Buffing 101: How to Polish a Car Like a Pro for Beginners

If you want to know how to look fit while driving, watch some videos of Vin Diesel flexing behind the wheel. But if you want to know how to clean your car, you have come to the right place.

Auto clear coat polishing scares the ever-loving-shit out of people who are just starting out with auto detailing. Even the lighter parts of the process, like “buffing,” can seem scary to some people when they shouldn’t.

The words “buffing” and “polishing” are often used the same way in the automotive world. But for the second one, you usually have to take off a paint protection product or a damaged clear coat. On the other hand, buffing is more about getting rid of leftover polishing compound and getting rid of things like swirl marks and surface haze.

But buffing is about much more than giving a paint job or chrome bumper a little shine. There are many different ways to finish the polishing process, and each one has its own way of being done and result.

So let’s review the basics of surface polishing, look at which parts of a car benefit most from buffing, and make a note of the parts that should be avoided. We’ll also talk about which tools will give the best results and give you some pro tips to help you turn that faded paint into a rich, glossy look.

What is buffing?

Buffing is a word that can be used to describe many different ways to polish a surface. Buffing is an important part of every auto body shop’s daily work because it is the second step in both the repair and surface protection steps.

But buffing isn’t just about making things shiny. It can also

Take off a polish or cutting compound that was already on.
Before reapplying a paint protection product that is old or damaged, lift it off.
Either way, buffing is often the last step in the process of taking care of or fixing paint, and it is usually a lot easier than, say, paint correction or claying the surface of a car.


When you hear the word “buffing,” you might think of hot rod guys scrubbing their “lead sleds” with microfiber mitts. However, the process itself is not nearly as exciting as you might think. Most of the time, buffing is used on cars when they need to be fixed or replaced. The most common times to use buffing are in the following two situations:


To fix automotive paint, you have to do a lot of hard work. Polishing and buffing are two of the most important steps. Polishing is the harder of the two methods because it involves using a power tool and a surfacing wheel to apply a series of polishing or cutting compounds to a painted surface. This lets any damaged paint or clear coat be slowly taken off without hurting the basecoats underneath.

Once polishing is done, buffing begins. During buffing, a clean towel or pad is used to remove any polishing or cutting compound that is still on the object. This not only cleans the area that was just polished so that it is ready for paint or clear coat, but it also helps show any damage that might have been missed during the polishing step.


Scratches, oxidation, and other damage to the paint on the surface of a vehicle are just some of the things that need to be fixed. To make sure that this kind of damage doesn’t happen again, a paint protection product must be used.

A new clear coat can only do so much, which is why many car owners and professional auto detailers use a product like ceramic coating to protect the car’s surface after the paint correction repairs are done. Buffing is used not only between fixing and protecting but also during the process of putting on a ceramic coating, and for good reason.

When a surface protector, like a ceramic coating, is put on a painted surface, a lot of the product bonds to or gets stuck in the surface it is protecting. What doesn’t stick to the surface is called “residual waste,” and it needs to be taken away. This is where the buffing step comes in.

But even though it might not sound too hard to rub a surface with a clean microfiber cloth, there is a lot of room for error in the buffing stage. If you take off the protectant too soon, it won’t form a strong bond or embed itself properly, which could lead to thin coverage and product failure.

If you buff a ceramic coating way too late, all of the leftover material on the surface will harden on top of the coating. This causes something called “streaking,” which, unlike that drunk guy running across the football field, won’t make you laugh out loud.


Since polishing is mostly about cutting into the clear coat of a car, it is important to know your limits. Some kinds of paint damage, like the three on the right side of the above graph, are all part of the clear coat itself. Everything on the left, on the other hand, goes a lot deeper, through paint, primer, and even bare metal.

If the damage is too bad, you can forget about buffing and polishing the paint yourself. Instead, you’ll need to hire a professional to fix it. It’s not easy to sand down to the damage’s source because you often have to reapply primer, paint, clear coat, and even body filler. Before the final polishing and buffing can start, this is often followed by a long process of color sanding.

On the bright side, if you have the kind of clear coat damage shown on the right side of our beautiful infographic, there are a few things you can do to make yourself feel better.


There is something to be said for the tried-and-true method of elbow grease and a beer. Modern technology has given us much faster ways to polish and buff, but there are still a lot of purists who insist on polishing by hand. Even though it takes a lot of work and time, buffing a car by hand has some benefits. Control and attention to detail are the best two.

So, if you want to take it easy and start with hand polishing, you’ll need these things:

Polishing and buffing pads: To spread the cutting compound over the surface, you’ll need some kind of polishing pad. Like most do-it-yourself detailers, you’ll probably choose a round, microfiber product that’s called a “one-and-done” detailing tool. So stock up and grab a stack, because you’ll probably go through a few before you’re done buffing.

Polishing and cutting compounds come in either liquid or paste form. They are full of millions of tiny “grit” particles that look like wet sanding when pressed against a clear coat. Polishing and cutting compounds come in different levels of coarseness, and it’s best to use them in order, starting with the roughest and moving on to the smoother ones.

Buffing Towel or Pad: Buffing is the last step in hand-polishing. It gets rid of the polishing compound. Hand buffing usually requires a clean microfiber towel or a very soft finishing pad, which is usually made of very soft foam.


On the other end of the spectrum, experienced detailers and people who are good at DIY tend to recommend electric polishers because they work much better. In this method, polishing pads, cutting compounds, and buffing pads are attached to an electric power tool. Even if the results are the same, the amount of time spent is much less important.


There are three kinds of products that can be used to buff: pads, towels, and cloths. The materials used to make all three products are either foam, cotton, or microfiber.

Foam applicators are usually only used to put things like cutting compounds and wax on the surface of a car. Cotton and microfiber buffing products, on the other hand, can be used to either put something on or take something off.

Buffing pads are used with either a hand-held buffing wheel or an electric buffing wheel. They attach to the face of the disc or wheel with Velcro or straps. There are foam, cotton, and microfiber buffing pads.

Buffing Towels: Buffing towels are things you can hold in your hand. They tend to be narrow in diameter and long. Buffing towels, which are almost entirely made of microfiber, are a rock star when it comes to getting rid of paint protection products and cutting compounds. A clean microfiber cloth of this degree not only prevents scratches and gets rid of tough residue, but its length also makes it easy to polish corners.

Buffing Cloth: When compared to the powerful buffing towel, buffing cloths seem like a pretty bad choice. But don’t let these little squares fool you. They are perfect for buffing hard-to-reach places where a bigger towel would be too hard to use. They are also the best solution for anyone looking for a simple way to buff.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we tell anyone who likes to do their own work to take their time and check it often. The purpose of buffing is to clean up a clear coat and make it shine, not to eat away at layers of paint protection. It’s like aftershave and lotion for cars, and if it’s done right, it can make the difference between a beautiful exterior and a really bad one.

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