Everyone wants their car to look shinier. Whether you’re dealing with dull, tired paint, or a newer vehicle, everybody is after that glossy mirror finish. But how do you make a car look shiny?
In this article, I’ll be talking about what exactly makes a car look either dull or shiny, and how to increase the level of gloss on your vehicle in this step-by-step guide packed with pro tips. So let’s get started.
The Quick Answer
To make a car look shiny, make sure the paintwork has been cleaned thoroughly and decontaminated using clay. Polishing the paintwork will add the most shine to the paint but it is time-consuming. Quicker alternatives to add shine include paint glazes, waxes or gloss-enhancing shampoos.
Here is the step-by-step process to making a car shinier by deep cleaning the paint and flattening the surface so light reflects more evenly.
- Wash the paintwork using a microfiber mitt and car shampoo.
- Decontaminate the paint using chemical decontamination (iron and tar remover) and physical decontamination (clay).
- Remove scratches and swirls by compounding followed by polishing to refine to a mirror finish.
- Alternatively, use a glaze to hide the imperfections in the paintwork.
- Apply a sealant, ceramic coating or wax to protect the paint.
This article will take you through a full step-by-step process to get the shiniest possible paint and essentially make your car look brand new again, but if you want some quick fixes, then there are some options.
Quick Ways to Make a Car Look Shiny
- Wash the car with a high-quality shampoo that contains waxes and gloss-enhancing agents.
- Use a glaze after washing to fill in any minor clear coat scratches.
- Apply a natural Carnauba wax over a synthetic sealant.
- Provide contrast by darkening the tires and trim using a gel or dressing.
- Clean the wheels to improve the overall appearance of the vehicle.
However, getting glossy paint is all about the prep, and far less about adding a wax or sealant. In order for the paint to look shiny, the top layer of paint must be as flat as possible. So now let’s take a look at why some cars look shiny and others look dull.
What Makes the Paint Shine?
So first, let’s talk about what exactly makes a car’s paint either shiny or dull.
It’s all about how flat the paint surface is.
Modern car’s have several layers of paint. Take a look at this diagram to demonstrate.
First, you’ve got the clear coat, which is the top layer. Then underneath you have the base coat which provides the colour. The primer then sits underneath.
It’s the clear coat that you’re interested in, when discussing the level of gloss and shine. The clear coat is designed to protect the base coat, and add that shiny effect.
The flatter the clear coat, the shinier the paint.
Quick Note on Vintage Cars
Older cars tend to have a different paint structure. They have what’s known as single stage paint. This is when there isn’t a separate clear coat and colour coat. But instead, there is just one layer of shiny coloured paint.
Car’s made after the 1980’s will almost certainly always have clear coated paint. The 80’s is when the transition from single stage to clear coated paint began. Any car made before the 80’s will have single stage paint.
Flat Clear Coat = Shine
Okay, so now we know that the flatness of the paint is what makes a car look shiny, let’s look into a bit more detail.
When the car is first painted, the clear coat is very likely almost, if not completely flat, hence why it looks so shiny. This is because light reflects off the surface evenly.
However, many different things can cause the clear coat to become uneven.
The most common, is improper wash technique which causes scratches and swirl marks. I won’t jump into this topic too much here, but if you’re still using a brush or sponge to wash your car, then you’re actually causing your car to look less shiny every time you wash it.
Ever noticed any swirls or spiderwebs in direct sunlight on your car’s paint? These are scratches that are most likely caused by poor wash technique.
Even new cars suffer from this, because dealerships often wash the car really badly. So even if you’ve just bought a brand new car, then it’s likely these scratches and swirls will be there.
Here are some examples.
So how does this relate to shininess? Well, as well as causing the hazing effect in direct sunlight, the unevenness in the clear coat actually causes the paint to look duller in all lighting because the light cannot reflect evenly.
The best way to detect this kind of clear coat damage, is to take a look at the paint closely in direct sunlight, or in a dark garage or at night with a flashlight.
Some colours show this more clearly than others. It’s often much easier to detect in darker metallic cars rather than white finishes.
