Auto Laundry News - October 2011

Buffing — Change in Methods Eases Skill Requirements

By Kevin Farrell

There has been a changing mindset for a while now about the way we buff cars. The change has been gradual, as most changes are, but this change is here and it’s here to stay. Perhaps you have seen the “Mini Me” buffers called orbitals. These little versions of a buffer look like a buffer, but they are vastly different. They have been around for a long time, but many people paid little attention to them until very recently. Let me clarify and recount a little history, if I may.

A few decades ago most detailers, body shop personnel, or anyone who buffed cars did so with a high-speed or rotary buffer. This was the standard method of paint correction and the standard tool to buff, polish, and even wax cars. Back then, when most vehicles were painted with single-stage paint, the rotary buffer had to be used, as the paint would oxidize. This dead and oxidized paint needed more aggression to be removed and corrected. The standard practice was to use harsh compounds, big wooly buffing pads, and very high speed to get the job done. Messes were made; swirls marks were the norm; and sometimes paint was burned or damaged in the process. The buffing process was long and arduous. But this was the accepted method, and it stayed like this for a very long time. But when we say “buffing” or talk about the buffing process, what are we really talking about?


Buffing means different things to different people. Some detailers think buffing is using any buffing machine to work on a paint surface. They assume that by using a machine with a buffing pad, regardless of what it is intended to accomplish, they are going to create perfection on the paint surface. Customers love to hear the word “buff.” They assume that the detailer is “buffing” their car and that it is going to look absolutely perfect when completed. This is not always the case, but most people think of buffing as some sort of paint-correction procedure.

I believe that “buffing” means intensive or perfect paint correction. The only way to accomplish this is by digging in more deeply to remove paint imperfections and scratches. As we know, this is far more time consuming and requires much more skill to do. A detailer will need to be skilled in the use of a rotary or high-speed buffer. This tool has long been a thorn in the side of many detailers. It’s a much harder tool to use and maneuver. It can damage the paint if used incorrectly, and it will leave swirl marks after most procedures such as compounding. There are more steps involved in creating paint perfection, which means much more time is spent in “buffing” this way. The perfection created, as well as the time spent, will equate to more money being charged to the customer.

Many detailers just don’t have the kind of skill and understanding of paint to do all of this, and many customers do not want to pay the extra money involved. Also, a production shop, or a car wash with waiting customers, will not have the time it takes for this type of buffing.

So over the years, the word “buffing” has evolved into a word signifying a simplified process requiring fewer steps and less time. Detailers found that using a different type of buffer — an orbital or dual-action (DA) —will still yield very good, albeit not perfect results. However, the time spent buffing and the danger of paint damage are far less. This allowed shops to offer more express-type services at far cheaper prices and employ a detailer who may have less skill but can still get the job done.


Believe it or not, orbital or dual-action buffers have been around a very long time. The popular dual-head orbital has been around for over 50 years. The original single-head orbital machine was big, very bulky, and had a large 11-inch head and predates even the dual-head machine. But many people did not use these orbital machines for paint correction. They used them for light polishing and waxing. Not much thought was given to these machines for any other use. Therefore, the tried and true rotary buffer was the go-to machine for making a paint job look like new. But that has changed. Orbital buffers have come a long way and are now the go-to choice for a majority of detailers. Orbital machines, until a relatively short time ago, were regarded as light duty machines, and were not widely used for paint correction. The dual-action or random orbit motion was great for not damaging the paint, but also was not aggressive enough for much paint correction. They had little power, limited speed, and few pad options. Some were big and heavy and actually harder to handle than a rotary buffer, so many detailers just ignored them unless they were simply waxing a vehicle.

Today’s orbital machines are more ergonomic, have much more power, and offer adjustable speed. They have many more pad choices and can be used with many different buffing products. Most are very lightweight when compared to a rotary buffer, and, of course, there is far less chance of damaging a paint surface. But with two types of capable buffers available, the rotary and the orbital buffer, many detailers will ask which to use.


I get asked that question all the time. A detailer will enquire about which machine to use. But this is a difficult question to answer because there are many variables. A rotary buffer will correct far better than an orbital. There is no debate. But with the added correction comes some issues: the possibility of damaged paint, swirl marks, marring, added buffing steps, increased time and more money having to be charged to a customer. A detailer will have to have much more skill to operate this machine and, therefore, there may be fewer candidates in your employ to do this. But if used correctly, a rotary buffer can make a paint job look better than new and have that glass-like appearance and wow factor that many detailers and customers go crazy over. In the right hands, this is a magical machine.

