Tech Tips
Buffing vs. Polishing

Tips ~ Secrets ~ Facts ~ Myths


A couple of years ago I wrote several articles on buffing your own parts. These included Buffing Your Own Wheels, Polishing Your Own Alternator, Buffing Your Plenum, and More.

Many members of the boards I belong to have used these tips and discovered that, although very hard work, buffing your own parts is one of the most rewarding and inexpensive ways to separate your car from the "herd" and why not?

Why spend $80.00 + to have a wheel buffed when it can be done in one afternoon with an electric drill. For $30.00 or less in supplies you can buff every "buffable" part on your car? I have received hundreds of emails regarding these processes and requesting more info, tips, and tricks.

What prompts this article, however, is an over abundance of
erroneous info that I constantly see posted. I absolutely cringe when I see someone about to take what I perceive to be a wrong step or use a wrong product. This article is not meant to criticize, slam, demean or otherwise make someone feel foolish, but rather to assist if someone is encountering a problem.

Define: Buffing vs. Polishing ~ The area of confusion begins when we start talking about "polishing aluminum". I see many guys who are doing nothing but "deep cleaning" or at best polishing, for example, their wheels and then posting "I just polished my wheels.... what do you think?" Well I think your wheels look nice but by professional standards you neither buffed OR polished them. So just so we all have some common ground or reference point I created a couple of terms to keep us all on "the same page". These differences will also apply to your paint job as well.

Example 1: You hand wash your car, apply a wax, then wipe it off and polish. Is this buffing? Of course it is.

Example 2: You take your car to the body shop. They color sand the car then apply 3M rubbing compound with a lambs wool pad and buffer, then apply a machine glaze with a foam pad and buffer, then a final hand glaze. Is this also buffing? Yes it is.

Example 3: You use an aluminum polish like Mothers, Eagle One, Autosol, X-treme, or Never-Dull. You rub, rub, rub until you're blue in the face and your part looks 100% improved. Is this polishing and buffing? Yes it is.

Example 4: You strip the factory clear coat from your part. You sand with various grits to achieve a satin finish, then use various compounds and wheels to achieve a "mirror like" finish. Is this buffing and polishing? Yes it is.

So how do we define these differences for the point of discussion and technique. For reference purposes:

Examples 1 and 3 we will call Maintenance Standards (MS).
Examples 2 and 4
we will call Professional Standards (PS).

Now I can offer a definitive statement that will help determine what the heck it is that we are actually doing. This will be perhaps the single most important statement of this article:

By professional standards buffing or polishing either paint or aluminum involves actually changing the surface of the material.

You are leveling, smoothing, the actual material itself to produce a high luster finish from a previously deteriorated or unrefined surface.

With these guidelines established lets concentrate on buffing and polishing aluminum using the
PS Method. The tips in this article supersede any previous article as to the recommendations I make or materials I use. Over the past two years I have learned a lot and changed some methods. I have gone from bench grinder buffers and electric drills with buffing wheels to some professional equipment but the process is still the same and rest assured that excellent results can be produced from very primitive tools.

Supply Checklist

Buffer - You need some kind of power tool that spins. I used a jewelry buffer to start out. You can convert a bench grinder or sport for a dual arbor professional buffer like the Baldor I use. I still find the electric drill with a buffing wheel to be the best tool for polishing wheels.

Wheels and Compounds - These are listed together because they go together. When I started I used a two part process, recommended by The Eastwood Company. I now use a four part process. Here a few examples of the processes you could use:

2 Part - Would consist of a firm or rough wheel with a cutting compound (Tripoli) followed by a soft wheel and a polish compound (White Rouge).

3 Part - Would consist of a firm or rough wheel with a deeper cut compound (Emery) followed by a medium wheel and Tripoli Compound then a soft wheel and White Rouge.

4 Part - Is the process I now use. This consists of a Deep Cut Compound and very rough wheel, followed by the same compound and a less aggressive wheel. Then a medium wheel with a "coloring compound" and finally a soft wheel with white rouge.

