What is Buffing a Car? Can Buffing Remove Scratches?

    buffing a car

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    Car scratches. They are every car owner’s nightmare. When it comes to paint scratches on your car, you’ll likely encounter the phrase, buffing a car and exterior detailing.  

    Buffing is a procedure that removes scratches on the finish. Most shops offer this service, at the cost of course. However, in most cases, it can be done successfully at home by yourself to save a few bucks.

    So, the question is, will it remove scratches? Well, it depends on the severity of the scratches. If you only have to deal with swirl marks and minor nicks, then yes, it will remove them. That is what a buffing service is actually for. However, anything worse than that will likely require more than just buffing to fix.

    Assessing the Problem

    While buffing will remove scratches on the paint surface, you need to understand how “removing” or “erasing” means in this case. Scratches dig into the surface of the paint, and the only way to “remove” or “erase” them is to level the surface surrounding them. Basically, buffing is taking away material around the scratch until it evens out, hence, scratch gone.

    Now, with that in mind, modern car finishes are made up of 3 layers; primer, base coat (actual color), and the clear coat. The last one is important because that is the only area where buffing can do its magic. If the scratch breaches the clear coat and works its way into the base coat, or worse, the bare metal itself, the only way to fix that is to have it painted by a professional.

    Scratch Removers

    There are many products available in the market that claim to remove or “erase” even the deepest scratches on the paint by filling it in. While it may do the job of removing the scratch temporarily, the filler will wash away eventually, revealing the scratch once again.

    As discussed earlier, the only way to remove surface scratches permanently is to level it out by buffing. However, if the scratch is deep into the paint, you’ll need a respray.

    removing car scratch

    Polish, Compounds, Wax?

    There is a difference between waxes, polish, and compounds. Ideally, you need to use all three. Think of it as steps or levels, from light to severe damage. Depending on the type of damage you’re dealing with, you can omit some of the “steps”.

    This is the last step in the buffing process after using polish or compounds. As the name suggests, these seal the paint to protect it from the elements. How long the protection lasts will vary on the product used and the environment the finish is exposed to. The difference between the two is basically what they are made of. Waxes are organic natural products while Paint sealants are either made of resin, polymers, or a combination of both.


    Polish – This is what actually gives off the shine when having your car detailed or buffed. It smoothens out the finish similar to what compounds does but not enough to remove scratches and watermarks. When people say that they want to have their car “waxed” to bring out the shine, they are referring to polish. While polish gives you the luster you’re looking for, it will need wax or paint sealant to make it last longer.


    This has the most abrasion to deal with swirl marks, stains, and scratches. It works by removing material off the paint surface, leveling it out until the scratch disappears. Keep in mind that this only works if the scratch is within the clear coat. Anything deeper than that will need measures that are more extensive.

    All-in-one products

    As the name suggests, this is a combination of all three. These came into the market as a means of cutting buffing time significantly. However, unless you are sure of how much of any of the three is actually in it, it may not be the best idea to use. For the best results, using the three separately is the way to go.

    Buffing Machine

    Buffing by hand will give the best results since it gives you the control and flexibility especially in tight spaces. However, applying consistent pressure over large surfaces will be a very challenging proposition, even for professionals. Which is why you’re better off using a machine.

    Orbital buffers and angle grinders with buffing attachments are the most popular types to use. Generally, what you need to look for is something that you can change the speed easily and a wide RPM range.

    Buffing pads are just as important as the machine itself. There a lot of pads available and choosing the right one will, again, depend on your intended use. More specifically, the wax, polish or compound you’ll be using. Some products will require specific pads while some will work on anything as long as you adjust the speed.

    DIY Buffing

    Buffing is easy once you get the hang of it. If you’re doing it for the first time, make sure to do extensive research on different compounds, substances, waxes, and polish and what pads, machines and strategies to use before buying. Or if you’re borrowing a machine, take the time to know what works for that machine. As mentioned earlier, different substances may have specific instructions on what or how to use them.

    Once you figure out what to use, dedicate at least one whole day, especially if you’re just starting out. With practice, the whole procedure becomes easier and will definitely cut your work time significantly.

    Prep your car. Start off with a clean surface and dry it out thoroughly. Use a microfiber cloth to remove surface dirt and smudges.

    Also, make sure that you’re in a covered and well-ventilated area while working on your car. After that, buff away.


    Buffing is a great way of removing scratches on your car’s finish. However, it will only work for surface scratches that do not penetrate the top coat.

    For deep gouges and pits, you shall read the tips of car scratch removal, and are better off getting it professionally mended by a body shop. 

    But before you dismiss the idea of buffing a heavily scratched vehicle, buffing can help preserve the metal surface from incurring further damage by sealing off the scratch from the elements, albeit temporarily. 

    This will at least give you time until you can fix the problem permanently.

    About the Author Simon Adams

    Simon graduated with a Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Degree. He has over 20 years of servicing experience in both Japanese and German car dealerships. He now acts as a freelance mechanic's instructor for local schools.

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