Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Buffing Pads – Fix Your Paint the Right Way

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Beginner's guide to buffing pads for polishing car paint.If you’re serious about restoring the luster to your clear coat or any glossy surface, you need to get acquainted with buffing pads.

These little round wonders are the definition of working smarter and not harder!

What is a Buffing Pad?

Buffing pads are circular pads used to polish paint and other hard materials. They can also be used to apply wax, sealants, and other coatings. Most pads are made of foam but can also be made of microfiber or wool or a combination of all three materials.

Some pads are meant to be used by hand but most are meant to be used with a machine such as a Dual Action (DA) Orbital Polisher or Rotary Buffer. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes for different uses. The most common pads are circular flat foam pads such as the Griot’s Garage Flat Pads. These are also the best pads for a beginner to start with because they tend to be more forgiving in use and care.

da polisher with pad

What Do I Need to Attach My Buffing Pad to My Polisher?

Buffing pads are attached to polishers by what called the Backing Plate. This is a plastic or rubber disk that has a threaded arbor on one side (to screw into or onto your polisher’s spindle) and a hook and loop (Velcro) face on the other side (to stick your pads).

DA polishers use a backing plate with a male threaded arbor to screw into your polisher and Rotary polishers use a female threaded arbor to thread onto your polisher.

DA Polisher’s like the Harbor Freight 6″ Polisher and the Griot’s Garage 6″ Polisher come with a backing plate. All you need to run a pad on them is to buy a 6″ pad. If you want to run smaller pads such the common 5″ pads you’ll need to purchase a smaller backing plate such as this 5″ Meguiar’s DA backing plate.

The Porter Cable 7424xp, at the time of this writing, does not come with a proper backing plate for running foam pads so you’ll need to purchase one such as the 5″ Meguiar’s DA Backing Plate mentioned above. Sometimes you can find the polisher bundled with a backing plate (usually 5″).

How are Buffing Pads Made?

Most buffing pads are made of two materials glued together. The main material is typically foam, which will hold the polish and contact the paint. The secondary material is the backing material (usually hook and loop known commonly as Velcro) that allows the pad to stick to the backing plate on the polisher and be easily removable. Pads that use microfiber or wool will often have the fiber glued to a foam core which is then glued to a Velcro backing.

Buffing Pad Construction

The foam in foam polishing pads is usually made of either open or closed cell foam. In very simplistic terms, closed cell foam doesn’t absorb as easily as open cell. This reduces the amount of polish consumed but makes the pads harder to clean.

How Do Buffing Pads Work?

Buffing pads are designed to hold the abrasives in polishes at the surface of the pad. When the abrasives are “stuck” to the surface of the pad they turn the pad into the equivalent of ultra-fine sand paper. The porous nature of the pad absorbs spent oils from the polish.

Pads are also flexible so that they can apply even pressure to curved surfaces. If pads weren’t flexible it would be easy to remove uneven amounts of paint and damage your finish.

Pads also act as absorbers of heat and transports of cool air to the surface you are working on. Since abrasion is a result of friction and friction generates heat, this is very important. Heat can damage both the surface you’re working on and the pad itself.

What is the Benefit of Buffing Pads?

Buffing pads provide a more efficient means of working polish into your finish to remove defects, greatly reducing the time you spend correcting your finish.

Pads hold polish much more evenly than a towel would and are easy to attach to a machine, allowing for a more even and consistent material removal.

Polishing pads are better at holding the abrasives in polishes against the surface you’re polishing. This allows you to use less polish than you would with a towel.

Pads also provide a safety barrier between your machine or hand and the surface you’re working on. This keeps you from accidentally scratching the surface you’re trying to correct.

As stated above, buffing pads also help keep the surface you’re working on cool, reducing damage to the surface or the pad.

Last, but not least, a good pad will stay together and not shed material onto the surface you’re working on.

What Makes a Quality Buffing Pad?

  • Good flexible construction of the main media such as foam, microfiber, or wool that won’t fall apart during use
  • Good adhesion between the backing material and the pad
  • Material construction that allows for airflow and spent polish absorption
  • Clear labeling or distinguishable colors to separate different types of pads
  • Manufacturer backed warranty in case a pad fails prematurely (it happens to the best pads sometimes)


What types of Buffing Pads Exist?

There are three major classifications of pads. There are foam, wool, and microfiber buffing pads. Each of these pads can be used on either Dual Action Orbital or Rotary Polisher as long as the pad is the same, or slightly larger, diameter as the backing plate on your chosen polisher.

buffing pad on backing plate
Blue pad on yellow backing plate.