You may view this
Buffing Info Chart for more details on wheels and compounds. All of these processes produce excellent results and there are reasons for using each.

Sanding - To truly achieve a mirror like shine there is no way to avoid the tedious process of sanding. Whatever power tools you wish to implement to make this process easier all I can say is "go for it". Typically you could use an air file, or electric palm sander or even a D/A sander to ease this process. The sanding process basically involves two steps.

1. Removing imperfections, casting marks, shaping the metal or removing clear coat.

2. Preparing the surface to buff by producing a refined satin like finish.

Regardless of you use these processes by machine or hand you will basically need 3 grades of paper. 180 Dry / 320 Wet / 400 Wet. These 3 grades alone will get the job done. I have wet sanded up into the thousands and also used steel wool, scotch brite and various other products looking for the "magic formula" but I will venture to say it doesn't exist. Just hard work and patience. I find that splitting your project up into parts and stretching it over several evenings will produce better work. You will avoid shortcuts and your work will be more precise and refined.

Use the 180 Dry to remove clear coat, sand out imperfections and/or generally shape the metal. I have found 2 tips or tricks for this most tedious step of the process. I ordered a rubber expander wheel with Trizact Belts from The Eastwood Company.

To speed this process up and I will tell you it is well worth the $40.00 or $50.00 bucks I spent. This is mainly for small parts or items such as the plenum. It will be useless for wheels.

The second trick is I use a 180 grit paper on a roll. This is self adhesive and I just peel off a few inches and stick it to my fingers.

This not only cuts down on waste but is more comfortable than trying to hold the sandpaper and lets me concentrate on shaping the metal.

This 180 step is followed by using 320 Wet to remove the 180 scratches then 400 Wet for final surface preparation.

These are the supplies and these are the steps. In a few days or the next project (whichever comes first) I am going to document these simple steps with photos to update interested parties in current buffing methods. But the process could simply be defined as follows.

Step 1: Sand with 180/320/400.
Step 2: Buff with cutting compound follow with polish compound.
Step 3: Seal.

You can make this as complex and process oriented as you like however no matter what you do it will be only a variation of these basic steps. Pay attention to that Step 3, we will cover this in a minute. Now lets look as some myths.

Buffing Myths and Potential Erroneous Information

1. I sanded my wheels with 20 zillion grit and polished 400 times with Mothers. I make this exaggerated point because I constantly see posts and methods that contain this type of information. Understand that this process may produce excellent results. IF it does then it's a glaring example of "the end justifying the means", BUT what you are doing is using (MS) Maintenence Standards methods to try and produce (PS) Professional Standards results. The amount of effort required to pull this off can be greatly reduced by using the products designed for the job you are trying to accomplish. You are using fine grit sandpaper to do what buffing compounds are designed for and then using aluminum polish (actually the abrasives contained within) to produce what polishing compounds are designed for. In the end, in a side by side comparison, there is no way the MS method will match the PS methods results.

2. Sanding with 600/800 and higher grades of paper
- actually does more harm than good. You will get the metal smoother but you will also introduce "clouding". Imagine this when your brakes have become "glazed". The drums look smooth and don't appear to be damaged but your car won't stop. This happens on aluminum also. The surface will be smooth as glass but you will have underlying pores. When you start to polish the pores will fill with black oxidation and produce, for lack of a better term, a clouding or dull effect. The solution is to stop at 400 (sometimes I hit the surface with some 500 or 600 just for a minute but it is not necessary in most cases) let the compound take over and do the work.

3. Aluminum Polishes - These are great for one purpose. Taking an oxidized, uncared for wheel or part and making it look better. The primary purpose for these products is for "neglected" aluminum and it's major role is cleaning the aluminum. Some also offer a slight residue which could be construed as "protection". They serve no purpose whatsoever in the process of buffing or polishing aluminum by Professional Standards. As a matter of fact they harm the process by filling the pores with black oxidation. On a mirror like shine produced by PS any product that turns the rag you're using black is NOT the right product to be using.

