Using Buffing Wheels
with Oil and Wax Finishes

Buffing Wheels Overview:

Buffing the finish after it has fully cured is one of the most important things you can do to improve the overall quality of your woodturnings. This is a critical last step in the overall finishing process and one that can (if done properly) dramatically improve the look and feel of your woodturnings.

Buffing a natural edge Mesquite bowl with an 8" cloth wheel.

Many new woodturners are surprised to learn that turning the wood itself typically represents only about 25% of their efforts. The remaining 75% centres around finishing. Finishing being defined here as the start of the abrasive protocol and ending with deluxing the cured finish. Of course, there are exceptions to this with some projects, but in general it proves to be very true especially when doing gallery, or heirloom quality work.

Many woodturners, myself included, feel that a good quality finish can make or break a piece. If you turn an average quality project and apply a superb finish, the finish enhances and raises the overall perception of the piece. Similarly, if you turn a superb quality project and apply a poor quality finish to it, the finish will detract from the overall perception of the piece.

Remember, as humans we see with our eyes and feel with our hands and fingers. Woodturning is very much a touch me, feel me type of art form. If you look at an oil painting in a gallery, your impression is going to be formed from the visual perception you make as you view it. The subject itself, colours, texture of the paint strokes etc., combine to form your visual interpretation and perception of the painting. Since you can’t touch the painting itself, your perception of it is limited to the visual cues you are able to obtain.

However with a woodturning, our perception includes not only the visual look of the piece (colour, grain character, figure, etc.) but also how the piece feels in our hands. When you pick up a woodturning and run your hands over it, you get a certain tactile feedback – soft and silky, textured, rough, etc. When someone picks up one of our finished pieces, we want him or her, to experience it exactly as we intended.

Its visual form, colour, texture, lustre and finished tactile surface quality all combine to produce the intended perception of the piece. No matter what finish you choose, using buffing wheels on the cured surface will enhance the look and feel of your work.

Getting Started Using Buffing
Wheels - Tools Required

There are numerous tools and set-ups that are available to help you buff your work. These include dedicated stations with multiple buffing wheels, lathe mounted buffing wheels and freehand buffers that are used off the lathe, with rotary powered tools. In my studio, I use all three options, although I prefer the lathe mounted and freehand options for most of my finish deluxing work.

Dedicated electric buffing equipment is available, but it can be expensive and few models offer the option for varying the speed of the buffing wheels in use. Lathe mounted buffing arbors are inexpensive and use a Morse Taper, or spindle adaptor to mount the buffing wheel directly into or onto the spindle on your lathe.

Since your lathe is variable speed already, either by changing the belt location or by adjusting the variable speed electronic controls, it’s a simple matter to alter the buffing wheel’s speed. If you are buffing a finish and want to lighten the aggressiveness of the buff, simply turn the speed down a few revs and find the “sweet spot” for that particular finish.

Setting Up A Simple Lathe Mounted System
For Using Buffing Wheels

Lathe mounted systems offer the ability to quickly change the buffing wheels when used with quick-change spindle adaptors. A Morse Taper buffing adaptor is available that will allow you to mount an 8” cloth wheel onto the end of the adaptor. For situations that require more space than the standard adaptor allows (deep bowls for example), a Morse Taper extension is available that will extend the distance from the lathes spindle threads.

If you’re just setting up a buffing station, I recommend a lathe mounted buffing station. It will save you lots of money over a dedicated station and will offer superior results vs. single speed buffers. You will need the following:

  • A #2 (or the correct size MT you require) Morse Taper Buffing Adaptor
  • Three - 8” Cloth Buffing Wheels - one for White Diamond, one for Tripoli and one for waxes that will not use compounds
  • 1 Bar of White Diamond Buffing Compound
  • 1 Bar of Tripoli Buffing Compound
  • 1 Wheel Rake for Dressing the Surface of the Wheel
  • 1 Morse Taper Extension

This basic set-up will allow you to get started inexpensively and give you a very good variable speed buffing system. All of the components are available from most any turning supply stockist. Eight-inch diameter buffing wheels can be used on the outside and inside of large finished pieces. For applications where the 8” wheel is too large, additional buffs are available in different shapes and sizes to accommodate almost any turning shape or size.

Types Of Compounds for Use on Buffing Wheels

Tripoli and White Diamond buffing compounds (from left).

The primary compounds used by woodturners on buffing wheels are White Diamond and Tripoli. White Diamond compound is a white coloured, very fine abrasive that is used to buff fully cured finished surfaces. It’s fine abrasives allow you to easily buff your work, smooth the surface and increase its gloss level. White Diamond should not be used with wax-based finishes. For buffing wax finishes, simply use the bare cloth wheel, no compounds are necessary.

