A Quick Primer on Buffing and Detailing a Car

Polished finishing. Car detailing.

When it comes to auto detailing, buffing comes with the territory. It’s a detailing step that, when done correctly, can bring out the best in your car’s paintwork while eliminating scratches and other minor but harmful flaws. Buffing isn’t as hard as some make it out to be, but it does require a bit of care and an understanding of how it affects the finish.

What Buffing Actually Does to Paint

Most paint finishes you see on modern vehicles actually feature multiple layers. The topmost layer is the clear coat, followed by a base coat that gives the car its actual color and a protective primer coat underneath. Unless you keep your car garaged 24/7, you can expect the clear coat to see some damage over time, as rock strikes, bird droppings and rough treatment during car washes cover the clear coat in millions of microscopic scratches. These scratches eventually render your car’s paint finish dull and lifeless.

Think of buffing as sanding a rough surface smooth, except that you’re using much milder tools instead of sandpaper. Buffing removes a tiny amount of clear coat from the car’s paint, taking the vast majority of scratches with it. The end result is a smoother surface that allows the paint underneath to shine through.

Buffing can do an amazing job of bringing scratched, neglected paint back to life, but there are limits. As each pass takes a small amount of clearcoat away from the surface, there are only so many layers before you eventually hit the base coat. At that point, only a respray can restore your car’s paint to a showroom-grade appearance.

Using the Right Tools

You can buff out scratches by hand using mild polishing compound but doing that on an entire vehicle will leave your arms and hands aching for days. Unless you plan on spending a lot of time and energy on hand buffing, you’re going to need a high-quality buffer that gets the job done with ease.

Orbital buffers are typically used for DIY detailing. To keep the pad from staying in one place for too long, causing it to burn through the clear coat, the buffer comes equipped with a free-floating spindle that moves the pad on two different axis points. This creates the “jiggling” or “vibrating” motion you might notice when seeing orbital buffers in action.

High-speed buffers are what the pros use to tackle buffing jobs in a short amount of time. These buffers typically operate at higher speeds and use larger buffing pads than their orbital counterparts. Using a high-speed buffer isn’t for the faint of heart – they’re not as forgiving as orbital buffers and a brief lapse in concentration or technique can easily result in clear coat burn-through.

In addition to choosing the right buffer, you’ll also need to pick the right buffing pads and polishing compounds for the job. A detailing job that tackles deep scratches calls for a more aggressive compound and pads than one dealing with light scratches.

Proper Technique and Tips

There’s more to buffing than choosing the right buffer, pads and compound. A good job comes down to excellent preparation and technique. Rotating speeds are an important factor in buffing, for instance. Higher speeds allow you to remove more scratches, but you’ll also have less control and risk leaving behind unsightly swirl marks or even burn through the clear coat. Here are a few other tips to consider:

• Polish one panel at a time. Don’t bite off more than you can chew by buffing multiple surfaces at once.
• Always keep the panel and buffing pad slightly damp. Failure to do so could result in clear coat burn-through.
• Stop and rinse off the buffing pad frequently. Otherwise the pad will get gummed up with polishing compound during extended use.
• Avoid cross-contamination when using multiple pads for compounding, polishing, and finishing.