How to Buff a Car – Step by Step, Manually or With Power Tools

Detailing your vehicle is a hobby that anyone can enjoy. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of seeing the gleaming results of your labor. The hours you invest in the work is time well-spent if you enjoy it.

Aside from that, you’re also treating your vehicle to a much-needed spa day. Using restorative and polishing compounds protect, as well as refresh, the exterior.

One of the fundamentals any detailing enthusiast should learn is how to buff a car. If you’ve mastered standard washing and using a clay bar, this is the next step up.

A motorized buffer being used on a dark car door

In this guide, you’ll learn the benefits of buffing and when your vehicle may be in need of it. We also discuss how to choose suitable pads and products for the job.

We share the different methods available and what tools you can use and you’ll also learn how to handle motorized devices, as well as tips for doing it by hand if you don’t have electric tools.

Skill Level: Beginner.

Time to Complete: Approximately 3–4 hours depending on the size of your vehicle and method of buffing.

Tools Needed:

  • Gloves and mask.
  • Car shampoo or car wash soap.
  • Bucket and access to a water source.
  • Car wash mitt or sponge.
  • Clay bar and lubricant.
  • Car-safe towels.
  • Restorative or polishing compound.
  • Microfiber cloths.
  • Either a high-speed orbital buffer, random orbital buffer or buffing pads.
  • Attachment pads, if you’re using a motorized tool.

What is Car Buffing?

Buffing basically involves removing a very thin layer of your vehicle’s paint or clear coat. This might sound disturbing, but if done correctly, no vehicles will be harmed in the making of this buffing!

The purpose is to get rid of minor defects on the layer you’re wearing away while keeping it perfectly blended and indistinguishable from surrounding areas.

Pads (machine attachments and for manual use) come in various materials. They’re responsible for distributing the buffing product of your choice, evenly over your car.

On that note, there are also hundreds of rubbing compounds and polishing products. Some are for specific colors and types of paint; others are for specific types of damage, for example, oxidation.

Please know though, that buffing a car isn’t a miracle cure-all, despite what you might’ve heard.

Paint that is worn down to the primer or bare metal requires serious intervention. The same is true of large dents, chips or deep scratches.

When Does a Car Need Buffing?

If your usual wash-and-clay routine isn’t getting results, it may be time for a buffing.

Here are a couple of signs you might need to go further:

Paint is Scratched or Swirled

Even the most conscientious car owners can’t preserve their vehicles pristine looks permanently. Low-hanging branches, clumsy drivers or curious wildlife can all scratch your paint.

Improper washing techniques and supplies can cause the paint to appear swirled or dull. (If you’re already in such a situation, read this article on how to remove swirl marks from a car).

Using rough towels or sponges that aren’t safe for automotive paint may not do damage one single time. But if you do this with every wash, you’ll eventually leave visible marks. You can also leave scratches if you misuse a clay bar.

Paint Looks Dull or Faded

Paint that has lost its shine or looks faded has begun to oxidize. Don’t panic just yet—oxidation doesn’t necessarily mean rust is imminent.

All it means is that the paint is reacting with oxygen, breaking it down. This is a natural event that can’t be prevented. Still, years can pass before dullness or fading manifest.

Certain environmental conditions can speed up this breakdown. Extended exposure to UV light can do a number on your paint’s glossiness and vibrancy.

Acidic precipitation in polluted areas, such as rain and snow, will wear down your car’s exterior with time. Everyday contaminants like pollen and bird feces if you leave them on for long enough can also be a prime suspect.

The Different Ways You Can Buff Your Car

There are two options at your disposal here: use a machine or buff by hand.

A motorized buffer, or polisher, can save you time but carries a risk of misuse. If you aren’t sure of what you’re doing, you can scuff your paint. Worst case scenario, your vehicle might look worse than when you started.

It all hinges on your preferences and level of comfort. We cover the different techniques below.

Motorized Buffing

These machines can vary dramatically in quality, power, and size. There are two basic types: rotary, which are also known as “high-speed” machines, and orbital.

Rotary (High-Speed) Machines

Rotaries tend to look like angle grinders, but with a handle to the side. The pad attachment and backing plate rotate in a circle, in one direction.

The outer diameter of the pad will spin at a faster rate than the inner diameter. This means that they can generate more heat than an orbital model.

You have to be wary of these, they’re powerful. They work rapidly to eradicate defects—and can just as quickly burn through your paint.

Orbital Machines

Most of these tools resemble dual-action sanders. The backing plate and pad attachment spin at a separate axis from the spindle.

The handle is either at the top or to the side of the tool. Some may have a rubber surface so that you can grip the body rather than a handle.

Pad rotation can be free spinning, forced, or both, based on the model. You can vary the speed as needed.

This range of motion makes them forgiving for beginners. They’re not as aggressive and don’t generate a lot of heat. As long as you’re reasonably attentive, you’ll be hard-pressed to cause any serious harm to your paint job.

Manual Buffing

Buffing by hand only requires that you choose a suitable pad and product. Your hands are the only other equipment you’ll need to get started.

You have more control over your hand than a machine, but it can be time-consuming. Unlike a motorized polisher, your hands can get tired.

You may find the last section of your vehicle will look less-than-perfect. Still, it’s the cheapest alternative if you don’t have the budget for a specialized tool.

How to Choose the Right Buffing Pad and Product for Your Car

You should take care when choosing a pad and a rubbing or polishing product. It is possible to mix and match pads and compounds, but you need to be cautious.

Pad Material

There are four general categories of pad materials. These include:

  • Foam
  • Wool
  • Microfiber
  • Glass

The types you’re going to be looking at will likely be wool, microfiber or foam. Glass pads are only appropriate for scratched or scuffed glass. They can’t be used on other surfaces, like paint or plastics.