Other Causes of Dull Paint
There are also a few other causes of dull paintwork that aren’t created by poor wash technique, although they do still cause clear coat uneveness.
- Grime, water spots and other contaminants
- Oxidised clear coat (white patches)
- Total lack of clear coat (aka clear coat failure)
If you have the first issue, then this can be fixed by deep cleaning. Often, dull paint is caused by scratches and swirl marks, and contamination and it’s fairly straightforward to fix.
However, if you have an oxidised clear coat or no clear coat at all, then this is hard to repair. If the oxidisation isn’t too bad, and the paint isn’t peeling or cracking, then it’s fixable. But if there are patches where the clear coat is completely missing, then the panel will need to be reprayed.
Fortunately, this is rare, and if your vehicle is less than 15 years old, it’s unlikely to need respraying.
Fixing a Dull Clear Coat
So we know that a shiny finish, comes from a clean and flat clear coat. Now, let’s talk about how to fix it.
I’ll be going through the entire process step-by-step in a lot more detail, but here are the main points.
- Deep clean the paintwork by washing and decontaminating
- Remove scratches, swirl marks and hazing
- Protect the paintwork using a wax, sealant or coating
Now let’s talk about each step individually.
Deep Cleaning the Paintwork
So first thing’s first, the paint needs to be clean. And this doesn’t stop at washing, but it does start here.
Like I said earlier, improper wash technique which results in scratches and swirl marks, is the biggest cause of dull paint. So when washing the car at the start of this process, it needs to be done properly.
Safe Wash Process
Washing your car properly isn’t complicated and doesn’t take long, but you need to make sure you have the right tools.
- Car shampoo (never dish soap or bleach)
- A couple of microfiber wash mitts (not sponges)
- A hose with nozzle attachment
- Two large buckets
- Large, soft and clean microfiber towel
- Pressure washer
- Snow foam cannon and snow foam
The aim is to be as gentle as possible. The clear coat is very delicate, and dirt and dust act as abrasives which can scratch the paintwork.
So, you need to minimise the amount of friction. This can be done by using microfiber wash mitts (instead of sponges and brushes), and lubricating the paintwork with plenty of water and shampoo.
It’s also good to remove as much dirt as possible before using the wash mitt, by using a snow foam. If you’re not too sure how to wash your car safely, then make sure you do your research first.
The next step, is to decontaminate the paintwork. If you’re new to car detailing, you may never have heard this term, but it’s super important if you want your car to look shiny.
When you wash your car, you remove the visible dirt and dust. However, washing doesn’t remove everything.
“Contaminants”, are things that can bond to the paintwork, and cannot be removed by routine washing. These include: tar, tree sap, hard water spots, dried insects, iron fallout, bird mess.
These contaminants sit on top of the paintwork and cause it to feel rough, and make the clear coat uneven, and hence, look dull.
You can check for these contaminants by running your hand over the paintwork when it’s clean and dry. If it feels rough, then you need to decontaminate it.
This step alone can increase the shininess of the paint, but it’s also essential before trying to remove any scratches, swirls and hazing in the clear coat.
There are two steps to decontaminating a car’s paintwork: chemical and physical.
This is the first step, and involves two products, an iron fallout remover and a tar remover.
Iron fallout builds up if you live in an industrial area and from the brake disks on your car. It even builds up when a brand new car is transported to the dealership by rail (which they often are). Tar is less common but still can be found on the lower panels.
These products can easily be found and often come in a spray format. The products are sprayed onto wet paint, left to sit for the specified time (usually 2-10 minutes) and then rinsed away.
This helps to remove any contaminants left behind by the chemical decontamination step. It is done by using clay.
Not the type you find in the ground, but automotive detailing clay, which is specifically designed for use on cars. Claying your car is a very simple process. All you do is glide it along lubricated paint (shampoo and water) until the surface feels smooth. Then rinse the area down.
You do need to be careful when using clay though, because it is an abrasive tool, and can cause scratches if used improperly. Take a look at this article I’ve written on using clay without scratching to learn more.
The final step, is to dry the vehicle. Again, like the wash process, this can potentially cause scratches if done incorrectly.
