Unless you keep your vehicle in an airtight box, it’s gonna see some wear and tear.

Even if no one keys your car, scratches and wear and tear come with the territory when you’re driving. You don’t have to be an car enthusiast to want to fix scratches or want to do some detail work touch-ups.

But without that background, it gets confusing fast. Do you want a buffer or polisher? Is a dual-action polisher something you should consider?

Polishers are easier to use and run the risk of causing very little damage than buffers. The downside is they can’t do much more than polishing. Rotary buffers are a lot more powerful, and can even buff out scratches. However, they can strip away or even burn your paint if you aren’t careful.

To learn more about your vehicle and to learn which choice is right for you, read on!

The Layers of a Paint Job

Vehicle paint is a lot shinier and a lot more durable than the paint on your walls at home, and there’s a reason for that. It isn’t just one simple layer of color like a painting your kid brings home from school. Instead, there’s a layer of primer below the paint and a clearcoat above.

This paint job isn’t just there to look good. Paint covers up the vulnerable metal surface underneath. While it might seem strange to think of steel as fragile, this quick overview of the layers of paint will show how they protect the car beneath.

male spraying red paint on a car
Layers of paint protect the car by covering the vulnerable metal underneath
  • Layer 1: Bare Metal Yes, even though cars are made of durable steel, it’s actually the secret weakness of a vehicle. When exposed to air, the iron in the steel can begin to rust, eating away the vehicle (and sinking your resale value). Paint keeps oxygen off the surface of the metal keeping it safe.
  • Layer 2: Primer Paint put on naked metal won’t last long. A good primer gives it a surface it can really stick to. Some primers use an acid to attach more firmly to the metal. Don’t worry, this is a very shallow bite and doesn’t hurt the vehicle itself.
  • Layer 3: Base Coat This is what you think of when you think about paint. It makes red cars red and green boats green. Even though this layer is the one that colors the car, on its own it looks matte and dull.
  • Layer 4: Clear Coat The clear coat is the layer that gives the paint job its signature shine and helps give the paint real longevity. Because of this, even poorly maintained vehicles can have (at least some) vibrant, attractive color.

Many people apply wax to their vehicle, which serves as a sort of fifth layer. This should be applied in cool (not cold) conditions, out of direct sunlight. Wax makes a paint job look even shinier and sleeker and can help protect it against the conditions of the weather and road.

Any damage done to the wax layer is negligible, since it’s not really part of the paint job. The clear coat is a bit more important, but as long as the damage doesn’t cut down to the base coat, it isn’t too big of a deal. This can still be buffed out, even by a dedicated amateur. If the cut is deep or leaves a dent, it may be time to seek expert help.

Rotary Buffers: Helpful and Harmful

A rotary buffer is a powerful piece of hardware. It works by spinning the buffing surface of the tool. It can rotate at very high speeds, which means it can scrape away those layers of paint with just a little time.

This can be useful in some cases. When paint chips, it can cut through the wax and clear coat and even go into the base coat or primer. In extreme cases, the metal itself might be gouged (this kind of damage often leaves a dent).

The only way to truly repair cuts is to level out the surface. You can’t do this by filling it up again if you want a seamless fix. Instead, you need to remove enough of the outer layer to make it flat again. This is where a buffer comes in handy.

Be careful, though. Buffers are powerful, and they can build up a dangerous amount of heat. This heat can warp or even burn through your layers of paint, creating unsightly and costly blemishes.  In a worst-case scenario, this can mean you need a whole new paint job. If this is your first time doing any detail work, consider other options.

Orbital Polishers

Orbital polishers don’t have the same circular motion as rotary buffers. Instead, they wiggle in a wavy oscillation, working in a sort of rapid squiggle pattern. This is a lot more like the motion you would make if you were polishing by hand.

One immediate advantage of these over rotary buffers is that they run no risk of producing an unwanted swirl effect on your finish. Because they don’t spin in a circle, they don’t leave circular prints behind.

Another huge advantage of these is the relatively low amount of force they can actually exert. While a rotary buffer can burn your paint through to the metal below, an orbital polisher isn’t that strong. Instead of hurting your paint job, an orbital polisher pushed too hard into your car will just stop.

These polishers are a risk free way to apply wax or sealant, but they can’t do much else.

Orbital Polishers are a risk free way to apply wax or sealant on your car

The downside of this is that since it won’t damage the finish, it can’t buff out any scratches. Technically, it’s possible that you might be able to remove the absolute shallowest imperfections. However, anything big enough to catch your eye is probably too big to get out with just a polisher.

Is a Dual Action Polisher Better?

A dual action polisher is a little more like a rotary buffer than an orbital polisher is. It combines the motion of the orbital polisher with some rotation. This combination of oscillation and rotation creates a stronger force than a plain orbital polisher.

The upside of this is that a dual action polisher is a stronger tool than an orbital polisher. Even so, it isn’t too much less beginner friendly. You run minimal risk of screwing up your paint job with this tool, as long as your careful.

Is a dual action polisher better? That depends on your own comfort. They’re about as easy to use as orbital polishers, so it’s a question of power. Either way, you’re going to be much faster than someone working by hand.

Conclusion: Expertise and Expectations

The choice of buffer vs polisher comes down to what you want to do and how confident you are doing it. If you’re not very experienced, a rotary buffer’s power can go wrong fast. On the other hand, if you’re looking to repair scratches or do serious detailing work, a polisher won’t get you too far.

Whatever choice you make, we’ll be here with you every step of the way! Thank you for checking out this article. If you found it helpful, please consider checking out our other articles linked below.