Boat Buffer
There is a difference and you better know!

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Finding the best boat buffer will be an oversimplified quest for most of you. Experience has shown that most people think that polishing car paint is essentially the same as polishing a boat.

 While the fact does remain that many of the same tools and products do indeed work across the spectrum of car and boat polishing, understanding the differences between gel coat and the different buffers will go far to avoid disappointment and achieving optimum results. Follow along with this comprehensive review and see if you don't walk away more informed than you ever thought possible!

Boat Polishers: Question and Answers

Q.-I heard that car paint and gel coat is really the same when it comes to polishing and waxing.

boat buffer

A.-The fact is that while you could virtually use the same of everything to polish a boat as you do to polish your car, the real difference will be more about results.

(Many people will co-mingle fiberglass and gel coat when referring to their boat. While fiberglass is used to make boat hulls and decks, fiberglass actually refers to the fiberglass cloth used in the gel coat process. Gel coat is the top layer that is exposed and the material we are officially referring to and working with. I will also use the terms buffer and polisher interchangeably as there is no official difference, and no standard rule in the industry as to which is which. Polishers and buffers mean the same thing in the detailing world regardless of working on cars or boats.)

Gel coat is very porous and very durable. Gel coat has no protective layer to it like the clear coat on car paint and therefore oxidizes easily. You may not have noticed but the majority of boats are white. One of the reasons is that white gel coat does not reveal the oxidation like darker colors of gel coat would.

Just know that while choosing a professional grade boat buffer is critical, it is also critical that you understand that polishing on gel coat is very different than polishing on car paint. And the real difference is the amount of work it requires when polishing on gel coat to get the results you are after. This is all due to gel coat being such a strong and durable material.

Q.- What is the critical point I need in understanding the difference between car paint and gel coat?

boat buffer reviews

A.- If you have a boat that is in pristine condition, it will mater not what kind of boat polisher or product you use to polish your boat since your boat is in excellent condition and no level of oxidation exists. But most people go looking for the best boat buffer and polish due to some level of oxidation, and this is the point where selecting the right boat polisher and polish will make or break your world. Unless you have aggressive enough tools and products, your boat oxidation removal will be minimal at best. To truly perform oxidation removal and gel coat restoration, traditional random orbital or DA car polishers will be the equivalent of bringing a BB gun to a gun fight!

Traditional dual-action (DA) or random orbital car polishers just aren't capable of producing the kind of friction required to produce the results you will want on your boat.

Q.- So what kind of boat buffer do I need to do the job?

A. - A high-speed buffer; also referred to as a rotary buffer. These buffers are buried in bad press mostly due to inexperienced and/or misinformed guys repeating bad information. The fact remains that gel coat requires the friction and heat that can only be produced through these high-speed polishers. Dual-action (DA) or random orbital polishers simply cannot produce the necessary heat and friction required to remove oxidation from gel coat...unless of course you are willing to spend an eternity using the wrong tool to achieve desired results.

Q.- I heard that high-speed buffers should never be used as they leave swirl marks and can damage paint?

best boat buffer review

A.- We must remember a few things here; first, we are talking gel coat. And second, gel coat is not car paint. The good news is that gel coat is very tough and can withstand far more pressure, heat, and friction than car paint. This means good news to any beginner looking to polish their own boat, but at the same time this is exactly why a high-speed polisher is needed to achieve any discernible or lasting results. I have seen many do-it-yourselfers try and save a buck by spending the entire weekend with their fathers old-school orbital polisher, or the dual-action (DA) car polishers that have become so popular these days, only to have the oxidation re-appear a few weeks later due to their inexperience and ignorance of what they are doing, and what they are working on.

You may take satisfaction in polishing on your boat with a very "safe" dual-action car polisher, and feel a sense of accomplishment until you catch the area you just polished in the right lighting only to realize that that very safe dual-action polisher hasn't really removed the oxidation from your boat.

Q.- Now that I know a rotary or high-speed polisher is the best boat buffer, what are the best high-speed buffers I should consider for polishing my boat?