Within these classifications of pad are several sub categories of pads. These sub categories determine the amount of aggressiveness (also known as correction or cut) a pad has. More aggressive pads remove paint to remove defects faster but don’t leave a perfectly smooth finish. Less aggressive pads remove paint slower but leave a smoother finish behind.

You start with aggressive pads to remove the worst defects first and then step down to less aggressive pads to remove the marks from the aggressive pads and leave behind a nicer finish.

Foam Pads

Foam pads typically fall into three main categories: Compound, Polish, and Finish. Some manufacturers have more categories between these and that just means they allow a smaller step down between levels of cut. Generally, the more aggressive a pad is marked as the stiffer the foam is that was used in the construction of the pad.

Compounding

lake_country_flat_orange_pad

  • Most aggressive
  • Used with a cutting compound that has a high level of cut or aggressiveness
  • First step in removing surface defects

Polishing

lake_country_flat_white_pad

  • Used with a polishing compound that has a low level of cut or aggressiveness
  • Second step in removing surface defects

Finishing

lake_country_flat_black

  • Used with a last step product like a sealant or all in one product such as a cleaner wax that have low to no cut or aggressiveness
  • Last step in restoring and protecting surface finish

Can you mix and match pads and polishes? Yes. Just remember an aggressive compound on a non-aggressive pad will provide a level of aggressiveness/cut somewhere in between the two.

Flat Pads Vs. Textured Pads (CCS, Hex Logic, Waffle)

Manufacturers generally claim textured pads run cooler and therefore last longer. I’ve personally seen no difference in performance of flat vs. textured pads. One important thing to note is that some polishers do not play nice with textured pads. Forced rotation buffers such as the Flex 3401 tend to walk around the paint on you when used with a textured pad.

In general, I opt for flat pads. They are typically cheaper, more abundant, more durable, and just plain work.

Microfiber Pads

In general, there are two types of pads: cutting/compounding pads and polishing/finishing pads.

Microfiber pads are a relatively new addition to the detailing scene. Because of this there aren’t any real standards between manufactures for what separates a cutting pad from a polishing pad.

Some manufactures vary the thickness of the foam, some use different microfiber, and some use a combination of both. Stick to one manufacturers system and you’ll be fine. I don’t recommend mixing and matching microfiber pads.

Cutting Microfiber Pads

microfiber cutting pad

  • Used with cutting compounds
  • More aggressive
  • Removes paint faster but doesn’t finish well

Finishing Microfiber Pads

microfiber polishing pad

  • Used with polishing compounds
  • Less Aggressive
  • Removes paint slower

Microfiber pads do tend to be more aggressive than foam pads. The fibers themselves are an abrasive. On soft, dark paints it’s often possible to still see micro marring from a microfiber finishing pad and polish. Many people like to use a foam finishing pad with polish as the last step on these paints to finish down to a flawless surface.

Wool Pads

lake_country_foamed_wool

Wool Pads are typically used on rotary polishers. They do make wool pads for DA polishers for heavy correction work but microfiber has all but taken its place.

Wool Pads are graded similarly to microfiber pads with compounding/cutting pads being the most aggressive and polishing/finishing pads being the least aggressive.  Just like foam pads, some manufactures have pads that rate between these two classifications so you’ll have to reference their system to know more.

On most finishes, wool pads will not finish down to a flawlessly smooth finish. The wool fibers themselves are abrasive. You will want to follow up with a foam finishing pad and a good polish to remove any micro-marring left behind by the wool fibers.

Glass Polishing Pads

carpro glass polishing pad

These are special pads meant only for use with special polishes, such as cerium oxide, to remove scratches from glass. Every manufacturer has their own system for polishing glass so it’s best to stick with their system. I don’t recommend mixing and matching when it comes to glass.

Do not use glass polishing pads on any other material. These pads do not have the thickness or construction necessary to safely correct other surfaces.

How to Use Buffing Pads

While each manufacturer will have their own recommendation that you should follow, there are some basic rules to polishing with buffing pads.

Machine Polishing

  1. Attach the pad to the center of the backing plate on your polisher.
  2. Prime the pad by applying a few small drops of polish evenly across the face of the pad into the pores of the pad.
  3. Work the polish into the pad with your fingers and repeat until the entire face of the pad contains polish. You want to use the least amount of polish you can to cover the face of the pad. It should be soaked.
  4. Apply three dime sized drops of fresh polish to the face of the pad hear the edge.
  5. Place the pad against the surface you’re working on and move the pad around the surface a little to distribute the polish.
  6. Turn the machine on low and move it across the surface to completely distribute the polish.
  7. Turn the machine to medium or medium-high and begin polishing the surface.
  8. Make sure you periodically clean the pad or change it out for a fresh one as described in the section below.
  9. Repeat steps 4-8 on a used pad or 1-8 on a clean pad.

