Polishing Compound vs Rubbing Compound

I decided to write and article about Polishing compound vs Rubbing compound since I had two people ask me this very question over past the weekend.


Whether you are trying to remove scratches and swirls from your cars paint job, or trying to restore the original color and shine back from your existing faded paint, you can usually use some sort of automotive compound to achieve this.

For many years, you could buy two different products to help you achieve these goals.  They were easy to find – you could get them at any parts store or even at most big box stores in the automotive department.

Polishing compound and Rubbing Compound.

What are they?  What is the difference between the two?

I will try to explain what each product is, and what they are used for, and explain the differences between them.


What Does Polishing Compound Do

Polishing compound is a product that is used to clean and refresh dull, oxidized automotive paint finishes.  It is available in liquid and paste form.

It is best used with a power polishing machine (preferably a rotary model – for best results) to help the compound remove a thin layer of clear coat and paint to expose a nice fresh shiny paint finish.

What does polishing compound do

Above, you can see a ‘before and after’ picture of a black colored truck that has gone through some paint restoration with rubbing and polishing compounds.  To maximize the results, an electric buffer tool was used.


A polishing compound can also be used between coats of freshly sprayed lacquer and acrylic automotive paint to help smooth out the paint.  Doing so will help each next layer of paint lay smoother for a much better quality finished paint job.


What Does Rubbing Compound Do

Rubbing compound is very similar to polishing compound in the way that they both help achieve the same goals when used on an automobile.

However, a rubbing compound is used to help restore much more severely dulled and oxidized paint finishes.  It can be used to help remove bad stains in the paint/clear coat finishes, and is also available in liquid and paste form.

A rubbing compound is much more abrasive than a polishing compound.  It is very similar to sanding out a nice piece of maple wood.  You would start with the coarser sandpaper (for the more rougher spots) and then work your way down to a more finer sandpaper to achieve the smooth finish in the end.

When restoring an extremely damaged paint finish on an automobile, the use of the rubbing compound is generally a FIRST STEP in the paint restoration process.  Generally, one would use the rubbing compound first, and then transition to a polishing compound afterwards.


What does polishing compound do 1

The above photo actually came via the fine folks at Meguiars .  This beautiful restoration was done using their Ultimate Compound, which is a fantastic product.  It is a great compound to try out if it is your first time working on paint restoration with an electric buffer tool.


Once finished with the polishing compound process, it is very important to apply a coat of wax to help seal and protect the newly exposed fresh paint finish.  Failure to do so will result in fading and oxidation of the fresh paint finish within the first year.


Various grades of compounds and polishes

There are many more grades of compounds and polishes available in today’s market.  Certain manufacturers will have up to 4-5 levels/grades of these compounds to help consumers achieve the best finish possible.

Starting your paint restoration with a rubbing compound, just because you need something stronger than a generic polishing compound, isn’t always a great idea.

Rubbing compounds are very abrasive, and you may not need to start off with product that strong.

Companies like “Chemical Guys” and 3M offer many different grades of products for paint restoration.  Check out the video below made by the people at Chemical Guys – they explain what is the best way to choose the right compound or polish for your paint restoration project


They have compounds and polishes that are numbered to indicate the level of coarseness/abrasiveness of the product.

They V32 Extreme Compound is best for heavy paint oxidation, heavy swirl marks, and deeper scratches in the paint.

They also offer a V34 Hybrid Compound which is less abrasive than the V32 product.  This is recommended for moderate to heavy swirl marks and scratches.

Their V36 is one step lighter than the V34, and the V36 is called a ‘cuttng polish’.  The V36 Cutting Polish is a great first step to try when doing any automotive paint restoration/fixes.  Many autobody shops use compounds like this (also referred to as a cutting compound – add wiki link to cutting compound here) to complete paint restoration work in their shops.

I would always recommend starting with a lighter (less abrasive) compound on a small test spot to see if it does the job, before trying a heavier rubbing/extreme compound.  If you find that the lighter compound/polish does the job, you have just saved yourself a lot of extra work by eliminating one or even two steps in the whole polishing/cutting process.

Chemical Guys also offer a V38 Final Polish.  This is what I like to call a ‘clean up product’.  It basically removes any fine hazes and marks left over from previous more-abrasive polishing steps.

The V38 Final Polish helps restore full gloss and reflection to the painted finish at the end of a multi-step polishing job.

As with any final step in the polishing process, please make sure to apply a layer of wax to the car/truck at the end to help protect that newly restored paint finish.

You can check out the Chemical Guys line of polishes and compounds on Amazon.com (add link)


3M also offers a full line of polishes and compounds for automotive paint restoration.

I wont get into detail about product specifics, but feel free to check out the full 3M automotive paint restoration products on Amazon.com

You can check out the video below to learn a bit more about these products.


IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have not used a full rotary buffer before, I would STRONGLY advise you to start off with a random orbital, or dual-action polisher.  Using a full rotary buffer and rubbing/polishing compounds can cause damage to the paint & clear coat finishes if not done properly.   Using a random orbital or dual-action polisher is definitely the way to go if you have any concerns about damaging your car’s exterior finish.


In this article we have covered the following topics:

  • What does polishing compound do
  • What does rubbing compound do
  • Various grades of compounds and polishes

I hope that you now have a better understanding about what a polishing compound does, and what rubbing compound does, when it comes to car paint restoration.

Are you are interested in learning more about protecting your car’s paint?  OR maybe bout restoring the existing paint finish on your car?

IF so, please check out my other article HERE that goes more in-depth into polishing and waxing your car to keep it looking shiny and new!

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