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Detailer’s Dream: Porter Cable Random Orbital Buffer

Mention to someone that you’re going to detail your car, and their reaction is usually sympathetic. “Oh, you poor thing! Your arms will be dead!” Despite this outpouring of sympathy, the person often requests that you detail their car when finished with yours – so much for the sympathy.

In years past, detailing was a bit of a pain, especially if you didn’t have access to tools like the pros used, including buffers, magical compounds and waxes that were easy to remove. Buffer? Did I say buffer? No way, no how – those things are dangerous! My cousin’s best friend’s neighbor knew a guy who tore his mirror off and burned his paint with a buffer! Are you insane?

There’s a common misconception about random orbital buffers, especially with folks who aren’t real familiar with the finer nuances of detailing. Most confuse the random orbital buffer with a rotary (or direct-drive) buffer. Rotary buffers are more apt to cause damage, as they have more powerful motors, generate more heat, pressure and speed, and are usually used with more aggressive pads (including wool).

Rotary buffers can be found in just about any paint repair shop, and are often the preferred tool of “professional” detailers. Unfortunately, when used incorrectly they can introduce new swirls, damage paint and even remove trim and other permanent accessories. Rotary buffers operate with a heavy duty, high speed, direct drive motor – in other words, the buffing pad is attached directly to the output shaft of the buffer, much like a drill bit attaches to the motor of an electric drill.

The “spin true” nature of the rotary buffer can introduce swirl marks, especially if used incorrectly, which is why you often see so many cars driving down the road with massive “rotary ghosting” (my term) and other nasty operator induced swirl marks.

A Random Orbital Buffer (ROB) is a completely different machine. It has a much more forgiving personality, has less power, generates less heat, and does not spin in a true circular pattern. Contrary to what some naysayers would have you believe, the ROB can achieve results similar to those of a rotary, especially when used properly; but the main benefit comes from the ease of use and massive safety margin.

Porter Cable has been making a ROB for many years, and its most popular model is the 7424. Commonly referred to as the “PC7424” (Porter Cable 7424), it has become the tool of choice for many detailers, both enthusiast and professional alike. Open any tool catalog, and you’re almost certain to find the PC7424 – it’s a popular and incredible piece of detailing machinery.

In addition to the PC7424, Porter Cable also markets a very similar machine, the 7336. Both machines feature the same basic “platform” – the main difference results from the backing plate size and counterweight size. We’ll talk more about that in a second.

Let’s start with the basics – both the PC7336 and PC7424 derive their power from a 3.7amp, 110v motor that’s capable of orbiting the backing plate in a random, elliptical motion at speeds between 2500 and 6000 orbits per minute. The motor drives a 5/16″ diameter spindle, to which a counterweight and backing plate are attached. The unit weighs approximately 6 pounds, and measures almost 14″ in overall length.

Users can adjust the speed of the machine by way of a small thumb dial, located on the back of the machine. A master power switch is mounted to the top of the machine, to ensure easy access. Porter Cable includes a stabilizer handle, which at the users preference can be attached to either “side” of the machine.

The primary difference between the PC7336 and the PC7424 boils down to the size of the counterweight that Porter Cable includes with the machine. The PC7336 ships with a 6″ counterweight and a 6″ backing plate, while the PC7424 ships with a 5″ counterweight and a 6″ backing plate with an integrated (non interchangeable) polishing pad.

Some folks will argue that the 5″ counterweight is fine for just about all uses, but I’ve found the 6″ counterweight smoothes the buffer action, especially when using larger foam polishing pads. It’s a personal preference, but should you decide you need a different counterweight, you can find them online for around $2. All you’ll need is a small TORX driver to exchange the counterweights – removal and installation is very straightforward.

Either buffer usually commands a street price that varies between $109 and $125, depending on the vendor. Keep in mind that the backing plate that ships with the 7336 or 7424 will not accept traditional Velcro-backed buffing pads. The 7336 factory backing plate is designed to accept adhesive sanding discs, while the 7424 has an integrated pad, so you’ll need to order a few accessories for your new buffer, which we’ll address in a paragraph or two.

The most common question I’m asked regarding the Porter Cable buffer is, “Should I buy the one from Griot’s for $199? I hear it’s made specifically for Griot’s and that they include their own special backing plate.” While there’s nothing wrong with the Griot’s version of the PC7336, it is, in my opinion, horribly overpriced.

The Griot’s Porter Cable kit is nothing more than Porter Cable’s #97336 kit, which includes a plastic carrying case, dust collection accessories and a Velcro-backed Porter Cable backing plate, P/N 18001. The cost for the backing plate is approximately $10 at any major hardware store, and the #97336 kit usually retails for around $135 – $150. You make the call as to where you’d like to buy yours.

Ok, so now that we’ve got the basic buffer in hand, let’s make it “user friendly”. I’d suggest you purchase a Velcro-backing plate from an online vendor. Backing plates can cost as little as $10 and as much as $30, and are basically all the same – just make sure the backing plate has the proper arbor shaft and the “hook-style” backing plate.

Once you’ve got the backing plate installed, you’re ready to buy some pads for the buffer, and you’ll soon be on your way to your first “life changing detailing session.”

I’ve tried a ton of pads over many years, and I continually find myself being drawn to the foam pads that are manufactured by Lake Country Manufacturing (LCM). LCM sells their Duro-Foam pads through vendors like Classic Motoring Accessories and Top Of The Line.

There are many different styles of these pads – contour foam, memory foam, flat foam, and so on. Which ones you choose is a matter of personal preference; some people like the larger pads, while other prefer the smaller 6.5″ pads; some prefer the contour foam while others prefer the Duro-Foam. I suggest you buy a few of each and experiment on your own.

There are a few basics regarding pad selection – when using LCM pads, the pad color determines its intended use/purpose. A yellow pad is designed for “cutting” – it will be more useful at removing swirls, and other defects, and is best used with a compound like 3M’s Finesse-It II or 3M’s Swirl Mark Remover.

A white pad is designed for polishing, and is best used with 3M’s Swirl Mark Remover (milder action than the yellow pad) or a glaze like P21S Gloss Enhancing Paintwork Cleaner.

A black pad is designed for finishing, and is generally used with fine glazes or liquid waxes. LCM also sells a wool pad, which is designed for fast, aggressive cutting – I rarely use the wool pad, as it’s possible to introduce some swirl marks if used improperly. When buying pads, I’d strongly urge you to buy at least two of each. You don’t want to use different products on the same pads without cleaning them first. Having more pads is infinitely more convenient when performing a large detailing job.

Finally, as a general rule of thumb, I only use the Porter Cable ROB to apply products – I always buff the residue by hand, simply because the terry-style bonnets that are available for the Porter Cable ROB aren’t very efficient at removing residue.

For a complete “how-to” article on the Porter Cable ROB, feel free to refer to my Porter Cable Beginners Guide.

In closing, if you’re looking to really improve upon the quality of your detailing experience, and are hoping to make life a little easier, the Porter Cable Random Orbital Buffers are a can’t miss proposition. Porter Cable has been in the power tool business since 1914, and their attention to detail and quality is second to none.

I’m certain that if you invest the extra money in a Porter Cable (it’s really only about $30 – $40 more than a store brand buffer), you’ll thank yourself many thousands of times over. As far as buffers are concerned, the Porter Cable has no equal – it’s beyond top notch.

About Steve Litscher

Steve Lutscher Avatar
Food connoisseur, car guy, tech geek and dog lover.
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