View Full Version : Applying products by Hand - Avoiding "cheetah spots"

Michael Stoops
Oct 11th, 2012, 03:01 PM
Applying products by Hand - (https://meguiarsonline.com/forums/showthread.php?56576)Avoiding "cheetah spots" (https://meguiarsonline.com/forums/showthread.php?56576-Avoiding-quot-cheetah-spots-quot-or-quot-Look-what-this-compound-did-to-my-paint!-quot)

Have you ever worked on your paint by hand and ended up with a result completely opposite of what you were expecting, or hoping for? Something like one of the two images shown below?



Yes, these both look really horrible, scary, disappointing, etc. At this point most people think the product they used is horrible and that they've ruined their paint, when the truth could be something quite different. It could be a simple product mismatch for the particular paint, it could be bad technique, or it could be poor choice in applicator material. All you wanted to do was remove some fine scratches or light swirls, and instead the finish now looks worse than when you started. What's worse is that the softer or more delicate your paint is, the more pronounced this sort of marring will be.

Let's take a look at how this unwanted result can come about, and then we'll look at how to clean it up.

Below is an example of paint with fairly typical swirls, but it could also be an isolated scratch that you're dealing with. You want this gone, and you're going to be working by hand. What could go wrong?

An old school rubbing compound can be very harsh on a modern clear coat and at the very least will leave very fine swirl marks in the paint. This can result in a dull, hazy appearance even if you use it with a quality applicator pad and you use good technique. Below is what can happen when you select such a product. Remember, the paint started out looking like what you see above. Is this better??? No, and we'll show you how to fix this in a moment.

What if we use a modern paint cleaner but we pair it with a very aggressive applicator, like a terry cloth towel? Our Customer Care Center receives calls like this on an almost daily basis and the caller is almost always blaming the product for causing problems. Below is the result of using Ultimate Compound, an excellent, high tech and modern paint cleaner, with a 100% cotton terry cloth towel. Is this better than the original picture above? It certainly looks different, but it's not what you were shooting for. We'll show you how to fix this in a moment.

Poor technique is the most common cause of the "cheetah spots" and again, the more delicate the paint the worse the marring will be. Here we used the same Ultimate Compound as above, but with a foam wax applicator pad. We always recommend using this sort of pad, so why the horrible finish? The problem here was poor technique. Pressure from having the fingertips pressing down on the pad concentrated the energy of the compound and pad into small areas, seriously marring the finish. This is actually the worst looking test of the three, yet it was done with what most would consider the "correct" product and "correct" applicator. This really illustrates how important proper technique is. And yes, we'll show you how to fix this in a moment.

While the above three examples of defect removal gone bad were created in slightly different ways, the fix for all of them is the same: use the proper liquid, the proper applicator, and above all else, good technique.

When using a paint cleaner, polish or compound by hand you want to stick with a soft foam applicator pad rather than terry cloth or even a microfiber towel. Even then, good technique is critical to achieving a good result. The image below shows how NOT to handle the pad when applying your paint cleaner; this will cause pressure points that will, in turn, result in the "cheetah spots" you see in the first picture in this post, and it's exactly how we created the mess you see directly above.

You need to spread the pressure across your fingers, laying them flat against the pad to eliminate these pressure points. This is the technique we teach in our Saturday Detailing 101 Classes, and we've done this on dozens of different cars over the years, with all kinds of paint defects. Now, keep in mind that you're working by hand so you need to work small areas at a time. The taped off area you see below isn't just used for demonstration purposes: you need to restrict your work area to maybe 12" x 12" when working by hand. Exactly how much pressure you should use is going to depend on the severity of the defects, the hardness of the paint, and your ultimate goal.

Always start by doing a test spot. We can't stress this enough. Look back up to the very first image in this thread: if a test spot had been done first, that mess wouldn't be covering the entire hood. With proper technique you can, in many cases, rival the work done by a DA buffer, but it takes a LOT more work and a LOT more time. A LOT. And technique is absolutely critical if you're going to come close.

A great option for working by hand is to use something like our S3HP hand pad with a 4" buffing pad to prevent pressure points. This is a very ergonomic way to work by hand, and can be highly effective, especially when dealing with delicate paint that mars quite easily. For correcting an entire vehicle, this is much less tiring than using just an applicator pad, and it can yield excellent results.

