DETAILING MY CAR > Automotive Buffing and Polishing

Automotive Buffing and Polishing

2013-12-02 13.32.47

Here I am going to share the steps, tips and techniques necessary to become a professional car buffer. I will get you buffing like a pro, just like they do at your local auto detail shop. Keep a pair of sunglasses ready for the final results – the shine will blind you.

There are some buffing and polishing equipment and tools you will need to tackle the job:

1. Variable speed electric buffer.
2. Random action orbital polisher.
3. Detail clay bar – available at any auto parts store.
4. Glass cleaner – I like the Sprayway aerosol brand.
5. Buffing compound.
6. Polishing compound.
7. Wax.
8. Blue painter’s tape.
9. Microfiber towels.
10. Toothbrush.
11. Foam buffing and polishing pads for the buffer and the orbital polisher.
12. Velcro backing plate for the power buffer and the orbital polisher.

Prepping the Car for a Buffing & Polishing Job

You can’t start creating a perfect finish on a dirty car. The first step is to wash the car. Once the car is clean, pull it inside out of the sun. You need to leave the car wet for the next step. Here you need to use a bar of soft detail clay and some glass cleaner. The clay bars are available at most auto parts stores in the wax isle. Detail clay works by gently rubbing off contaminants like tree sap and road tar. This stuff sticks to the bar without scuffing up the paint job. To start this process, spray down a section of the wet car with some window cleaner – it is harmless to the paint. The glass cleaner acts as a lubricant to help the clay bar slide over the paint. Now, rub out the paint using side-to-side overlapping hand strokes. Repeat this on each section of the car. Knead the bar as you go to keep it clean. This creates a smooth and clean finish that is ready for the exterior auto detail stages.

Once the whole car has been rubbed down with the clay bar, you need to rewash it. This will remove any residue from the bar and the glass cleaner. Now you can bring the car back into the garage and dry it off.

Tips and Techniques for the Buffing Stage

To begin this job you need some safety gear. You will need earplugs, a dust mask, eye protection, rubber gloves and a long sleeved shirt. It is important to protect yourself while using a power buffer. I learned about the importance of earplugs the hard way. After working without them over the years, I only have half my hearing in my left ear. Don’t make my mistake.

Start the next step in the buff and polish process with your blue painter’s tape. You need to tape off all rubber and plastic trim pieces. This will prevent them from getting buffed over with your compound and polish. If you buff rubber or plastic, it will turn white – and the white marks do not come off very well. The blue tape is the best to use because it comes of easily without leaving any glue residue.

Next, grab your buffer and the Velcro backing plate. Screw it on and mount the foam pad to it. Now grab your compound. There are dozens of different buffing and polishing products. I like to go to an automotive paint store and buy some professional grade Mequiars products (Diamond Cut is a fantastic compound that you can follow up with Machine Glaze as your polish). You need to use about a tablespoon of compound for every 2-inch by 2-inch section of the car’s body.  Spread out the buffing compound over the section of car you are working on. Turn the buffer to its slowest setting.

One word of caution: Make sure the buffer’s electric cord does not get wrapped around the spinning buffing wheel. I like to drape it over my shoulder. I have had the cord get caught up in the machine and it has slammed it into my stomach. I even saw one hit a guy in the face. Ouch! Pay attention to where the electrical cord is at all times. You need to work safely around these machines – they are not toys.

Now you need to get the buffer moving across the paint with the foam pad held flat against the car. If you hold the buffer at an angle to the paint, you will leave swirl marks in the finish – they really look bad when the car is pulled out into the sun! Buff in parallel, overlapping strokes over the body panel you are working on. Apply light pressure to the buffer as it is in contact with the paint. Buff the compound into the paint until it disappears. Look at the paint vary closely.  If you can see scuffs or light scratches in the paint, you will need to repeat the process.

Today’s paint isn’t extremely thick, so I don’t recommend going over it more than two times with the compound per detail job. Exterior detailing can safely be done throughout the life of the car. However, if you do it wrong, you could go through the paint down to the primer. Also, avoid holding the spinning buffing pad over a sharp body line or crease for more than a few seconds – you can go through the paint in this situation too. Continue working over the car in those 2-foot sections – this keeps the compound from drying out and is easier on the old back. Also, do not leave the buffer spinning over one section without moving it around. It can heat up the paint and ruin it. As you can see, this job requires a lot of attention and caution. Having a damaged section of a car repainted is a very costly matter.

