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Machine polishing by Rotary – basic

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One of the best ways to take your car’s paintwork to the next level is to use a machine polisher to remove the Swirl marks and enhance the gloss by burnishing the finish. Polishing can be done by hand or by a dual action polisher. However, the rotary polisher represents the next step in machine polishing: a tool highly capable of fast correction but also capable of very high clarity, sharp and deep finishes.



The rotary machine polisher is a popular and well used tool by professionals and enthusiast detailers alike. Alas it is sometimes misused and as a result it can get itself a rather bad name as a dangerous, fire breathing monster that will burn your paint as soon as look at it! Used correctly however, the rotary is a safe and hugely effective machine which doesn’t deserve its reputation.

In this guide we look to put this myth to bed with a full run-down of the art of using a rotary polisher as safely as possible to create eye catching finishes with head turning clarity and depth. Machine polishing not only delivers correction of paint blemishes such as swirls. It also burnishes the paint finish to a very high gloss which will set your car apart from others at shows, or simply in the supermarket car park! Indeed it can happily be argued that this burnishing stage is more important to the overall result than the correction – as in most conditions it is the enhancement to the gloss that will be noticed most. Naturally, correction of blemishes is also very important and makes for another big advantage of machine polishing.

Please note: this guide is not product specific. The generic techniques that apply to all rotaries and polishes will be covered here along with hints and tips that can be adapted for use with a lot of products on today’s market. Polish specific guides for the most popular products on the market will be in a separate guide. It should also be noted that every detailer has differing techniques – the key to getting the best possible finish is to spend time practicing with the polishes and pads that you have and see what works best for you. This guide is intended to get you started and share some possible tricks and methods for honing your finish to the best possible.

Rotary polishing: what and why?

Before getting started into the use of a rotary polisher, we have a look at what exactly the tool is and what it can be used for.

The rotary polisher

Pad motion of rotary and dual action
Pad motion of rotary and dual action

Rotary polishers are the mainstay of bodyshops and professional detailers for paintwork correction. They can be used with either foam or wool pads, the latter giving rise to the commonly used term of “mopping”. Used correctly, a rotary polisher is capable of spectacularly good results: high levels of paintwork correction; super sharp clarity and depth in finishing. In the wrong hands, such a machine is capable of severe paint damage!

A rotary polisher differs from a Dual Action polisher by the fact that its pad spins only on a single orbit as shown at the side.

The single orbit nature of a rotary polisher results in a very consistent break down of polish abrasives. This opens up the rotary polisher for use with any polish from heavy cutting compounds to fine finish polishes. The rotary is a very flexible paint correction machine.

Why rotary?

Before Dual Action polishers became widely available, rotary polishers were the only choice for detailers who wanted to perform paint correction by machine. However, with the advent of Dual Action polishers that make the paint correction process safer and more accessible for novice users, why would anyone want to use a more aggressive machine? There are many reasons!

In terms of cutting ability, the rotary polisher is more flexible than a dual action polisher. This is especially noticed at the higher end of the cutting scale. For severe marring where aggressive compounds are required, the dual action polisher can be seen to struggle with the correction – a lot of time and patience is required! A rotary polisher by contrast can cut faster and get more from the abrasives in heavier compounds.

Rotary polishers can also be used with wool pads for additional cut, something which is not possible with a dual action polisher. Extreme care must be taken with wool pads owing to the high levels of cut they provide – a brief introduction to wool will be given in this guide for completeness only. More detailed information can be found in the section “Serious Correction”.

In addition to being serious correction machines, rotary polisher also excel at finishing. The constant radius of the pad motion results in the abrasives being broken down more evenly which has been demonstrated to give a slightly sharper finish than using the equivalent polish by dual action polisher. This is not to say the finish delivered by a dual action polisher will be a poor one in comparison – very far from it. You will only notice the “rotary enhancement” on certain paints, generally soft solid dark paints.

