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The Professional Detailer
What is Detailing, Anyway?
- Examine the profession of detailing.This article provides
information on how to upgrade the professional image of
the industry. (Read More)

What Does a Detailer Do, Anyway?
- Systematic procedures of how a professional detailer combines chemicals, equipment, knowledge of vehicle surfaces, industry standards, and customer requirements. (Read More)

Professional Detailer as a Business Professional
- Four points on what makes a well-rounded detailing business professional and increasing customer traffic. (Read More)




Baffled Over Car Buffers?
by Prentice St. Clair

The buffer is undoubtedly one of the most important tools for the professional detailer. If you are already a professional detailer, you probably have at least one type of machine in your equipment locker. If not, you are fooling yourself and your customers into thinking that you can get the job done by hand. In the days when detailing was an avocation, I swore I would never use a machine and preached such logic to customers--until I bought and became familiar with my first machine. Now I cringe when a customer requests hand wax application because of the extra labor and inferior results involved. 

The goal of this article is to help reduce, through education, some of the fear associated with making the leap to machine buffing. This fear is typically a result of hearing "horror stories" about damage caused by machine buffing. It is important to understand that such damage is almost always caused by inexperienced or inappropriate use of a buffer. Appropriate use of a buffer comes through experience and education. You must familiarize yourself, through attendance of professional seminars, workshops, and trade conventions, regular reading of industry trade publications, and most importantly, through experience, with the equipment available. Also, the combination of equipment, chemicals, and understanding the paint composition and damage on each vehicle is critical to achieving the best result.

The First Choice: Pneumatic or Electric
Regardless of what type of buffer you choose to use, the first choice is how to power the unit. With most buffers, you can choose between by compressed air (pneumatic) or electricity. As can be seen in Table 1, there are several factors to consider when choosing between the two power sources. Most of these differences result from the fact that the electric tool is encumbered with its motor and related components, whereas the pneumatic machine, supplied by a separate compressed air source, has none of these components. Thus, the pneumatic machine is lighter and requires less maintenance. Electric models are, on the other hand, quieter, and are generally less expensive. Also, since electric units do not require another piece of equipment (air compressor) to operate, they are more portable, and are thus an easy choice for mobile operators.

Table 1: Pneumatic vs. Electric Power Source for 
Polishing Equipment

Characteristic Pneumatic Electric
•        can you carry the air compressor?!?
•         unplug and go
•           OK in shop
•       better in mobile situations
•      the drive source is air--very light!!
•                contains motor and related components
Maintenance Needs
•                    fewer 
•   motor and related components
Speed Adjustment
•      simple turn of a knob to control air flow
•      (although some do have)
Shock Hazard
•      no electricity in work area
•      not good in wet locations
•      generally more expensive
•         generally less expensive
Power Supply
•             must have separate air compressor unit

•           just plug it in


Pneumatic devices offer better control of speed adjustment (revolutions per minute) and are not subject to the shock hazard of combining electricity with wet working conditions. One note about pneumatic machines: make sure there is a good match between the amount of pressure your air compressor is designed to deliver and that required by the machine to operate properly.

The Second Choice: High-Speed or Random-Orbital 
There are primarily two types of buffers--high-speed rotary and random-orbital. The high-speed buffer's simple circular motion, combined with continuous high revolutions per minute (RPMs), causes friction at the point of contact with the paint surface, thus creating heat, which slightly softens the paint. This heating action allows for correction of extensive paint damage such as heavy oxidation and deep scratching; it also is one of the reasons why high-speed buffers can cause paint damage due to 
improper use.

The wheel of a random-orbital buffer, on the other hand, 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 (sort of like the Earth spins as it revolves around the sun). This action essentially imitates hand motion, making the random-orbit buffer virtually no more dangerous to use than your hands, yet much faster with increased consistency of results.

There are many differences also in the usage and results of high-speed rotary versus random-orbital buffers. As can be seen in Table 2, the primary difference is that, a high-speed rotary machine, once mastered, will produce absolutely the best results. 

Table 2: Differences Between Technologies Available
for Paint Rejuvenation

Factor High-Speed Rotary Random-Orbital Manual (By Hand)
Ease of use
• Time and care needed to do it right
• Pick it up and go
• (I hope this is obvious)
Likelihood to cause paint damage
• Improper use will cause swirls and excessive paint removal
• You have to work very hard to damage paint
• Minimal, 
other than streaking
• Absolutely the best-- highest gloss and deepest shine
• Much better than manual, but cannot compare to high-speed
• Uneven at best
Effectiveness (especially on heavy paint damage)
• Potentially eliminate all damage
• Paint looks much better than it did, but some damage still remains
• Forget it
Learning curve
• Requires extensive training and/or much experience to master
• Requires very little training and experience to master
• "Just open 
the bottle, pour it on, and get started, big guy!"
Amount of chemical required
• May require slightly more than orbital, but not nearly as much as manual
• Very little product used (can be 75% less product than manual)
• "You better buy some extra, cause you're gonna need it!"
Primary advantage
• Absolutely best result, especially on heavily damaged paint
• Effective and efficient: easy to use and even application of smaller amount of product
• No equipment investment required
Primary disadvantage
• Higher potential to cause paint damage; time required to master
• Somewhat limited results (compared to high-speed)
• It takes too dang long


Random-orbital machines, even with the best products and most experienced technicians, simply cannot produce the high gloss and deep shine that is achievable with the high-speed machines. On the other hand, there is no comparison to the ease 
of use of a random-orbital when it comes to application of final finish products such as waxes or sealants.

