Buffing Compounds Overview: One of the truths in woodturning is that the real work in turning begins, when the finishing protocol starts. I define the start of the finishing protocol as the point where sanding begins. The second truth in woodturning is that most finishes must be buffed to really look their best. Even after you have lovingly applied multiple coats of your favorite finish over the course of a few days or weeks, you're not done – you still have to finish the finish.
"Calliburn" burned and scorched Ash
hollow form with buffed Minwax Tung Oil Finish.
That means buffing the surface to remove any dist nibs, uneven spots, or orange peel. There are many different types of buffing compounds that you can use for deluxing the surface of your cured finishes. Some can be used both on and off the lathe and a few will work if applied by hand – which is a great benefit if you need to touch up a finish after an art show. Others must be used with power buffers at high speed, or on the lathe to get optimal results. I use a variety of products to buff, polish and touch up cured finishes and to deluxe the surface of alternative materials. These include solid bar compounds, cutting waxes and various liquids that are made for automotive finishes.
Solid Bar Buffing Compounds
The two main compounds that woodturners use for perfecting cured finishes are Tripoli and White Diamond. Tripoli is reddish brown in colour is somewhat aggressive. Unless you have heavy orange peel on the surface, or the surface is very uneven, I think Tripoli is too aggressive. I have a couple of bars I bought more than 13 years ago that still look new. Most of my buffing work is done with White Diamond, which is less aggressive than Tripoli and is chalk white in colour.
Tripoli and White Diamond buffing compounds with
an 8" cloth buffing wheel mounted on a Morse
taper arbor for use on the lathe.
Some turners start with Tripoli and then switch to White Diamond for final buffing. I prefer to use only White Diamond, on a regular soft cloth buffing wheel mounted on the lathe in a Morse taper adapter. White Diamond is a very good buffing compound that is predictable and easy to control. If you use either of these buffing compounds, remember to keep separate wheels for each compound and only use a tiny bit to charge the buffing wheel.
You can always add a bit more, but if you apply too much compound, you may burn right through the finish, or load the pores of the wood with compound. Neither outcome is desirable. More information on buffing cured finishes can be found here.
Paste Wax Buffing Compounds
U'Beaut's EEE Ultra shine features a fine compound suspended in
a wax base. Cutting waxes are very easy to use on the lathe.
Wax based buffing compounds (aka cutting waxes, deluxing waxes) are used frequently in my studio for smaller projects. Products like Arborwax Burnishing (no longer available), EEE Ultra Shine and Clapham's Pumice and Rottenstone are very easy to use and produce excellent results. The wax keeps the compound suspended, so you get an even cut and it also helps to remove residual dust and debris, instead of kicking it up into the air.
Clapham's has two cutting waxes featuring the
traditional Pumice (left) and Rottenstone (right),
suspended in a light wax base.
Some turners do not like to use wax based buffing/cutting compounds because they may leave a residual wax film or resist, on the surface after application. However, this can be easily remedied on most projects with a quick wipe of Naphtha. Wax based compounds also help to keep the surface cool when the compound is applied, adding yet another benefit.
These water based polishing compounds from Fibre
Glast must be used at a minimum speed of 2500 RPM.
Water based compounds (usually sold as Mold Polish) are also available in a paste form. These must be used in conjunction with a spritz of water, so they can be effective on some cured finishes, as well as used on plastics, resin based materials and even on several metals. They are none too cheap, but they work very well indeed.
One drawback to using these water based products, is their minimum application speed of 2,500 RPM, which limits their use on the lathe to smaller projects that can be turned fast enough to allow the compound to cut. If using them off the lathe, you need to use a high-speed drill with a suitable polishing mop, or a flex shaft based rotary tool with a Velcro faced polishing padette.
Liquid Buffing Compounds
20/20 plastic polish and Hut's Ultra Gloss
can be used to remove fine scratches and swirl marks
from plastics and similar materials.
For some projects, I prefer using liquid based buffing/polishing compounds. Some of these are marketed specifically for use on plastics, others are made for automotive uses and can be used on cured wood finishes. Two big names for liquid plastic polishing compounds are 20/20 Polish and Hut Ultra Gloss. They are both white in colour, so you must be careful when using them on some materials. They work well with all of the plastic and resin based project blanks that are sold for pens, stoppers and similar projects.
Some products designed for use on automobiles can
also work well for certain woodturning projects and finishes.
There are several products made for use on automotive finishes that work well in a lathe environment. Three that I use regularly are Meguiar's, Brookschein and 3M. 3M and Meguiar's make numerous products that will work on most cured finishes, as well as many alternative materials. 3M's Finesse-It – II, is a great product that works exceptionally well on many materials and finishes. It is suitable for removing fine scratches and swirl marks at the 1500-grit and higher level. 3M and Meguiar's also make numerous other products, check your local auto parts store, or auto paint and body supplier for specific information.
3M's Finesse It – II is a superb product to use for
removing 1500 grit or higher scratches and swirl
marks on plastics and some cured finishes.
You probably have one or more of these in your garage right now. If so, you might want to give one of them a go on your next plastic project, or try it to cut back a lacquer, oil, or epoxy finished project. They also work well for CA, Plexitone and with Stryomek based finishes. The next time you get some pesky residual scratches on a project, or you're looking for a new product to use, give one of these products a try. You just might find a new product to keep around the lathe!
Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.
Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.
Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.
Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.