Cutting compound: a guide for DIYers

Find out all you need to know about using cutting compound for paint restoration on your car.

Applying polish to a car body panel using a polishing tool

by Chris Williams |

Many of us care about maintaining the appearance of our car's paintwork. Scratches and swirls and blotches can be very irritating indeed. However, many of us are also hesitant to use anything stronger than a standard bottle of polish to fix these imperfections out of fear it might cause more problems than it solves.

In this guide, we look at those stronger polishes called cutting compounds. In the right circumstances, they are extremely useful and something DIYers can certainly use. But you do need to be careful.

What is cutting compound?

Like your Turtle Wax polish, you have on the garage shelf, cutting compound is an abrasive substance used for clearing up imperfections in the top layer of a car's paintwork. The paintwork on modern cars consists of three layers: the basecoat primer, the colour coat, and the final outer clearcoat.

Polishes and cutting compounds work by removing a very thin layer of the clearcoat to remove the scratches. Just as scratches vary in severity, cutting compounds vary in abrasiveness. Thus, heavier cutting compounds are used for clearing more moderate damage done to the clearcoat, while finer ones and finishing polishes get rid of minor swirls and smooth the paint.

You may have come across the term rubbing compound too. It’s more aggressive than polish but finer than cutting compound. Rubbing compound is what we would recommend to most people who need something with a little more oomph than their standard car polish without going overboard.

When to use cutting compound

Oxidised paint on the bonnet of a blue car
©Photo: Getty Images

For the casual weekend car detailing session, cutting compound is not normally needed. A standard quality car polish such as Sonax Car Polish will serve you well. It’ll get rid of common minor swirls or scratches and make your car shine.

But if your car is suffering from noticeable paint fade, oxidisation, or more severe surface scratches (or maybe you've bought a second-hand car with such ailments), then some cutting compound will be needed here. Cutting compound is what you turn to for paint restoration. It shouldn't be used often because it is removing the clearcoat top layer, and with overuse, it will wear it away completely.

Cutting compound works on the top clearcoat only. Deep scratches and paint chips that penetrate through the clearcoat and into the colour coat or primer can’t be fixed with cutting compound. This kind of damage requires reapplying primer, colour, and clear coat either yourself or employing a professional.

How to use cutting compound

Man using an orbital polisher to apply car polish
©Photo: Getty Images

Paint restoration using cutting compound happens in stages. First, the paint damage is removed using a heavier cutting compound. You subsequently use finer compounds, with each stage removing the imperfections left by the previous application. The process repeats, with each stage improving the paintwork until you are left with a smooth, vibrant finish.

It depends on the severity of the damage that determines how aggressive a compound you use (see recommended cutting compounds below).

Recommended cutting compounds

Meguiar's Ultimate Compound Colour & Clarity Restorer 450ml

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Meguiar's Ultimate Compound Colour & Clarity Restorer 450ml
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There are heavier cutting compounds than this but Meguiar's Ultimate Compound is likely to be as aggressive as you need for most DIY purposes. You can apply this either by hand or with a polishing machine and in either case, is very effective in tarting up faded paint, swirls, and medium clear coat scratches. Make sure you follow this up with a finishing polish and a protective coat.

Turtle Wax Rubbing Compound Heavy Duty Cleaner 298g

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Turtle Wax Rubbing Compound Heavy Duty Cleaner 298g
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This rubbing compound is similar in its aggressiveness to Meguiar's Ultimate Compound above but is recommended for hand application only. Therefore, use it on moderate scratches, swirling, oxidisation, or other such blemishes. It should be followed by a finer polish too.

T-Cut Perfect Compound 500ml

Best light cutting compound
T-Cut Perfect Compound 500ml
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T-Cut Perfect Compound is a trouble-free compound that is good for beginners because you can't get into too much trouble with it. It'll tackle light imperfections quite happily but for anything more serious (for example, scratches that have a little texture) you should consider the options above.

Meguiar's Mirror Glaze 205 Professional Ultra Finishing Polish 946ml

Best finishing polish
Meguiar's Mirror Glaze 205 Professional Ultra Finishing Polish 946ml
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This is what you can apply after the medium compounds to achieve that smooth, glossy finish. This finishing polish is truly excellent and you'll be amazed how well it makes your car shine. Also, almost a litre of polish will last you a good while.

The paint needs to be clean and dry before any cutting compound or polish can be applied. You need to remove debris and grit, otherwise, you will likely add more scratches. You can help ensure you have removed all the contaminants from the paintwork by using a clay bar.

When applying cutting compound (or polish), you can do so by hand or with a polishing tool. We have a full guide on polishing pads but see below for a roundup of the best polishing pads for hand and tool use.

Recommended applicator pads

Meguiar's Foam And Microfibre Applicator Pad Set

Best for hand application
Meguiar's Foam And Microfibre Applicator Pad Set
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This set includes two sets of two. One set is soft foam pads (four-inch) for polish or wax, the other is microfibre pads (five-inch) for applying polish or compound.

Chemical Guys Hex Logic White Light/Medium Polishing Pad

Best for light and medium compounds
Chemical Guys Hex Logic White Light/Medium Polishing Pad
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This 6.5-inch pad is for medium to light polishing with a polishing tool. Restores gloss after cutting away scratches and swirls. Hex pattern gives even spread and allows airflow to prevent overheating.

Lake Country CCSYE5 Heavy Cutting Pad

Best for heavy compounds
Lake Country CCSYE5 Heavy Cutting Pad
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A heavy 5.5-inch cutting pad for more severe scratches. Partially closed-cell (CCS) foam allows for less polish absorption into the pad, making the product last longer, and creating less heat.

Applying cutting compound or polish by hand is easier but naturally slower than using a polishing tool. But with a polishing tool, you need to be more careful about even pressure because it’s quite easy to overdo it and cause more paint problems. In the case of both, applicators pick up grit and debris during the process and you must rinse the pads frequently, otherwise, you might end up adding more scratches.

Following the application of polish, you should buff the paintwork with a clean pad or towel and then add a protective layer of wax or sealant. Adding a protective layer is extremely important. Failing to do so will result in your hard work being undone in a jiffy as soon as the paintwork is exposed to sun, weather, and debris.

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