Yet, within this last comparison lies another major difference between the two machines: high-speed buffers require a great deal more time and experience to master than do random-orbitals. Most technicians can pick up and start using a random-orbital for the first time and quickly get the hang of it. Then it's just a matter of understanding which chemicals and pads/bonnets to use to attack specific paint problems. With the high-speed buffer, on the other hand, using incorrect technique, incorrect chemicals and pad combinations can quickly lead to disastrous results. 

If your budget requirements force you to make a choice, the random-orbital unit will cover more situations and offer greater efficiency. Most customers will be perfectly happy with the results that a random-orbital machine can produce. However, for those customers who demand a perfect finish, a high-speed rotary machine may be your only choice. If so, charge accordingly--you are providing the customer with by far the highest quality finish available and the customer should pay a premium for this. This discussion points to the fact that many professional detailers have both a high-speed and random orbital machine in their equipment cabinet. This allows you to remove the heavy damage with the high-speed machine and quickly apply a final finish product with the random-orbital.

If you have the customer base to support using a high-speed buffer but still have some fear about your ability to use the machine, by all means, take the plunge! The best way to learn how to properly use a high-speed buffer is a combination of education and experience. Your local distributor may offer hands-on training or there are many "detailing schools" offered by the equipment manufacturers. Also, find a detailer in your area who is experienced in high-speed machine use and ask if you can watch while he/she buffs a vehicle, perhaps in exchange for some free labor on that same vehicle. Once you have learned the standard teachable techniques and "do's and don'ts," it's time to practice. For this, you need live vehicles, especially ones that are not going to lose value if the paint is damaged by your first tries with a high-speed machine. Suggestions: body shops sometimes have leftover hoods that they would just love for you to haul off instead of paying a disposal fee. There's always that neighbor that has never waxed his car in 10 years--offer to do the work for free in exchange for the experimentation with your new machine, and tell him that even if you make a mistake here and there, the vehicle will look much better than when you started. Finally, do some wholesale work at your local used car lot--you'll actually get paid for your time and usually used car salespersons are not inclined to check for high-speed damage; they just want the car to look great in general.

Other Considerations
Price. As far as price is concerned, the old adage applies: "you get what you pay for." There are many machines available and you can pay anywhere from under $100 for the basic do-it-yourself models to several hundred dollars for the finest, most durable machines. The model that is less than $100 will probably fall apart or otherwise become inoperable after a few commercial uses. Middle-of-the-road models are probably fine for most applications, unless you are running machines for hours on end, day-in-day-out, in which case, the investment in a more reliable high-end machine is well justified. Speaking of investment, regardless of what machine you choose, realize that your investment will come back to you after the first few uses--through greater efficiency (decreased labor time), greater effectiveness (better results), and increased customer satisfaction.

Maintenance. Remember that buffers, especially electric models, require periodic maintenance. Read the equipment manual carefully and follow manufacturers recommendations for maintenance. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you will save money by neglecting recommended maintenance, which may lead to unexpected down time due to machines that fail during a job. Many detailers feel comfortable doing the maintenance themselves, while others "leave it to the professionals" by sending the unit back to the manufacturer for overhauling. Either way, it is advisable to have a back-up unit available for such maintenance events or should your primary unit fail during a job.

Choices among random-orbital polishers. There are several types of random-orbital units, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, as can be seen in Table 3. Not too many years ago, the standard heavy large-wheeled, two-handled buffer was the only choice. With the advent of new machine designs, the professional detailer now has several units from which to choose, based on the specific application. Smaller, lighter units and even dual-head units are available. The lighter units may 
require more chemical application time to cover the vehicle, but save on operator fatigue. The larger units are great for broad panel work, especially in situations where several steps are required to repair the paint finish.


Table 3: Advantages and Disadvantages of Various Random-Orbital Equipment

Type of Random-Orbital Buffer Advantages Disadvantages
Standard 10- 14" • large wheel covers large painted panels quickly and evenly • heavier than other machines
• large wheel cannot access smaller painted areas
Variable Speed • allows adjustment of speed for use with specific chemical, pad, and paint damage combinations • smaller wheel (on some models)
Mini Orbital Buffer • singles-hand operation
• exceptionally easy to use
• can cover tight areas that are untouchable with other machines
•can take longer to cover the entire vehicle, especially if there is greater paint damage (i.e., more polishing) required
Dual-head Random Orbital Buffer • has capability to cover both large and small areas with the same tool
• lighter than the standard tool
• still a bit heavy


Pads and chemicals. Finally, but of equal importance, is the issue of pad composition and appropriate chemical use. This article could easily turn into a full-length manual if we discuss all the considerations in the proper choice and use of pads and chemicals. 

You are probably aware of the myriad of pads and bonnets currently available; and its seems that each month, manufacturers come out with a new pad design touting special benefits. What's important to understand is that each pad has a specific use and a set of consequences of use. For example, wool pads, regardless of the machine in use, will scratch the paint surface; they are for cutting in extreme paint damage situations and their use must be followed by at least two other polishing steps with different pads.

Then there is the Pandora's box full of chemicals: Compounds, polishes, waxes, and sealants, each of which has specific actions and consequences of use. For example, using a heavy polish to cut through washing scratches (e.g., on a paint surface that has not been detailed for several years) may require a second step with a mild polish before final finishing.

Finally, one must understand how the machine type, pad composition, and chemicals work together. For example, a medium-grade polish with a wool pad on a high-speed buffer may work just as well as a strong compound with a foam pad on an orbital buffer. Moreover, it is important to recognize the type of paint damage that is to be repaired, is this information will influence the choice of machine, pad, and chemical. As with learning to properly use the machines, the professional detailer must 
spend time reading, consulting with manufacturers and distributors, attending seminars and workshops, experimenting, and networking with other detailers to learn the "art" of this aspect of detailing.

Copyright 1999, Prentice St. Clair

First published in the August, 1999 issue of Modern Car Care
(Volume 2,  Number 8)

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