What is a Dual Action Polisher & How To Use One?

What is a Dual Action Polisher & How To Use One?


First - why use a Dual Action Polisher?

Over time your car’s paint becomes filled with swirls, scratches, water spots and oxidation.  Below is the hood of a 2018 Lincoln Continental.

In the old days, cars were painted with single stage paint and this type of paint was softer than modern clear coat paints and the average person could polish their car by hand.  No so with clear coats.  Modern clear coats last longer than old school single stage paint and one of the reasons they last longer is because they are harder.  This hardness factor is great for maintaining the appearance and value of your vehicle, but for the most part, it’s pretty much impossible for the average person to polish the paint by hand.  The good news is that just about anyone can learn how to use a dual action polisher to remove the paint defects and restore the factory new looking finish.

What is a Dual Action Polisher?

A dual action polisher is a polisher that offers two distinct polishing actions. 

1: A spinning or rotating action – the tool spins a pad in a circle.

2: An oscillating action – the tool spins a pad in an off-center or random circular motion

There are two distinct types of dual action polishers.

 1: Free spinning random orbital polisher

2: Gear-drive orbital polisher

1: Free spinning random orbital polisher

With this style of dual action polisher – the oscillating action is completely random.  This type of tool uses a free-floating spindle assembly for the drive unit, and this means it is free spinning – there is no gear-driven mechanism to force or maintain either pad rotation or pad oscillation.

Incredibly safe to use

Free spinning random orbital dual action polishers are incredibly safe to use due to the free spinning aspect of the drive unit.  Unlike a gear-driven orbital polisher or a gear-driven rotary polisher, if you press down too hard the pad will simply quit spinning and oscillating.  Because too much pressure stops the pad from spinning or oscillating – you cannot do any damage to the paint.  

This same thing holds true if you don’t hold the tool in a way to keep the face of the pad flat to the surface.  If you hold the tool at an angle, the pad will be at an angle and the extra pressure to just a portion of the face of the pad is enough resistance to cause the pad to stop rotating, (spinning), or oscillating – thus preventing any damage to the paint.

Pad stalling or pad jiggling

Due to the free spinning nature of the drive unit, if you’re buffing a curved panel, either convex or concave, (it doesn’t matter), having too much pressure on the outer edges of the pad is enough leverage over the drive unit to cause the pad to stall out or in simple words, stop spinning and oscillating.  Pad stalling or pad jiggle can also happen if the speed is too slow or if you hold the tool in a way that there’s too much pressure on one side of the face of the pad.  Pad stalling can also take place if you’re not running the tool at a high enough speed. 

Other factors that can cause pad stalling are too large of a buffing pad and/or too thick of a buffing pad or both.  Larger, thicker pads absorb and dissipate the energy coming out of the tool and this shows up visually as pad stalling.

Not as powerful or as fast

For the same reason free spinning dual action random orbital polishers are incredibly safe this also means they are not as powerful or as fast when it comes to paint correction as their counterparts, gear-driven orbital polishers, or gear-driven rotary polishers. 

2: Gear-driven orbital polisher

If you read the heading for this section and compare it to the heading for the previous section, you’ll see the word random is missing.

1: Free spinning random orbital polisher

2: Gear-driven orbital polisher

This is important to understand.  With a free spinning random orbital polisher, the orbit pattern is random, and this is because changes in the panel surface shape, tool speed, downward pressure, angle tool is held, etc., can affect the pattern of the orbit the pad makes.  This is the characteristic of a FREE SPINNING polisher. 

When it comes to a GEAR-DRIVEN orbital polisher – because the drive unit is gear-driven the orbit pattern is fixed, there is never any variation of the orbit pattern by outside factors.

Powerful and fast

With a gear-driven orbital polisher – NOTHING you do, nor any outside variables will change or affect the drive unit from rotating and oscillating the pad at the same time.  With a gear-driven orbital polisher, when you pull the speed trigger, the pad is going to spin and oscillate no matter what.  It is this feature of the gear-driven orbital polisher that makes it more powerful and faster at doing paint correction than any brand of free spinning random orbital polisher.

Which tool is better?

If you’re new to polishing, the free spinning random orbital polisher is dramatically safer to use.  With this type of polisher, you can gain experience for how to machine polish paint and hone your skills to become an expert with it.  After you have gained experience and feel comfortable with the free spinning dual action polisher you can always add a gear-driven dual action polisher to your tool collection. 

If you already have experience buffing with a free spinning random orbital polisher and you feel confident in your skills, knowledge, and experience when it comes to doing paint correction, or even boat detailing, then a gear-driven dual action polisher will enable you to work faster.  With a gear-driven dual action polisher you can easily cut-out an hour of buffing time when all other factors are kept the same.  By this I mean, same size car, same condition paint.

The right tool for the job

The good news is, there are times when a free spinning random orbital polisher is a better choice than a gear-driven orbital polisher.  For example, anytime you’re working on soft, sticky, or sensitive paints.  In the automotive manufacturing world, there are different manufacturers of automotive, or OEM paint systems.  Some of these paint systems are hard and some are soft.  

You typically will not know if a paint system is hard or soft until you do what is called a Test Spot.  If you discover the paint on the car you're detailing has soft paint, a free spinning random orbital polisher will finish out nicer and more consistently than a gear-driven orbital polisher.  You can always start with a gear-driven polisher on softer paints for the heavy paint correction step usually using a compound.  Then switch to the safer, more gentle free spinning dual action polisher for the follow-up or finishing step using a polish.

Working on classic cars with single stage paint

Older cars built before the 1980s used a type of paint system referred to as solvent-evaporation single stage paints.  These include lacquer and enamel paint systems where there is no catalyzed clear layer of paint sprayed over the top of these pigmented paints.  These older types of paint systems tend to be softer than modern base coat/clear coat paint technology and for any light polishing or any finishing steps after a heavy paint correction step, a free spinning random orbital polisher will tend to finish out nicer and more consistently.

