If you’re looking for an article on how to get ripped abs – you’ve clicked the wrong link, bro. Naw, we’re going to dive into a topic that scares the crap out of a lot of beginning car care enthusiasts – buffing.

In the automotive world, buffing is a homonym – spelled the same with multiple meanings. Some people use this word to refer to polishing, while others use it to describe removing a paint protection product.

Honestly, they are both right. But, it’s not as scary as we are led to believe.

Buffing is a critical step involved in repairing and protecting automotive paint. It’s also used in cleaning, auto detailing, and even helping to fill a scratch with some products.

And while there are multiple levels and methods of buffing, when you break it down simply, and understand the concept behind it, you’ll quickly discover why it’s not that big of a deal.

So, let’s head to paint care college – and enroll in Buffing 101. This introductory course will outline the nuts and bolts of automotive buffing. We’ll introduce you to the different applications where you would “BUFF” a vehicle, the tools used in the process, and why using the right supplies and techniques makes a HUGE different in the end results.

What is Buffing?

People use the term ‘buffing’ to describe multiple tasks. According to Merriam-Webster the process of BUFFING is defined as a transitive verb, that means “to polish or shine”. What’s funny is how they use the term in the definition, “They WAXED and BUFFED the floor”.

By this definition, we can see where some of the confusion comes into play. You see – buffing is the second step in the complete process of either repairing or protecting a surface. In the automotive world, there are two situations where someone would “BUFF”:

  • To remove a polish or cutting compound that was used by hand or mechanically to remove minor imperfections in a surface.
  • To remove the protective coating that was applied to the repaired surface which reduces potential damage.

Anyways, understanding that the term refers to that final step within either process is the first thing that needs to be clearly understood before moving forward into this article. Got it?

When Do You Buff a Car?

As stated above, with automotive buffing, there are two times when this term is applicable.

Surface Repair

While they are related to the same task (of repairing an automotive surface) polishing and buffing are not the same thing. Polishing is the act itself, where you’ll apply a liquid substance (known as a polishing compound) to a solid material and gradually remove layers of that surface that are damaged.

Buffing is the second step in the polishing process, where you use a clean and debris-free towel, pad, or cloth to remove the residual polishing compound.

Surface Protection

After repairing those minor scratches, oxidation, and other damage to a surface needs to be protected. This is where car owners or professional detailers apply a paint protection product – such as wax, paint sealants, or a ceramic coating.

Like polishing, applying paint protection is a multiple step process.

  • Prep the surface: Once the polishing or paint correction was completed, you need to prep the surface before you apply the paint protection product. Typically, this involves washing the vehicle, and then spraying an Isopropyl Alcohol solution to remove any residual polishing materials, chemicals or debris.
  • Application: After the surface is prepped, you’ll apply the paint protection substance. It is either applied by rubbing or spraying the protectant onto the surface. You’ll then agitate or smooth the protectant, allow it to ‘flash’ or initially cure, then remove.
  • Buffing: Once again, buffing is the final step in the surface protection process. When a surface protectant is applied, a large portion of the materials is bonded onto the surface – on in the case of a ceramic coating, embedded into the surface by filling the microscopic imperfections. The rest of the material is residual which needs to be removed.

This is where buffing comes into play. And honestly, where most paint protection mistakes are made. If you remove the protectant too early, it’ll fail to bond correctly – leading to thin coverage and quicker degradation. If you remove it too late, the residual can also bond, leaving streaks or reducing some of the benefits of that product.

Different Types of Polishing

The infographic below shows when you can or can’t use polishing to repair damage to automotive paint.

Basically, polishing is used to cut into the clear coat of automotive paint. Certain paint damage – like the three on the right of this graph are within the clear coat layer. Others (noted on the left) are deeper, and can penetrate in the paint, primer, or bare metal.

If the damage is too deep, professional repair is needed. This typically involves sanding down to the root damage level, re-applying paint and clear coating, then finishing with color sanding and yup – a final polish and buff.

So, assuming you’ve got minor paint damage, there are a few ways you can “polish” the damage away.

Hand Polishing

This is the old reliable elbow-grease method. While modern technology and general ‘build a better mousetrap’ thinking has introduced machinery to expedite this process, there are some that swear by the hand polishing method.

When hand polishing, you’ll basically use three supplies:

  • Polishing Pad: The polishing pad is what you’ll use to rub the polishing compound onto the surface. It is often round, made from microfiber and intended to be used “once” – meaning per polishing job.
  • Polishing Compound: You’ll hear this called cutting compound from time to time, as it describes the action. This liquid substance (sometimes a paste) is basically a finer grade liquid sandpaper. It contains tiny particles of ‘grit’ that when applied, help to cut into the clear coat on paint or first layer of other surfaces such as plastics, metals, or glass. There are several grades of polishing compound that are relative to their ‘grit’ percentage or roughness.
  • Buffing Towel or Pad: The final step in the hand polishing process is removal – again completed by buffing the substance off. Typically hand polishing techniques will use a buffing wheel, which is a solid round object with a handle and a buffing cloth or pad applied to the wheel.

If you’re new to polishing, the hand method is arguably the best way to learn how and reduce potential screw ups. The main pain point involved with polishing is the potential of cutting too deep into the clear coat, which will then require professional repair. By doing this by hand, you can slowly cut into the surface and stop when you can see the damage resolved.

Electric Polishing

For those with experience, this is the preferred and more efficient way to remove surface damage. Basically, you’re using the same root supplies of a polishing pad, compound, and buffing cloth. The variable and scary element is the power tool.

Different Types of Buffing Products

On a general scale, buffing products are made from three materials: foam, cotton, and microfiber. Foam pads are commonly used to apply the polish or wax/paint sealants. Cotton and microfiber buffing products are used in both application and removal.

There are three types of buffing products: pads, towels, and cloths.

A buffing pad is used with a buffing wheel (either hand-held or electric) and bonded to that pad via Velcro or straps. They are also used as a standalone product when used by hand. They can be made from all three materials listed above.

Buffing towels are handheld, often measuring more than 16-inches x 24-inches and made from microfiber. A buffing towel is used mainly to remove paint protection products due to their unique construction in helping to reduce scratching and carefully lifting residual substances.

A buffing cloth is smaller, typically no larger than 20-inches x 20-inches. They are used for smaller projects, and typically are included with DIY kits – such as Armor Shield IX DIY nano-ceramic coating.

Wrapping Up Buffing 101

OK students – it’s final exam time. Hopefully, you’ve considered this article as a baseline that answered some of the most elementary questions about buffing. That was the intent.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to ramp up the education level, eventually getting into some cool professional buffing advice – such as best practices for buffing with specific types of paint protection products.

In Buffing 102 – we’ll answer some common myths about microfiber buffing products.