Once you have used the buffing compound on the whole car, you will need to wipe it down to remove any excess or leftover product. Use your microfiber towel at this point. You don’t want to leave any buffing compound on the car. It will interfere with the next step.

Tips and Tricks for the Polishing Stage

Now that the car has been power buffed to remove any dull paint or surface scuffs, the next step is to use a fresh foam pad and your polishing compound. Polishing compound is a much finer grade of product that both removes any slight swirl marks from the buffing stage but also produces the deep shine you are after. Just as in the buffing stage, you need to work in 2-foot sections at a time. Once again, use about a tablespoon of product at a time. Again, hold the foam pad flush to the car. Continue to apply light pressure to the buffer. You need to keep the machine moving across the car in overlapping side-to-side strokes. Sometimes it works best to go over each panel twice. It is worth the extra time at this point to create an even deeper look to the paint. The next step is the same as in buffing – wipe down the car with your microfiber towel. Man this car is starting to glow!

Random Action Orbital Polishing

The next step in a professional exterior auto detail is to use a random action orbital polisher. There are dozens of models on the market. I like the smaller machines that have variable speed settings. My favorite brand is the Porter Cable. I generally set the unit on a medium speed. These machines polish in a random pattern. They remove the last of the potential swirl marks from the prior buffing steps. You will need to use foam pads on these machines too. I like to use the same polishing compound from the last step.

To begin, apply a generous tablespoon of polish directly onto the foam polishing head. Once again, hold the pad flat against the car. Work out each body panel very slowly and be sure to overlap your passes a few times. You need to apply a little heavier pressure on this step. Don’t bear down with all your weight but press firmly. Repeat this process over the entire vehicle. By now the paint will really be looking deep and wet.

For those of you who want to go even a little more crazy, you can add a hand polishing step at this point. It will further reduce swirl marks and produce an even deeper finish. Start off with a damp microfiber towel. Fold it into a square and apply a tablespoon of polish to it. Rub out the car in the normal side-to-side overlapping strokes. Do one panel at a time so the product can’t dry out and leave a flaky white residue. Wipe the product off as you move from panel to panel.

Applying a Coat of Wax to the Car

The next step of an exterior auto detail job is the wax stage. Over the years I developed an easy way to wax a car. The last thing you want to do is apply a thick, sloppy coat of wax onto the whole exterior of the car at once. This is just too hard and too messy to work with. Instead, I apply my wax to one body panel at a time. Once the wax has set up for about one minute, wipe it off with a fresh microfiber towel. The wax comes off clean and easily. It does not leave any dusty residue. This is a very fast way to wax a car. I like to use a fresh microfiber towel for every two body panels. They get a little gummed up and hard to work with. Be sure to apply and remove the wax with side-to-side, overlapping hand strokes.

Are you sensing a theme here? You need to avoid any motions that could show up as swirls or marks in the paint once you have finished the job. Nothing looks more unprofessional than a car covered in swirl marks – you can really see them on a sunny day. A car nut like me just can’t drive a car that looks like that – it’s just sad.

The Toothbrush Step

The next thing to do is grab your toothbrush – no, you don’t need any floss! Use the toothbrush around any nooks or crannies where your products may have accumulated. If you skip this step, any residual products left on the car will dry out and look white. Very unprofessional!

Finishing the Exterior Auto Detail Job

Now it’s time to wrap up the job. Remove all of the blue tape from the car. Grab one last microfiber towel and wipe down the whole car (remember, use only side-to-side hand strokes). You have just completed a professional-style exterior auto detail. We have learned about the safety steps to follow, the products to use, the way to hold the buffer and the importance of preventing swirl marks in the paint. We have also covered how to hand rub and wax the car. Your paint should look deep and glossy. Now it’s time to take it out and show it off to your friends – they will be insanely jealous. Just tell them you would love to help them with their cars, but it’s gonna cost a few bucks!

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