Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools
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  1. #1
    Sr. Global Product & Training Spec Michael Stoops's Avatar
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    Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    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
      • Sioux
      • Milwaukee

    • 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
      • Waxcoa/Chamberlain
      • Cyclo

    • 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.


    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
    Shurhold 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

    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.
    Michael Stoops
    Senior Global Product & Training Specialist | Meguiar's Inc.

    Remember, this hobby is supposed to be your therapy, not the reason you need therapy.

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    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.

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    Registered Member wifpd4's Avatar
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    Re: Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    Thanks Michael. Nicely done.
    Even the right and left sliding images works well on my old 1st gen iPad.

    "fishing for swirls in a sea of black"

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    Mr Sparkle davey g-force's Avatar
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    Re: Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    Nice thread Mike!
    Quote Originally Posted by Blueline View Post
    I own a silver vehicle and a black vehicle owns me. The black one demands attention, washing, detailing, waxing and an occasional dinner out at a nice restaurant. The silver one demands nothing and it looks just fine. I think the black vehicle is taking advantage of me, and the silver car is more my style. We can go out for a drive without her makeup and she looks fine. If I want to take the black one out, it is three or four hours in the "bathroom" to get ready.

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    Registered Member Selectchoice's Avatar
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    Re: Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    Quote Originally Posted by Michael Stoops View Post
    ...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!

    Just kidding.

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

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    Re: Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    Another great article Mike!

    This will help out a lot of folks...


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    Registered Member juliom2's Avatar
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    Re: Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    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

    Great machine that delivers.

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    Who? Me? the other pc's Avatar
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    Cool Re: Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    Time to add another one.

    DA Power System

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    Re: Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    Nice thread Mike!

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    BMW Nut smack's Avatar
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    Re: Beginners guide to the different types of paint polishing tools

    Another top notch article that points out that each machine has its designated use.

    Well done Mike.
    Practice doesn't make perfect, the dedication to achieve perfection makes perfect. "Smack"
    2011 Jet Black 328i Touring
    2007 Jet Black 335i Sedan

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