Remember to use soft microfiber towels or compressed air (in the form of a car dryer or leaf blower) to dry the car gently. Never use a squeegee (water blade), bath towel or chamois leather as will scratch, swirl and mar the paintwork.
Take a look at this article on the best ways to dry a car without causing scratches to learn more about this topic.
Removing Scratches and Hazing
The next step in the quest for shinier paint, is to deal with scratches, hazing and swirl marks which all cause clear coat unevenness.
There are two choices when it comes to this: paint correction and glazing. Paint correction is a permanent option which requires more skill, whilst glazing is temporary and less effective, but much easier and faster. Now let’s take a look at each option in more detail.
Permanent Option (Paint Correction)
Paint correction, is also known as polishing and compounding. This involves removing a layer of the damaged clear coat to reveal a flat layer that reflects light evenly, and hence looks shiny instead of dull. Take a look at this diagram to demonstrate.
This can either be done by hand, or by machine. Hand polishing is more labour intensive, takes much longer and yields poorer results. Whilst machine polishing is far more effective and efficient.
However, machine polishing does require more skill, more expensive equipment and the risks are greater. There are two types of machine polisher: rotary and dual-action. You can take a look at rotary vs DA polishers here to learn more. But spoiler-alert, beginners should always go for a dual action (DA) polisher) because they are less risky.
So what are the risks when correcting the paint by removing a layer of clear coat?
Risks of Paint Correction
- Removing too much clear coat
- Causing more scratches and swirl marks
The first issue is the most common. Whenever you correct the paint, you are removing a layer of clear coat. This is an issue because the clear coat plays a protective role to prevent the base coat underneath from fading and damage.
So really, you need to be careful when doing this. Removing a layer of paint is permanent. Removing too much, can mean the car needs completely repraying.
I do have a full article on the risks of paint correction, so check it out if you’re considering going down this route.
Polishing and Compounding
So I did touch on this at the start of this section, but paint correction can be split into two main categories, polishing and compounding.
Compounding is used to remove deeper scratches and swirl marks and removes the paint faster. Polishing is more gentle, and is used to refine the paintwork to a mirror finish. This is necessary after compounding, because the aggressive nature of the compound can leave some hazing behind that needs to be corrected.
If you want to learn more about this topic then take a look at this complete guide to polishing and compounding to learn everything you could possibly need to.
Temporary Option (Glazes)
So what about option 2 then. Glazing is a great approach to tackling these scratches and swirl marks, without ever removing any clear coat. Let’s take a look at how this works.
Glazes contain fillers, which essentially sit in the gaps where the scratches are to create the illusion of a flatter surface. Take a look at this diagram to demonstrate.
Glazes can be applied by hand or machine, and are simply spread over the surface, left to haze, and then buffed away to leave a shiny finish.
The main advantages of a glaze, are that it’s very fast, easy, and doesn’t remove any paint so can be done as often as you’d like.
However, it’s a temporary fix and the glaze will eventually wear away, just like waxes do. Glazes normally last anywhere from 1 week to a few months. It depends on the weather conditions, and the wax you apply on top.
The glaze I use lasts around 2-3 months under a wax, before it needs reapplying.
If you want to learn more about glazes, then take a look at my complete guide to automotive glazes to find out everything you need to know.
Choosing the Right Option
So which option is right for you, paint correction (polishing and compounding) or glazing. It really depends on your skill level, the amount of time you have available, how much you want to spend, the kind of results you’re after and how much clear coat you have left on your car.
Here’s a quick table to summarise glazing vs paint correction. If you want some more detail, then head over to my article on polishing vs glazing.
|Removes part of the clear coat to remove scratches and produce a smooth a flat surface||Covers scratches using fillers to create the illusion of a smoother surface|
|More aggressive||Less aggressive|
|Equipment and products cost upwards of $150||Glazes cost around $20|
|Requires more skill||Very basic technique|
|Only suitable for cars with plenty of clear coat||Suitable for older cars with thinner clear coats|
|Full process takes 6+ hours on an entire car||Process takes around 20 minutes|
Protecting the Paint
Now for the final step, protecting the paintwork. This is also known as waxing, coating or sealing the paint. The aim is to help protect the clear coat from the contamination we talked about earlier, keep the car clean, and enhance the level of gloss and shine.
