View Full Version : Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

Michael Stoops
Sep 6th, 2012, 03:34 PM
Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools (https://meguiarsonline.com/forums/showthread.php?56238-Beginners-guide-to-the-different-types-of-paint-polishing-tools)

Newcomers to paint polishing are often confused by the variety of tools available on the market, and some even have a polishing tool but don't quite know what it is they have. We hear terms often used interchangeably, and therefore incorrectly, when it comes to these different types of tools. Here we offer up a brief primer on the different categories to paint polishing tools available on the market today, how they work, and how to tell them apart. This is not intended to be an exhaustive listing of all available tools on the market, so if we missed your favorite feel free to mention it in a response. Rather, this is intended to help newcomers to this hobby better understand what these tools are and how they work.

If you're not working on your paint with a polishing tool, you're working by hand. That has some limitations, especially with today's harder clear coat finishes. In fact, not only are modern clear coats harder than those old single stage lacquers, they can also be more delicate. That means they can be more difficult to correct, but also, in some ways, easier to mar. A crazy double edged sword if ever there was one!


When working with polishing tools there are basically two main types of tools to choose from:

1. Rotary:

Circular Rotation
Center Axis
Direct Drive
Variable Speed
Angle Grinder Derivatives

Early Tools:

Black & Decker

Conventional Uses:

Sanding Mark Removal
Light, moderate, heavy paint defect removal
Swirl removal
Early days included glazing and waxing

Heat & Friction:

Heat is generated between the pad and paint
Heat goes toward outer edge of pad

Pad Diameter:

Larger pad size = more aggressive
Increased velocity towards outer edge of pad
Changing pad size has a low impact on tool performance/behavior

Potential for Paint Damage:

Burn through paint
Swirls, holograms
Removal of too much clear coat
Learning curve to master this tool is long and steep


2. Orbital:

Eccentric Pattern
Offset Axis
Variations in speed, orbit diameters, and "Dual Action"'
Free Rotating Spindle
DA Sander Derivatives

Early Tools:

Gem Industries

Conventional Uses:

Light, moderate swirl removal
Wax application
Limited to light paint defect removal until recent developments

Heat & Friction:

Heat is generated between the pad and backing plate or "head" of the tool
Heat goes in toward center of pad

Pad Diameter:

Larger pad size = less aggressive
Increased resistance on the pad slows motion
Changing pad size has a big impact on tool behavior (ie; vibration)

Potential for Paint Damage:

Hazing, "tick marks"
While paint damage is not impossible, it is highly unlikely
Learning curve to master this tool is short and shallow


Let's look at these two groups a bit more closely:

1. Rotary Tools

The rotary has been around for a long time and has been the go-to tool in the professional side of this industry for decades. All rotary buffers on the market, whether old tools or new, are essentially the same. Sure, some are a bit more powerful than others, some are lighter than others, and prices can vary widely. But all of the modern tools have variable speeds, interchangeable backing plates, and they spin the pad in a perfect circle. All of them possess the same potential for paint damage in the hands of an amateur, and all of them take quite a bit of skill and experience to fully master. Most other considerations to look at when selecting a rotary tool are personal choices:

Weight can be a major consideration with these tools; they tend to be heavier than most modern orbital tools and the heavy duty examples can weigh as much as 8lbs or more. That's a lot of weight to deal with, especially several hours into a detailing project.
Speed ranges vary, with some tools running as slow as 600rpm while others bottom out at 1,000rpm. This may make a difference during the final polishing steps if you have a more delicate paint, or you like to lightly massage a finishing polish to really maximize depth, gloss and clarity.
Prices can range from well under $100 to several hundred dollars, depending on features, build quality, etc
Handle positions range from side mounted stick handles, to "D" handles, variable position handles, or you can opt to forego a handle altogether

Popular tools of this type include the following:


Makita 9227C
Flex PE14-2-150
DeWalt 849/849X


Hitachi SP18VA
Harbor Freight
Dynabrade 51580


We can really mix things up by mentioning the Makita PV7001, which is a "vertical rotary" tool. It's still a rotary just like the tools mentioned above, but the ergonomics are totally different, as you can see from the image at right. This tool tops out at 1200 rpm so it's not going to be your first choice for 1000 grit sanding mark removal.

Lastly, Metabo makes a compact sized rotary buffer that is smaller and lighter than more traditional tools shown above. It's great for polishing small areas with smaller pads.



2. Orbital Tools

Things change a bit here as there has been much more development in the technology of orbital tools in the past 10 years than there has been with rotary buffers since the automobile was invented. Orbital tools actually break down into three subgroups:

A. Fixed Orbital

Traditional fixed orbital tools tend to have large pad size (10" is common), run at low speed with low amperage. There are many low cost retail versions of these tools, most all with a very similar appearance as shown below. These are fine for applying wax but generally lack the power to perform any serious defect removal. The reason for that is the lack of torque provided by the inexpensive motors used, the large size of the pad (often 10" in diameter) and the limited choice of applicator materials - generally terry cloth bonnets rather than a selection of foam pads with varying levels of cut. If you're looking to do some serious defect removal - elimination of swirls, water spots, etchings, etc you will most likely find these tools to be severely lacking in power.

http://archive.meguiarsonline.com/forums/photopost/data/2041/tool_discussion_11.jpg http://archive.meguiarsonline.com/forums/photopost/data/2041/tool_discussion_10.jpg


