by Prentice St.
Clair and Brad Burford
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 two-part 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 or some kind of complete video training example
to follow," indicates Stephen Powers of Rightlook.com.
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 first of a two-part series, we will talk about
the equipment aspect. In the second part of the series,
we will talk about chemicals, vehicle surfaces, and
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
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
In this part of the series on high-speed buffing, we
have discussed the equipment involved. Next time, we
will get into the chemicals, vehicles surfaces, and
2000, Prentice St. Clair and Brad Burford
First published in the February, 2000 issue of American
(Volume 29, Number 2)