Choosing The Perfect Buffer for Boat Detailing

When it comes to selecting a buffer for boat detailing there are countless choices. Where do you begin if you’re new to detailing boats?

How do you know you’re picking the right machine? Based on what you’re looking to do and what condition your boat is in will dictate what buffer you will need. In order to choose a buffer that fits your detailing needs you have to ask yourself several questions:

  1. What condition is my boat in?
  2. How Comfortable do I feel using a buffer?
  3. What am I looking to do with the buffer on this occasion?

Types of Buffers

But before we dive into asking ourselves these questions, let me explain to you what type of buffers exist on the market today. Way back when in the stone ages of detailing you had one choice a rotary buffer. Its a great tool but not perfect for every situation a detailer may come into contact with. In todays detailing world you have three main categories to work with: rotary, forced rotation and dual action polishers and buffers.

Let me explain exactly what each of these buffer styles are and why you may need them.

Rotary Buffer

Tried and true, a rotary buffer is an absolute beast when it comes to cutting into gel coat. It does so with raw power.  A rotary is a high speed polisher also referred to as a circle because the head spins in one direction on one axis. You can use it at varying speeds anywhere from 600-3000rpms for deep scratches or extreme oxidation.

The reason these style buffers work so well is because they turn up the heat on the job at hand…literally. These machines get the surface much hotter than a dual action or forced rotation polisher will. This is where true correction power lies. By heating the surface up is what eliminates oxidation and surface imperfections on your boat.

All this power comes with a price. You can do some serious harm to your boats gelcoat or paint if you use this buffer incorrectly. Since a rotary has so much power and speed you can burn right through the gelcoat or paint if you push too hard or stay on one spot too long (causing too much heat to the area.) The biggest tip I can give you is keep the buffer moving at all times. By doing so you will reduce your chances or burning through the gel or paint.

Its also extremely easy to injure yourself with a rotary buffer. Sucking up dock lines, buffer cords, outrigger lines etc pose a real threat. The buffer will suck in quick and kick back hard, can you say ouch!

The Makita rotary buffer is excellent for detailing boats with

Different model Rotary’s

  1. Makita 9227C Rotary Polisher
  2. DeWalt DWP849X Variable Speed Rotary Polisher
  3. Flex PE14-2-150

Each of these are great wheels and it comes down to personal preference. My goto rotary is the Makita. They are lightweight and ultra durable (have a had a few guys drop them in the drink and some still worked after). To me weight is one of the most important considerations. You’re going to be holding it up for 8hrs a day. You want something that isn’t a giant paperweight. Also the Makita doesn’t get hot like the Dewalts do. Also the price isn’t terrible on these usually somewhere between $190-230. When buying a fleet of them this is important to me.

Probably the second most popular rotary you will see detailers use is the DeWalt. A little heavier than the Makita but still a great tool with a lot of force behind her. The DeWalt can be slightly cheaper than the Makita can be found between $150-250.

Then you have Flex, German engineering at its finest. Although I do not use their rotary it is a good tool but much pricier than the other workhorses mentioned above.  Usually this piece of art can be bought for around $400. Also it only has a no load speed of up to 2100RPM’s not quite as powerful as the others. On the lighter side and can cut through gelcoat with the best of them. I try to stay away from these price points as buffing boats is not as easy on your tools as buffing cars is. There is an exception which I will get into later on in this post.

For your reference I have made a quick table based on some of the key considerations that you should use in your decision for the perfect buffer for boat detailing when it comes to a rotary.

ModelWeight RPM’sPrice
Makita 9227C Rotary Polisher7lbs600-3000$190-230
DeWalt DWP849X 6.5lbs600-3500$150-250
Flex PE14-2-1505.6lbs600-2100$400

Dual Action Polisher

These are a little newer technology than rotary’s and have been a lifesaver for automotive detailers. Unlike a rotary buffer a dual action polisher spins on a central spindle and that spindle rotates around an offset. This rotating and orbiting action which occurs simultaneously is what gives them their “dual action” traits. Just like a rotary they are variable speed polishers giving you some correction power.

These machines excel where rotary’s don’t. You cannot burn through a boats gelcoat or paint using one. They do not produce enough heat to burn the surface making them great for novices. If you press too hard on the machine it will stop its oscillating action and not cut the way its intended. But because they don’t generate a ton of heat they are not ideal for heavy correction but rather swirl removal, light correction work and waxing.

My top recommendations for Dual Action Polishers are as follows:

  1. Porter Cable 7423XP 6′ Variable Speed Polisher
  2. Shurhold Dual Action Polisher
  3. Makita BO6050J

Porter Cable

The most common polisher out of these three would be the Porter Cable. You can find them in your local hardware store or HomeDepot. I personally use these machines as my goto for waxing. I can apply the wax quickly and efficiently and control the speed. Another use for the PC is for light last stage polishing on larger yachts to eliminate those stubborn swirls. When it comes to pricing they are very affordable ranging in the low $100 range typically between $100-130.