Hand Polishing

  1. Prime the pad as you would using a machine above.
  2. Apply three dime sized drops of polish to the face of the hand polishing pad.
  3. Place the pad against the surface you’re going to polish and work it back and forth until the polish begins to dry.
  4. Wipe the surface with a clean microfiber towel and repeat steps 2-4.

How to Clean Buffing Pads during Use

It’s no secret that a clean pad works better than a dirty pad. During use pads fill up with spent polish and removed paint that reduce the performance of the pad.

What people may not realize is that keeping your pad clean while you’re using it also makes it last longer. You can also get away with using and purchasing less pads which saves you money.

Foam Pads

The easiest method of cleaning on the fly is to hold a plush microfiber towel against your polishing pad and turn the polisher on. Allow the pad to orbit against the towel for a few seconds to allow the towel to absorb the spent polish from the pad and knock any contaminants out the pad.

Another method is to hold a pad brush against the pad and turn the polisher on to knock out the spent polish and paint. This works great on forced rotation polishers because the brush won’t try to stop the pad from spinning when pressure is applied.

pad conditioning brush

The last, and most efficient, method of cleaning a pad on the fly is to use a pad washer such as the Grit Guard Universal Pad Washer. This is a bucket filled with a liquid cleaning solution that has a grate and splash shields installed in the top of it. You submerge the pad in the wash solution against the grate and turn on the polisher to wash away pad contaminants. You then lift the pad up out of the solution but still below the splash shield turn the machine on to extract any water and quickly dry the pad.

grit_guard_universal_pad_washer

If time means money to you then the Universal Pad Washer is the ticket. If you’re just a shade tree detailer that’s doing a one-time cleanup on your car then the microfiber or brush cleaning is all that you need.

Microfiber Pads

Microfiber pads can be cleaned on the go in all the same ways as a foam pad down to the universal pad washer. Most microfiber pads have very thin foam so it’s important to keep them clean and dry because they can load up with polish and spent paint quickly. If you run a soaked microfiber pad too long it can heat up and melt the pad from the backing.

I like to periodically blow out my microfiber pads with compressed air to clean, dry, and cool them all at once.

Wool Pads

Wool pads are simple to clean on the go. You’ll need to buy a pad spur. You hold the spur against the pad and turn on the buffer. Move the spur across the face of the pad. Be sure to hold the spur to the side of the pad that is rotating away from you so you are not hit by the spur should you lose grip of it.

wool pad spur

You can follow up a spurring with compressed air to really deep clean the pad. This is optional.

Finally, you can also utilize the Universal Pad Washer discussed above. These work great with wool pads.

How to Clean Buffing Pads after Use

Soaking your pads in a cleaning solution is the cheapest and easiest way to clean them. This can either be in warm water with a citrus degreasing agent such as dish soap or all-purpose cleaner or a special pad specific cleaning solution such as McKee’s 37 Polishing Pad Rejuvenator.

If you pads are stained from the use of synthetic or poly based waxes and sealants, or colored/dyed waxes and sealants, you can clean them by scrubbing the surface of the pads with mineral spirits followed by isopropyl alcohol (IPA).

Try to clean your pads while they are still wet from compounding, polishing, or waxing. It’s easier to remove the contamination when it hasn’t had a chance to dry into the pad yet. You can do this by tossing your pads into a cleaning solution as you change them out for a fresh pad.

When the pad is soaked in cleaning solution you can work the pad by gently massaging it with your hands to break up and release the grime from the pad. Repeat the soaking and massaging until the pad is back to its original texture. Don’t be too aggressive or you risk separating the pad from the hook and loop (Velcro) backing material that is glued on it.

After you’ve worked the pad free of contaminants you need to rinse it. Repeat the same steps above except do so in clean detergent free water.

Once your pad is cleaned, you need to lay it out to dry. You can very gently massage the bulk of the water out of the pad before laying it out. Another trick is to wrap it in a towel and gently compress the pad so that towel absorbs the water that pushes out.

Once the majority of the water is pushed out lay the pads down with the hook and loop side facing up. This prevents water from sitting on the Velcro instead of draining out.

Another way to clean pads is to use a special pad washer such as the Grit Guard Universal Pad Washer. This is essentially a bucket filled with cleaning solution that contains a submerged apparatus for agitating the pad on while still attached to the polisher. A setup like this is great for situations where time is money.