A lot of car owners make the mistake of thinking that applying a wax or sealant will provide tonnes of gloss. However, it’s actually all the prep beforehand in terms of correction and decontamination which makes the real difference.
Waxes, sealants and coatings just offer the final touch and are really more about protection than aesthetics. However, they are kind of a long term investment to keeping the paint looking shiny, because they help to keep the clear coat in good condition.
There are three main paint protection options you need to decide between: waxes, sealants and ceramic coatings.
Waxes contain Carnauba wax, which is why they are known for being “natural” forms of paint protection. They often come in a paste format, and are applied using a foam applicator, left to cure (go hazy) for around 5-10 minutes, and then buffed away to a shine.
The main advantage of using a wax, is the finish it provides. It offers a warm, rich glossy look to the paint. Also, waxes are normally very easy to apply. The main issues with waxes are that they typically offer less durable and strong protection, and usually only last 1-3 months.
Sealants are synthetic forms of paint protection that can come in a paste format, or liquid format. They can be applied using a foam applicator or microfiber pad, left to cure (usually around 5-10 minutes) and then buffed away using a microfiber cloth.
Generally, sealants tend to look a bit colder and harder than waxes, which look warmer. Both look great, it just depends what you’re into.
Sealants are more durable and last around 6-12 months and are pretty easy to apply. However, they tend to be a lot less durable when applied over a glaze, and you may only get around 3 months of protection, depending on the glaze you’re using.
This is because sealants really need to bond to the paint to get the longest life out of them, and glazes get in the way.
Ceramic coatings are in a liquid format and consist of nanoparticles which provide a very durable transparent layer of protection over the paintwork.
Again, since they are synthetic, they offer a colder and harder shine, similar to sealants instead of a warmer glow like natural waxes.
They are more complicated to apply, and can definitely not be applied over glazes. They’re also more expensive than waxes and sealants. However, they are very durable and offer upwards of a year’s worth of protection.
Which Should You Choose?
In terms of appearance, if you’re looking for a warm, rich glow, go for a natural wax, but if you want a colder, harder looking shine, go for a sealant or ceramic coating.
Here are some article’s you may be interested in which take a look at paint protection in a bit more depth.
The Details Matter
Okay, so by now you should have that super glossy paint that you were looking for. But if you want the car to look brand new, you need to think about the details too.
Nothing ruins the look of a super shiny car like faded black trim, dusty tires and smeared glass. So don’t forget the details either. Here are a few things you can do to complete the look.
- Use a glass cleaner to get a streak free finish
- Clean the tires using an APC and stiff bristle brush
- Wash the alloys using a microfiber wash mitt and soft brush
- Hose and brush down the wheel arches
- Apply a tire dressing
- Clean the exhaust tips
If you want to find out more, then check out the Auto Care HQ YouTube channel. It has plenty of videos which will take you through all these aspects of car care to make sure your vehicle always looks brand new.
Also, if you want to know which products to use, then take a look at my recommended products page to see what I use. I’ve tried hundreds of products over the years so I know what products get great results.
Maintaining the Finish
You also need to make sure you keep your car looking super shiny, if you’ve gone to all this effort of restoring and protecting the finish. Here are my top tips for keeping your car looking glossy.
- Wash the car regularly (at least every 2 weeks) and safely by pre-washing, using microfiber and being gentle on the paint to avoid scratching it.
- Top up the paint protection when you start to see the water-repellent properties diminish.
- Don’t use a detailer spray to remove dust between washes or you’ll cause scratches. Instead, just wash the car properly when you get time.
- Never take your car to an automatic car wash or you’ll get tonnes of scratches and swirl marks.
Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve found this article useful. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the website to learn tonnes more about car detailing.
- Are Snow Foam Cannons Actually Worth It?
- How to Make Your Tires Look Brand New
- Is It Bad To Wash Your Car Too Often?