A.- Glad you asked as there are (3) choices that any experienced professional would recommend.The biggest difference between all of the boat buffers below is about cost. They are all quality tools and will perform, but the difference is cost. I lay out the more subtle differences below.

removing oxidation from boatHere I am using my boat buffer (DeWalt) and my CSI Rip Cut to remove the oxidation from this boat. I am working on the side rails in this picture and have the bumper rail taped off for protection against the wool pad. You can see the bottle of Rip Cut sitting on the ground at my feet.

Boat Polisher Reviews

Darren's Tips: You could spend days researching the endless reviews about the best boat polishers, compounds, and polishing pads only to find yourself more confused, frustrated, and still no closer to getting what you really want....

a shiny, glossy, and protected boat!

So I am limiting my professional recommendations to a minimum for some very specific reasons:

  • You can save yourself the frustration and time by following my recommendations that come from the real world of professional boat detailing.
  • The industry is now full of many quality boat polishers and products; choosing a top rated boat buffer is easier than ever!
  • Because the industry has so many quality choices, it also makes picking a top rated boat buffer and compounds that much more difficult as you will be buried in endless opinions.

Best Boat Polish

Darren's Tip: I start with this compound since I have learned that the right compound is just as important as choosing the right boat buffer. Choosing the right polishing pads is also critical to the equation. I am not including any of the dual-action (DA) car polishers on this page since I am of the opinion that a rotary buffer is the best choice for boat polishing due to the nature of gel coat/fiberglass.

remove oxidation from boatHere I am working on a dark colored hull to remove heavy oxidation using the CSI Compound along with the wool pad system of CSI. You can see the colored oxidation that collects on the wool pad as I remove the gel coat oxidation. (This particular bottle of compound was the previous generation labeling of CSI for all those with a critical eye for details)

Also if you decide against picking one of the top rated boat polishers from this page, you now know my first choice in the best compound to use when polishing your boat. Despite this being aggressive enough to use for heavy duty oxidation removal, it finishes down to an excellent shine. Just ease up on the pressure and speed with your final passes of your buffer after your initial cutting is done.

CSI Rip Cut Compound Quart 62-M200-Q

  • Boat compounds and polishes can be tricks with this compound! (just an excellent user experience with a product that out performs other boat polishing compounds)
  • My absolute first professional choice to be used with your choice of a boat buffer.
  • The boat compound suitable to use with any boat buffer, any buffing pad (or by hand if you have some masochistic death wish for yourself).
  • Water based formulation allows for easy clean-up and can be used in direct sunlight.
  • From heavy levels of oxidation to light polishing (you remain in control based on the type of buffer you use, speed, pressure, etc., etc.
  • What I refer to as a sure thing when it comes to a top rated boat compound or polish.

Makita Boat Buffer

Makita 9237CX3 Makita 7" Polisher, 10 AMP, 600-3,000 RPM, var. spd., loop handle with foam pad and bag, ,

  • Professional grade buffer
  • Excellent piece of equipment with a very reasonable price
  • Soft start trigger that allows you to ease into each moment of polishing
  • Pretty much the same features as any of the boat polishers on this page
  • This Makita has a higher RPM setting than the other two buffers below (the Makita can be dialed up to 3200 RPM's but I have never used any more than 2,000 RPM's for any kind of polishing whether this be on cars or boats. As a rule, I polish at speeds from 1200 to 1800 RPM's and dial the buffer down to 600 RPM for what is now called jeweling in the industry)

DeWalt Boat Buffer

DEWALT DWP849X 7-Inch/9-Inch Variable Speed Polisher with Soft Start

  • One of my personal favorites.
  • New slower operating speeds means a safer learning curve for any newbie.
  • Slower start speed not only makes this polisher safer for beginners, but allows for what is called finish polishing, or "jeweling".
  • Will handle any job you throw at it; boat, car, RV.
  • A true work-horse!