Below are several examples taken from our Saturday Detailing 101 Classes. In every case the test spot on the left side was done by hand, and the one on the right was done with a G110v2 DA buffer. It took longer to do the spot by hand, and it was a heck of a lot more work! To duplicate that over an entire vehicle is not easy at all, but with the DA it's a snap. Still, on this wide range of vehicles with an equally wide range of issues, this should make it clear that you can achieve great defect removal and an excellent finish by hand. With good technique. (See the trend????)

The paint here wasn't as bad as some, and the clear area you see was done by hand (you can just make out the corner of the G110v2 applied side in the upper right corner). This is a huge improvement using the same product and pad we used earlier but made a huge mess. What do you think made the difference?

Much more serious swirls, but still an excellent result. You can see a deeper scratch that wasn't removed on the hand applied side. That's going to need more work, but the improvement is dramatic.

Here we see a noticeable difference between the hand applied side and machine applied side, but still a massive improvement over the uncorrected area. You're not always going to get the same result working by hand as you would with a DA, but you should not make the paint worse than when you started!

This paint was pretty hammered, but it cleaned up quite nicely. Yes, there are still a few marks left on the hand applied side.

This is probably the most dramatic turnaround we've seen in quite some time on a clear coat finish. Again, hand application on the left, machine application on the right. Hard to imagine, though, that this could have been made any worse!

The common denominator in all of the above is this: the right product (Ultimate Compound used in all, but ScratchX 2,0 is often equally as successful), the right applicator (foam wax applicator) and proper technique - keep those fingertips away from the pad! Every one of these examples was done exactly the same way but the paint and defects varied quite a bit.

It can be done, but there's no magic here. Even the best products in the world won't do the job on their own - they need your skill to get the most out of them. So if you're creating cheetah spots, haze, or other issues, it's time to step back and review what you're doing and how you're doing it. Adjust your technique, and create the clear, glossy paint you were hoping for.

Oct 12th, 2012, 05:46 AM
Great article, Mike !!!

It explains everything super well.

the sybe
Apr 15th, 2013, 10:17 AM
Great, great article!

Aug 12th, 2013, 07:14 PM
Great article. So I just completed a wash (gold class) + polish (UC) + wax (NXT 2.0) on my truck which has a white diamond clear coat paint. I used the terry cloth applicator by hand for the polish and foam for the wax.
I can't visibly tell if I created more swirl or haze. I really don't think I made it worst. It looks actually a lot better but its killing me that I now now that the finish could have been better had I used a foam applicator vs terry cloth.
1. Since the paint is off white, is it likely that I will yield that much better results reapplying the polish with a foam applicator?
2. Is it normal that I don't notice THAT MUCH of an enhanced "pop" from the paint post polish? It definitely feels mirror finish! But I just really can't see the dramatic before/after difference than I do when doing the same work on my dark grey vehicle. Could just be that my paint was in good condition to begin with before I started the 5 step.
3. Is it also normal that I can't see as much swirl mark defects on lighter paint colors? I feel like I easily saw any paint swirls on my darker grey vehicle...but with my white diamond paint I have to squint and take multiple angles to notice any below paint defects. I

im definitely not trying to shortcut anything. I work by hand and spend hours on maintaining my 5 step...so I will do what it takes. I just don't want to have to strip my finish and start over unless I believe it will really yield that much more benefit to finish I just applied. Thoughts?

Michael Stoops
Aug 13th, 2013, 07:38 AM
Light colored vehicles are sort of a double edged sword when it comes to detailing - you put just as much work into them as you do darker colors, but the payoff just isn't the same because lighter colors hide defects so much better, especially when they're a metallic or pearl finish. Black and red are the best for showing tremendous depth and wetness when done up right, but lighter colors just don't have that characteristic to them. You can obtain an incredibly brilliant shine from lighter colors, but the true depth is rarely there. This is one of the reasons why we've always said that a pure polish step is optional: on lighter colors you rarely see a huge difference with it.