B. Dual Action Random Orbital

Dual action random orbitals are the most common type of tool used by enthusiasts, weekend warriors, part time detailers, and even top professional detailers. They are rarely found in body shop environments due them rarely being up to the task of sanding mark removal. This ability is beginning to change as pad and chemical technology has advanced, and as these tools have become more popular. The random action of the pad is created by the free rotating spindle assembly, which also causes the pad to stop spinning under heavy pressure. Oscillation will continue under heavy pressure, but with rotation ceased the safety margin goes up considerably compared to a rotary buffer. The total power of the tool along with pad and backing plate selection determines how much pressure is needed to cease rotation. Considerations when selecting a dual action random orbital tool include:

Torque/amp/watt ratings because this combination plus the gearing really determine the "power" of the tool.
Orbital diameter size - larger orbits are more aggressive than smaller orbits
Speed range in OPM (oscillations per minute)
Size & weight
Backing plate selection/pad size

The first commonly used tool in this genre was the Porter Cable 7424, which was actually designed to be a wood working sanding tool but it proved itself as a paint polishing tool many years ago. Other popular tools of this type include the following:



Meguiar's MT300
Griot's Garage 6"
Porter Cable 7424XP


DeWalt 443
Meguiar's G110v2 (discontinued)


There are also a couple of small format dual action random orbital tools on the market. These are great for working in tight areas with 4" pads.

Griot's Garage 3"
Metabo SXE400



C. Dual Action Forced Rotation
http://archive.meguiarsonline.com/forums/photopost/data/2041/tool_discussion_09.jpg http://archive.meguiarsonline.com/forums/photopost/data/2041/tool_discussion_12a.jpg

Dual action forced tools create an "epicycloidal pattern" as they spin. This creates a pattern that appears slightly different as you move toward the center of the pad, but essentially this is almost like a rotary with a wobble. These tend to be direct drive tools, much like a rotary, so even heavy pressure will not cease rotation .Since the pad is not spinning in a perfect circle like on a rotary, there is a greater safety factor inherent in the design. There is also, generally speaking, more power in this design, but again that gap is being narrowed by advances in dual action random orbit designs, pad designs, abrasives technology, etc.

Easily the most popular tool in this category is the Flex XC 3401 VRG.

But there's still more! There exists on the market a group of switchable, or "hybrid", tools that offer both random orbital and forced rotation settings at the flip of a switch. Speed ranges and orbit sizes vary among these tools, so total power can vary widely, too. In some cases a manufacturer might refer to the tool as being switchable from "rotary to orbital" but they are still a forced rotation (ie, offset or "rotary with a wobble") designs.


Makita BO 6040
Bosch 1250DEVS
Festool RO150FEQ


Last, but by no means least, in this category is the Dynabrade 61384 & 61374 buffing heads. These mount to any rotary buffer just as you would mount a standard backing plate, but doing so turns your rotary into a forced rotation tool. The 61384 is even switchable, allowing you to go from true rotary mode to forced rotation mode without having to change backing plates. While these will certainly add some weight to your rotary buffer, they also add versatility and have proven to be a great alternative for some.

Dynabrade 61384 Buffing Head


So, there are an awful lot of choices when it comes to selecting a tool for buffing paint. For the enthusiast just getting started with paint polishing the logical choice, for not only ease of use and effectiveness but also for safety, is the dual action random orbital. With the power offered by the top choices in this category, and especially when used with the modern offering of chemicals and pads, it's amazing what can be accomplished regarding defect removal from even the hardest paints. As with anything in this hobby, none of these tools will do the job on their own - your technique is going to be critical and it's up to you to make or break the whole detailing process.

Sep 6th, 2012, 05:50 PM
Thanks for the info and writeup. Sure clears lots of confusion amongst the varied machines available and simplifies the choice of appropriate polisher for one's requirements.

Sep 6th, 2012, 06:08 PM
Thanks Michael. Nicely done.
Even the right and left sliding images works well on my old 1st gen iPad.

davey g-force
Sep 6th, 2012, 06:39 PM
Nice thread Mike! :xyxthumbs

Sep 6th, 2012, 07:07 PM
...your technique is going to be critical and it's up to you to make or break the whole detailing process.

Way to lay the pressure back on the noobs Mike! :eek:

:rofl: Just kidding.

Very informative article for those venturing into the sport we call detailing! Well done Mike.

Sep 7th, 2012, 03:42 AM
Another great article Mike!

This will help out a lot of folks...


Sep 7th, 2012, 10:15 AM
Well illustrated!!!
Many tools for one game.
The good thing is that everyone gets to pick their favorite.
To all our new friends just tuning in to detailing or weekend warriors
http://archive.meguiarsonline.com/forums/photopost/data/2041/meg_g110v2.png Scottwax2

Great machine that delivers.

the other pc
Nov 2nd, 2012, 07:36 AM
Time to add another one.

DA Power System (http://www.meguiarsonline.com/forums/showthread.php?56707-DA-Power-System)

Jan 5th, 2013, 07:41 PM
Nice thread Mike!http://www.dvxs.info/a11.jpghttp://www.dvxs.info/k2.jpg

Jan 5th, 2013, 08:05 PM
Another top notch article that points out that each machine has its designated use.

Well done Mike.

Jun 19th, 2015, 09:10 AM
Excellent info...thank you

Apr 9th, 2016, 06:03 PM
Awesome article. Thanks!

Feb 25th, 2018, 06:18 PM
thank you for this write up and advice i really enjoy reading it looking forward for more updates

Feb 26th, 2018, 10:58 PM
Useful guide, Thank you.