Removing orange peel

Free spinning random orbital polishers can also be used for machine sanding in case you are ever working on a project car with a fresh, custom paint job that has orange peel.  With a free spinning random orbital polisher instead of placing a buffing pad on the backing plate you can place a sanding disc on the backing plate and remove orange peel, mottling, and other surface texture better, faster, and easier than you could ever do by hand sanding.

 Different length orbit strokes

 The length of the orbit stroke is the diameter of the orbit circle.

 Free Spinning Random Orbital Polishers

Free spinning random orbital polishers come in a variety of different length orbit strokes including, 

  • 8mm
  • 9mm
  • 10mm
  • 12mm
  • 15mm
  • 21mm
  • 25mm

 The smaller the orbit stroke length the less aggressive or less abrading ability of the orbital action.  The larger the orbit stroke length, the more aggressive or more abrading ability is available due to the pad moving the abrasives over a larger orbital action.  The downside to larger stroke free spinning random orbital polishers is they are more prone to pad stalling.  Generally speaking, larger orbit stroke tools have larger backing plates and are used with larger buffing pads.  The larger the diameter of the buffing pad, the greater the ability for the outer edges of the pad to cause pad stalling.  The reason for this is the outer edges of a larger buffing pad exerts greater leverage over the drive unit, which is the primary cause for pad stalling.

 Gear-driven orbital polishers

Gear-driven orbital polishers are also available in different orbit stroke lengths but there are fewer options. 

  • 5mm
  • 8mm

The reason for fewer options is because when using a gear-driven orbital polisher – the larger the orbit stroke length the more wildly the action of the tool and the more difficult it would be for a person to control it.  In simple words, a large orbit stroke length gear-driven orbital polisher would be a handful.

 What does orbit stroke length mean?

The orbit stroke length is the diameter of the oscillating pattern of an orbital polisher.  In the pictures below  first you’ll see me holding up an 8mm polisher and a 15mm polisher in the air to give you context.  Below these pictures I’ve cropped out the top section to better show you what the stroke or throw looks like between 8mm and 15mm.  These pictures were taken with the polishers >on< so you can see the orbit stroke length difference between the inner perimeter and the outer perimeter of a pad as it is oscillating.  The difference between this inner and outer perimeter represents the Orbit Stroke Length.


Short stroke or small orbit stroke length tools are the easiest tools to learn how to use and master.  Long stroke or large orbit stroke length tools are not more difficult to learn how to use and master but they do tend to require more technique to maintain pad rotation when buffing anything but a flat surface.

 What can you do with an orbital polisher?

Orbital polishers are extremely popular for doing paint correction however there are other uses.

  • Paint correction
  • Machine apply wax or sealant
  • Mechanically decontaminating paint
  • Machine dry sanding
  • Machine damp sanding
  • Gelcoat correction
  • Plastic correction – both rigid and flexible plastic windows
  • Topical glass polishing
  • Sub-surface glass polishing
  • Machine scrubbing tires
  • Machine scrubbing molded-in non-skid surfaces inside boats and on the top cap
  • Machine scrubbing concrete floors
  • Machine scrubbing shower floors
  • Machine scrubbing tires

  Multiple backing plate options

When researching a dual action polisher, look to see if there are optional size backing plates available.  Some brands and some outside suppliers offer different size backing plates for dual action orbital polishers so you can use different size buffing pads.  It can be really handy to switch from a 6” backing plate and a 6.5” buffing pad to a 3” backing plate and a 3.5” buffing pad when you want to machine polish a thin panel.

Multiple buffing pad options

There are so many different types and sizes of buffing pads it’s beyond the scope of this article to try to list them all.  Best thing to do when choosing a dual action polisher is to first see what the company that sells the polisher offers for their own tool and then look to see if other companies offer pads that are compatible with the polisher.


The primary types of buffing pads

 Foam buffing pads

Foam pads come in very coarse and aggressive cutting pads to soft polishing pads to very soft finishing pads.  Foam polishing pads are the best all-around choice for paint correction, polishing and machine applying waxes and sealants.

Microfiber buffing pads

Most microfiber pads come in two options, cutting and polishing.  Microfiber pads work great on dual action polishers when you need extra correction ability to remove defects out of severely neglected paint.

 Wool buffing pads

When it comes to wool buffing pads there’s only one style that works well on dual action polishers and that is short fiber length wool buffing pads.  The reason long fiber buffing pads don’t work on dual action polishers is because the oscillating action tends to wiggle the long fibers too much and they either don’t transfer the action of the tool to the surface of the cause micro-marring or both.

 My recommendation

If you’re just getting into machine polishing and purchasing your first dual action polisher, stick with foam cutting, polishing, and finishing pads.  Hold off on any fiber pad until you get some experience under your belt.

The difference between foam and fiber buffing pads

Because a fiber pad is made-up from millions of individual strands of fibers, these fibers are like a mild form of abrasive.  This abrasive characteristic makes fiber pads better and more efficient when doing major correction work, but they can leave micro-marring, (tiny scratches), in the finish. 

Foam pads on the other hand have a uniform surface texture and are a LOT less likely to cause micro-marring.  

How many pads do you need to buff out a car?

Foam cutting pads can do a great job of major correction work without the risk of micro-marring from a microfiber pad.  The downside to foam buffing pads is after you buff a panel or two, because the nature of foam is to absorb, the foam becomes wet or saturated with the product you’re using, and this makes the pad soft.  A saturated or wet foam cutting pad loses its cutting ability and performs more like a foam polishing or foam finishing pad.  

The fix is simple, after buffing a panel or two, remove the wet pad and replace it with a clean, dry foam buffing pad.  Save all your wet pads until the end of the day and then hand wash them and place them where they can dry or use a Pad Washer to wash them and then place them in a clean place to dry.  

Of course, this means in order to buff out an entire car you will need more buffing pads.  For an average size 2-door passenger car, six pads are a good starting point of any paint correction step.  If you were going to compound and then polish the paint on a 2-door passenger car and assuming the paint is filled with swirls and scratches, then here’s what I would recommend.

