If you've ever had a minor scrape or scratch on your car's paint, then you've probably heard someone tell you, "Don't worry, it'll buff out!" It's a common phrase, but most people aren't familiar with the products or techniques used in buffing. For many people, buffing something out might just be mean using a towel and a bit of elbow grease. For professional detailers, however, buffing is a complex process that can make use of an endless array of products, tools, and techniques depending on the condition of the paint and the final goal.
A detailed explanation of buffing and polishing could fill several books, but read on to discover the basics of this incredibly useful process.
What Does Buffing Actually Mean?
Let's start with the basics. Buffing generally refers to an abrasive action that removes some of the top layer of your car's paint in order to reveal the fresh surface underneath. This sounds scary, but the amount of material removed is exceptionally small and the process, if done correctly, is beneficial to your car's paint rather than harmful. It's not something that you can do once a week, but many enthusiasts do minor buffing and polishing on an annual basis without any harm.
What Types of Products Are Used?
Unfortunately, this question is a bit like asking how many stars there are in the sky. Take a look at the detailing section of your local auto parts store, marvel at the variety of products available, and then realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Still, the products used for paint correction can generally be broken down into two categories:
- Compounds are heavy cutting products which effectively act as liquid sandpaper, correcting paint through abrasion
- Polishes are less abrasive products which provide a finishing touch, in essence acting as a very high-grit sandpaper (there are also non-abrasive polishes, but they are less common)
These products work by wearing away damaged paint to reveal the fresh paint underneath. Just like sanding a surface, it is necessary to start with aggressive products to do heavy corrective work and progress up to more mild products that produce a perfect finish.
Machine vs. Hand Application
As with many types of car detailing products, the polishes and compounds used to buff a car's paint can generally be applied either by hand or with the help of a machine. Certain products are designed for one application style or the other, but, in many cases, either will work. Hand application is usually done with the use of a simple foam application pad, a towel, and a whole lot of effort. For machine polishing, you will usually see three different types of polishers on the market:
- Rotary polishers are aggressive, direct drive units that have the potential to remove a large amount of paint very quickly
- Orbital polishers are weaker, consumer grade units which (unsurprisingly) operate in an orbital motion rather than spinning in a circle
- Dual-action (DA) polishers have heads that both orbit and spin
Many professionals make use of rotary polishers since they provide a significant ability to remove paint (generally referred to as 'cutting'). This also makes them somewhat dangerous for amateurs since it's possible to easily damage the car's finish if used improperly. Dual-action polishers are the most popular consumer units on the market as they are easy to use and relatively safe.
Putting it All Together
At the end of the day, buffing a car's paint is all about performing paint correction. This means removing everything from swirl marks and water spots to minor, but visible, scratches. Not all damage will buff out, but many minor imperfections can be corrected or at least minimized. Buffing can also be used to restore old, neglected vehicles into something worth showing off. Whether you are planning on doing this form of auto detailing work yourself or having a professional detailer do it for you, buffing is a great way to make your car shine.