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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.

Tier A

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).

FIG. 1

FIG. 2

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.

FIG. 3

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 fric