Foam pads are known for their versatile properties. This material is absorbent and resilient. It can be manufactured to be rigid and hard, or soft and flexible.

Wool pads are most often used with high-speed rotary models. The wool may be synthetic or natural, depending on the brand.

Microfiber is a relatively new addition to the market. These pads may also include foam as part of the design.

Level of Abrasiveness

Whichever material you choose will be graded according to how abrasive it is. From most to least aggressive, the types of pads include:

  • Compounding
  • Polishing
  • Finishing

The same goes for the products you apply to your vehicle. For example, sealants and waxes are finishes, meaning they’re not at all aggressive.

Compounding products are coarser for smoothing out imperfections. If misused, they can do more harm than they repair.

The Tool You’re Using

Bear in mind that certain tools are formidable. If you’re using a high-speed polisher, you may want to pick a less aggressive pad and product to give more margin for error.

Friction is what happens whenever two solid surfaces come into contact repeatedly. The greater the friction, the hotter it will get.

Controlled friction is beneficial—it’s what will eradicate defects in your paint job. In excess, it can be damaging. This is particularly applicable if you’re not confident in your skills yet. It’s better to choose a gentler alternative to avoid harming your paint job.

How to Buff a Car – Step by Step

The rest of this article takes you step by step through buffing your car, using either motorized or manual buffers.

We’ve tried to cover everything, so you should be good to follow along.

Step 1: Park in a Shady Area

Set up your supplies and park your vehicle in a shady location. If you parked or drove out in the sun for a while, give the bodywork time to cool off.

It should never be hot to the touch when you begin any type of detailing work. Plus, the sun’s rays are capable of destroying certain chemical bonds. You don’t want this happening as you work.

Step 2: Fully Wash Your Car

Ready your car shampoo, car wash mitt or car-safe sponge, and bucket. Your vehicle needs to be washed before you attempt to buff it.

Prepare Car Shampoo

Dilute the shampoo as specified in a bucket of water.

Wash Car Thoroughly

Wash the entire vehicle from trunk to hood. Don’t rush through this step—get into all the nooks and crannies. Treat each section with care.

Note that droppings from common birds like pigeons are acidic, which can be corrosive. You may want to pay special attention to the pooped-on areas later.

Rinse and Dry

Rinse your car until no traces of soap remain. Using your towels (make sure they’re paint-friendly), dry it off.

Step 3: Clay Bar After Washing

Using a clay bar will ensure there isn’t any grime or grit left on the surface of the car. If left on, these sorts of contaminants can be ground into your paint.

Prepare Clay Bar

Put your gloves on and get your clay bar ready. If it’s a big bar, cut it into pieces for easier handling. Squeeze it until it’s soft and pliable.

Spray Clay Bar Lubricant

Target your vehicle in small sections, for example, 2 feet by 2 feet. It’s best to start from the top of your vehicle as it’ll be less dirty.

Spray the lubricant on the area and on the clay bar itself.

Clay Bar Your Car

Using a gentle side-to-side motion, rub it over the area. If you encounter resistance, spray more lubricant.

Check the bar every so often to make sure it isn’t saturated with dirt. When it is, reshape it with your hands until the exposed surafce is clean.

Step 4: Re-Wash and Dry Your Car

Once you’re finished, rewash the vehicle. Rinse it as you did earlier, ensuring no soap residue remains.

It’s essential that the vehicle is fully dry before you start buffing. Get out your car-safe towels or microfiber cloth and be thorough.

Step 5: Set up Your Tool of Choice

We’ve included instructions for each type of tool, as well as for hand-buffing:

High-Speed or Rotary Buffer

These are the most likely to burn paint if misused. Unless you’re familiar with it, set the speed to low. If your model isn’t cordless, plug it in.

Random Orbital Buffer

Keep the speed low or mid-high if you’ve never used one. Plug the unit in so it’s ready to use.

Manual Buffing

There’s nothing to ready except for your own two hands. You might want to put your gloves on.

Step 6: Apply Buffing Compound

Apply the compound you’ve bought as directed. Some will require that you apply the substance to both the vehicle and the pad itself. Follow your products instructions.

Similar to when you use a clay bar, you’ll be treating small areas at a time.

Step 7: Spread Compound Evenly

If you’re using a tool, don’t switch it on straight away. Rub the pad over the surface of your car to spread the compound out evenly.

Step 8: Buff Your Car – Techniques To Use

The key to successful buffing is a steady hand and regular motions. You should avoid staying in one spot for too long or applying too much pressure.

Using a Motorized Buffer

Glide the pad over the surface you’re buffing in circular motions. You don’t need to use all your strength to push the pad down, especially with a high-speed model.

Having said that, you should still make sure it has firm contact with the paint. Move it over the section until the entire product you applied has been absorbed. When it’s nice and shiny, you can stop.

This video will show you the whole buffing process from start to end:

Hand-Buffing

You’ll have to apply more pressure to a pad than with a motorized polisher. Work in circular motions.

It may be hard to do after a while, but don’t ease up on the pressure. Otherwise, you could end up with an uneven or blotchy surface.

Once there aren’t any visible traces of the product left, and the area is gleaming, you’re done.

Buffing Complete!

Knowing how to buff a car has a learning curve. Don’t be disheartened if your first attempt doesn’t look entirely professional. You can only get better with practice, and your vehicle will thank you for it.

The important thing to keep in mind is to respect the tool you’re using. Motorized polishers can be wonderful gadgets if they’re used properly, but don’t push yourself beyond your comfort zone and risk causing damage.

Do you have questions for us or experience in buffing your car that you’d like to share? If so, please do leave us a comment below, we will get back to you.

Kyle Palmer

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars. Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned. Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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