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What's The Difference Between Polishing & Buffing?

How does one tell the difference between a buffing and a polishing job. In comparison to one another, the two may seem to share so many characteristics that there is no real difference. Also the understanding and personal professional opinions of many technicians may influence this difference, or lack thereof.
Infact, similarities between both methods are prevalent. For instance, both methods involve changing the surface of the metal in some way – whether its by slightly disturbing the minute top layers of the aircraft  surface first in order to remove subtle damage that lies just beneath or by smoothing out the surface using a rotary tool and a versatile polish to achieve a high shine. Both buffing and polishing seem to achieve the same results in the end.
Thus, informal observation will show that the actual difference between buffing and polishing is in the eye of the beholder. The aviation industry does not make any formal distinctions between the two practices. In the minds of aviation technicians, however, the lines may be drawn as follows.

What is Buffing?

For most, buffing refers to the use of a tool or machine to correct and shine the surface of a metallic device or machine. The tool used can vary from rotary buffers to orbital buffers with multiple functions.
Buffing is often used in conjunction with a type of compound used to smooth the surface of metal material. These are fine abrasives added to various types of greases to create rectangular, solid sticks or fluid liquids.
A number of buffing methods exist. There is cut buffing which involves ‘cutting down’ the surface of brass, copper, and other metals and coloring it at the same time. Cut buffing usually involves the use of a rough buffing compound to achieve the desired effects.
Next there is color buffing. This process involves using polishes (also known as rouges) or buffing compounds to give the metal finish a mirror-like shine. Color buffing is usually done once the surface of metals like chromium and aluminum have become sufficiently smooth.

What is Polishing?

Similar to buffing, polishing also changes the surface of metal material. The difference may be that the polishing process is often a preparation for the buffing process. Polishing may involve removing oxidation and improving the quality of the metal material by adding protection or removing fading, water spots, sun spots or cloudiness.
That is not to say that some of these functions could not be achieved by buffing. Again, the two phrases can easily be used interchangeably. However, they do possess a few distinct characteristics.
For instance, one way that polishing differs from buffing is that it is sometimes a coarser operation. One of the best ways to get the smooth surface necessary for later operations is to polish away swirl marks, chips, pits and other defects first. For this, polishing may mean the use of coarser substances than buffing in order to achieve the desired effects.

Is There Any Way to Tell the Difference Between Buffing and Polishing?

There may indeed be no true way of distinguishing the difference between buffing and polishing. The real question is, why would such a distinction need be made? What is the significance of making a distinction between buffing and polishing?
In terms of aviation metal polish, the answer to that question has to do with selecting the best metal polish  available for the job. This choice, in turn, depends on the type of metal being polished.
Most aviation metal polishes come as a system of polishes that can either be rubbed into the surface or buffed in using a rotary or orbital buffing tool.  The initial polish may involve cleansing the metal or metal alloy surface of an aircraft or other metal device. This may involve removing and protecting against oxidation using non-toxic chemical compound pastes or liquids.
Whether this step in using an aviation metal polishing system contains non-abrasives depends heavily on the type of metal or metal alloy of the aircraft. Aluminum is a softer metal to begin with and suitable for non-abrasive or water based polishes or only very fine abrasives that will not damage the tender surface of the aircraft metal.
Still, the desired result at the early polishing stage of most aviation metal polish systems is to cleanse and prepare a smooth surface for later more advanced forms of surface transformation.
The second stage in aviation polish systems often involves addressing more extensive surface issues such as water spots and cloudiness. The purposes is still to achieve the desirable smoothness that will enable a brilliant finish, but here the focus shifts to eliminating problematic appearance issues.
The chemical agents used here may still be non-toxic and are particularly non-abrasive so as not to ruin the progress toward an effectively prepared surface ready for buffing. With all pits, marks, scuffs and defects diminished, moving on to this next stage can be easily achieved.
At the third stage, a variety of aviation metal polish types can be employed along with a buffing tool to achieve a smooth mirror-like finish.
Now that the surface has been adequately cleansed with all defects properly addressed, the surface of the aircraft metal is fit for the application of finishing rouges or lighter polish types whose key purpose is to shine and brighten the surface for a completely finished look.
Is There Truly a Difference? It’s Debatable.
Though it’s debatable whether calling the later stages of aviation metal polish systems buffing and referring to the early stages as polishing makes any real difference, doing so can help to delineate between the particular actions of an aviation polish system so that users can more readily understand the primary functions of each step in the process. In other words, one may not be able to really see any difference between polishing and buffing, but distinctions are useful in explaining the basic functions of various aviation metal polishes in order to achieve the desirable mirror-like shine. At the end of the day, the best advice is to polish and buff with only the best metal polish available.


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