6 foam cutting pads for the compounding step

6 foam polishing pads for the polishing step

1 foam finishing pad for machine applying a wax or sealant

If you’re going to ceramic coat the car, then you wouldn’t need the finishing pad as you would skip applying a wax or sealant. 

The practical difference between a free spinning and a gear-driven dual action polisher

 The primary difference would be with a gear-driven orbital polisher you can,

  1. Tackle larger sections when doing paint correction or polishing than you would with a free spinning dual action polisher, (this is part of why a gear-driven polisher is faster than a free spinning polisher)
  2. Work more efficiently with your time.  This also speeds up the process.  With a free spinning random orbital polisher, you must continually LOOK at the backing plate and the pad to monitor if the pad is rotating or stalling out.  If the pad is stalling out, you’re simply wasting time.  

When you see the pad stalling out you can try a few things to get the pad spinning again. 

  1. Turn up the speed setting
  2. Reduce downward pressure
  3. Use a smaller diameter pad
  4. Use a thinner pad
  5. Change the way you’re holding the tool.
  6. Change to a clean dry pad (wet soggy pads don’t rotate well on free spinning polishers)

Brain drain

With a free spinning tool, not only do you have to continually use physical energy to move the polisher over a body panel, but you also have to use mental energy and continually look to see if the pad is spinning.  Considering it can take 4-5 hours to buff out a neglected car from start to finish – this means 4-5 hours of brain drain as you continually must watch the action of the buffing pad.

No brain drain

With a gear-driven polisher you don’t have to look to see if the pad is spinning ever.  With a gear-driven orbital polisher the pad is going to spin and oscillate no matter what.  This means there’s no Brain Drain as I like to call it.

Technique Tip - Mark your pads and backing plates

When using a free spinning random orbital polisher, to make it easier for your eyes to see and monitor pad rotation, use a black or silver sharpie marker, and place a mark on either the side of your buffing pads or the back of the backing plate or both.  

This simple technique will make it a LOT easier for your eyes to quickly look and see if the buffing pad is rotating (and oscillating), or if it has stalled out and is simply jiggling or vibrating against the paint.  It is this constant having to watch for pad rotation that causes mental drain. 

With a gear-driven orbital polisher there is no Brain Drain – simply point the polisher in the direction you want to go, and it will get the job done without you ever having to look and see if the pad is spinning or if it’s stalling out.  With gear-driven orbital polishers there’s no need to mark the side of your buffing pads or backing plates. 

My preference?

Unless I’m working on soft paint, I always use a gear-driven orbital polisher.  My style of buffing out a car is I want to get the job done as fast as humanly possible while putting out professional grade results and this means using a FLEX BEAST, Supa BEAST or CBEAST.  All three of these tools are 8mm gear-driven orbital polishers.

For this article, I will share tips and techniques for using  the 3D Dual Action Polisher, which is an 8mm free spinning, random orbital polisher with 3D ONE as our polish followed by machine applying 3D POXY as our paint sealant.  This will be an example of One-Step Paint Correction, (see below).

This polisher is safe and easy to learn how to use and capable of tackling pretty much any detailing project.  After you’ve buffed out enough cars to gain some experience and become comfortable with machine polishing you can always add a gear-driven polisher to your tool arsenal.

Common paint correction procedures

 When it comes to buffing out a car, here are the most common 3 approaches professionals use to detail a car.

1: Multiple-Step Paint Correction

If the goal is to take a neglected finish and restore it back to factory new, then most people will follow these steps.

  1. Wash and dry.
  2. Clay if needed.
  3. Do a Test Spot – dial in your process.
  4. Compound the paint.
  5. Polish the paint.
  6. Seal the paint with a wax, sealant or ceramic coating.

2: One-Step Paint Correction

This is a version of the above only there’s only one machine polishing step.  If you're either not looking to get the paint perfect, or the paint is in fairly good shape to start with and doesn’t need a dedicated compounding step, then here’s the steps for one-step paint correction.

  1. Wash and dry car.
  2. Clay if needed.
  3. Do a Test Spot – dial in your process
  4. Machine polish the paint.
  5. Seal the paint with a wax, sealant or ceramic coating.

3: One-step paint correction using an AIO or All-in-One

For detailing daily drivers or large vehicles like vans, trucks, even RVs, here’s a way to compound, polish and protect in a single step and that’s by using a great AIO.  AIO stands for All-in-One.  This means the product will do 3 things in a single step.

  1. Compound – remove defects
  2. Polish – create a clear, high gloss finish
  3. Protect – leave behind a layer of protection

 Some of you know an AIO by the term, cleaner/wax.  The terms AIO and cleaner/wax are interchangeable.  What’s not interchangeable are actual products.  From my experience, I would say most products on the market today, or to be specific, most brands of products on the market today do not use great abrasive technology.  The abrasive technology used in compounds, polishes and AIOs is the MOST important factor when it comes to polishing paint. 

Great abrasive technology means the product has the ability to remove defects out of paint without leaving its own defects in their place.  Most products cannot do this.  I test products and the abrasive technology used in them by buffing on black paint.  Black paint shows everything.  

If a product can remove defects and polish out crystal clear without any form of micro-marring or swirls, then it uses great abrasive technology. 

If a product removes defects but after wiping the residue off and inspecting closely you see tiny tick marks also called micro-marring, this means the product uses sub-standard abrasive technology. 

One of the reasons I joined the 3D team after decades of working for other brands is because 3D makes their own abrasive technology.  They purchase raw materials and convert them and from these converted raw materials they create their own abrasive powders that are second to none. 

Most companies, in fact I would say the majority of other companies, do not have the ability to make their own abrasive powders.  As such, they must purchase their abrasive powders from a handful of companies world-wide that make and offer abrasive powders.  This means that the majority of all compounds, polishes and AIOs are using the same abrasive powders only with a different scent, color, or other formula differences but at their core, they all perform for the most part about the same. 