Tripoli buffing compound is reddish brown in colour and is more aggressive in cutting than White Diamond. The abrasive particles in Tripoli are larger than those found in White Diamond; therefore, Tripoli produces a more aggressive buff. Many turners buff the surface with Tripoli first, followed by White Diamond. I rarely use Tripoli in my studio, preferring the less aggressive nature of the White Diamond compound for most of my buffing needs.

Using Buffing Wheels on
Finishes - Protocol Overview

Individual protocols are highly variable. Each finish requires its own specific protocol. The specific type of finish on the piece is one factor in determining the specific protocol to use; another is your overall goal for the finished surface. Do you want a satin, semi-gloss, high-gloss, or ultra-high gloss?

If you try to buff a finish before it has fully cured, the clarity of your finish will be compromised. Cloth fibers and compound will be imbedded in the soft finish, producing a cloudy or hazy surface. There is no replacement for time. Finishes need a certain amount of time to fully cure. If you try to rush your buffing, you will compromise the visual quality of your chosen finish.

8" cloth buffing wheel on a #2 Morse Taper arbour extension.

Depending on the specific finish used, the curing time can range from a few minutes, to a few days, or even a few weeks. If you are unsure how long it will take the finish to fully cure, consult the manufacturer of the finish, or check the finish container. I like to add a few days to a week past the cure date for an extra margin of safety.

Basic Oil Finish Protocol

This is my basic protocol for buffing a fully cured oil finish to a high-gloss lustre:

  • Mount an 8” cloth wheel in your lathe’s Morse Taper. Bring up the tailstock and secure. If you need more room to buff your project, add a Morse Taper extension onto the buffing arbour.
  • Set lathe revs to 1,500 RPM and lightly charge the wheel with White Diamond. To charge the wheel, lightly pass the compound across the wheel from left to right while the wheel is running. Two passes are sufficient to charge the wheel. A tiny amount of the compound is all that is necessary.
  • With a firm two handed grip on your project piece, place the project up against the running wheel and immediately move the piece back and forth and up and down on the outside of the turning. Keep the piece moving against the spinning wheel. Observe the surface lustre of the film to determine when you can move on to the next area. Most oils buff very easily with White Diamond compound.
  • As you are moving your project around and buffing the surface, be sure to move in overlapping strokes to insure you do not miss any areas. You need a good strong light directly over the project as you are buffing it, so you can monitor the progress of the buffing.
  • If you find the speed is too aggressive for the finish or build level on the surface, reduce the speed and pressure to decrease the aggressiveness of the buff. By varying the speed and pressure, you can easily control the aggressiveness of the buffing. You want a happy medium here - fast enough to be efficient, but not so fast that you cut through the surface film.
  • Once the exterior has been buffed; check if the interior is large enough to be buffed with the 8” wheel. If the wheel cannot fit easily inside the piece (the inside of a bowl for example), them you must replace the flat wheel with a round buff to complete the interior buffing. The inside is buffed using the same procedures as the exterior.
  • You may need to periodically recharge your buffing wheel on larger work pieces. If you find the wheel is not cutting as fast, simply recharge the wheel with a small amount of the White Diamond and continue.
  • BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN BUFFING YOUR PROJECT! The buffing wheel may pull the project from your hands and damage it if you do not have a good firm grip on it when buffing. As you buff the exterior of your project, use the lower front 1/4 of the wheel. When using the round head buffs on the interior of bowls and similar vessels, you may use the entire round head.
  • Once the exterior and interior have been fully buffed, thoroughly inspect the surface under a strong light. Rebuff any areas that do not meet your quality expectations.

Basic Wax Finish Protocol

Wax based finishes are buffed using a different protocol. Even the best waxes are only going to be a few molecules thick on the surface. If you buff too aggressively, you will strip the wax off the surface entirely.

Buffing the inside of a Koa bowl with a round head buff.

  • Mount a clean 8” wheel onto the Morse Taper arbour and insert the arbour assembly into the lathe’s Morse Taper. Bring up the tailstock and secure. The cloth wheel used to buff wax based finishes should not be used with any buffing compounds. I prefer to keep one clean wheel just for using with waxes.
  • Set lathe revs to 500 RPM and lightly buff the surface of the work piece, making sure to keep the piece moving against the wheel. Use a very light pressure on the wheel, or you will strip off the wax. Depending on the specific wax used, the revs may need to be adjusted slightly.

If you have not been buffing your finishes previously, I encourage you to experiment and prove to yourself the value of buffing. I think you will agree that in every respect, a buffed finish will be superior to a finish that has not been buffed. The difference between a good finish and an incredible finish is only a small amount of extra effort.

For more information on this subject, there is a complete article, titled "Buffing Your Work: Tips and Tricks" on my Volume II ebook.

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.