a brush.
  • Foam pads do not clog up as quickly with paint residue and polishes.
  • Foam pads can be used on all paint types for single-stage and two-stage correction.

Disadvantage of Foam Pads

  • Foam pads do not cut the paint as quickly as wool and microfiber pads so it takes longer to remove deeper defects.

Microfiber Pads

Microfiber pads are often associated with heavier defect removal using a dual-action machine polisher and are generally used for two-stage corrections where the paint is compounded and then polished to enhance the gloss and remove hazing.

However, again this is an over-simplification and there are many types of microfiber pads designed for different situations. You’ll often find that brands make a “microfiber cutting pad” and a “microfiber finishing pad”.

Finishing vs Cutting Microfiber Pads

Cutting pads are designed to remove the paint more quickly to ensure deeper defects are removed efficiently. Finishing pads are more gentle which means the paint is cut more slowly to refine it and improve the gloss.

There are two main differences between microfiber pads designed for cutting and finishing:

  • Fiber structure: microfiber cutting pads have thicker and coarser fibres compared to finishing pads which have finer and softer fibers.
  • Foam layer thickness: microfiber pads have a foam layer which sits in between the microfiber and the backing. Finishing pads have a thicker foam layer to provide more cushioning as more pressure is absorbed from the weight of the machine so the paint isn’t cut away as quickly.

Advantages of Microfiber Pads:

  • Microfiber cutting pads allow deeper defects to be removed very efficiently.
  • Can work very well for two-stage machine polishing.

Disadvantages of Microfiber Pads:

  • Microfiber pads become clogged with residue and polishes easily so need cleaning frequently.
  • Microfiber pads can cause soft paint to haze more easily.
  • The fibers are difficult to clean properly.
  • They produce more heat than foam pads.
  • They are more aggressive so less suitable for beginners.

Which Type of Pad Should You Use?

This brings us to the ultimate question, should you go with a foam pad or a microfiber pad? The answer depends on the following things:

  • Type of machine polisher
  • Hardness of the paint
  • How deep the defects are
  • Whether you’re doing a single or two-stage polish
  • Experience level of the operator

Type of Machine Polisher

If you are using a dual-action machine polisher, then foam and microfiber pads are both highly suitable and your choice should depend on the other factors on the list.

However, if you are using a rotary polisher, then a foam pad is often the best choice. Microfiber pads aren’t as commonly paired with rotary polishers because the machine is very difficult to control and the effectiveness of the fibers are reduced.

Hardness of the Paint

In general, if you are trying to cut harder paint then a microfiber pad will be more useful. Microfiber cutting pads remove paint more quickly so will be a more efficient choice. On softer paints, using foam is my preferred method because it is less likely to cause marring compared to microfiber, and the extra cutting speed isn’t really necessary.

Remember that this is just a single variable though. If you use a heavy cut compound with a foam pad, you’ll get more cutting (and less finishing) ability than with a light polish and a microfiber pad.

I can’t stress enough that the polishing liquid is crucial in making this decision. You should try to find the best combination to cut the paint efficiently but not overly aggressively to avoid removing more paint than necessary. The material pad is just one variable to consider.

Depth of the Defects

For deeper defects I prefer to use a microfiber pad as this allows me to cut away the paint more efficiently. For lighter swirls, I tend to use foam pads because they finish up a bit better and aren’t as aggressive which means I won’t cut as much paint away unnecessarily.

Again, plenty of other variables come into play here such as the polishing liquid, paint hardness, type of machine being used, and how aggressive the pad is. An aggressive foam pad will actually remove defects faster than a softer microfiber pad so it’s important to consider the type of pad as well as the material being used.

Single vs Two-Stage Machine Polishing

If I am faced with paint which has heavy defects then I tend to use a microfiber pad and compound, followed by a foam pad and finishing polish to remove the hazing inflicted by the single stage and improve the gloss levels.

If you are doing a two-stage correction, then there will be microfiber and foam pads suitable for the job and you can either go with just one material, or use one for each stage.

For single-stage correction, it is possible to use either foam or microfiber pads. However, I find foam pads to be more effective at removing defects whilst retaining gloss levels and finishing up nicely compared to microfiber pads.

Again, it depends on the hardness of the paint and the polishing liquid being used. But, in general, I like the results from using a single-step polish on a foam pad for most situations.

Experience Level of the Operator

Whilst it’s possible to achieve amazing results with either microfiber or foam pads, beginners should generally choose foam pads. They are less aggressive than microfiber pads so the risks are somewhat reduced when using foam pads (unless using a very harsh one). They also don’t clog up as much or generate as much heat.

Finding the Right Combination

I’ve been trying to address this throughout the article, but I want to stress that there are so many variables involved in machine polishing which make it hard to say one type of pad material is better than the other. It really depends on the situation.

When I am machine polishing a car I always use the least aggressive combination first on the test section. If that doesn’t yield the results I’m looking for, then I’ll increase the cut. This is done by either using a more aggressive pad or polishing liquid.

I generally start with a light polish and softer foam pad, then up to a more aggressive polish if needed. Then if necessary, I’ll use a microfiber cutting pad.

It’s always a good idea to try and find the right combination on your test section first and choose the least aggressive option possible to help preserve the clear coat.

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Heather

I first became interested in car detailing around 3 years ago and learnt all the main techniques on my very first car. I spend a lot of time detailing my current car, and trying to keep my family's cars looking presentable too!

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