If you’re looking for a great AIO then I highly recommend and encourage you to get a bottle of 3D SPEED and take it for a test drive.  Like me, you’ll find this is hands-down the best AIO on the market on planet Earth.  This is a bold statement but I’m speaking from decades of first-hand, real-world experience buffing out thousands of cars using multitudes of products and there’s nothing as good as SPEED.

A note about 3D ONE

For this article and for the car I detailed for this article I used 3D ONE, which is a Hybrid Compound/Polish. The word hybrid as it relates to this product means you can use 3D ONE as a compound with an aggressive cutting pad for doing heavy correction work.  For example if the car you’re detailing has a lot of deep swirls and scratches.

You can also use 3D ONE as a polish with either a foam polishing or foam finishing pad for doing light paint correction work.  For example a car with only minor surface imperfections like light or shallow swirls and scratches.  

This hybrid feature makes 3D ONE an incredibly versatile polish that will enable you to tackle just about any car detailing project because this single product can be used for paint conditions at both ends of the spectrum when it comes to finish quality.  PLUS, 3D ONE offers zero dusting and easy wipe-off, two features professional detailers demand in the products they use for doing professional quality paint correction.


How to use a dual action polisher

The way you use a free spinning random orbital polisher, or a gear-driven orbital polisher is basically the same technique. 

  1. Wash and dry car
  2. Inspect paint for contamination with the baggie test. 
  3. If contamination is discovered – use a detailing clay towel to remove the contamination.
  4. Tape-off any exposed plastic trim.
  5. Perform a Test Spot and dial-in a process that works to your satisfaction.
  6. Repeat the process proven by the Test Spot to the entire car working section by section, starting at the top or highest point of the vehicle and working your way down and around the various body panels.
  7. Seal the paint with a wax, sealant or ceramic coating.


1: Wash and dry car

For more information on how to safely and correctly wash a car, see my article here.

2: Inspect paint with the baggie test

3: If contamination is discovered – use a detailing clay towel to remove the contamination

For more information on how to use a detailing clay towel, see my article here.

4: Tape-off any exposed plastic trim.

Mike’s comment:  This car didn’t have any exterior plastic trim.

5: Perform a Test Spot and dial-in a process that works to your satisfaction.

Repeat the process proven by the Test Spot to the entire car working section by section, starting at the top or highest point of the vehicle and working your way down and around the various body panels.

How to do a Test Spot

Before buffing out the entire car, it’s a great idea to first do some testing to find out what products and pads will be needed to remove the defects and restore a satisfactory finish.  

Best place to do a Test Spot

Usually, the best places to do a Test Spot are the horizontal panels.  These would be the hood or trunk lid.  You could use the roof but it’s better to do a Test Spot on a panel you can look down on to make evaluating the results easier.  In order to do a Test Spot on the roof you would have to stand on some type of elevated work platform.

Detailing terms and techniques

If you’re new to machine polishing, before you can do a Test Spot and before you can machine polish a car you need to become familiar with a few professional detailing terms and techniques.  You’ll need to understand the terms and techniques in order to do the Test Spot and also to buff out the car.  Buffing out a car is basically repeating the Test Spot that you do to one small section over the rest of the car, section by section.

 Section Passes

Years ago, when trying to figure out how to teach a person how to buff out a car using a keyboard, I came up with the term Section Pass or Section Passes.


A section pass or passes is the term we use to describe how many times we move the polisher over a section of paint and also the direction we move the polisher over a section of paint.

You can't entirely buff out most body panels at one time as most panels are too large to actually buff-out an entire panel at one time.  Divide larger panels into smaller sections like you see in the picture below.  You can also see a work platform in the collapsed format, this provides another 6” of elevation to reach the middle of the roof.  If you own a truck or sports utility vehicle, these work great with the legs extended to reach the highest points of the vehicle while providing a safe, stable work condition.

The definition of a single pass and a section pass

There are two definitions of the word pass as it relates to machine polishing with any type of machine.

Single Pass

A single pass is just that.  It's when you move the polisher from one side of the section you're buffing to the other side of the section you're buffing.  That's a single pass.

 Section Pass

A section pass is when you move the polisher back and forth, or front to back with enough single overlapping passes to cover the entire section one time.  That's a section pass.

How many section passes to make over one section of paint

In most cases if you're removing any substantial below surface defects, you're going to make 6-8 section passes to the section you’re working before you either feel comfortable you've removed the defects to your satisfaction or you're at the end of the buffing cycle for the product you're using.  What determines how many section passes you make are factors like,

  • Depth of the defects in the paint.
  • Hardness or softness of the paint.
  • The correction ability of the pad, product and tool.
  • Experience.

Technique tip – Count your section passes OUT LOUD

This is a technique that I came up with as a method of buffing a car out faster.  As you finish a section pass you simply say out loud, the number of the section pass you just finished.  For example, if your Test Spot shows you need to make 8 solid section passes to remove the defects out of the paint on the car you’re detailing, after you make the first section pass you say, ONE outload.  After you make the second section pass you say TWO out loud and so on and so on until you reach the final section pass, which in this example you would say EIGHT out loud.  Next you would turn your polisher off, re-apply fresh product to the face of the pad and start buffing the next section and then repeat this counting of section passes out loud.

Why count your section passes out loud?

Great question and here’s the answer.  The way our brains work when doing repetitive work is that our thoughts tend to drift around thinking of other things going on in our lives INSTEAD of the task at hand, mentally counting which section pass you’re on.  

For example, while doing an 8-count section pass on the hood of your Honda, you start to think about the weekend and how you need to pick up some steaks for the barbeque with friends and family.  Or you think about trading in the Honda for a Corvette.  Regardless of where your mind drifts, you have likely forgotten where you’re at in counting your section passes.  When this happens, the normal thing to do is to add a few more section passes so you can be assured you did at least 8 section passes even though the reality is you might now be doing 10, 11, 12, 13, etc. section passes.  

