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The Basics of Detailing Polishers for Total Beginners

Polishers—more specifically mechanical polishers—sit in the middle of detailing and paint correction…a line that if you’re a complete beginner, can be intimidating to cross! If you’re new to this area, it’s a good idea to know how polishers (sometimes called buffers) work because you’ll need one to remove swirl marks and light scratches on paintwork.

And some polishers are pretty simple to operate too…even if you’ve never used one.

In this post, I’ll start with some basic terminology and give you a few recommendations to help you decide what’s best for you.

Types of polishers used in detailing

In the auto detailing world, there are two main categories and subcategories of polishers commonly used: Dual action (or DA) polishers and rotary polishers. Technically, a rotary ‘polisher’ is generally not used for polishing, it’s used to cut through clear coat—here’s why that’s important.

Pros often use a rotary to quickly remove the clear coat layer of a vehicle to remove deep scratches; many follow up with a dual-action polisher after the main scratch has been removed during the polishing phase.

Phase one: cutting + Phase two: polishing = two-stage paint correction! But back to the basics.

Rotary polishers vs dual-action polishers

Rotary polishers apply friction and heat using one rotating axis—the pad itself— whereas a dual-action polisher spins the pad on one axis, and the spindle (the rod inserted in the polisher) on another.  Dual-action polishers are great for beginners because they help distribute friction and heat to a larger surface area, while still removing small imperfections like hazing and light scratches.

Benefits of rotary polishers

Illustration of pad movement on a rotary polisher.

A rotary makes it easy to work fast if you need to remove deep scratches but can abrade too much clear coat if not careful. Imperfections called ‘holograms’ or buffer trails are produced easily by rotary tools; dual-action polishers are more forgiving in this area.

The detailing ‘polishers’ in the early days were all rotary polishers. They do take time to master, but still in use in body shops and by pro detailers.

Different types of dual-action polishers

The term ‘dual-action’ basically refers to two separate planes or axes of motion the polisher produces: the main axis (your spinning pad), and the orbital axis. The spinning pad orbits around a second axis which can be the same, fixed orbit every time…or random. DAs are also referred to as orbital polishers for this reason…who knew?

Now, YOU do.

A pad moving across two axes created by a dual-action polisher.

To use an analogy, think of the spinning pad like the Earth rotating on its own axis, while it follows a separate path or orbit around the sun.

DAs are classified and named by the nature of the movement (or mechanism) of the secondary axis: Gear-driven and random.

Random orbital dual-action polishers

The ‘random orbit’ means that while the pad is spinning on one axis, the entire device is orbiting on another axis, but not on a fixed path. Because of the random rotation, the random orbital polisher will be the safest for beginners. The circular shape of the path can be controlled by variables like speed, pressure applied, and the contour of the vehicle.

Why is this good? Safety. This random movement mimics polishing by hand so you’re less likely to get swirly polishing marks produced by a fixed never-going-to-change motion!
When more friction and heat are spread out over a large surface area, you can still remove scratches without removing too much clear coat from one area.

Gear-driven dual-action polishers

Gear-driven dual-action polishers (often referred to as forced-rotation polishers), force the spinning pad to move along a fixed, symmetrical path. With a fixed rotation these DA polishers will be a bit easier to control, because the motion is predefined by default.

However, a forced rotation DA will continue along its orbit regardless of user input. Like a rotary, you can’t stop the pad from spinning by applying pressure like you can with a random orbital, so they can cut through too much clear coat if not careful.

Frequently Asked Question

What does ‘throw’ mean in relation to dual-action polishers?
Sometimes DA polishers are categorized by their ‘throw’ ability. The throw of a DA polisher refers to the size of the orbiting path a DA polisher creates. For example, a ‘long throw DA’ simply means the path created by the second axis can cover a larger area. Long-throw polishers are ideal if you have a large vehicle or lots of flat surfaces.

What polisher is best for beginners?

As a general rule, a dual-action polisher NOT a rotary will always be the best for beginners, because they can remove scratches without creating a ton of heat. DAs are less likely to leave behind holograms or buffer trails compared to rotaries.

Okay, but which one? It honestly comes down to preference.

A quality gear-driven dual-action polisher won’t require you to master super great A+ technique right away, which means they’ll be easy to control around edges of your vehicle, and give you more of a guided experience that won’t require as much effort.

Expect to pay more for forced-rotation DAs, but you can find a couple affordable options on the market, like this one by Hercules.

Hercules Forced Rotation Dual-Action Polisher

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A random-orbital polisher technically is the safest DA by design. It’s much better and ideal for applying wax or polish (finishing), but not as good at cutting through a bunch of clear coat to remove a scratch. 

I recommend you start with a well-built entry-level random orbital polisher like this one by Porter Cable.

Porter Cable Random Orbit Dual-Action Polisher

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It’s a bit heavy, but it’s also well-made and affordable at the same time. I love mine.

If you’re serious about detailing or already have some experience,  look into the Rupes brand as they make a pro line. They are expensive, but use the best technology on the market instead of those dime-a-dozen private-label brands you’ve never heard of.

Be sure to clay your vehicle before using a polisher

Now that you know the basics of polishers, check out my post on how to clay a car for beginners before you begin.

Clay removes stuck-on contaminants that cling to your clear coat, so the cutting pad has absolutely nothing but a blemish-free clean clear coat to abrade and polish.

Happy detailing!

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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