4. Stripping Clear Coat - I have come to the conclusion that GM must have either used several different clear coats or that weather conditions effects the clear coat longevity so severely that you had best not count on stripper taking the clear coat off. I have never made this stuff work. I have tried the cheap stuff all the way up to professional aircraft stripper at $28.00 per gallon and it never even came close to phasing the clear coat finish. On the other hand I have seen pictures of members using Wal-Mart $8.00 spray on remover and the clear coat is just falling off. Best I can say is it doesn't hurt to try and it would save a lot of sanding. You might get lucky I just know I never have.

5. Re-Clear Coating - Probably the most asked question and the most controversial. My personal advice and opinion is NEVER respray any type of clear coat on a part that has been buffed using PS Standards. A coating of simple Carnabu Wax, like Meguairs Step 3, will offer all the protection you need on any part. This process becomes a MS. You just have to do it every once in a while.

The Theory: I believe GM and others apply a clear coat basically for lazy people. It's hard to imagine certain potential customers bent over cleaning, polishing, and waxing their wheels. They did this to make their wheels and other parts "low maintenance". In other words for people that run their cars through a car wash and go..... their parts would look decent and over the years the parts will remain decent.

But notice most of these finishes are over brushed aluminum or satin finishes. Spraying a clear coat serves another more sneaky purpose. The raw stock of these parts is not refined. Have you ever noticed when ordering a part they have a price for "brushed or satin" finish and then a higher price for "polished". This is because they have to process this part one step further and it is more labor intensive. If they left the brushed or satin part un-sealed, the grooves and cast marks would accumulate grunge and be very hard to clean.

The last reason NOT to clear coat would be the potential for error. You have gone to all the trouble of stripping this obnoxious clear coat. Spent hours and sweat polishing your part to a high luster and now you want to put the stuff back on it? There is no way that your part will maintain the luster you have achieved. There is no clear coat that I know of that will maintain 100% optical clarity. Imagine this. Look into a mirror can you see your reflection? Now get a piece of aluminum foil, can you see your reflection? That is the difference.

These considerations, as well as, the potential of running the clear, getting bubbles or damaging the clear in the future from some chemical reaction (Ex: Castrol Super Clean) will put you right back to where you started. In the matter of wheels there is no adequate protection that will withstand the years of gravel dings and curb scrapes so by eliminating the clear you make it easy to perform touch up buffing at anytime.

Pure Carnabu Wax - I caught myself in error on many posts stating to use pure carnabu wax to protect your newly buffed aluminum. There IS such a thing and it is the equivalent of a brick and you can't use it for car purposes. The maximum amount of carnabu wax contained in commercial products is 30%. The remainder of the contents are things that help control and apply the wax like the propellant in a can of spray. So when I refer to Pure Carnabu I mean to say "nothing but wax" further meaning no cleaners or abrasives.

In conclusion I will leave you with something to ponder. Highly polished aluminum actually resists all these things your clear coat previously protected ......
naturally. With a highly polished surface you now have eliminated most pores, cast marks, etc. and the surface is smooth as glass. Adding just a thin coat of carnabu will give you all the barrier you need against the elements. Further, whatever pores do remain will be filled with a clear or white substance instead of the black oxidation that aluminum polishes create.

I have seen some pretty impressive shines produced by non-conventional methods and my hat is off to these people. The bottom line is "did it work?". If it did then you did it the "right" way. If you use a different method than I and achieve the results you are happy with BY ALL MEANS keep doing it that way. But if you are experiencing problems or your part is just not as shiny as the next guy, this article may be for you. This is one area where the tools and supplies to set up a semi-pro buffing experience are not that expensive.

I always welcome your opinions, experiences, discussion or debate about the elusive art of buffing.
Email me anytime..... let's talk.

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