No big deal but here’s the thing… if while buffing out the car you don’t count your section passes out loud, (and I speak from 30+ years of experience), you will lose track over and over again.  Then to make sure you did enough, (so the paint looks right when you’re done), you will continually add extra section passes to each section you buff.  This simple adding of extra section passes when extrapolated out over the entire car means doing a LOT of extra section passes NEEDLESSLY.  

Remember your Test Spot proved how many you needed to do to get the paint right.  Doing more just wastes time.  How much time?  I estimate an hour of wasted buffing time.  Instead of spending 4 hours compounding your Honda Accord you spend 5 hours compounding your Honda Accord all because it’s natural for your mind to drift off resulting in you forgetting what pass you’re on.

My challenge to you

Next time you buff out a car, put my technique into practice and I’m confident you’re going to completely understand how this works and you’re also going to agree… I’m right.  It’s your time, I’m just trying to share with you a technique I use myself to do the machine paint correction as fast as humanly possible while keeping the results professional grade.

After sharing this technique for the last 5-6 years in all my detailing classes, videos and one-on-one with others, the feedback I receive is always consistent and that feedback is, this technique works. 

Feeling silly?

Will you feel silly if someone walks into your garage or shop and hears you counting out loud?  Maybe.  But the time you save is worth it.  Besides that, you can share why you’re counting out loud and if the person you’re talking to also details cars, down the road they’ll thank YOU for sharing my tip.

Buffing Cycle

The buffing cycle is the amount of time you can work the product before the abrasives have broken down, (if you’re using a product that uses diminishing abrasives), and/or the product begins to dry, and you lose the lubricating features of the product.  Different products have different buffing cycles depending upon the type of abrasives used in the formula and the different ingredients used to suspend the abrasives and provide lubrication.  

Factors that affect the buffing cycle include, 

  1. Ambient temperature.
  2. Surface temperature.
  3. Size of work area.
  4. Type of machine.
  5. Type of pad material.
  6. Humidity.
  7. Wind or air flow surrounding the car.
  8. Amount of product used.
  9. Technique.

 All 3D products have exceptionally long buffing cycles so having a product dry-up is never a problem.

Wet buffing technique

Most compounds and polishes should be used so that there is enough product on the surface to maintain a wet film while the product is being worked.  The wetness of the product is lubricating the paint as the abrasives abrade the paint and cushion or buffer the abrading action so the abrasives don’t simply scour the finish leaving behind swirls and scratches.

Dry Buffing Technique - Buffing to a dry buff

There are some products on the market where the manufacturer recommends buffing the product until it dries.  As the product dries, you’ll tend to see some dusting as the product residue becomes a powder and the paint will have a hard, dry shine to it. 

Although some manufacturers recommend this, it’s important to understand what’s taking place at the surface level as you buff to a dry buff.  As the product dries, you are losing the lubricating features of the product and as this happens friction and heat will increase.  As friction and heat increases, so does the risk of micro-marring the paint or instilling swirls either by the product residue or the pad material and/or a combination of both. 

While we trust that manufactures know their products best, when we take a close look at what it means to buff on a delicate surface like an automotive clear coat, it doesn’t make sense to run a buffing pad on top of the paint without some kind of wet film to lubricate the paint at the same time.  I personally always recommend that you follow the manufacturer's recommendations and use your own judgment.  But for myself, I never buff to a dry buff. 

Everyone new to buffing wants to be told some easily identifiable sign that they can use to tell when it's time to stop buffing and it's not that simple, so here's a visual indicator I've always used for myself and teach to others to visually determine if you’re wet buffing or dry buffing.

Wet film behind your path-of-travel

As you're making a single pass with the polisher, the paint behind the path of travel of the buffer should have a visible wet film on it.  If the paint behind the pad is dry and shiny, you've run out of lubrication and you're dry buffing.  Turn the polisher off.  Wipe the residue off and inspect using a Swirl Finder Light to make sure you didn't dull or mar the paint.  In most cases you won’t cause any harm but pay attention when you’re running the polisher and don't buff to a dry buff.  If you do, you can quickly re-polish this section by cleaning your pad and adding some fresh product to the pad, then make a few extra section passes.

Slow arm speed

The speed at which you move the polisher over the paint is called your arm speed.  This is a reference to how fast or slow you move your arm which is controlling the polisher.  When removing below surface defects like swirls and scratches you need to move the polisher slowly over the surface, not quickly.

Apply firm downward pressure

For removing below surface defects, you need to apply firm downward pressure to the head of the polisher.  As we discussed previously, removing below surface defects means removing some paint off the surface and this requires applying some pressure to the head of the polisher to engage the abrasive particles with the paint so they can take little bites out of it. 

10 to 15 pounds of downward pressure

If you place the face of the polisher on a normal household bathroom scale, it will read around 4-5 pounds, so just the weight of the polisher itself is supplying some downward pressure. 

Now follow me, if you apply just LIGHT pressure to the head of the polisher to keep the pad flat and stable while it’s operating, you’ll be around 7-8 pounds of downward pressure right from the get-go.  If you apply even more pressure to really engage the pad and the abrasives against the paint, you can easily reach 10 to 15 pounds of downward pressure. 

I know when some people read this it sounds excessive but it’s really not when you consider the pressure by just the weight of the machine already is around 5-7 pounds of pressure, and with just light pressure you’re already at 10 pounds of pressure. 

Take my word for it, when trying to remove a little paint from some cars it’s going to take some downward pressure to engage the abrasives into the paint and do any serious paint correction work. 

The key is to remember that polishing paint is an art form and anytime you have to use an aggressive approach to remove a little paint in order to remove defects, chances are good you’re going to have to do a follow-up step to refine the finish even further using a less aggressive pad and product.  So, the results from an aggressive product with downward pressures of 15 to 20 pounds won’t always leave a pristine finish but that’s okay, you’re not finished yet.  (No pun intended)

Monitor pad rotation for free spinning dual action polishers

As a general rule of thumb, when working on seriously neglected paint, you'll want to apply firm pressure but never so much that the pad stops rotating.  This is the purpose of placing the black marks on the sides of your buffing pads or the back of your backing plates, it’s so you can easily see if your pad is rotating or simply vibrating against the paint.  When using any brand of free spinning random orbital polisher, paint is removed best and time-efficiently removed, when the buffing pad is both rotating and oscillating, not simply vibrating or jiggling against the paint. 

