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High Speed Buffing & Polishing

Perhaps the most common detailer's nemesis is high-speed buffing. Fears of swirl marks and "burns" keep some detailers away from the most effective tool available for exterior detailing. The results attainable from high-speed buffing are far superior to the results you get from other buffing tools. The failure to offer high-speed buffing can limit your potential as a detailer on several levels, including improved customer satisfaction as a result of a greatly improved paint surface appearance and the ability to charge a premium for this premium service.

In this article, we aim to provide some information about high-speed buffing that will ease the fears of the high-speed novice as well as provide some tips and tricks for even the experienced high-speeder. It is important to remember, however, that although reading this article will greatly help you in your high-speed endeavors, "there is no substitution for hands-on training.

Detailing can be described as an activity that combines equipment, chemicals, and knowledge of vehicle surfaces to produce procedures that yield a quality result. Using this model will help us break down the act of high-speed buffing into its elements. The equipment involved is, of course, the buffer itself, as well as the various pads that can be attached to the machine, and paint evaluation tools. The chemicals are the myriad of available waxes, polishes, and compounds. Knowledge of vehicle surfaces, in this case, refers to understanding paint systems and how to identify problems in them. The procedure is the act of combining these elements to correct a specific paint problem.

In this article we will talk about the equipment aspect. In the second part of the series, we will talk about chemicals, vehicle surfaces, and procedures.

The High-Speed Rotary Buffer :

The first order of business in a discussion of equipment is to explain the difference between high-speed rotary buffing and dual-action or random orbital buffing. The wheel of a random orbital buffer operates with two separate motions: a slow circular motion combined with an orbital motion. That is, as the wheel spins, it also orbits slightly off-center around a central point. This action essentially imitates hand motion, but at a much faster rate. There is virtually no build-up of heat and it is difficult to cause damage to the paint surface, even with the most aggressive compounds.

The rotary buffer, on the other hand, because of its high speed and continuous motion over a single point, causes much more concentrated friction and heat. It is the heat and friction that gives this machine its advantage over the DA machine. The heat softens the paint so that the friction can work quickly and effectively to remove defects. It is also the reason why the rotary can cause much more damage in the paint in a very short period of time. In the final finishing step, the heat allows a burnishing effect--kind of a "melting" of the paint--that allows correction of minor paint damage left over from the major cutting steps, yielding a high and deep gloss finish.

The high-speed buffer is available in several configurations. First, you will have to choose between a pneumatically (i.e., driven by compressed air) and electrically powered device. Pneumatically powered buffers are lighter and require much less maintenance but can require a large compressed air source, especially if multiple units or other devices are being used off the same compressor. Inadequate compressor strength will not only slow down the buffer but also reduce its torque. Electrically powered machines, on the other hand, simply plug into a standard wall socket, but they do need regular light maintenance and are a bit heavier.

The recommended unit will have two important features: (1) trigger-controlled variable speed--the farther you push in the trigger, the faster the machine goes, and (2) a speed limiter, which allows the operator to set the maximum speed at which the machine will rotate, regardless of a hook-and-loop style backing plate in lieu of the standard rubber backing plate that comes with the machine. The backing plate has the "hook" part of the hook-and-loop fastening system that allows easy switching of pads; instead of having to undo and re-do a nut each time you want to change pads, you simply pull off the pad from the backing plate and slap on another one. Make sure to get the backing plate recommended by the manufacturer of the pads that you will use. Mixing backing plate and pad manufacturers can lead to difficulties in removing pads.

The bottom line about buffers is that swirl marks placed into the paint by a high-speed buffer can only be removed by a high-speed buffer. Despite great polishing products and great random-orbit units that are available (not to mention fantastic manufacturers claims), these can never completely remove swirl marks caused by high-speed buffing. At best, random-orbit machines in combination with swirl removing chemicals can reduce and hide swirl marks, but it is difficult to completely remove them.

The Buffing Pad :

The second order of business in a discussion of equipment is to understand rotary buffing pads, which come in several sizes, are round in shape, and come in a variety surface configurations and compositions. If you have chosen a hook-and-loop backing plate for your buffer (which most detailers do), you will need to chose pads that have the "loop" style backing.

Pads range in size from six to ten inches in diameter. Probably the most common size pad used has a diameter of 7 1/2 inches. The larger sizes are more likely to cause swirl marks and heat damage because the outer edge of the pad is spinning so fast. On the other hand, the smallest pads lack some cutting ability because they cannot generate as much heat as the larger pads. Your best bet is to experiment with several types of pads and also have several types on hand so that you can interchange them as the need arises.

The first breakdown is between wool and foam pads. In general, wool pads are considered "cutting" in nature. That is, the fibers of the wool pad "cut" into the paint, removing top layers of paint much more rapidly than foam pads, which do a relatively small amount of cutting but instead rely on greater heat build-up to do their work. 

