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A comparison of the before and after headlight polishing
An awesome composite image showing before and after, just like they do on TV.

How to Polish Headlights… OR… Your Headlights Suck

You see…most of my cars had headlights made of glass. Sealed beam headlights. Not crappy plastic. So that either says I’ve had cool old cars, or dated pieces of junk.

Answer: both.

So now they make headlights out of plastic. And if you have a car made sometime in the mid-90’s or newer, chances are your headlights suck.

Plastic headlight lenses become hazy and need polishing

Here's a "before" shot, so you can see the hazy plastic.

Yeah, mine did too. Foggy and dull. Didn’t help with proper dispersion of light so you can actually see at night. And truth be told, glass sealed beam headlights, although they stayed shiny, they probably didn’t illuminate half as much of the road as your fogged-out plastic import OEM peekers do now.

Either way, I had to polish my headlights. And this is how I did it.

How to polish your headlights, step-by-step.

Tool arsenal:

  • 7” variable speed polisher
  • Foam waffle pad (or you can use a wool pad)
  • Some plastic polish
  • Microfiber Cloth
  • Masking tape

I consider my collection of tools an “arsenal”. If you don’t, here’s an option for the 7” polisher:

  • Drill
  • Headlight polishing kit with foam waffle pads or one of those foam polishing balls

Inspection

Looking at my lights, they were pretty glazed over. But not so bad that I felt just using some plastic polishing compound would bring them back to glory. If your headlights are really bad, like milky white in appearance, you may have to wet sand them. I won’t go into that here, but if you polish one headlight and it doesn’t do much to make them crystal clear again, then you should have wet-sanded them first.

You can see the weathered plastic headlight lenses.

Again, the "before" shot.

(I have wet-sanded all kinds of plastics in the past, and that means using some good-quality wet-sand paper in grits starting around the 1000 range and working up to 2000+. I haven’t checked lately, but you probably will have to get fine grit sandpaper at an autobody supply or auto parts store. Soak the sandpaper for 20-30 minutes in a bucket of water before using, and ad a drop or two of dish soap to help the sanding go easier.)

Preparation

This kind of buffing/polishing can easily burn right through your paint, especially on corners/body lines where paint is thin and the pad will catch. So tape all around your headlight (if not removing them completely, which is mostly unnecessary for this), and double up the tape on high spots and corners where burn through can occur. I used blue painter’s tape, the kind that removes easily.

You should always start with a clean buffing pad. Whether you use a waffle pad, wool pad, or one of those polishing balls, it should be clean and dry—not one you used with a different compound or used on different materials.

If you last used the pad with some rubbing compound and then use it on your plastic headlights, the bits of old compound will cut harder into the material. Then you’ll be wet-sanding for sure.

If you last polished some steel or aluminum part with the pad, this time you’ll leave some metal particles embedded into your plastic. So you’ll have foggy, rust-spotted headlights next time.

Use a new pad, or volunteer to do the laundry. (You know, “Hon, I’ll do it this weekend”, and then you wash all the greasy rags, wax pads and buffing bonnets without her knowing.)

Polish Away

So I used a foam waffle pad that I have used on plastics before. If you use a wool pad, go real slow at first and check to make sure you’re not cutting too hard with it.

Everyone has their own way of doing this, but I like to apply the polish to the piece being polished, then take your buffing wheel (or ball) and smear the compound all around on the piece. Some put it on the pad and smear, while others put it on the pad and crank up the buffer leaving the compound all over your shirt, the fender and the floor.

With the body around the headlight taped, you can prepare to polish

I've taped the surrounding area to protect the paint, and applied the polish to the headlight.

Smear the polishing compund around on the headlight so it doesn't fling everywhere when you begin with the buffing pad.

I smeared the compound around so it didn't fling everywhere once I started polishing.

I used Meguiar’s PlastX. It worked great. (Not an endorsement, but send dadand.com some products and we’d be open to that). Meguiar’s also has a complete kit you can buy to do this with your drill.

I worked it at a slower speed at first, setting the dial to about 3 on my variable speed polisher. I wiped a spot clean with the microfiber cloth to check it out. I thought it could do a little better so I went up to 7 and worked it out from there.

I used a diagonal overlapping pattern polishing across the entire headlight. Make sure to polish “off” the edges of the surface (rotation of pad going off the plane of the surface), and never “onto” the edges of surrounding body panels, body lines or corners (you have tape on there but it’s good practice).

Clean Up

I used the microfiber cloth to wipe down the entire headlight, and checked it out from a couple of angles to see that the surface looked even, shiny and bright.

After polishing your headlights, they should look nice and shiny.

The "after" shot. Looks pretty good!

 

A comparison of the before and after headlight polishing

An awesome composite image showing before and after, just like they do on TV. Click the image to enlarge.

 

 

Now you can remove the tape.

And realize the headlights are now shinier than your paint.

Crap, now I have to wax. Maybe some Mirror Glaze from JC Whitney

 

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