Keep in mind you need to balance how much pressure you apply to the condition of the paint and what you’re trying to accomplish.  If the paint is in good condition and only in need of light correction, (shallow defects), then you won’t need to apply as much pressure.  If the paint you're working on looks like the car was  in a Destruction Derby, then increase your pressure to anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds of pressure. 

Hold the pad flat to the surface

It's vital that you hold the buffer in such a way as to keep the pad flat against the surface while you're buffing.  With a completely flat panels like the hood of most large cars and trucks, for example a Chevy Suburban, it's pretty easy to keep the pad rotating by holding the buffer in a way to keep the face of the pad flat to the surface as you buff. 

With panels that have either concave or convex curves, you need to rotate or adjust how you hold the body of the polisher to match the curve of the panel as you move it over the paint to keep the face of the pad flat to the surface. 

If you hold the polisher in a way that there is more pressure on only an edge of the buffing pad, this increased pressure to one section of the face of the buffing pad is enough to stop the pad from rotating.  This will be easy to see from the marks on your backing plate and paying attention to how you’re holding the polisher in relation to the shape of the panel.  Watching your pad will help you to perfect your technique. 

It's not as difficult as it sounds and most people new to machine polishing with a free spinning dual action polisher will learn how to hold the polisher while adjusting for the curves of the car after buffing out just the front clip of their car, (hood and front fenders).  The learning curve for a dual action polisher is flat, (no pun intended), in other words, these types of tools are extremely easy to learn how to use and also master.  

Use an ample amount of product

When we say use an ample amount of product this means don’t use too much product and don’t use too little product.

Too much product

If you use too much you can hyper-lubricate the surface and this will make it more difficult for the abrasives to abrade the surface as they’ll tend to want to glide or slip over the surface instead of biting into the paint. 

To little product

If you use too little product there won’t be enough lubrication to enable the buffing pad to rotate and thus engage the abrasives against the surface so they can bite into and remove small particles of paint.

Learning how much product to use varies with manufacturer's products as there’s a lot of variables involved.  The best teacher is experience coupled with any hands-on training you can find.  Watching a video or asking questions on a detailing discussion forum like 3Ddetailtalk.com or the 3D Facebook Group, Detailing Society is a great resource for this kind of information. 

Also, when you’re first starting out with a dry pad, (doesn’t matter so much if it’s new or used as long as it’s clean), the pad will tend to absorb some of the initial product applied to it.  As you continue to work around the car and the pad becomes more wet or saturated with product, a couple of things will take place.

You’ll find you’ll need less product to work a section.  As the pad becomes wet with product, the combination of liquid and foam will tend to absorb and dissipate the power provided by the motor.  This will show up as a reduction in the ability of the tool to keep the pad rotating under pressure.  

Then if you apply more pressure the free-floating spindle assembly will do its job and the pad will stop rotating.  

The fix for this is to switch to a fresh, clean, dry pad.  Once you switch to a dry pad, if you pay attention, you’ll notice the pad is rotating efficiently.  This is because dry pads rotate better than wet soggy pads.  If you want to buff out a car as fast as you can then switch to a clean dry pad often.  This is why you want more than just a few pads to buff out a car. 

Of course, the ability to swap out pads means having a collection of pads in your arsenal to start with depending upon your budget and how much you value your time.  Simply put, dry pads rotate against the paint better than wet pads, so it’s faster to buff out an entire car by swapping out wet pads for dry pads versus trying to buff the entire car out with only a few pads.

Divide larger panels into smaller sections.

Look at a panel, (a panel is a hood, or fender, or door), and using the natural raised body lines and edges, divide the panel into smaller more manageable sections.  The largest size section you should tackle is approximately 2’ x 2’ and for severely neglected paint you’ll get better results if you work even smaller sections to concentrate the polishing action.

I divided the hood of the Lincoln into 4 equal sections.

After buffing out the driver’s side I moved to the passenger side.

Use a crosshatch pattern

For larger, square, or rectangular panels you should use a crosshatch pattern moving the polisher side-to-side and then front-to-back.  For larger panels like this, you normally do 6-8 section passes.  How many section passes you make is something you would have figured out in the Test Spot.

Use a single back and forth direction for thin panels

If you look at any car, truck or sports utility vehicle, there are some larger, flatter body panels that are easy to buff out and lend themselves well to using a crosshatch pattern.  That said, there are also long thin panels, which is a section of paint that on one side is an edge and on the other side is a raised body line, like the top of a fender or the panel just past the top of the windshield or the panel at the bottom of the back window and between the edge of the trunk lid.

When buffing out thin panels it simply doesn’t work to try to make a crosshatch pattern.  For these panels you simply move the polisher in a back-and-forth straight-line pattern and if possible, that is if the panel is wide enough, then you include overlapping the passes.  If the panel is too thin to fit in an overlapping pass, then you simply buff in a single, back-and-forth motion. 

When buffing out long, thin panels, I will tend to add a few extra passes to the number of section passes I found working for when crosshatching a larger panel.  An example would be if I found I needed to do 8 solid section passes when buffing out larger panels using a crosshatch pattern, when buffing out a long thin panel with single direction passes, I’ll make 10 to 12 passes.  I’ve added 2-4 extra passes.  This is because buffing out longer, thinner panels is more difficult than larger flat panels.  The goal is always the same and that is UMR or Uniform Material Removal so after all the paint correction work is performed, the entire car has a uniform appearance.  By this I mean the defects are removed equally on the hood as they are on the top of a fender or the sail panel, etc.

Overlap your passes

Each time you make a single pass over the panel and then change directions to continue buffing the entire area of that section you should overlap your pass by 50%.