An orbital buffer will create far less paint correction, although it can be pushed in this regard. It will sometimes be more fatiguing to the operator as the machine will vibrate greatly, especially at a higher speed. It will take longer to do the job. But it’s far safer and is capable of being used by most everyone in the shop without fear of damage. It can still correct the paint but maybe not to perfection. However, the beauty of this tool is that if a customer is not too demanding or not willing to pay for perfection, it’s the perfect tool to use.


My very first buffer was an orbital buffer. It was the old can-type with two side handles with an 11-inch head. It was heavy and gave me a bit of a workout, especially holding it up to side panels. I bought it because I was having difficulty learning how to use a rotary buffer. I had borrowed a rotary buffer, and I was trying to buff my own car. I did not do so well. Some areas came out well, but I burned a few areas, left others looking blotchy and full of swirls, and I was basically just afraid of the thing. So I gave it back and purchased the orbital which I knew would be friendlier.

But I quickly learned that the orbital did not correct the paint nor remove the scratches the way I needed it to. It took me far longer to get less correction and I was more fatigued when I was done. So my frustration grew with every car I worked on until I forced myself to learn how to correctly use the rotary. Luckily I figured it out, and it’s been my machine of choice ever since. I know exactly what I can make it do and how far I can push things with it. I compound, polish, and I usually even wax a car with it. It’s really an extension of my hands. I can maneuver it easily and I will choose it over an orbital in most cases. Of course I still own all the popular orbital machines that are available now, and I now use them frequently with much better results than years previous. So, while my preference in buffers will continue to be a high-speed machine, you have to ask yourself a few things before deciding on what type of buffer you will more frequently use.


You have to realistically ask yourself what type of shop you are, or want to be. If you want to be a perfectionist who aspires to detail high-end exotics and make paint look better than new, you will find yourself using a rotary most of the time. The questions to ask are:

  • Do you need or want to offer buffing at a more affordable price?
  • Is the customer base in your area more or less willing to pay a premium for detailing?
  • How many of your employees have the skill to operate a rotary buffer?
  • Is your shop full service or more of an express operation?


The trend in the last couple of years has been towards buffing exclusively with orbital buffers. Detailers simply do not want the hassle of rotary buffing and the headaches and time that are associated with that method. Many years ago, I would have told you it just would not work, and cars would not look good enough. However, some things have changed to accommodate buffing exclusively with an orbital buffer.

Buffing products have been made more aggressive. Buffing products made with orbital use in mind are now available. Much of the testing is done with orbital buffers to see how well the buffing products can do with an orbital. With a more aggressive buffing product, more correction can be done with this machine.

Buffing pads are being geared toward orbital-buffer use. There are many more foam formulations now that can be used for safe compounding with an orbital machine. These new pads are firmer and more dense to allow more pressure to be used on the buffer to get better paint correction, while still producing a nice shine and limiting buffing steps.

The buffers themselves have been improved with better motors and more torque to buff a paint surface better. Most have adjustable speed, are lighter in weight for easy maneuvering, and do not vibrate as badly as they once did. The “dual-action” random orbit motion is far better than just a zigzag sanding motion, which will not do much of anything to the paint surface. These polishers spin both in a circular and random orbit motion for optimum performance.


For the car wash owner, using an orbital buffer for detailing services really should be a no-brainer. The ease of use, time-savings, and great performance combine to make it the way to go. A car wash can offer express buffing or waxing at a lower cost while still producing great results. There will be little or no chance of paint damage from an inexperienced employee, and there will be no complaints of the dreaded swirl marks.

Cars can be buffed in either one step or two quick steps and have a like new appearance. Compounding can still be done with the orbital for better paint correction but without the swirl marks and marring from a rotary buffer. Many times a car can be waxed after compounding for added time-savings. Unless the customer is very picky or demanding, an orbital buff will satisfy most everyone, especially in an express operation. It’s still “buffing,” but the methods are changing and making it far easier for anyone to buff a car.

Kevin Farrell owns and operates Kleen Car (, a full-service auto-detailing business located in New Milford, NJ. Kevin is also an instructor for a detailing program he developed for, and in conjunction with, BMW of North America. His background includes auto dealership experience and training through DuPont, General Motors, and I-Car.

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