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When you are polishing scratches or swirls out of your paint, it takes a lot of power and repetitive movement to create the abrasion needed to correct them. There are very few humans on the planet that have the power to polish away scratches and swirls by hand. And even those that do, are going to a long while to get it done. Considering the amount of repetitive motion required for it, it is more likely their shoulder or elbows would give in before the scratch does! Thankfully for detailers everywhere, machine polishers are here to supply the power and motion that our bodies just aren't capable of!
Machine polishers are essentially just hand-held tools with the sole purpose of spinning/oscillating extremely quickly even under heavy pressure. The motion that they create move the backing plate and pad in tight circles over the paint surface. This creates the motion that is needed for the abrasive particles in your polish or compound to abrade the entire surface evenly and efficiently. Sometimes these abrasives need more pressure to really be able to abrade like they need to, so machine polishers have enough power to keep the motion going even if you are applying a lot of downward pressure.
Machine polishers are split into two main categories, Dual-action (or orbital) polishers and Rotary (or circular) polishers. The difference between them is the pattern in which they cause the pad to spin.
Rotary polishers make the pad spin around the center access point only. Kind of like how the earth spins around its own axis. Since the movement is more simple, rotary polishers can spin at much higher speeds than dual-action polishers and withstand a higher amount of downward pressure. This gives them the edge when it comes to buffing out swirls and scratches. The faster speeds and ability to apply more pressure makes it much easier for the abrasives in your polish or compound to quickly abrade the paint and level the surface.
However, there are downsides all of that power, speed, and pressure. Rotary polishers will definitely leave marring of its own behind that you will have to go over again to correct once the surface is level and scratch-free. Also, rotary polishers create a lot of heat on the paint surface due to the higher amount of friction. Combine this with the additional abrasive power and it is extremely easy to abrade too much and burn through the clear coat and paint! Rotary polishers also tend to be much more difficult to control, so using them properly has a steep learning curve.
Dual action polishers make the pad spin around the center of the pad AND orbit around the center axis of the polisher's head. This is motion is like how the earth spins around its own axis and orbits around the sun at the same time. This allows the pad to cover more area, much more quickly, allowing you to polisher entire panels in nearly half the time it would take with a rotary polisher. This motion also spreads out the heat and abrasion to a wide area, greatly reducing the risk of burning through and leaving marring behind. These factors give dual-action polishers an advantage when it comes to creating a smooth and glossy finish.
The trade off with dual-action polishers is that they are not as capable of correcting severe scratches, swirls, and imperfections. Since the movement is more complex and spread over a wider area, if you apply too much pressure, the pad will stop orbiting and spinning all together (except in the case of gear driven dual-action polishers like the FLEX XC 3401). Also, since the power is spread across a larger area, the abrasive ability at any one point is going to be less than it would be with a rotary polisher. This means that it generally takes dual-action polishers much longer to correct imperfections. The reduced power does, however, make dual-action polishers much more user-friendly and easier to control than their rotary counterparts.
When it comes down to it, which type of machine polisher is best for you comes down to your own personal level of skill and what you are trying to accomplish. As a general rule of thumb, rotary polishers are better if you are trying to remove severe imperfections and dual-action polishers are better if you want to provide a smoother and glossier finish. If you do use a rotary polisher to correct imperfections, following it up by polishing with a less abrasive polish and a dual-action polisher is good practice.
Whichever polisher you choose, you should always take the time to practice with the machine polisher and get a feel for its power, balance, strengths, and weaknesses before taking on any serious detailing job using it!
Since no machine polisher, rotary or dual-action, is going to work without the proper backing plate, buffing pads, and polish/compound, make sure to check out our collections of these as well! Or consider looking at our collection of polisher kits that include everything you will need to start practicing with your new machine polisher!