Overlap your sections

When you start a new section, for example if you divide the hood into 4 sections, when you start a new section, overlap a little into the previous section.

Apply product directly onto face of buffing pad

Pour 4-5 nickel sized drops or a circle of product onto the face of the buffing pad when first starting out and the pad is clean and dry.  When you move onto a new section because the face of the pad will now be broken-in or primed with product, you can reduce the volume of product to 3-4 dime sized drops of product or a thinner circle of product. 

Place face of pad against paint BEFORE turning the polisher on

This is a technique most people learn the hard way.  The idea being to place the face of the pad against the surface of the paint on the section you’re going to buff out to trap the product between the face of the pad and the paint.  When you do this, you avoid slinging product all over the place.  If you turn the polisher on while the pad is in the air – look out!  The product is going to fly off in all directions and make a splatter mess all over the car and you.  Most people make this mistake ONE TIME and then after putting the polisher down and cleaning up the mess they never make the mistake again.

Spread product out over the section to be worked.

When starting out, use a slow to medium speed to spread the product out over the section to be worked.  This puts a UNIFORM LAYER OF ABRASIVES over the section. 

Begin making slow overlapping passes

Once you have the product spread out over the section to be buffed, turn the speed up on the polisher.  And begin working the product over the section using slow overlapping passes in a crosshatch pattern. 


Recommended tool speeds

High speed setting: When working on severely neglected paint with serious paint defects like swirls, scratches, water spots and oxidation you want to use the highest speed setting on the tool in most cases.

Medium speed settings:  A slower speed setting, usually in the 3-4 range is perfect for after doing the paint correction steps to machine apply a wax or sealant.

Low speed setting:  When it comes to free spinning random orbital dual action polishers, there’s really no effective use for the lowest speed settings like the 1 and 2 speed settings.


Good lighting

It helps to have good lighting to accurately see defects in the paint plus the after results.  In our garage we have bright overhead LED lights, which you see reflecting in the hood.  I also have a quality swirl finder light which helps for inspecting vertical panels.

Clean your pad often

Anytime you’re buffing with an abrasive product, whether an aggressive compound or a light polish, you have two things building up on the face of your buffing pad, 

  1. Spent or used-up product.
  2. Removed paint.

 You want to remove these residues often by cleaning your pad nylon cleaning brush like you see in the picture below.

I cannot stress enough the importance of working clean and in this context, I mean wiping any product residue off the paint after each section pass and also removing any spent product and paint residue off the face of your buffing pad. 

If you don’t clean your pad often the product residue will become gummy on the surface of the paint and wipe-off will become more difficult and you risk putting swirls and scratches back into the paint as you struggle, (push hard), to wipe these gummy residues off the paint. 

Another reason to clean your pad often is because adding fresh product to spent product dilutes and pollutes the fresh product, making it less effective.  So, make it a best practice to clean your pad often before adding fresh product.


How often should you clean your pads?

This is personal preference and here’s what I do, for the average condition paint I will tend to clean my pad on the fly every other application of the product.  This means if I were buffing out the hood of a car, I would apply my product to the face of the pad and buff out a section of paint about 2’ x 2’ squarish or so.  If I’m done with that section, I would wipe the residue off the paint and then buff out the next section.  After I’ve buffed these two sections I would clean my pad with a pad cleaning brush and then start on a new section and repeat this method as I work around the car.

Wipe off panel by panel or after polishing the entire car?

At a minimum, wipe all product residue off the panel you just polished.  If you choose to re-polish a panel a second or third time, (to remove deeper defects), always wipe any polish residues off first.

Paint hardness and softness

Some paints are hard, and some paints are soft but the only way to know is by testing AND by having experience.  This is where it’s tough for people that are new to detailing – they have no experience.  That’s where having a mentor comes in handy and I’m always happy to help.  I answer questions on the 3D forum and 3D Facebook Group. 

With harder paints it will require more aggressive pads and products to remove the defects 100%.  With softer paint, defects will buff out faster and easier.  The thing is you won’t know until you do some testing, and this is the reason why you do a Test Spot BEFORE you buff out the entire car.  

Paint defect variables

Some swirls and scratches are deep, and some are shallow.  Some water spots are deep while others are just light marks on the surface.  Sometimes oxidation can be deep but most of the time it’s very topical, at least on clear coats.  This is another reason you want to do a Test Spot.  You want to test the products and pads you think will work on one small section of paint and then inspect the results.  If the results look good, you can simply repeat this process to the rest of the car and be confident you’ll get the same results. 

If the results don’t look good, you can retest to a different section of paint only using a more aggressive pad or a more aggressive product or both.


Here’s what a Test Spot looks like

Now that you’re familiar with the lingo used in the car detailing world, below I have performed a Test Spot on an extremely swirled-out black 2018 Lincoln Continental.


Tape Line

I like to use a tape like when I do a Test Spot because not only do I detail cars professionally but I write a lot of articles about car detailing and the tape line enables me to take clear, before and after pictures to make a point.  For the average car enthusiast, a tape line helps but you don’t have to place a strip of tape on the paint as long as you keep the Test Spot area to a defined location so you can compare the after results to the before results.


Here you can see the swirls on both sides of the tape line.

Place 4-5 nickel sized drops of 3D ONE polish onto the face of the pad.

Use pad to spread product over section to be buffed.

Turn the polisher to a low to medium speed setting and spread the product out over the area to be buffed.

Turn the speed up to the 5-6 speed setting.

Make 8 solid Section Passes.

Carefully wipe the polish residue off.

Using overhead lights or a swirl finder light inspect the results.

Here’s the results after 8 Section Passes.

Here’s the before condition.

Successful Test Spot

If you’re happy with the results from your Test Spot, remove the painter’s tape and it’s time to start buffing out the rest of the car.

