Best Buffing Pads: Top Picks for Shining Your Car
Our definitive guide to the best buffing pads for every application
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BY Rebecca Henderson / LAST UPDATED ON March 19, 2019
Car care can be a rewarding but frustrating experience. There are countless brands, colors, materials, and sizes of buffing pads—which do you choose? In this guide, we’ll give you the information and tools you need to make an informed decision when it comes to purchasing buffing and finishing pads.
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Buffing Pad Benefits
- Buff your own car. Buffing your own vehicle is easier than you might think. You can easily kit yourself out with a starter kit for less than you might spend on having a professional buff your car for you.
- Give a gift to the DIY auto enthusiast in your life. Whether it’s for a birthday or Christmas gift—or “just because”—supporting someone’s automotive hobby is a great feeling. Doing your research may help you score brownie points, too.
- Do your own paint correction. You change your own oil, replace the brakes on your car yourself, and generally spend most of your time in the garage. Add buffing to your skills list by investing in a starter kit or the supplies you need to keep your ride in tip-top shape.
- Try out a new tool. Automotive paint correction will be around as long as there are cars on the road; just like the vehicles around us, techniques continually evolve. It never hurts to try a new method because you can always go back if necessary.
- Get the right tool for a professional shop. Whether you know what brand(s) you like or are looking to try out a few systems, you’re going to have to stock your shelves with paint-correction materials like rotary buffers, buffing pads, dual action polishers, orbital polishers, and more. Invest in proven materials to increase efficiency and impress your customers.
Types of Buffing Pads
Most buffing pads use a hook-and-loop design, which simply refers to how the pad attaches to the backing plate of your buffer. You have probably seen the hook-and-loop style before if you have ever worked with Velcro—it’s the same concept. Hook-and-loop polishing pads are the most common you’ll see.
Cutting pads are rougher and are intended to contact the surface of the paint and create friction/heat when used with cutting compounds. They may also be referred to as compounding pads, though polishing pads fall into this category as well. Typically made of coarser materials, cutting pads must be used in conjunction with polishing pads (and polish) to achieve a swirl-free, sparkling, like-new effect when doing some heavy cutting. Most cutting compounds come in all shapes and sizes, from three inches up to eight inches. It’s best to use cutting pads at lower RPMs for the best effect.
Polishing pads are typically smoother and/or softer than cutting pads and are intended to work with polishing compounds. These pads come in all shapes and sizes as well, just like compounding pads. Many polishing pads are designed to remove swirls and wet sanding marks, so they’re typically flatter to prevent further swirl marks from appearing. It’s best to use polishing pads at medium to high speeds for a swirl-free look.
Synthetic wool pads, as opposed to lambswool pads, are not for the faint of heart—or weak arm muscles. Requiring a higher degree of control than cutting or polishing pads, synthetic wool buffing pads use fiber-like hairs to remove the faintest scratches that won’t come out otherwise. Synthetic wool polishing pads can be spun at higher RPMs to achieve large amounts of heat and friction but must be combed out and puffed up after a few passes on the paint for best effect. These hairy pads are used with both cutting and polishing compounds.
Most of the typical buffing pads are made of foam. They’re often used between low and high RPMs depending on their type, size, use, etc. They also come in various colors that correspond to different compounds. Foam polishing pads can be formed into shapes such as waffle foam, honeycomb/hex, or a smooth surface. Denser foam pads are used for cutting; lighter foam pads finish the job via polishing or waxing.
Microfiber pads are a mix between foam pads and synthetic wool. Small, short fibers located on the pad’s surface create heat and friction for a smooth, swirl-free finish. Microfiber pads are often used with cutting compound or polish as an intermediate step; they are more aggressive than foam pads, but still, require the use of a foam pad after to create a mirror finish.
Founded in 1902, this well-known company is headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota. 3M specializes in automotive, communications, energy, health care, and transportation, to name a few. You may also consider the 3M Perfect It Foam Compounding Pad Set, which features three pads designed to cover the basic steps of paint correction.
Headquartered in Irvine, California, this popular company was founded in 1901. Meguiars has been in the automotive industry for years, developing products for automotive, professional, and marine platforms alike. Recognized for introducing the microfiber pad to paint correction enthusiasts, Meguiars offers their Microfiber Correction System for those looking to shake things up a bit by trying something new.
Though its Italian parent company was founded in 1947, RUPES USA is relatively new to the scene. The international company acquired a Colorado-based tool manufacturer in 2015. RUPES offers a variety of products for the weekend warrior and professional detailer, such as the 4-Pad 6” Foam Pack that features coarse, medium, fine, and ultrafine pads for a start-to-finish buffing experience.
- $5-$10: Most 3-inch pads come in a variety pack at this price range. There are some 5.5-inch and/or 6.5-inch buffing pads in this price range as well, but they’re not the best quality. You can also purchase backing plates separately in this price range.
- $11-$20: This is a good range to start with to determine what buffing pads you like and which ones aren’t working for you. You’ll find some name-brand pads here, but single pads of various types will usually be in this range. Backing plates are typically included with a pad or pads in this price range as well.
- $25-$100: As with most of our top picks, you’ll find both value and variety in this price range. Some single pads are priced at the lower end of this range, while many kits can run between $50 and $75. Most kits will include a backing plate and at least three buffing pads of different types.
Purchasing the correct pad size for your platform is key. Some rotary and dual-action machines will accept various sizes of pads via interchangeable backing plates. If you have to make the choice between a smaller or a larger buffing pad than the size recommended for your platform, it’s best to go with a larger one.