These are good for on the fly cleaning to allow you to get your pad back in service as soon as possible.

How to Care for and Store Buffing Pads

The first step to proper pad care is keeping them clean as discussed above. Follow that up with keeping them dry so they don’t mildew or grow mold.

Wet pads also deteriorate faster and can peel from the Velcro backing prematurely. You can ensure your pads dry out fully by leaving them on their side or face before storing so that moisture can run out instead of sitting on the Velcro.

When storing pads, I like to place my pads in open plastic zipper / freezer bags (such as Ziploc). I say open because you don’t want any residual moister locked in the bag for reasons stated above. The bags prevent your pads from collecting dirt, dust, and other contaminants that would scratch your paint the next time you use them.

When storing pads long term, try to store them in a dry location as well.

What is the Best Foam Polishing Pad for a DA Polisher?

I have tried everything on the market and I keep coming back to the classic 5.5” Griots Flat Pads on a 5” backing plate. They just work. They don’t have any fancy marketing gimmicks and they are incredibly affordable.

If you’re a novice, this is your ticket. If you’re experience, this is probably still your ticket.

What is the Best Microfiber Polishing Pad for a DA Polisher?

If you need to add a little more cut to your polish you can switch out your foam pad for a microfiber. The microfiber is an abrasive itself which cranks the removal factor up a notch.

As for which pad is the best, it’s a toss-up between the 5.25” Optimum Microfiber Cutting and Polishing pads and the 5″ Meguiar’s Microfiber Cutting and Polishing Pads. Pick whichever you find cheapest. They are both high quality. Just keep in mind that you may still need a foam polishing pad to finish out on on really soft dark paint since the microfiber can leave behind micro-marring.

What is the Best Polishing Pad for a Rotary Polisher?

If you’re removing serious defects, and you know what you’re doing, you can’t go wrong with the Lake Country Foamed Wool Polishing Pads. They are a great price and very high quality.

Once you’re finished with the heavy removal you can move down the Lake Country Hybrid Foam pads to finish down to a flawless finish.

These are seriously the only pads you need to look at. Grab and go at its finest.

What is the Best Buffing Pad and Polish Combo for a Novice?

I started with the Meguiar’s Ultimate Trio which consists of Ultimate Compound, Ultimate Polish, and Ultimate Wax combined with Griot’s Garage Foam Orange Cutting, Black Polishing, and Red Finishing pads. I have zero regrets and so has everyone else who has started with this combo.

If you need to kick up the cutting power a notch for either a hard clear coat, or a severely scratched one, then you can ad in a microfiber cutting pad such as the 5.25” Optimum Microfiber Cutting Pad to use with the Ultimate Compound.

Ultimate Compound on a microfiber pad has an almost identical cut to Meguiars M105 on a foam pad but has a much longer working time (doesn’t dry out as fast as M105).

Even after years of detailing, I still prefer this combo. It’s fool-proof.

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6 thoughts on “Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Buffing Pads – Fix Your Paint the Right Way

  1. Reply
    bill dhaliwal - June 11, 2018

    A very well written and explained article.
    Thanks

  2. Reply
    Keith - June 26, 2018

    Iam a newbie to using a polisher, are the colors universal, or just company coded.

    1. Reply
      Brian - June 26, 2018

      The colors differentiate pads within the same manufacturer. There is no color coding standard between manufacturers. To be completely honest, sometimes the colors manufacturers use change between pad lines as well so you’ll definitely want to consult the pad maker’s website for the specific pad type and associated color guide.

  3. Reply
    Inderjeet singh - August 27, 2018

    I am not clear about the colour code of pad so please clarify the meaning of different colour pad.

    1. Reply
      Brian - August 27, 2018

      Unfortunately, there is no color standard in pads. You have to consult the manufacturer of the pad for their color coding for that specific line of pads. Different manufacturers/brands use different color systems for their pads. Lake Country does not follow the same color system as Griot’s Garage, for example.

      That said, generally, a different color pad in the same brand/series of pads will represent a different firmness for a different cut. For example, a Griot’s Garage Orange Pad is meant to be used with a more aggressive cutting compound for a faster cutting of paint than their Black Pad which is meant for finishing with a finer polish.

      I agree that it’s unfortunate and confusing for the consumer.

  4. Reply
    UNCLE_JUNIOR - November 5, 2018

    I NEED THE ADHESIVE PAD THAT GOES ON THE DRIVE PAD HOLDER, UNDER THE BONNET, FOR A 10″ MODEL 646.1099 CRAFTSMAN BUFFER. CAN SOMEONE PROVIDE A LINK?

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