Unsuccessful Test Spot

 If you’re not happy with the results you’ll need to do a second Test Spot to a different section of paint on the hood or trunk lid and for the second Test Spot you’ll want to do one of three things,

  1. Using the same pad and product - do more section passes.  Instead of 8 section passes bump this number up to 10 to 12 section passes.
  2. Use a more aggressive pad like a foam cutting pad.
  3. Use a more aggressive polish, for example use a compound. 

6: Repeat the process proven by the Test Spot to the entire car working section by section

It’s time to get busy.  You did your Test Spot and dialed-in your process.  Whatever the process is dialed-in, start repeating it to the car, section by section, starting at the highest points and working your way down and around the body panels.  For this 2018 Lincoln I’m going to use the One-Step Paint Correction approach discussed above using 3D ONE as my polish and 3D POXY as my sealant. 

Start at the top and work your way down

Normally you will start at the top and for most vehicles this is the roof.  If the car is a convertible, then you will start on the hood or trunk lid.  To effectively reach the middle of the roof I’m using a Werner Workplatform in the collapsed configuration to give me 4” of height.

Polishing the driver’s side roof

Next I move to the other side and buff out the passenger side roof.

Working down and around, after polishing the roof, next I machine polish the glass.


Traffic Film

If you live in an area where it rains, the exterior of your car will get a film build-up of traffic film on all the exterior surfaces of your car including the glass.  This is why professional detailers always polish the glass at the same time they polish the paint.  The paint has a film build-up of traffic film on it and so does the glass.  As long as you’re using premium quality products for your paint correction steps, (compounds, polishes and all-in-ones), then you can use these on the glass to remove the traffic film on the glass.

After polishing both paint and glass always remove the residues immediately before moving onto a new window or a body panel.

Technique Tip - Place power cord over shoulder

Anytime you’re machine polishing a car you should always place the power cord over your shoulder so the cord isn’t dragging against the paint.  Most cords are covered with either rubber or vinyl but both can mar the surface.

If you look carefully you can see the cord over my shoulder as I machine polish the trunk lid.

After machine polishing the roof, glass, hood and trunk lid, next I move onto the vertical panels, the fenders and doors.

7: Seal the paint with a wax, sealant or ceramic coating.

After you have finished with all the machine polishing work using a dedicated polish the next step is to seal the paint using a wax or sealant.  Compounds and polishes do not offer any protection, they have a sole or dedicated function and that is to remove defects.  If you don’t apply a wax or sealant onto the paint after polishing you are leaving the paint unprotected against the elements and UV rays from the sun.

Waxes, sealants and ceramic coatings also amp up the gloss and beauty of the paint and make future washing and drying faster, easier and safer.



3D POXY is a liquid paint sealant that uses Montan Wax and other synthetic polymer protection ingredients.  It offers excellent resistance to high temperatures so it’s a great option for cars that are always parked outside all the time and especially in geographical areas of high heat, like here in South Florida.

POXY is a non-cleaning wax, this means it has no ability to do any paint correction like remove swirls, scratches, water spots and oxidation.  Another term for this type of wax is show car wax or finishing wax.  It is intended to be used on brand new cars or cars where the paint is already in perfect condition or for a car like this Lincoln where I have just machine polished the paint to remove all the panid defects and restore the finish to like-new condition

How to apply POXY using a dual action polisher

When applying a show car wax like POXY you want to use a soft foam finishing or waxing pad like the black 3D foam finishing pad.

Apply a circle of product onto the face of the pad.

With the polisher turned off - touch the face of the pad down onto the paint over multiple areas to deposit a small amount of the wax over a body panel.  For larger body panels like the hood, you can tackle an entire half of the hood at one time.

Turn the polisher to a medium speed setting like the 4 speed setting and use the polisher to spread the POXY over the panel being worked.  As the edge of the spinning pad comes up to one of the piles of wax you deposited, tilt the polisher like you see in the picture below so that the wax is captured UNDER the pad.  Don’t simply run the spinning edge of the pad into the pile of wax as this will tend to sling it off the panel.

After you have picked up all the piles of wax under the spinning pad, next move the polisher in a slow, overlapping motion to lay down a thin, uniform layer of wax.

NOTE:  When applying a finishing wax to paint you don’t need to work the product like you did with the 3D ONE polish.  When using a polish to remove defects you make section passes and work the polish over smaller sections of paint so the abrasive technology can level the paint and thus remove the defects.  This is the correct technique for doing paint correction with a dual action polisher.  But when applying the wax you’re not trying to remove defects as you already did this - now you simply want to lay down or massage a thin, uniform layer of wax over each square inch of paint.

Here's what a panel should look like after machine applying POXY with a dual action polisher.

Side note:  In the picture below, you can get an idea as to how many foam polishing pads I used to polish out the entire car.  Point being, when doing paint correction, you need around 6 pads to do the job right.

Remove the wax

For a quality wax like POXY, you can apply the wax to the entire car at one time and then come back and remove it at one time.  As long as you apply a thin layer of wax, it will dry to a haze in about 15 minutes and wipe off effortlessly when using quality microfiber towels.

Here’s the final results…

Here’s the polisher, pads and products that made the magic happen!

Keeping your towels clean and uncontaminated

Note the bucket for holding dirty towels?  I cannot stress this enough that it’s important to have a clean place to put your dirty towels as you work around the car to keep them off the ground and prevent them from becoming contaminated.  For more information about washing, inspecting and maintaining your microfiber towels check out my article here.

Final thoughts…

If you’re new to machine polishing and you’re read this far, you now have more head-knowledge about using a dual action polisher than the majority of people on Earth and even a majority of professional detailers in the car detailing industry.  The information shared above is the culmination of decades of real-world experience shared via text and pictures.  If you put into practice what you’ve learned from this article, you’re going to turn-out show car quality work your very first time using a dual action polisher. 

If you need more help or have more questions, please consider joining either our 3D Facebook group or our 3D discussion forum and ask your questions on one of these social media platforms.  Not only am I more than happy to answer your questions but these two platforms make it easy for me to share videos, pictures as well as more information to help you to be successful in your garage or shop.


Hope this helps… 

Mike Phillips



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