The Right Way to Use a Buffing Wheel
Nothing looks better than brand new metal trim. The reason is obvious — there are no flaws in the surface. Can old trim be brought back to that look? Of course it can, if it is prepared and buffed properly. Anyone can do it, so take a look...
The "secret" to buffing well is really a collection of secrets. Here they are:
Patience; technique; safety; material preparation; buffing wheel selection; rouge selection; control of heat buildup; cleaning; Patience
Let's take each in order and buff an area on an aluminum wheel hub. We've chosen aluminum because it is the most difficult metal on which to achieve a silver-like sheen because of its softness and heat buildup. If you can do aluminum you can do anything, so here we go!
As you can see, patience needs to be observed throughout the buffing process. If you are in a hurry, do something else and come back to the buffer when you've calmed down. We can't stress this too much, okay?
There is no substitute for practice, no matter what one is doing. Therefore, don't start buffing something that you can't afford to break, bend or ruin. Instead, grab a few scrap pieces of various metals and get used to the feel of things. Learn how to hold the piece and how to move it around the wheel. One hour of practice will make you very proficient, so take the time now.
It's really easy to make mistakes while buffing. As your concentration gets more and more focused on the piece being polished you become less and less aware of how close your fingers are getting to the motor or belt, or — worse yet — your work piece is getting close to being torn out of your fingers and thrown across the bench. Even worse than that, the wheel can ruin thin, sharp trim pieces by grabbing them and bending them into a pretzel.
All the more reason to practice with several pieces, getting the feel for how hard to grip things and how close to the edges of pieces you can buff before switching positions. Your wheel is spinning at several thousand rpm and the motor is putting out between 1/3 and 3/4 horsepower, far more force than you can resist if it grabs your piece. Be patient and get to know how things feel and react to being pressed against rapidly spinning wheel.
Because it's possible to get cut, gashed, bruised or even blinded by flying pieces, always wear eye protection and proper clothing. Don't buff with unbuttoned sleeves or dangling neck chains or loose rings. If you choose to wear gloves, wear tight-fitting ones so that you can maintain a good grip on the work piece. Wear a dust mask also, since little bits of buffing compound float in the air and can irritate sensitive nasal passages and throats.
Lastly, make sure there's plenty of light illuminating your work. If you don't have a fluorescent fixture above the buffing wheels, use a shop light or clip-on trouble light mounted well above where you're working, and make sure its cord doesn't get anywhere near the wheels.
Our aluminum hub is weathered, grubby, oxidized and its original surface is useless, so we need to clean it off to get to a good "buffable" metal surface. With other metals we could use a wire brush (mounted to a spare motor, of course!) but such tools tend to put deep scratches in aluminum. Instead, we'll just sand it.
Using 100-grit paper we can remove years of grunge from the aluminum and leave only shallow scratches. Once we've done the whole piece we can go back over it with 220 or 320 grit paper to remove the scratches. This two-step process only took 10 minutes and included a thorough wiping off of all dust and sanding particles.
The Wheels And Rouges
We start with our sisal wheel, using emery compound to quickly take off scratches and roughness of the aluminum casting. We press the compound stick to the wheel until we can see a slight change of color (indicating the wheel has taken up sufficient compound) and then press the hub against the wheel with moderate (about 10 pounds) force. As the hub's surface smoothes out we keep moving it against the wheel, trying not to allow friction to get it too hot to touch.
After using the sisal wheel and emory compound, there will be a noticeable shine.
As the metal shines up the compound is worn away from the wheel. You can tell this is happening because it takes longer for the surface to respond. We then stop and apply more compound. Since the hub is fairly large we stop periodically to shut off the motor and look at the wheel. If there's a lot of built-up compound that has flattened out the cloth, we run the wheel against our buffing rake until it is cleaned off. Patience counts...take the time to keep the wheel clean and you will get the results you're looking for.
By the time the hub is buffed with emery it will feel warm to the touch but not too hot. It must be cleaned off with a cloth or paper towels, using water or Windex to remove residual emery compound before going to the next rouge.
Using stainless rouge on our spiral buffing wheel.
Going to our spiral buffing wheel (now you see the advantage of having several different wheels mounted on several different motors!) we are ready to buff again using stainless rouge. We repeat the process as before, but the pressure we use against the wheel is a little less. The metal surface will shine up brighter than it did with the emery. Take your time and don't forget to periodically clean the wheel with the rake. Above all, don't let the metal heat up too much or it won't polish well. Follow the buffing with another thorough cleaning of the hub.
Finishing up on the loose-section wheel and white rouge.
Now we move to the loose-section wheel and the white rouge. The hub's surface at this point should be free of scratches and look shiny, somewhat like the stainless flatware in your kitchen drawer. Repeating the buffing process with the loose wheel and white rouge will polish the aluminum to a brilliant, silver-chrome finish that looks great.
Because the buffing wheels create lots of friction there will be significant heat buildup on your work piece. As it heats up, move its contact point at the wheel. Too much heat, in the case of aluminum and plastic, is self-defeating (plastic melts, you know!) and uncomfortable. Aluminum won't polish well if it gets too hot, be patient and slow down or do several pieces at a time.
Using the rake.
Heat doesn't affect steel and stainless very much, but it melts the rouges into the wheels and thin trim can possibly warp if it gets too hot. So be careful. We don't use gloves much here at the Second Chance Garage, because our hands are great "alarms" when it comes to getting stuff too hot.
Most buffing rouge makers will give you a chart showing which compounds work best with which wheels, etc. We give our recommendations here, but don't feel this is the "bible" of buffing. Different wheels, compounds, techniques, etc. give different results, so experiment with things until you're satisfied with the results.
Finished wheel. Looks good, doesn't it?
Steel, stainless, iron, etc.: Use emery and sisal wheels for rough compounding, then go to stainless rouge and a spiral wheel for intermediate. Finish with white rouge and a loose wheel.
Aluminum, Brass, Copper and other soft metals: Use Tripoli and a spiral wheel for rough compounding, then stainless/spiral for intermediate (if needed). Finish with white rouge and loose section wheel.
Chrome or Nickel: Use stainless rouge and spiral wheel to remove scratches and stains, then white and loose wheel for finish. Remember, these are plated so don't buff off the entire thing!
Plastics, glass: Use loose section wheels and either plastic rouge or jeweler's rouge. Press gently and don't allow heat buildup.
By the way, did we mention that you have to be patient when buffing?
Also, be sure to see How To Make Your Own Buffing Wheel.