POLISHING 101 | BASIC MECHANICS & OPERATION
Wielding a polisher of any description is always accompanied with some form of a learning curve, and while some may be short, others may prove to be longer, requiring hundreds, if not thousands of hours to perfect. In this article, I'll be discussing the rudimentary mechanics and operations behind three different categories. For the sake of simplicity, I've decided to separate them into three areas of my own detail-based nomenclature including (Tier A, Tier B, and Tier C). The credo by which anyone should choose their polisher is strictly predicated off of a handful of variables including age, paint thickness, manufacturer, and overall condition. As a disclaimer, a polisher of any variety should always be handled responsibly. When in doubt, always refer to operating procedures as outlined by your respective manufacturer. If you can't find the answers you're looking for through a detail-based forum online, each manufacturer has its own dedicated customer service hotline who will address any issues you might be experiencing; you invested in them and they should equally invest in you.
You may not categorize yourself as a professional, but still want to scratch that itch for polishing? Well, there are a wide variety of tools at your disposal within this first tier. Entry-level tools of any description can span across a myriad of pricing points, many of which are still relatively light on the wallet, too. Rather than rifling through an endless catalogue of options online and through brick and mortar locations, it's essential to understand the major building blocks of what this tier brings to the table.
The two types of polishers that serve as a perfect training ground for any beginner would include either an over-the-counter buffer and/or applicator or what's known as a dual-action polisher (DA). Before you choose either of these options (both of which I'll be covering in their entirety), there's a metric and formula that one should follow prior to use. First, one needs to be cognizant of the OPM (oscillations/orbits per minute). Regardless of the model or tool that's employed, each unit is supplied with a maximum speed by which it can comfortably operate without surpassing its threshold. At the end of the day, the OPM allows the user to accomplish a wide range of tasks, and this will vary slightly from machine to machine. A table below illustrates the fundamental differences between an over-the-counter buffer versus a dual-action polisher (DA).
By default, Fig. 1 directly correlates to what I would classify as a traditional over-the-counter buffer or wax applicator. In this day and age, many big box retailers and channels of E-commerce including AutoZone, O"Reilly's Auto Parts, NAPA, Amazon, etc.) all have your introductory applicators that can range anywhere from $25 and above. When it comes to this design, the motion is limiting to the user, and as such, it only serves the purpose of either applying conventional forms of protection (waxes, sealants, glazes, etc.), and with a handful of units that carry a higher watt and output of power, it can eliminate minor imperfections if coupled with the right pad and abrasive. If you look closer at the first illustration, its orbital path in conjunction with its centrifugal force (usually manufactured with inferior components) only equates to minimal results, yet is perfect for anyone that feels apprehension when handling a machine for the first time. Ultimately, this first tier is designed for menial jobs. For someone with little to no experience, you'll find that the learning curve is short and convenient, not to mention being a cost-effective method to earning your first stripes in the polishing world.
As you switch to Fig. 2, you'll advance to a range of motion that's synonymous with a category known as a dual-action polisher or (DA). With a dual-action polisher, you're increasing your range of motion, but bear in mind it's also bisected into two subsets including either a free-spinning or direct-drive/forced rotation action.
Before I proceed any further, let me briefly discuss the differences between these two configurations. First and foremost, any free-spinning orbital polisher is virtually fail-proof in the sense that when in operation, the spindle operates independently, which means that the amount of rotation is in direct proportion with its centrifugal force. The illustration below highlights the major components that are responsible for operating a free-spinning orbital polisher.
By and large, any unit of this description carries a built-in safety mechanism. You're probably asking yourself "Why would I need a built-in safety mechanism?" Well, the answer is quite simple. The margin for error has become smaller and smaller throughout the last 10-15 years due to manufacturers reducing the amount of clearcoat within the assembly process (with the exception of a few brands).
If either too much pressure is applied or the user should place the pad in a position that doesn't come into complete contact with the surface (curvatures, sharp angles, obscure edges, etc.) the pad will stall causing it to stop, altogether. Consequently, if this style of polisher is placed in the wrong hands, that individual has the potential of doing more harm than good. Thankfully, the probability of inflicting damage onto any given panel is still probable but highly improbable.
Some of the most notable differences between the first machine mentioned and a DA include build quality, OPM's, path of motion, and the increased capability with regard to paint correction. Unlike the previous style, any DA will create two motions, simultaneously. As Fig. 2 shows, you'll see that any DA will execute two paths of motion. Its primary path includes a continuous orbital motion with a secondary motion that includes smaller, evenly-spaced orbits around its primary path. Hence, why the term is coined "dual-action" polisher, because it includes two actions operating, simultaneously.
As we switch gears, no pun intended, we move to what's known as a direct-drive or forced-rotation action. As the name suggests, everything operates as one continuous unit. Unlike that of a free-spinning orbital polisher, a direct-drive or forced rotation is generally regarded as a tool that produces results faster, simply because the gear ratios inside the assembly force the pad to continue rotating, regardless of how it's handled.
For those in the high-production business, this is the "work horse" of tools and is typically reserved for those with some experience. When one introduces themselves to this variety for the first time, it can seem very alien being that it may feel like it has a mind of its own, and it most certainly does to an extent. The torque and power behind any unit within Tier B will leave your fingers and arms feeling somewhat numb at first, but as you continue to use it after a certain period of time that feeling will subside or will become greatly reduced. For those with sensitive hands, you may want to invest in a pair of anti-vibration gloves. Ultimately, the machine has what I would call an indifferent approach, since it'll continue spinning whether you like it or not. Along the same token, one should be mindful of the pressure that's applied. With any gear-driven machine, you need to be mindful of both the amount of pressure applied and the amount of heat that's being collected. When either of these two variables are blown out of proportion, the amount of friction being generated will accelerate the potential for burnishing through the clearcoat. The illustration below shows the path of motion any gear-driven or direct-drive machine takes whilst in operation.
