Motorhome Paint Swirl Removal

by E. Don Smith
March 26, 2014
Filed under Resources, Tech Tips


Get Rid of Holograms and Fine Scratches with These Techniques


During the past 10 years, one of the most striking visual changes that has occurred to the exterior of Class A motorhomes is the use of automotive-grade, full-body paint. The designers that develop these flashy paint jobs really know how to make a coach look great. In fact, it is much harder to date a motorhome these days simply by looking at its exterior, because it can look new for many years if well cared for. There is, however, one disadvantage to full-body paint jobs, and if you own a coach with full-body paint, you most likely already know about it. I’m referring to “swirls” or hologram scratches.

Swirls have been the thorn in the side of professional automotive detailers for many years, and now that motor­homes are painted, it has become our thorn as well. First, let’s define swirls and understand where they come from. Then we can better understand how to remove them.
Swirls, or holograms, are fine scratches in the clear-coat layer of a paint system that occur from improper washing or polishing. Motorhomes are large, and difficult to wash, and their non-uniform surfaces — with the slideout seals, awning arms and recessed windows — make washing a coach a big job. The temptation is to use more aggressive methods than is necessary, and when combined with subpar lubricity soaps, the result is a large motorhome covered with swirl marks.
These swirls are easiest to see on dark-colored surfaces, such as black, and they show up best from certain angles in direct sunlight. When you first see a motorhome covered with swirls, your first thought might be that the beautiful paint job is ruined. Fortunately, that is not the case.
One simple option for swirl removal is to hire a service that specializes in motorhome buffing. The downside is that you’ll be out hundreds of dollars, and if you’re not familiar with buffing automotive paint, you’re better off leaving this job to the professionals.

Notice visible swirls in the paint before polishing. Right: After polishing, the surface is smooth and free of paint defects.

DON_5041Notice visible swirls in the paint before polishing. Bottom: After polishing, the surface is smooth and free of paint defects.

If you want to tackle the job yourself, your success will depend on the severity of the swirls, your physical ability and your level of determination. We can’t promise that this is a quick and easy task. With one person, and the proper tools, our 7-year-old Tiffin Phaeton 36 footer took about 14 hours — not counting the preparatory wash. That may sound like a long time, but if you split it up over several days it’s really not that bad.
In addition to time, you are going to need the correct supplies. The first, and most expensive, is a good random orbital buffer. This is a specific type of buffer and the random orbital motion is key to preventing paint damage that can occur if you press down too hard while polishing. There are numerous brands on the market, but after having used several, my preference is the Griot’s Garage 6-inch model ($139.99). It has a longer stroke, and a bit more low rpm torque, compared to others. Though the cost of the tools should be considered when deciding whether to do the job yourself or hire someone else, just remember that the tools and supplies will be used many times. In addition to the buffer, you will need enough foam pads for the job (one to three pads), as well as lots of high-quality microfiber polishing towels.  
You will also need a ladder, and enough agility to work from a ladder on the upper sections of the coach. Usually an 8- to 10-foot A-frame-style ladder provides a safe platform to work from, and is not too heavy to easily move around the coach.
Perhaps the most important item is the polish/swirl remover, because it’s the polish that will do the actual swirl removal. There are literally hundreds of products on the market aimed at swirl removal. Many of these swirl removers are one-, two- or even three-step polishes and a final “sealer,” which provides the long-term protection. After polishing something as big as a motorhome, the last thing you probably want to do is polish it two or three more times, and then apply a final sealant.
To prevent all those steps, we used a product from Griot’s Garage called “One-Step Sealant.” A 16-ounce bottle cost only $17.99, and after finishing the job, there was enough left over to polish it at least two more times. While we hesitate to call anything perfect, this one comes very close. Not only does it go on and come off easily, it also does a great job of removing swirls.  In our case, it only took one application to remove more than 90 percent of the visible swirls. The real advantage is that it also has a built-in long-term sealant. This means you don’t have to seal the entire motorhome as a separate process after polishing.


This is an example of a swirled surface. Sometimes the scratched pattern runs in a circle, as shown here, other times it seems to move in a straight or diagonal line.


Before polishing the paint, we decided to also “clay” the surface to remove surface contaminants.


Detailer’s clay is used to rub along the surface of the clean and lubricated paint job. It removes tiny spots of tar, road grime, etc., leaving the paint finish feeling smooth.


Before using the clay, thoroughly lubricate the area with a product such as Griot’s Speed Shine, which allows the clay to glide easily across the surface without causing marring or swirls.


When properly flattened, the clay should be a 4-inch-square section. Hold it gently and move it back and forth over the wet surface, as shown here.


After you finish wiping the clay over the wet surface, wipe it dry with a new, clean microfiber towel.


Even after washing microfiber towels, they have the ability to hold bits of debris that can scratch surfaces, so use only new, high-quality microfiber towels.


After using the clay on several sections, you will notice discoloration — those are the contaminants that are being removed from the paint. This is a sign that the clay is working.


Next, fold the clay over on itself several times to expose a new, uncontaminated section to work on the next area of the coach. Repeat this process over and over until you have clayed the entire surface of the motorhome.


10. After wiping the surface dry, you should be able to feel how smooth it is. Now it’s ready for polishing.


For buffing the paint, we used an orange pad, which is the color intended for polishing and removing swirls. Different color pads denote different intended uses, so pick the right color for the job at hand. Plan on using one to three pads for this job.


After attaching the pad to the hook-and-loop backer plate on the polisher, you will load the pad with a small amount of polish, as shown here. We used Griot’s One-Step Sealant.


With the pad on low speed, work the polish into a 2-foot-square area up and down, then left and right, to completely cover and overlap the area. Then increase the speed of the buffer to start the actual polishing. Keep the pad moving slowly on the paint and cover the area several times. As the polish breaks down, it will start to thin out on the surface of the paint.


This is what the surface should look like after being properly polished. Notice the overlapping pattern of the polish on the surface.


After that section is finished, immediately wipe off the residue with a new microfiber towel. If you still notice swirls, it may be necessary to repeat the process one or more times, and you may need to increase or decrease buffing time or speed. If the polish does not easily wipe off, you might be using too much.


After all polishing is completed and the swirls are removed, the surface should display this type of reflectivity. Notice the visible details of the trees and other areas as reflections in the perfectly polished paint.


After several hours of polishing, expect your pad to look similar to the one on the right. When it gets this bad, it’s time to start over with a new one. The pads can usually be washed and restored to like-new condition in most cases.

Each product and its use are different, so if you decide to go with different waxes and polishes, expect a different set of instructions from the manufacturer and perhaps different results. This is one case where it doesn’t pay to use cheap products, or you will end up repeating the entire job due to inferior results.
The best time of year to tackle this project is spring or fall if you live in a warm area; however, you need to avoid working in direct sunlight while polishing. If you don’t have a covered area to work under, just schedule your work sessions at the appropriate time of day so as to limit any exposure to the sun. At all costs, you must avoid polishing in direct sun, as it causes the polish to react too fast due to the excessive heat.
Prepare yourself for a good workout, as well as a great looking coach. If you follow the steps outlined here, you, too, can be one of those owners who proudly drives into an RV resort knowing that your beautiful, shiny motorhome is the envy of everyone there.


EE. Don Smith is a Tennessee-based freelance writer and photographer who has been a frequent contributor to Motor­Home since 2006.
He is the proud owner of a Tiffin Phaeton coach.
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