Buffing pads are circular, but some pad faces are shaped in different ways. Waffle pads are used for extending the buffer’s reach into the valleys of the car’s body lines; honeycomb pads allow for distribution of air during the buffing process, and smooth/flat pads are used for polishing and finishing to achieve a mirror-like effect.
It’s important to understand what type of pad you need for the various buffing processes involved in correcting automotive paint. Cutting pads are typically denser to handle the intense heat and friction needed to repair deep scratches. Polishing pads are light and flat. Don’t attempt to use a pad for any other process than what it’s designed to do.
- Buffing speed. The speed of the rotary polisher has as much to do with the pad type and buffing compound. As you’re considering buffing pads, make sure you know what corresponding speeds you should be using for the best results. Cutting compounds are typically used at 1,400 to 1,800 RPMs, while polishers can be set higher to 2,000 to 2,600 RPMs. Waxing is best done around 2,000 RPMs.
- Life Expectancy. Buffing pads are what many consider to be consumables: materials you have to replace with use. Like most products, you want to invest in higher-quality buffing pads that will last. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also get better results with less effort. Research maintenance and storage recommendations along with the pads you’re considering to protect your investment.
- Partner Compounds. Manufacturers specifically formulate their buffing pads to be used with corresponding compounds for maximum results. For example, buffing pad colors and uses will coincide with the color of the cap on the compound, polish, or wax you should use. It’s not advisable to mix compounds and buffing pads because the makeup of the pad has a lot to do with how the compound itself works.
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- Practice buffing on less-than-stellar paint at first. With anything else, you’ll probably make a few mistakes along the way before you get into the best polishing practices; it’s best to do that on a car you don’t really care about. A good pad kit also helps with getting the basics down.
- Start out your buffing experience with wet waxing. You can use wax on the clear coat from your local auto parts store and a flat foam pad. To get the basics of machine polishing down, set your rotary polisher to 1,400 RPMs and apply four dots of a nickel-sized amount of wax in a diamond-shaped pattern on the pad itself. Use a microfiber towel to help with controlling messes.
- Wax is easier to work with than cutting or polishing compound. It’s the same consistency, but it won’t necessarily create a haze or swirl marks in your paint after use. Beginners should buff with wax first since you’ll quickly learn how not to slop wax everywhere and how the buffing pad and paint react to one another.
- Experiment with different buffing pads, rotary buffers, orbital buffers, paint colors, etc. Tape off two 2-foot-by-2-foot sections next to each other on the hood. Perform your buffing processes to one section but not the other and visually compare your before and after. Darker colors will show more dramatic results, unlike silver and white cars. Stick with pads that get you the results you want.
- Reading the instructions for using various compounds, polishes, and waxes, as well as buffing pads, is key to getting the most out of your machine, your buffing pads, the compounds, and your time/effort. Use the instructions as guidelines.
- While some pads can be used for both compounding and polishing (given you clean the pad between processes), it’s better to get two separate pads for each process. That way if you have to go back and compound something you might have missed, you don’t have to clean the same pad four times.
- During the buffing process, you’ll inevitably get compound in the nooks and crannies of your vehicle’s exterior. Make sure to check for compound in door jambs, door seams, grilles, headlight bezels, the underside of your side mirrors, between the window trim and the rubber molding, and around your rear license plate. Dried compound can actually hurt your paint if left unaddressed.
Q: When should I replace my buffing pads?
A: It’s easy to run your buffing pad a bit too close to sharp edges when buffing a car, especially if you’re tired. However, if you remove large amounts of the pad during use, replace the pad before you buff another car. If the pad surface is pockmarked, replace as soon as possible.
Q: Are there certain pads that are better for black/dark-colored cars?
A: The answer to this question depends on what steps in the buffing process you want to do. In general, if you want like-new paint, you’ll need to begin with coarser compound buffing pads and then work your way to polishing and waxing. This is especially true for black and dark-colored cars where scratches are more easily seen.
Q: How many buffing pads do I need to start out?
A: One buffing pad will suffice. Realistically, though, you’ll want to invest in a cutting pad, a polishing pad, and a waxing pad, all six to six and a half inches. We recommend you stock your buffing cabinet with these three basic pads to start out.
Q: What’s the best way to clean buffing pads?
A: Removing compound is easiest when it’s wet. Directly after you have finished with a buffing pad, place it in a bucket of hot soapy water. The soap can be your car wash soap or a simple dish soap you’d find at your local grocery store. Agitate the pads with your fingers to remove the stubborn compound and allow it to air dry before using it again.
Q: How hard should I press when using buffing pads?
A: Buffing machines are meant to create the heat and friction necessary to activate the compound, whether you’re compounding, polishing, or waxing. That’s why you can adjust the RPMs manually. The only pressure you need to apply is enough to maintain constant and consistent pressure across the surface of the pad. It’s about the same amount of pressure required to hold a pencil or press a button.
Q: Can I mix and match buffing pads and compounds?
A: This is something we advise only professionals or those with a few years of experience under their belt should do. You may end up damaging the paint, your pad, and/or your machine if you don’t use the proper combination.
Q: Do I need to wipe off excess compound right away?
A: Yes, it’s best to get rid of the compound when it’s wet, either on the car or on your buffing pads (or on you). Water on a microfiber cloth works well for door jambs, but it’s best to use a soft microfiber cloth that’s been conditioned with a bit of spray wax. It’s less likely to scratch your just-buffed paint while still removing built-up compound.
TCP Global’s 8 Inch Buffing Kit with 6 Pads and Backing Plate is our best overall pick because of the value and utility the whole package offers for the price.
Chemical Guys; 6.5 Inch Buffing Sampler Kit is our budget pick. With three pads and a bottle of cleaner, all you need is the dual-action or rotary polisher to start.