You get a ton of torque out of this little machine. Making it perfect buffer for the novice detailer, to get comfortable with buffing, polishing and waxing their boat on their own. It weighs just over 5lbs making it a good weight for extended use and will spin between 2,500-6,500OPM. The Porter Cable will keep up with every other buffer in the dual action polisher category. It is tried and true, and durable.

Shurhold

This particular polisher is very popular within the novice boat detailing world. I have heard great things about it but don’t have any first hand experience with it.  The shurhold dual action polisher weighs 6lbs and can spin between a range of 2,500-6,500 OPM. It offers many of the same features you’ll see with the Porter Cable but priced slightly higher at $150. To me if I’m getting similar performance I’m choosing the more cost effective option.

Makita sander can double as a great polisher and waxer for buffing your boat

Makita

The Makita BO6050J is a hybrid of sorts. Its actually marketed as a sander and has a vacuum attachment on it. But it does have two settings “random orbit” – the dual action properties within the machine. Making it perfect for light correction and waxing. It also has a “random orbit with forced rotation” setting. Used if you wanna cut the gelcoat and crank the heat up on the surface. But I’d say stick with random orbit for now.

I have been playing around with this particular machine after purchasing them for some of our larger teak projects and its quite impressive! Works great quickly and efficiently. It weighs 5.7lbs and has an orbit range speed of 1,600 – 6,800 OPM (orbits per minute). The one caveat here would be its price tag, coming in north of $300… GASP! I know, so if you’re just looking to stick with being a weekend warrior detailer I would say stick with the porter cable.

My overall recommendation for a boater looking to purchase a buffer in the dual action category would be the Porter Cable 7423XP 6′ Variable Speed Polisher. All polishers have a 6″ pad diameter.

ModelWeight OPM’sPrice
Porter Cable 7423XP5.34lbs2500-6500$100-130
Shurhold Dual Action Polisher6.5lbs2500-3500$150
Makita BO6050J5.7lbs1600-6800$320

Hybrid Buffers & Polishers

This last category I refer to as Hybrids. Thats because they truly do combine the best of both worlds when it comes to buffing your boat. They aren’t quite rotary buffers but they aren’t dual action polishers either. They fall somewhere in the middle. These works of art can cut with precision and polish beautifully in one machine. They utilize a dual action principle combined with whats called forced rotation. Forced rotation is what gives the machine its cutting power.

They are built to be for complete beginners and seasoned professionals. If you haven’t been living under a rock I’m sure you’ve heard of these style machines, the top two are:

  1. Rupes LHR21 Mark ii
  2. Flex XC 3401 VRG HD Orbital Polisher

Yes, I am the latest fan boy to jump on this craze and I’m sorry I didn’t join the proverbial cult quicker.

The rupes lhr21 markii is an excellent buffer to detail with

Rupes

The Rupes machine is my personal goto in this category. I do not use it for waxing or heavy, heavy compounding but everything in between you can bet I’m breaking it out. This machine can cut pretty aggressively, not the same amount of cutting power as your rotary but she has a lot of force to bring back the luster in your boat.

I use the Rupes when it comes to painted boats with clear coat including Riva, Pershing, Wajer, as my first means of paint correction. I don’t even think about the rotary tools on these types of painted surfaces anymore. When it comes to a gel coat boat I will almost always start with a rotary. Using the Rupes for polishing out swirls on the second pass of polishing. Especially on brows, large sterns and those areas that just bake all day in the sun. It helps give the boats a swirl free finish with ease.

The success behind the Rupes is how the pad throws itself, it has a big 21mm throw. Giving it the ability to cover a large surface area in one shot.

The Rupes LHR21 Mark ii will take a little bit to get used to but once yo do you’ll never look back. This is a $425-500 machine though. The machine weighs 5.73lbs and can rotate between 2500 to 4700RPM’s. Made in Italy you can consider it the Ferrari of buffers for all you car nuts out there.

If you’re a budget conscious novice dipping your toes in the detailing pool, I probably wouldn’t put my money here first.

Flex

Flex was a big name before Rupes broke out into the mainstream. The Flex machine is no joke either when it comes to a boat detailing buffer. Just like the Rupes its a great hybrid used for cutting boats that aren’t in terrible condition or that need some extra refinement. A lot of torque and forced rotation equal a receipt for success in a picture perfect finish.

The Flex XC 3401 VRG HD works great on painted boats and gelcoat alike cutting through imperfections with ease. Priced comparable to the Rupes buffer at $440 its still a pricey option. Aside from the price tag this is another amazing machine to add to your arsenal of boat detailing buffers.

