DETAILING MY CAR > How to Buff and Polish a Car Like a Pro

How to Buff and Polish a Car Like a Pro


No automotive detail job can be accomplished without the power buffing and polishing of the paint job

Buffing and Polishing Tips

Buffing and polishing are arguably the most important aspects of auto detailing. You can have the cleanest interior detail and if the outside is full of ice cream swirls, you aren’t going to impress anyone. This post will outline the techniques that professionals use that you can also do at home … with some practice. I spent years developing my methods of crafting a beautiful finish. I’ve trained dozens of employees on my process and made even the most uncoordinated non-car guy a great detailer. I will get you buffing like a pro at home. Keep a pair of sunglasses ready for the final results – the shine will blind you.

Here are the equipment and tools you’ll need:

  1. Variable speed electric buffer – if you don’t know what this is or which one to buy, read my article on car buffers.
  2. Random action orbital polisher – if you don’t know what this one is either, ready my article on car polishing.
  3. Detail clay bar – available at any auto part store. Just ask.
  4. Glass cleaner – I like the Sprayaway aerosol brand
  5. Buffing compound
  6. Polishing compound
  7. Wax
  8. Blue painters 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. Leave the car wet for the next step. Use a bar of soft detail clay and some glass cleaner. The clay bars are available at most auto parts stores in the wax aisle. 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 re-wash it. This will remove any residue. Afterward, bring the car back into the garage and dry it off.

Tips and Techniques for the Buffing Stage

It is important to protect yourself while using a power buffer. You will need earplugs (protect that hearing – I learned this the hard way over the years. I only have half my hearing in my left ear. Don’t make my mistake), a dust mask, eye protection, rubber gloves and a long-sleeve shirt.

Start the next step with your blue painters tape. 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 off easily without leaving any glue residue.

Get your buffer and the Velcro backing plate. Screw it on and mount the foam pad to it. 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 Mequires 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’ by 2’ section of the car’s body.  Spread out the buffing compound over the section of car you’re working on. Turn the buffer to its slowest speed 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.

Move the buffer 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 look really 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 very 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. If you do it wrong you could go through it down to the primer. Avoid holding the spinning buffing pad over a sharp body line or crease for more than a few seconds – you can also go through the paint in this situation. Continue working over the car in two-foot sections – this keeps the compound from drying out and is easier on the ol’ back. 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. You don’t want to leave any buffing compound on the car. It will interfere with the next step.

Tips and Techniques for the Polishing Stage

The next step is to use a fresh foam pad and your polishing compound. Polishing compound is a much finer grade of product that removes any slight swirl marks from the buffing stage and also produces the deep shine you are after. Just as in the buffing stage you need to work in small two-foot sections at a time. Use about a tablespoon of product at a time. Hold the foam pad flush to the car. Continue to apply light pressure to the buffer. 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 to create an even deeper look to the paint. The next step is the same as in the buffing stage – 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 that 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

The next step of an exterior auto detail is waxing. 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, apply 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 of cleanly 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 otherwise. One other thing, apply and remove the wax in 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. 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 the 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. You’ve learned about the safety steps to follow, the products to use, the way to hold the buffer and the importance of preventing swirl marks on the paint.  You’ve also learned 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 that you would love to help them with their car but it’s gonna cost a few bucks!






2 comments on “How to Buff and Polish a Car Like a Pro

    • Hello! I would go to an auto parts store and pick up a bottle of wheel cleaner. This stuff eats brake dust for lunch. There are a lot of different brands but I like Meguire’s All Wheel Cleaner the best. It is safe on all types of wheels – from chrome to painted. One thing to keep in mind, if it has been a very long time since you have tackled this type of mess you may find that it does not come 100% off. The only thing you can do is try it a few more times. You may need to spray it then scrub it off with an old toothbrush. Not fun!!

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