Flex Boat Buffer

FLEX (PE 14-2 150) POLISHFLEX Compact Variable Speed Rotary Car Polisher

  • German engineering; considered the Mercedes of car and boat polishers.
  • Can be used for the most aggressive oxidation removal jobs, to fine finish polishing.
  • Will handle years and years of commercial use.
  • Slow start speed allows for safer polishing for beginners as well as fine polishing for end results.
  • A true work horse for any beginner to seasoned veteran.
  • If you have the money and want what I consider the best; then this boat buffer from Flex is your choice. It is not only quieter than the others, but has a better feel of precision in your hands.

Darren's Professional Tips

gelcaot boat polishing

I assume that anyone looking for the best boat buffer is dealing with some level of fiberglass oxidation or gel coat oxidation. I also know that most people grossly underestimate the nature of gel coat when it comes to polishing. It is one thing to polish your boat and have it look nice, entirely different to actually perform oxidation removal. Most people who attempt to polish their boat will do so with materials and tools far too mild for lasting results. Boats really can handle and do require far more pressure, heat, and friction than that of cars.

  • Any boat buffer from above will perform with excellent results.
  • Any of these buffers can also be used for car polishing.
  • Any buffer above is ideally suited for first time users to seasoned veterans; slow start speeds allow for a wider range of use and skill set.
  • For boat polishing, start with wool pad and approx. 1000 RPM and work up from there if you are a first-timer. Professionally I set my polisher speed between 1500-1800 RPM for the first initial cut using the wool pad and the most aggressive compound.
  • Start with approx. quarter size drop of polish in center of pad, lay the buffer onto the surface and turn the buffer on. (since all the buffers have the soft start, you can really ease your way to the desired operating speed you feel comfortable with)
  • As a beginner there will always be that inconvenient learning curve. Every new venture in life will have it. Accept it and just press forward as these tools and products are your best chance at success. You will also take solace in knowing that because of the exceptional products that exist today, you really can have success as a beginner.
  • Most first-timers tend to use too much polish, rather than not enough. Go easy and start small.

Universal Pad Washer

Darren's Tip: While it is not a true requirement, since I started using this universal pad washer I have grown to love the benefits it offers and question how I managed before these came along.

While they are what I consider an expensive add-on, I also consider it a worthy expense for the basic reason:

"Whether you are polishing a boat or car; it is hard work! Having the best tools, products, and accessories will make the job dramatically easier and better. The right tools and products will literally make the difference between success and failure as well as overall user experience. Do not take this lightly!"

Grit Guard Universal Pad Washer

  • Wool pads are notorious for spewing large amounts of wool fibers when using a new pad; this solves that problem by pre-conditioning your wool pad from the beginning.
  • Much quicker, easier, and more effective than using the traditional cleaning spur or cleaning brush.
  • Can be used with water if you prefer to have your pads refreshed with water, or use it dry; this really is a preference you will develop over time as you use and become more skilled when using your boat buffer.

Boat Polishing Wool Pads

I am including my favorite wool pads with the dedicated backing plate that goes with these specific wool pads. The car industry can use both wool and foam pads when polishing on cars. Since boat polishing will be you polishing on gel coat and not clear coat of your cars paint, I personally find the need to ever finish polish with any foam pads when working on boats.

The Rip Cut compound above will finish down to an excellent shine which you can also finish with a wool pad. Simply dial down the RPM's and back off on the pressure and you can finish to a swirl free finish with wool pads and the Rip Cut compound.

These wool polishing pads are more expensive than other choices, but when it comes to buffing a boat I know it is hard enough work under the best of circumstances. This means I am willing to spend extra money to make my boat polishing experience the best and easiest I can with my choice in top rated equipment, compounds, and pads.

