Detailing - October 2010

Why not Wool?
By Kevin Farrell

Why not wool? That’s my question. I know you have heard — or have possibly seen — bad things happen to paint while using a wool pad. You’ve seen burnt or blistered clear coat, burnt moldings and trim, horrible swirl marks, and hazed-up paint. Yes, we have all seen these disastrous problems when using a wool pad. However, not only can these issues be avoided when using a wool pad, but to create a truly breathtaking paint job, you need to start with some kind of wool pad.


Let’s go back a few years — well about 30 to 40 years, to be exact — when all paint systems were single stage and either lacquer or enamel. These single-stage paints had more material and they were much harder. Therefore, more aggression was needed to remove “dead” paint and buff the surface of the fresher paint. The big, fuzzy, caked-up wool pad was a fixture on every single buffer.

Wool was needed to correct the paint. Ask any old timer how he buffed a paint job way back when. He will say he buffed it with a wool pad, a beach-sand compound, and used a heavy and fast spinning buffer. They even finished with wool back then.


When clear coats came into prominence in the ‘80s, most detailers switched to foam pads. They found that buffing with wool was getting too aggressive, and they were quickly burning and rubbing through the new clear-coat system. Detailers found foam to their liking, and buffing-pad manufacturers started making foam in different grades. Foam could now be used effectively for compounding without leaving such nasty swirl marks behind. The paint surface had a nicer gloss, and detailers found foam pads more user friendly. Mistakes still could be made with the wrong kind of foam, such as burnt moldings and trim. If too much heat was created, clear coat could still blister and burn. But foam basically took over, and many detailers said goodbye to wool for good. Now, with orbital buffers being so popular, foam is the type of pad almost exclusively used in buffing for all purposes. But again, my question is: Why not wool?

Wool is now almost a taboo word. Ask a detailer today if he wants to buff with wool and he will pretty much look at you like you have two heads. He will tell you about every kind of foam pad out there with all the crazy cuts and shapes and colors — and gimmicks. Of course, there are fantastic foam pads that do a great job. However, for me, if I want total correction in a short amount of time, I grab a wool pad. Here’s why:


I recently wrote a series of articles on today’s newer clear coats. (See the February, March, April, and May 2010 issues of Auto Laundry News). They are much harder and more scratch resistant than those of even five years ago. Many product companies have answered with more aggressive offerings, but detailers continue to use foam to try to correct the finish. The denser and harder foam pads that are used for correction and compounding are just too hard for me. They are very difficult to use with a rotary buffer. I have yet to find a perfect foam compounding pad. The foam compounding pads that have a great feel generally are not as aggressive as I like. The harder, denser foam pads are a nightmare when used with a rotary, have poor feel, and are sometimes more dangerous than a wool pad if you are not careful. We all will agree, however, that a scratch-resistant clear coat needs more aggression. So what should you do?


Some detailers will use a very aggressive compound. There are some really good products out there now that have good cut. Some of these products have been made for scratch-resistant clear coats. In theory, one of these products can be used with a foam cutting pad — even with an orbital buffer — and create the desired finish. However, foam will always take longer, and you will never get the same correction that you will with wool. Some people may disagree. They may argue that foam will get you there (eventually) and you will be left with virtually no swirls if used with an orbital buffer — and very limited swirls if used with a rotary buffer. The other part of their argument is that it will take fewer buffing steps using foam because you are avoiding the harsh swirl marks that may be a by-product of using a wool pad.

These are all good points, especially if the customer is not looking for perfection. But now it’s my turn to stand up for wool. I argue that if we are attempting near total paint correction, a wool pad is needed to start the job. Yes, time spent on the job may be a concern, and what the customer is willing to pay may play a part, but the goal is paint correction. Once that’s established, the pad for the best correction is always wool. But wool today is a dirty word in most detailers’ vocabularies. It’s the forgotten underdog, the black sheep, the little guy, the last one picked in gym class, etc. I like a good David vs. Goliath battle. I’ll take wool.

Wool will get me the correction I want — and much faster. I am not afraid of either a wool pad or using a rotary buffer, so wool is my choice. I will use the same product as my foam-pad-using counterpart, but I will get the job done faster. Sure, you say that I may get faster paint correction, but now there are tons of swirls and hazy paint that will need more polishing steps to remove and get the clarity and gloss back. Not necessarily. Choosing the correct wool pad will mean extra cut, but also limited swirls that can easily be removed. We will talk wool specifics in a bit.

I have tried all kinds of foam pads with a rotary, attempting to get perfect correction. It’s extremely difficult to do so and much more time consuming. I demonstrate this in my classes all the time. I buff an area with a compounding foam pad and, right next to it, buff an area with wool. In all cases the wool does a better job of correction. Yes there will be slightly more swirling with a wool pad, but I want to look “through” the swirls and judge my overall correction. That’s my goal. I get there faster with a wool pad. The wool does its job quickly and if it’s a quality wool pad, there will be very limited swirls and hazing.

With a compounding foam pad, you will create much more heat, especially if you are really trying to fully correct the area. Too much heat will cloud the clear coat, cause blistering, or possibly burn it. A compounding foam pad generally will be harder and denser, which will give the detailer a poor feel and he will struggle a little more to control the buffer.

I am not saying a foam pad can’t do a great job in many cases. If a customer isn’t willing to pay for total paint correction and you need to get the job done quickly, I will also use a foam pad for the corrective work. But the reality is, foam just can’t cut as well as wool can, or as fast.


I am a bit biased here as well. I am a rotary guy. I always have been. Once I learned how to correctly use a rotary buffer, I used it for almost every step, sometimes even wax application. It’s quicker and I like the feel of a rotary better than an orbital. I also want to get the job done faster and better, so I use a rotary. But let’s look at the counter-point again.

Orbital buffers have been around for a long time. They have evolved and gotten much better over the years. The advantage of an orbital buffer is no swirls. This is huge for most detailers. You can lean heavily on an orbital buffer at its highest speed and still not cause swirls. Orbital buffers now have more power and that’s a plus. Combine more power and torque with a good compound and a good compounding foam pad, and you can get some great results. You can cut down the number of buffing steps and produce a swirl-free finish.

There is a flipside. Many detailers try to get excellent correction with an orbital buffer and a foam pad. To even attempt to do that you will have to turn up the orbital buffer to a very high speed, which makes it vibrate much more and is more taxing on the user. It also takes far longer to get the desired result. As a result, I am not a huge fan of an orbital buffer to do correction work. After I wet-sand a blemish, a scratch, an entire panel, or an entire car, there is no way to get the sand scratches completely out with an orbital buffer and a foam pad. It’s a waste of time.

So that brings me back to the rotary buffer and a wool pad. Many detailers are still afraid of both. There is no reason to be. A rotary can be just as safe and more effective if used correctly. A wool pad can be the same. But why am I so adamant about using a wool pad? I wasn’t for a long time. I hated wool. I have access to just about any foam pad that’s out there — and some proto-types that never even hit the market. And I have some pretty good ones that I really like for “light” to “medium” paint correction. But for the heavy correction I just haven’t found that perfect foam for heavy cutting that felt great and had a great cut in a short time. True, swirls will be less with foam (only slightly if the correct wool is used) but I can deal with swirls easily. I want the correction in a shorter time frame and a better feel while not over-heating the clear. So I started gravitating back to wool to see what was out there.

In next month’s issue of Auto Laundry News, we’ll take a closer look at what I found, and examine the makeup of some of the wool pads that are available in the market. We’ll also explain why some of them may be very aggressive and why they have such a bad reputation.

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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