Here's basically what's happening, especially with regard to the visibility of swirls: Let's say you've got a non metallic black paint job and it has some swirls in it. Well, the base coat is black, but the clear coat is clear. The swirls, which are just super tiny scratches with very sharp edges, are in that clear paint. The sharp edges act sort of like a prism and bounce light back toward you, assuming you're shining a bright light onto the paint, of course! This bright white reflected light is coming at you against a black background, so the contrast ratio is through the roof, and you can't help but see the swirls. Now, put those exact same swirls on a metallic silver or pearl white car. They still bounce a bright white light back at you, but so does the underlying light colored paint, so the contrast between the reflected light from the swirls and the reflected light from the color coat is almost nil. Worse, all those metallic or pearlescent particles bounce and scatter the light in a very random fashion, creating what amounts to visual noise. It's this scattering and visual noise that so effectively masks the swirls. So why even bother trying to remove them from lighter colors? Because once they're gone, the level of clarity increases (sometimes pretty dramatically) and the paint actually looks brighter and crisper. Reflections are actually better defined. But the paint rarely looks really deep and wet the way black and red can.

Your choice of wax or sealant can play a role in all this as well. People will commonly state that carnauba waxes help to make paint look richer, deeper, wetter, etc. and that synthetic sealants tend to make a car look more like it's wrapped in plastic wrap so it's not as deep and wet looking. Those are very subjective observations of course, and not all synthetics have such a strong "plasticy" look to them. But if you're dealing with a color that can't really show depth and wetness, why not enhance the brilliance of the finish with a synthetic sealant? Again, being purely subjective here (AKA, this is my personal opinion), if you remove all the swirls from a light colored vehicle, do a finishing polish with M205 to really enhance the clarity of the finish and make the metallic or pearl component really pop, and then finish off with Ultimate Wax paste, you'll end up with a light colored vehicle that will put many dark colored vehicles on the road to complete and utter shame. Doing this by hand is a bit tricky, however, but with a DA buffer, the proper pads and the right technique, this is my go to on lighter colored cars. It just produces an amazing finish.

Nov 22nd, 2013, 08:13 PM
Great article Mike! This is exactly what I did with my car, got some haze after trying to correct some swirls. I will give it another shot with the UC and the foam pad and see how it goes will post a pic.

Jan 5th, 2015, 11:26 PM

This is a great article. Thanks a lot.

I have a question. I have Metallic Black Hyundai Verna which is two months old with lots of swirls marks. So I decided to do the detailing on my own. So I bought Ultimate Compound and Ultimate Polish(Pre-waxing). I have Meguiar's Foam applicator pads. I took one foam pad for applying ultimate compound and another pad for Polish. I applied both Ultimate compound with a Gripper in my hand so that the pressure is spread all over the pad. But I applied polish with just hand and foam pad but applied pressure evenly placing the fingers parallel to the foam. Ma be some where I did apply pressure because I was exhausted doing it by hand.I took out today and first thing I said looking at the paint is "I messed up the clear coat and paint." The "Cheetha spots" are there on my black car, not as big as the ones shown in this thread but they are very small ones on my paint. Please please help me get ride of those.

1) What are those spots? What causes them only pressure at some placed with hand?
2) Once they are on the paint can we remove them?
3) Since they are so big and visible on my paint, will it harm the paint if I leave it like that until the next round of detailing. Its a garage car, not taken out frequently.

davey g-force
Jan 28th, 2015, 05:21 PM

1) A photo would really help. It's hard to say, but if it looks like the photos above, then chances are that it was caused by too much pressure applied at your fingertips. It's strange for UP to do this though, since it is very mild. But you may have soft paint...

2)Yes, don't stress, they can be removed

3) It won't harm anything but if you're anything like me, it will drive you crazy looking at it! :) Did you apply wax / sealant?

Feb 5th, 2019, 05:18 PM
This is awesome information. I started out doing everything by hand. Fortunately I never ran into this issue. I love this site. Such a great resource! My business is better because of Meguairs hands down!

Nick Winn
Feb 6th, 2019, 07:35 AM
This is awesome information. I started out doing everything by hand. Fortunately I never ran into this issue. I love this site. Such a great resource! My business is better because of Meguairs hands down!

Thank you very much Mike! Welcome to Meguiar's Online!