There are several types of wool pads. The four-ply yarn cutting pad (white wool) is perhaps the most aggressive of the lot. It is not recommended on newer clear coat finishes. The blended pad, which combines both natural and synthetic fibers, is best for cutting newer clear coats. Then there is the "finishing" wool pad, which can be composed of genuine lambs wool or a combination of lambs wool and polyester (synthetic) fiber. The genuine lambs wool, although more expensive, is recommended over synthetic because it contains lanolin, which is a natural oil that helps to lubricate the buffing process and keep the pad soft. This reduces the amount of micro-scratching left behind by the pad, especially on darker paints.

To clean wool pads, use a device known as a spur, available from your favorite detail supplier. To remove chemical build-up as well as the contaminants that are being picked up by the pad while it works over the paint surface, spur the pad often during use. When you are finished with the pad, remove it, set it down, face up, and allow it to dry over night. Never apply any kind of heat to dry a wool pad. The next day, virtually all of the dried chemical residue will come off with by using the spur. To use the spur, lay the back of the buffer on one knee, turn it on, and run the spur back-and-forth along a horizontal line on the side of the pad that is spinning toward the ground. Make sure the cord is out of the way of the pad so that it does not catch in the spinning wheel. Wool pads should never be washed or force-dried. This will break down the pad and remove natural oils, which can cause swirl problems down the line. It will also shrink the pad. If the paint damage is severe, a wool pad may be good for only that one job. But most will last for several jobs. Don't make the mistake of trying to save money by stretching the life of a pad--if an over-worked pad causes damage that you have to repair, you have just lost all the money you tried to save by trying to extend the life of the pad.

Foam pads are generally for light compounding as well as final finishing (or polishing). In general, foam pads do not cut nearly as much as wool pads, but they do produce much more heat than the wool pad. Therefore, foam pads are usually reserved for final finishing and finessing of the paint finish to remove minor damage and any scratches leftover. Also because of the heat factor associated with foam pads, using compounds or aggressive polishes is not recommended.

There are several types of foam pads available, but the main categories involve the size of the foam cells and the surface configuration. Cell "openness" refers to the size of the holes in the foam. A closed-cell pad has small holes and an open-cell pad has larger holes. The latter is more aggressive than the former and is sometimes even called a foam cutting pad; whereas closed-cell pads have much smaller holes in the foam, making them perfect for final finishing.

A standard foam pad has what is known as a "flat" surface configuration, even though the face of the pad is actually convex. Other pads have a "waffle-" like surface that resembles an egg crate. These, and other specialty pads are designed to reduce the amount of surface heat generated by the pad.

When shopping for pads, do not be fooled by the color of the foam pad. Since there is no standardization among manufacturers, the color of the pad really should not be used as an indication of the type of pad. Make sure you read the label and speak with your distributor about the properties and recommended uses of the pads you are considering.

Foam pads can be cleaned with a toothbrush-sized, soft-bristled detail brush. Some detailers use a wire brush, however, this is not recommended because of the possibility that one of the wires could break loose and lodge itself into the foam, causing a disaster the next time the pad is used. Use the brush to clean the foam pad in similar fashion as using the spur on wool--lay the back of the buffer on one knee, turn it on, and run the brush back-and-forth along a horizontal line on the side of the pad that is spinning toward the ground. 

Clean the pad often during use. When you are finished with the pad, remove it, set it down, face up, and allow it to dry over night. Never apply any kind of heat to dry a foam pad. The next day, virtually all of the dried chemical residue will come off with by using the brush cleaning method described above. Finally, should a foam pad lose chunk or plug of foam, discard it immediately--the sharp edges from the missing area can cause scratching on the paint surface.

Paint Evaluation Tools :

Standard in any detailer's tool kit should be at least some of the following paint evaluation equipment, which allows you to determine the condition of the paint far and beyond what you can do by simply looking at the surface. That is not to say that looking at the surface is not important. In fact, just the contrary. Visual inspection is a critical first step to understanding what a particular paint job needs. If possible, visually inspect the vehicle in both bright sunshine as well as under fluorescent lighting. These two extremes will reveal different types of damage. Also touch the cleaned surface to check for roughness from fallout, over spray, and other contaminants.

A photo loupe, used by photographers to examine negatives, is a simple and inexpensive tool that will assist tremendously in visual inspection. Another inexpensive visual tool is the lighted magnifier, which allows you to look at a lighted portion of the paint surface at about 30x. Paint thickness can be measured using one of several devices designed to do so. Some of these devices are simple non-powered paint thickness gauges whereas others can be expensive electronic thickness meters. Gloss meters, which measure the distinctness of image gloss, can be as simple as a sheet of paper with a graduated scale of thin black lines that you hold up to the paint finish, or as complex as an expensive electronic viewing box. Finally, a surface heat gauge is important to have on hand while high-speed buffing to check the temperature of the surface as you do the work. This device assists you in the prevention of "burning" the paint.

If you are planning on doing high volume of expensive high-speed buffing jobs, then it is worth the up front investment to obtain the higher end devices described above. However, if you are just starting out or are on a tight budget, then you should minimally have a lighted magnifier, inexpensive paint thickness gauge, and a surface heat gauge in your detailing "tool box."


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