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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.
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’ve probably seen the hook-and-loop style before if you’ve 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.
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.
There are just as many buffers out there as buffing pads. The good thing about this kit from TCP Global is, no matter what brand you buy (as long as it has a ⅝-inch thread spindle), these 8-inch buffing pads will hook right up to the included backing plate that threads onto the spindle. This is why it’s our top pick. Serious buffing aficionados will be quick to tell you that having a variety of buffing pads is key to tackling any car—or rather, paint—you encounter.
With the TCP Global buffing kit, you’re able to quickly identify which pad you need for the corresponding process. The waffle design of the pads allows you to tackle the hard-to-reach spots around creases in the body lines. Since this kit comes with so many pads, you can experiment to see what type of pad is best for each buffing step.
First-time buffers may be confused by the number of pads included if they’re not knowledgeable about the steps required to buff a car properly. This kit is an investment as well. With a bit of research, however, you can get respectable results when it comes time to buff your car’s paint.
We chose the sampler kit of 6.5-inch buffing pads from Chemical Guys as our value option because it makes understanding the buffing process incredibly simple for a good price. With three pads, you’re able to compound, polish, and wax nearly any vehicle on the road. As long as you remember which color corresponds to which process, it’s as simple as switching out pads and moving onto the next step.
The hex pattern of the Chemical Guys’ buffing pads straddles the middle ground between completely flat pads and those with a waffle design. This means you’re able to reach into the curves of the body lines to get the full effect, while still being able to keep the pad itself level across the paint surface to reduce swirls. Plus, the included cleaning solution means you won’t have to worry about what to soak your pads in between uses.
The main issue with the starter kit is just that: It’s a starter kit you shouldn’t necessarily use for intense paint correction. Generally speaking, buffing a car will almost always revive the paint to a certain degree, but depending on the condition of the paint itself, you might need a more aggressive approach. However, Chemical Guys have made it incredibly easy to get into buffing your own car with this affordable kit.
If there’s one pad you should buy while on a budget, it’s the 3M foam compounding pad, which comes as a set of two. Measuring eight inches, these pads will fit any standard rotary polisher via a hook-and-loop attachment. Comprised of waffle-like peaks and valleys, you’ll likely find it easier to reach around body lines for fuller coverage.
We picked the 3M foam compounding pad set because of its unique versatility. Though you should, of course, clean the pads after each step in the buffing process, this single pad can be used for every step. That’s right, you can use this pad to compound out scratches and defects, polish up swirl marks and hazing, and finish with a coat of wax. This 3M pad is great for all colors of paint, including darker colors like black.
Since the pack doesn’t come with separate pads for different steps, it shouldn’t be the only option you consider if you want to learn the entire process. At the same time, beginning with this pad will tell you if buffing is something you’d like to continue doing. You can keep the buffing pad the same and change other variables if you’re comparing compounds, rotary speeds, or any other aspects of the buffing process.
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.
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.
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.
A: Removing compound is easiest when it’s wet. Directly after you’ve 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—or dry it via an air hose—before using it again.
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.
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.
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.
High Aluminum Porcelain
TCP Global’s 8” 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” 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.
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