If you're ready to flex your polishing dexterity, then adding a rotary polisher into your arsenal will not only allow for maximum efficiency, but will produce a finish that is in many ways far more admired than that of any other aforementioned machine. Rotary polishers have been long-regarded as the tool of choice for body shops, advanced detail technicians, and many other industries that require strong tools to satisfy a large volume operation.
Operationally speaking, rotary polishers offer the convenience of cutting away at defect removal (swirls, scratches, orange peel other foreign imperfections) much faster than that of any other category. Not unlike that of a direct-drive unit, the spindle and assembly operates as one. Fig, 5 illustrates the path of motion a rotary polisher takes while in operation.
The rotational behavior is very simplistic in the sense that it only runs with a single and continuous orbital motion, which in turn requires the hands of someone who's experienced and adroit in their skills with a high-powered machine. Memorialized for almost 100 years, the rotary polisher expedites the most labor-intensive tasks that stretch far beyond that of any auto-based restoration including (boats, aviation, construction, etc.) and the list continues.
As one familiarizes themselves with a rotary polisher, that person may have a tendency to fight the constant torque being displaced by the machine. While this may be a normal response for any beginner, this is the opposite of how one should approach a sophisticated machine. Rather than fighting the constant force being generated by one continuous motion, it's recommended to begin at its slowest RPM. In this way, you can feel the gradual proprioception, and how the rotary reacts to your movement. With the exception of specialty jobs, any rotary should be held with the pad resting completely flat against the surface it's touching. If not, one of two consequences will arise. One, the unit will become more difficult to handle since your "biomechanical homeostasis", as I like to call it, will be thrown out of proportion. Two, the heat being generated from any rotary originates on the outside edge of any pad used, therefore, one needs ensure that they're parallel with the surface being touched.
The implications of using one without experience can lead to damage to not only the surface you're working on, but even injury to yourself. Trust me, take the time to practice on a used panel from a scrapyard and dedicate some time each day to your machine. Much like anything else in life, the more you dedicate yourself to a particular skill, the quicker it'll become second nature to you. Since the emergence of more sophisticated DA machines, the rotary, while still in use, has started to take a backseat since it no longer fits the needs of many detail operations. Of course, the age-old debate continues regarding which category produces the best results, but I consider myself an impartial third party. As I mention to all of my clients, every project of mine is handled on a case-by-case basis. In order for one to master the nuances of paintwork, that person needs to understand the full breadth of what's available.
Last but not least, we turn to a category that needs no introduction. For those within the bespoke crowd, specialty polishers have come to the forefront of the detailing industry, and with good reason. Not every project is as regimental as the last. For this reason, the detailing world has been turning to the needs of specialty polishers to attack areas that other traditional polishers just can't reach.
Within the last 10 years, the field of specialty machines have grown exponentially, While many of them have their own unique characteristics, they bridge the gap between those that need additional horsepower, while achieving brilliance to surfaces that are virtually impossible to perfect. In my point of view, they're versatile, compact, and serve as a multifaceted tool for both interiors and exteriors alike. In addition to the amount of applications being numerous, polishers within this category contain specialty attachments that can handle jobs for removing imperfections from behind door handles, instrument cluster bezels, door sills, leather/vinyl, wet-sanding projects, emblem polishing, and the list continues. Of course, the piece de resistance of any specialty polisher is the amount of customization that comes with virtually any unit. As a brief introduction, you'll find a comprehensive overview to one of the most recognizable nano-polishers on the market, the iBrid Nano series by Rupes.
Categorically speaking, one cannot cover such a broad generalization of how polishers work in their entirety within the span of just one article, which is why the sole purpose of this blog was to introduce you to the world of what machines are available, their basic functions, and how they differ from each other. Regardless of skill level, the user should become familiar with the terms long-stroke and short-stroke. In essence, there's a spectrum of orbital length (size of path) upon which every manufacturer can operate any given model.
For example, if you should operate a polisher that possesses a 3mm orbit (smaller orbital path), that machine would equate to a short-stroke polisher. On the other hand, if you're handling a polisher that possesses a 21mm orbit (large orbital path), then that machine would be classified as a long-stroke polisher. Unfortunately, the detailing world tends to prattle on about the semantics of it all, but that's another conversation and another cup of coffee.
Naturally, the same concept exists for all tools that require compressed air to operate, which is why pneumatic polishers are covered under the same umbrella as specialty polishers. So, while there's a diverse catalogue of polishers to choose from, it's fun to pick your poison because everyone responds a little differently to each unit. Please note, every individual and operation is structured with a unique framework by which they serve their customers, which is why it's important to identify what will facilitate your customer's needs best.
More importantly, one shouldn't rest on their laurels because the industry continues to evolve, and it's an exciting and equally fun subset of detailing to explore. In the next article, which will become the second-part of a three-part series, I'll discuss the complexities of pads, how they pair with any given machine, and how one can achieve superior results. Lastly, you'll find a few links which will include some of the most reputable polishers on the market. So, with that being said, grab a used panel and start creating mirror-like reflections.
Beginner & Dual-Action Polishers
Maxshine M8S Dual-Action Polisher (8mm orbit stroke)
Porter Cable 7424XP 6-inch Random Orbital Polisher
Flex XC 3401 VRG Direct-Drive Orbital Polisher
Rupes Bigfoot Mille LK900E
Flex PE14 Rotary Polisher
DEWALT Rotary Polisher (9-inch)
Specialty Tools/Nano Polishers
iBrid Nano Longneck Polisher Kit
Maxshine MN01 Mini Polisher w/adaptor
Rupes 12mm & 15mm Pneumatic Polishers