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What is Marring on Car Paint? A Basic Explanation

If marring is one of those terms that doesn’t carry much meaning or weight to you…you’re not alone! I really struggled to understand this term, so today I want to clarify everything.

I hear ‘marring’ thrown around a lot with detailing terms like swirl marks, scratches, and scuffs…but no one really takes the time to define it.

In this post, I’ll explain the basics for the absolute beginner…so you’ll know what marring is, how to fix it, avoid it, and talk about it.

What is paint marring?

Paint marring as defined by nanotech community AZONano is ‘physical damage that typically occurs within a few micrometers of the surface of a topcoat’ (a vehicle’s clear coat in this case). You’re technically ‘marring’ the clear coat…but ‘marring the paint’ is the term used.

In the detailing world, you can use the word marring as a verb and as a gerund (which is a verb that acts as a noun…thanks middle school English class). When used as a gerund, the phrase ‘mar the paint’ or ‘micro-marring’ refers to this specific type of surface blemish.

marring mark on vehicle
Example of marring on a vehicle

What is micro-marring?

Micromarring is the term used to refer to small, single-direction micro scratches that appear glossy and/or hazy after claying or polishing. When people say things like ‘claying can mar the paint’…they are referring to these small imperfections.

What causes marring?

Marring occurs when clay or a polishing pad makes contact with a dry surface, sort of scuffing it. The heat from the sun can be a contributing factor to paint marring since it obviously dries out lubricants and pads.

Both clay or polishing/cutting pads can ‘mar’ the surface of a vehicle. When marring is used as a verb, the end result of the ‘marring’ is commonly referred to as one of the following  nouns to describe the appearance:

  • Holograms – when paint is ‘marred’ by a rotary device or DA polisher
  • Streaks – marring of paint in one direction, a longer section
  • Swirl marks – the result of marring the paint by hand in a circular motion

Swirl marks: the result of micro-marring in circular form

swirl marks on car hood
Example of swirl marks on a car hood.

Swirls or swirl marks are tiny micro-scratches that aren’t blotchy (like micro-marring caused by hand), and are caused when a jagged particle abrades the top layer of clear coat when a circular motion is applied.

It’s easy to leave circular scratches (referred to as swirl marks or spiderwebbing) if a dry towel is used without lubrication, or if you take an unclean wash mitt and apply pressure to the paint in a circular motion.

Holograms: machine-caused micro-marring

Holograms are shiny, swirly areas on the clear coat commonly produced by a rotary when the pad isn’t flush against the panel. Holograms (sometimes referred to as buffer trails) can be hard to see unless in direct light. They’re similar to swirl marks produced by hand, but are characterized by their shiny, light-bending appearance. Holograms are sort of a weird, mirror-like haze clearly caused by a device at high speed.

Rotary tools are less forgiving than dual-action polishers because they can easily heat up, remove a lot of clear coat…and leave behind these holograms.

How to fix and prevent marring when detailing

To fix marred paint in most cases, just use a simple polish applied by hand or machine.

If marring has been caused by a polisher or rotary, use a less abrasive polish to blend out any imperfections. It helps to keep a clean polishing pad, use plenty of product/lubrication, and work in stages from most aggressive to least aggressive.

Preventing marring

To prevent marring paint, always use enough lubrication, especially with clay.. Marring often happens when pads (or clay) contact a dry clear coat, so it helps to work indoors, away from direct sunlight, and slowly.

Clay your vehicle properly to avoid marring

All in all, marring paint isn’t the end of the world. As I mentioned earlier, marring is a surface imperfection, and unlike a deep scratch, can be buffed out pretty easily.

It’s easy to mar paint if you’re not familiar with how to use clay. Check out my step-by-step guide on how to clay a car for beginners where I break down everything you need to know to minimize the risk of marring your paint. 

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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