Before we get into the history and advancement of polishers (also called buffers), we first need to discuss auto paint and its evolution in the past four-five decades.
First, there was the single-stage paint. This was the most common type of paint on cars before the 1990’s and is still around today, but in much less quantity. In broad terms, this type of paint has clear coat type properties mixed with paint to produce a thick coating. This coating was then sprayed on the car as an all-in-one paint and clear coat. Due to the heavy mix, this type of paint would come out very dense. If you examine old paint today, you will see the difference in depth compared to this day in age’s newer paints. This single-stage, or “thicker” paint, called for machines that could cut deeper and more rapidly. This gave birth to the first professionally used polishers – the rotaries.
Rotary polishers are heaving cutting polishers and are what’s called “direct drive” polishers. This means that it doesn’t matter what kind of surface the rotary polisher is on, the polisher will keep spinning and cutting into the paint. Due to this function, rotary buffers are known to be extremely tricky around the edges and corners as you can burn off your paint very easily if not properly used. Rotary polishers spin without any sort of throw or oscillation to spread the heat making them extremely dangerous in the hands of a novice. However, in the hands of professionals, they are very powerful tools that can be used for major paint corrections for a deeper cut in less amount of time due to their speed and cutting ability.
As years went by, automotive manufacturers determined new ways to be more cost effective with their paint. This led them to putting less mils on their paint (less paint depth). This new “thinner” paint increased the already existing dangers of rotary polishers even more. As the paints got thinner over the years, rotary polishers overheated and melted off paint much easier making them much harder to use for unexperienced detailers and body shops. Thus, the market bore a new machine that was much more friendly for regular detailers and body shops called dual action polishers (AKA DA’s).
The dual action polisher differs from the rotary polisher in two important ways. First, it has a fail-safe switch, meaning when you go over an edge with pressure, unlike the rotary, the DA polisher will completely stop spinning and producing heat, leaving almost no chance of burning the paint off of your edges. The second way that a DA is different from a rotary is that the DA not only spins, but also oscillates during the spin. This oscillation helps the DA spread the heat more widely which reduces the chances of burning the paint, but it also helps the buffer cover a larger area per second leading to less time in polishing.
As years and decades went by, automotive manufactures struggled to continue to reduce their paint thickness without compromising the quality of their paint. To compensate, they came up with very thin clear coats to install on top of the paint to keep it well protected and enhance the looks. This clear coat, although very thin, was very strong, but posed yet another challenge for detailers. Broadly speaking, a DA would be too weak/time consuming for these new and stronger clear coats and a rotary would pose a high risk of outright burning the clear coat due to the coat’s thinness. This is where the very popular Flex came out with their new technology of polishers.
Flex released a polisher called the 3104. The 3104 was the perfect buffer for the new two-stage paints because it mimicked strengths of both the action of the DA and the rotatory. It combines the oscillation from the DA with the direct drive from the rotary to create a polisher that oscillates to spread the heat and cover more area while also continuously spinning without stopping to create more power and rapid cutting ability due to not having a fail-safe switch. This ability of the 3104 become known as the Forced Rotation Polisher.
Fast forward to today to the Rupes. This is the most recent advancement in the polishing industry. It’s the only company that has threatened the extreme popularity of the Flex over the years and is slowly taking over the industry. Rupes came out with an advancement called the throw. Rupes polishers spin and oscillate just like DA’s, however, they also have a revolutionary far throw that creates random circles in the spin while also throwing the polisher from left to right and up to down to create even more cutting ability in less time. The one downfall of the Rupes is that it is not a forced drive; unlike the Flex, it will not keep spinning on the edges. While this function makes using the Rupes safer, it does make it more tricky to correct the paint around the edges.
Nowadays, with the two-stage paint that almost all car manufacturers use, the Flex and the Rupes polishers are by far the two most popular polishers for detailers. It’s hard to separate the two because they each have their own strengths, so it just comes down to exactly what you’re looking to do with a polisher.