Circular/ Rotary Polishing Guide

Read these tips before taking your rotary for a spin!

A rotary polisher is also known in the industry as a circular, high speed, or professional polisher. All these words describe the same machine. You can recognize a rotary polisher by the fact that the pad spins and only spins. While dual action polishers oscillate or orbit, rotary polishers spin the pad at high speed in a circular motion. This single function is what makes rotary buffers the choice of more professional detailers, body shops, and assembly lines. Hereís a look at why the high speed rotation is important:

  • A rotary machine rotates the pad faster, and therefore produces more heat, than a dual action orbital polisher. Heat is part of the magical equation that levels automotive paint. If youíre planning on doing serious scratch removal or refinishing, a rotary is the way to go.
  • A rotary polisher concentrates all that speed and heat into one spot. For this reason, rotary polishers remove scratches fast! However, they can also burn the paint quite easily if you leave them on one spot for more than a few seconds.

A note of caution: Rotary polishers do pose a risk of burning the paint (cutting the paint all the way through). If youíve never used one, try it out on a scrap car panel or on a vehicle thatís seen better days. Always start at a slow speed and work your way up as you get comfortable. Most importantly, keep the polisher moving at all times!


Just how thin is automotive paint?

Extremely thin. Paint thickness is measured in mils. 1000 mils =1 inch. A mil is not to be confused with a millimeter. A mil is a different unit of measure used to describe the thickness of wire, paper and other materials sold in sheets.


E-Coat 1.3 mil - Electrocoat is an anticorrosion coat applied to both sides of the steel to prevent corrosion (rust).

Surface Primer 0.7 mil - Initial protection layer with texture to assist the pigment layer in bonding to the metal beneath. Hopefully you’ll never see this coat!

Base Coat 0.6 mil - The basecoat is usually 0.5 to 1 mil thick (1,000 mils equal one inch).

Clear Coat 1.9 mil - The clearcoat provides gloss for that "wet look," plus physical protection from the elements, including ultraviolet rays. The clear coat is usually between 1.5 and 2 mils thick.


Yes, this is remarkably thin, but did you know that paint is actually thinner on the corners of the vehicle? That’s why you should never use a rotary polisher close to the edges of panels or corners.


Polisher Accessories

Because rotary polishers concentrate so much power into a single spot where the pad touches the paint, larger pads are recommended. Plus, you’ll cover more ground with a bigger pad. An 8 or 8.5 inch pad is standard for a rotary polisher, though some users prefer a 7.5 inch pad.


Depending on the polisher you have, it may have included a backing plate or you may have to buy one. The size of the backing plate dictates the size of the pads. A 6 inch backing plate is intended for 7.5 inch pads. A 7 inch backing plate is intended for 8-8.5 inch pads. Be sure the backing plate and pads you choose have hook and loop fasteners (industry term for Velcro® brand fasteners). Read more about hook and loop pads and backing plates here.


You can forgo the backing plate altogether and use an adapter system. Such as with The Edge 2000 System, the adapter screws onto the polisher where a backing plate would go. The pads pop onto this adapter and are held in place with bearings. The adapter is recessed so it does not touch the vehicle as you work. Read more about this system here.


Compounding & Swirl Removal


Compounding and swirl removal are the same process. When a person compounds, they are using a product called a compound, which is the most aggressive type of car polish. Swirl removers are not as aggressive as compounds and are usually available in multiple levels of aggressiveness.


To apply a compound, use a wool or foam cutting pad. If you’re using a compound, you’re likely trying to do some serious paint correction and a cutting pad will give you the bite your paint needs.


To apply a swirl remover, start with a light cutting foam pad. Almost all paint imperfections can be corrected with a foam light cutting pad.



Apply a bead of swirl remover around the edge of the pad. Some will say apply a quarter size amount. You can even apply it directly to the paint. Its up to you. Spread the product over a small section  (about 2 x 2 sq. ft.) with the polisher turned off to prevent sling.



Set the maximum speed at 1500 RPM (this is a MAXIMUM. Start slowly and increase your speed if necessary). Turn the polisher on and work the swirl remover in a side to side, overlapping motion. Move slowly to give the abrasives time to work. KEEP THE POLISHER MOVING AT ALL TIMES.



When the swirl remover or compounds turns to a transparent film, the abrasives have broken down. Turn off the machine and lift it off the paint. Buff away the residue with a soft, Cobra Microfiber Towel and inspect your results. If you are not satisfied, repeat the process with the same product with a more dense pad.


* If you used a compound, a light haze or dullness is normal. The next step will restore the gloss.




Polishing improves the smoothness and gloss of the paint. Though a swirl remover is technically a polish, what we’re talking about here is a fine grade finishing polish. At this point, major paint correction is over and you just need to restore the shine.


If your vehicle is in great shape with no compounding swirls, use a product to enhance the shine without abrasives, called a prewax cleaner.



Use a foam polishing pad on your circular polisher. Apply the polish of your choice to the pad or to the paint and spread it around with the machine turned off.



Set the maximum speed to about 1000 RPM. You're not trying to cut. You're just trying to burnish the paint to a high gloss. Work in a side to side, overlapping motion until the polish turns clear or starts to dry.



Buff with a Cobra Microfiber Towel and check your results. If you can still see some haze, repeat the process. This time, be sure that the abrasives are fully broken down before you buff.



Paint Protection

Some detailers do apply waxes and sealants with a rotary polisher, but it is not necessary to do so. Since you don’t need heat or speed, you can apply paint protection by hand or with a dual action polisher and get the same results.



Attach a soft finishing foam pad to your polisher. Apply the product to the paint or to the pad. Spread it around the paint in a 2 x 2 sq. ft. section with the polisher turned off.



Set the maximum speed to 1000 RPM (or at 3 on a dual action polisher). You do not need speed to apply nonabrasive products. Spread the product over the paint in a thin, even coat. There is no need to go over the same spot multiple times.



Buff off the product with a Cobra Microfiber Towel.



Important Tips:

  • Keep the polisher moving at all times!
  • Always start slow and gradually increase speed as needed.
  • Work the pad flat against the paint. If you tend to drag the leading edge of the pad on the paint, try tilting the edge slightly upward.