Choosing a polisher and products

As with all things detailing, there is now a huge array of machines and products on the market. Indeed, there are more rotary polishers on the market than dual action polisher which can make the choice of tool a harder one. Here we look at some specific requirements and recommendations for polishers and products. This is by no means an exhaustive guide, but rather a generic review of the products on the market.

The machine

Choosing a machine polisher very much comes down to personal preference. There are bigger differences between various rotary polishers than there are between dual action polishers. Speed ranges, machine weights, switch and control positions, general ergonomics and specifications can all vary widely across the board. From this perspective it is necessary to choose a machine which best suits your preferences. The easiest way to find this out is to try various machines and get a feel for what you prefer.

That said, the task of machine polishing by rotary can be made easy or difficult depending on the machine you choose. Certain genetic factors that are common to many machines and should be looked out for when choosing a rotary are listed below. Confirm your potential machine choice meets these generic specifications to ensure the rotary polishing experience is an enjoyable and productive one.

  • Variable speed with range of at least 1100rpm – 2000rpm.
  • Electronic speed control to maintain constant pad speed regardless of pressure
  • Comfortable ergonomics

Variable speed is crucial to making use of the flexibility of a rotary polisher, and the greater the range the better. Slower speeds are useful for finishing and refining, higher speeds are useful for aggressive cutting. An electronic speed control that ensures the pad rotates at a constant speed regardless of pressure is highly useful in making the rotary a predictable machine as well as guaranteeing that the pad does not bog down at slow speeds which can make finishing a less easy task.

Most importantly though is that the machine should be comfortable for you to use – and this will vary from person to person! Some machines are heavier than others, control switches are located in different positions and the shape of the tools is very different. Check to make sure that any potential rotary purchase is one which you are comfortable using.

Pads and plates

Rotary polishers can be used with both foam and wool pads. It is strongly recommended that for starting out with a rotary, wool pads are avoided owing to the high levels of cut they deliver. Both foam and wool pads are listed below. We will touch on wool pads only briefly in this guide for completeness (full discussion given in separate guide on “Serious Correction”).

Foam pads for use with rotary polishers come in a wide variety of grades and styles with sizes ranging from 4” right through to 8” diameter. Different pads use different grades of foam which affects the coarseness and hardness of the pad. This in turn varies the amount of cut a pad will deliver, and affect its abilities when finishing. It is a good idea when choosing a selection of pads to use with your rotary to choose a wide selection of grades of foam. This will give you a good choice to tackle everything from severe swirls and marring with compounds, to burnishing a finish to a high gloss with a finessing polish.

You will also notice that pads come in a variety of different sizes for the rotary, ranging from small 3 or 4” pads right through to large 8” pads. The varying sizes allow you to choose a pad which will best suit the panel you are working on. Large open panels such as roofs and bonnets lend themselves to bigger pads such as 6 or even 8”. Smaller, more complexly detailed panels such as bumpers and bootlids with badges are better suited to smaller 3 and 4” pads. The aggression of a pad is also linked to its size, as larger pads will move faster for a set rpm, resulting in slightly more cut from various polishes – we will see later in the guide why this is so.

You will also need a suitable backing plate to use with pads – smaller 3 and 4” pads require a 3” backing plate, while 6” pads will require a 5.5” backing plate for example. Most rotary polishers use an M14 thread so ensure that your backing plate is compatible with this. For further information, refer to your polisher specifications and operating manual.


It may be tempting when first starting out with a machine polisher to buy as many polishes and compounds as possible – but in truth, for most general defects on most paintworks, you only really need two products to get you started. One medium cutting polish, and one lighter cutting polish. As you build confidence with the use of a rotary polisher you can expand your range of polishes up to more aggressive cutting compounds which require greater care to work safely. This will expand your cutting capabilities to handle more serious paint defects. You can also expand your range down to very fine finishing polishes and explore the use of lightly abrasive paintwork cleansers as finishing polishes.

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