How To Buff A Car

If your car is looking a little dingy, you gotta give it a good buffing!

byCorey Forde| UPDATED Jan 24, 2022 2:06 PM
How To Buff A Car
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You may love being a total stickler for your car’s appearance, but many vehicle owners don’t spend that much time thinking about paint smoothing and polishing. The good news is that even if you’re a complete novice, you can make your vehicle look showroom-new in just a few steps.

Buffing a car requires some time and effort, but the results are wonderful. You can get rid of small scratches and scrapes, brighten the paint, and thoroughly clean your vehicle in the process. You can do the whole job by hand, but an electric rotary buffer will make life much easier.

Let The Drive’s awesome team of detailing experts show you the correct way to buff your car, and take a dive into the equipment and safety precautions needed to do the job the right way.

The Drive and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. Read more., DepositPhotos

How to Buff a Car Basics 

Estimated Time Needed: 1-2 hours, depending on the size of your vehicle

Skill Level: Beginner

Vehicle System: Exterior

What is Buffing? 

Buffing is the act of removing a very thin layer of your car’s paint, which eliminates oxidization, cracks, and scratches. When your car is exposed to the elements over the years, these imperfections are guaranteed to happen. It’s why buffing and polishing are so important to keep your car looking clean and well-maintained.

You don't need a boatload of equipment to do the job right., DepositPhotos

Buffing a Car Safely

Buffers spin at dangerously high RPM. Working on your car can be dangerous and messy, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to ensure you don’t die, get maimed, or lose a finger and that you keep your jeans, shirt, and skin spotless—hopefully.

  • Keep rings, bracelets, and other jewelry away from the buffer to avoid getting caught up in the spinning wheel. Heck, you aren’t there to impress anyone, so take them off.
  • Work in a well-ventilated space to avoid breathing polishing fumes.
  • If you get any solution on your skin or in your eyes, wash immediately and call a poison control center.

Everything You’ll Need To Buff A Car

We’re not psychic, nor are we snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done.

Tool List 

Parts List 

Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)

You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking that is also well-ventilated. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting you or your ride out of the clink.

Here’s How To Buff A Car

The process below looks like it’ll be a real pain, but there’s nothing to worry about. Work deliberately and cover small parts of the vehicle at a time to make sure you’re working in the solution before it dries.

With that out of the way, let’s do this! 

Buffing Your Car

  1. Start by rinsing the vehicle to remove any built up dirt and debris. After the rinse, give it a thorough washing with gentle automotive soap.
  2. Tape off the areas that you don’t want polished. The rotary buffer spins quite fast and generates a ton of heat, so you’ll want to protect parts of the vehicle like headlights and trim pieces that can’t withstand the heat.
  3. Start with the wool pad and the gentle buffing compound. Begin by buffing in alternating up-down and left-right motions. Work in a small area, such as one door or fender at a time.
  4. When the compound starts to take on a hazy look, it’s time to use a microfiber towel to wipe it clean. This process removes any surface scratches.
  5. Remove the wool pad and install the yellow foam pad to the buffer. Repeat the steps above, working in a small area. It’s best to start with a decent amount of pressure and reduce it as you near the end of this step.
  6. Once the compound has been spread thin, once again use the microfiber towel to clean up the area.
  7. After you’ve buffed the entire vehicle, it’s time to apply a coat of wax. Use a liquid carnauba wax. These products usually come with an applicator of their own. Use it to apply the wax in a circular motion over a small area.
  8. Take time to clean any stray splashes of buffing compound off of windows, mirrors, trim pieces, and wheels. 
Attention to detail here is key., DepositPhotos

Pro Tips To Buff A Car

The Drive’s editors have spent the time behind a buffer to help you understand the ins and outs of doing it like a pro. Here are our pro tips.

  1. Don’t mix up your pads. Each one has a specific reason for being, and using them for more than one step can cause an uneven buff or may damage the car.
  2. Keep extra pads and make sure you’ve got enough buffing solution. You never know when you’ll spill or damage something you need along the way.
  3. Store your pads and tools in a clean place. You won’t want to try buffing your car with a dirty pad.
  4. If you’re uncertain about your buffing skills (and it’s OK if you are), it might be a good idea to pick up an old door or body panel from a junkyard to practice on.
  5. Start with a clean car. Your buff job won’t look all that great if you’re rubbing in dead bugs and dirt.
  6. Don’t buff in one spot for too long. The heat will damage the paint.
  7. You can buff by hand in a pinch, but it’s going to require some elbow grease.
  8. Try to work in the shade to give yourself as much time to buff before the solution dries. Sunlight and direct heat will speed this process up considerably, and again, will damage your paint. 
  9. Some available buffing kits will provide directions in stages—usually four, max. The higher stages will most likely direct you to repeat buffing the process over a few more times, while upgrading the pads provided or using different compounds. Most kits will recommend going to Stage 2 at minimum. On lighter colored cars, Stage 2 is just fine. On darker colored cars, or older cars, I recommend going to the final stage as directed. This will make the final result look much better. 

Video

In this video, the people over at Stauffer Garage show you how buffing removes the swirls and scratches in your paint.

FAQs About How to Buff a Car

You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers!

Q. How Often Do I Need to Buff My Car? 

A. It’s important to know that overbuffing a car can damage your paint job, so aim for 1-3 times per year, depending on where you live or where you store your car. If you park under a tree, in a dripping parking garage, or live in the salt belt, I recommend three times per year. 

Q. How Much Will it Cost to Buff My Car? 

A. Expect to spend anywhere between $50-$200, depending on the amount and quality of the equipment you purchase. The chemicals you purchase will usually last through three or more buffing jobs. 

Q. How Does Buffing Harm My Car’s Paint? 

A. Buffing compounds, like polishes, are abrasive and strip away thin layers of your paint. Continuing to do this over short periods of time can ruin the finish and make your paint extremely weak. This leads to chips, easier scratching, and other issues. 

Q. What’s the Difference Between Polishing and Buffing? 

A. This is a tough question with some controversy surrounding it. Buffing and polishing are extremely similar, and are sometimes used interchangeably. There’s even a debate among the detailing community on if there is actually a difference! For the most part, the polishing process is known to require coarser compounds, which strip a bit more clear coat and paint compared to buffing. The decision to buff or polish depends on the car, its condition, and in some fields, the type of metal that is being worked on. 

Q. So Does it Actually Matter if I Decide to Polish Instead of Buff?

A. For the average at-home detailer, the final results are generally the same, regardless of which you choose. The processes are extremely similar, and the final results will be as well. Again, there are some factors that could come into play that may require buffing over polishing and vice versa, but those are often for extreme cases. If you’re interested, check out our guide on How To Polish A Car.

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