I prefer these CSI wool pads for 2 specific reasons:

  1. The high grade, 100% wool that is used. (I don't recommend any of the wool blend pads that are made using synthetic wool blends as they do not cut nearly as well as 100% wool pads)
  2. These wool pads are direct placement when used with the dedicated backing plate. If you have ever used any type of buffer that does not have any direct placement backing plate and pad system, you will know the frustration that can exist when trying to align the buffing pad onto the backing plate. This is less of an issue if you are using a dual-action polisher where the RPM speeds are much slower. But a mis-aligned wool pad spinning at 1800-2,000 RPM's is very different and you find yourself consuming unwanted time just to properly align the pads.

boat oxidation removalLook closely at the trailer fender and you can see the line of demarcation where I have polished the oxidation from the trailer fender to restore the gloss and shine to this boat trailer. The same compound, pads, and buffer that I used on the boat hull is also what I used on the trailer.

Darren's Note: This backing plate will fit any of the above boat buffers due to the universal size spindles used on all the above boat buffers. This backing plate and wool pads are direct placement as the wool pads have a receiving ring the exact size of the backing plate itself. This means you get a perfectly aligned polishing pad placement every time in a fraction of the time you would spend trying to manually align other pads. 

Since this backing plate system is also a hook and loop (Velcro) system, you can also use any hook and loop polishing pad you want moving forward. From other wool pads, to foam, to micro-fiber pads.

how to buff a boatHere is a shot of my son using a rotary polisher with a wool pad for the first time to polish-out the fender on this boat trailer. This was the first buffer he had ever used and he was able to produce desired results using the very products and equipment shown on this page.

Many boat polishing kits will contain either foam pads only or a combination of wool and foam pads, you may shy away from what might seem like a scary proposition of using an aggressive wool pad; especially if this will be your first time buffing a boat out. Just know that if you want to achieve any permanent results you will be required to use a wool pad.

While the combination of a rotary polisher, wool pad, and a rubbing compound will seem particularly intimidating to any beginner, just know that it is not as scary as it might appear. This is why I love these new boat buffers above that have not only the soft start trigger, but can be dialed down to a very low 600 RPM operating speed. In the event you have never used a polisher before; 600 RPM's is incredibly low and you will be pleasantly surprised as to how easy it is to ease into the work of using a buffer for the first time.

And the recommended Rip Cut Compound, the wool pads, along with any of the boat polishers above will allow you to safely learn how to not only polish in general, but polish your boat specifically.

Pack of 3 - 8" 100% Wool Hook & Loop Grip Buffing Pad for Compound Cutting & Polishing

  • I prefer 100% wool pads. I have tried the wool/synthetic blends but find they do not "cut" as well as the 100% wool pads.
  • If you plan on doing an entire boat of any length, you will need more than a single pad. Don't underestimate how nicely a fresh pad performs despite how vigilant you are in cleaning your pads.
  • I will go through at least 3-6 pads if I am restoring a decently oxidized boat anywhere from 19-24 feet in length. (that is a big spread in pad quantity; but many variables exist: how much oxidation there is, how much of the actual boat are you polishing, is it a an open bow or closed bow, etc., etc.)

Wool Pad Cleaning Spur

AES Industries Buffing Pad Cleaning Tool

  • For use on wool pads only.
  • Will keep your pad fibers separated and clean from excess spent fibers and compounds.
  • Can be used independently or after you have cleaned your pad using the pad washer from above.
  • I hold the rotary polisher against one of my legs while turning polisher to a fairly high RPM speed. Then I press the cleaning spur into the face of the pad to remove excess polishes/compounds after a few applications of polishes/compounds. (you will learn quickly the frequency you prefer in using this tool and/or the pad washer in keeping your polishing pads clean and fresh.
  • Also helps extend the polishing life you can get from each polishing pad.

Foam Pad Cleaning Tool

Nanoskin (NAA-PCB1) Pad Conditioning Brush

  • Ideally suited for foam or micro fiber pads.
  • Can be used independently or after use of the pad washer.
  • Keeps your pads clean and fresh.
  • Helps extend the life of your pads.

Pay "Boat Buffer" Forward

If you have learned something of value from this page, pay it forward by sharing to your favorite forum or social group.

Speaking from experience; boat polishing or fiberglass restoration is not an easy task even for a trained professional. But with my recommendations above you will at least have a fighting chance to getting professional results, and not be lead down the wrong path only to add further frustration to an already frustrating proposition!


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