ModelWeight RPM’sPrice
Rupes LHR21 Mark ii5.73lbs2500-4700$425-500
Flex XC 3401 HD5.73lbs1600-4800$440

Now that we have a better grasp on what options are out there when it comes to finding the right buffer for your boat detailing needs. Lets find out which buffer we need to get our boat looking great.

First and foremost – what condition is my boat in?


What condition your boat is in has a lot to do with what buffer you should pick to detail your boat with. If your boat is brand spanking new – there should be no need to bust out the rotary. Doing so, is unnecessary and can put swirls in the boats surface. Creating a lot extra work for you. Ive seen it before where an unseasoned detailer may break out their rotary buffer and harm the gelcoat from the start.

When the boat is brand new I would recommend using a dual action polisher for novices and professionals alike. You will be able to easily and efficiently apply the wax of your choice. It will also give you enough power to do some light polishing to dial in your boat before applying a premium wax. If you wanted to do some heavier polishing go for the Hybrid buffer but please don’t pick that rotary up!

When it comes to regular maintenance on boat you can try using a Rupes or Flex. If you want to minimize your chances of swirling the gelcoat. Sometimes you’ll be able to squeak the dual action in there but typically you have to get more heat out of your buffer than the porter cable can produce.

The Rupes is a good choice here for any beginners reading this. I have the tendency to go to the rotary here on gelcoat boats. My team and I always use a multi-stage polishing process so by default we put some swirls in the surface but polish them right out so no harm here for us. The rotary allows us to quickly perfect the boats surface allowing us to get the job done as efficiently as possible.

You can go either way in buffer selection within this category but be prepared to do more polishing if you’re using a rotary on your normal wear and tear jobs.

What about if your boat is in less than Bristol condition and you really gotta grind to bring her back to life. If you haven’t guessed by now, its go grab the Makita out of the truck. When you just need to cut oxidation out of a boat break out the rotary with some heavy compound. Chances are you will follow up with polishing the boat with your rotary buffer. Then having to go into a Rupes or dual action to polish the boat further for a flawless finished product.

How Comfortable Do I Feel Using A Buffer?


Next you have to ask yourself this very important question. How comfortable do you truly feel using a buffer on your boat? And be honest because the wrong answer can have detrimental repercussions for you and your boat. If you’ve never used a buffer before I would air on the side of caution using a rotary and cranking up the speed. Doing so mixed with improper use can lead to causing harm to you and your boat.

In regards to harming the boat, you can quickly burn through the gel coat or ruin the paint. Can you say expensive repair? Because thats what you’ll have having to respray areas of your boat. Take this into account before being a hero and grinding away. Its extremely easy to burn through your gelcoat, one simple misstep and you have a nice orange burn mark to remind you of your malfunction.

Next, you can seriously harm yourself. Locking the buffer on and getting it caught in a dock line, outrigger, ratchet strap or wire is a very real possibility. It happens quick too, trust me. Before you know it that line is sucked in and the wheel is still trying to spin until you unlock the buffer. While this is all happening the buffer will take you with it as the force of the machine is still spinning.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the power behind a rotary start off simple using a dual action polisher. Practice with this machine, get used to using the right techniques when it comes to buffing a boat and then start slow with a more powerful buffer such as, a Makita.

As you can see the end result can be dangerous to both you and your boat. If you don’t feel comfortable using such a powerful piece of machinery stay away from it. The choice is yours…

polishing a boat with awl grip with the correct buffer give you the best results

What am I looking to do with the buffer on this occasion?


The last question you need to ask yourself is what are you trying to accomplish using a buffer for boat detailing in this particular instance? For a simple wax on wax off occasion theres no need to look further than taking the Porter Cable off of the shelf. You’ll minimize the chances of harming the gelcoat, and creating extra work for yourself. The more aggressive the buffer the more followup work you need to do.

But what if you’re looking to do some light polishing and correction work? Depending on the degree of correction you can get away with using your dual action again. If you wanna get artsy about it, switch over to that hybrid and grab the Rupes instead. I can see the mirror like shine already on your vessels surface.

If we’re looking to go all out because your boats gelcoat is looking a little dull, its time to reach for the Makita. Were going to be buffing till our fingers are numb here. We want to make the surface perfect, using the rotary buffer to wheel the surface quickly and efficiently. Let the buffer do all the heavy lifting here for our boat detailing needs.

What’s Next?

As you can see when it comes to choosing a buffer for boat detailing purposes its not as cut and dry as it may seem on the outside. The information above is designed to help educate you on what you need to take into consideration for selecting a buffer to help detail your boat. Go through the motions and ask yourself the questions above. By doing so you’ll be able to quickly, safely and correctly buff your boat with the correct  buffer. After all this buffing and polishing your boats gonna need a good bath. Read my article on washing your boat correctly here.

As always if you have any questions feel free to drop me a line and I’ll help you get your boat looking great, the right way.

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