You’ve spent months working over your sheetmetal until it was razor straight. Countless hours were spent getting every gap and detail just right in preparation for paint. But once the paint is laid down another step is required to get the big payoff from all your hard work: the cut and buff.
The cut and buff procedure, also known as color sanding and buffing, is the key to turning an average paintjob into a showstopping, winning work of art. A talented painter can lay down the paint nice enough to please many people, but to get that mile-deep mirror finish requires more work.
Color sanding, if done correctly, can turn a good paintjob into an amazing one. The idea is to smooth out the tiny waves and bumps in the clearcoat (commonly referred to as orange peel) and get rid of minute imperfections in the finish. Very specialized high-grit papers are used that range from 400 all the way to superfine 3,000-grit varieties.
This is definitely an area where “practice makes perfect”, and if you’re new to this then you might want to spray a few test panels to practice on first. For some professional guidance on how to do this we cruised over to Best of Show Coach Works in Escondido, California, to watch Jon Lindstrom work over Dick Kvamme’s freshly painted ’61 Corvette. Lindstrom’s been doing this since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and he’s learned what works and what doesn’t. More importantly, he has a keen eye and the patience it takes to spend 40, 50, 60, or more hours to create a show-winning finish.
1. To get the job done right you need the right materials. What you see here is far more than enough to do a cut and buff job. Among buffing pads, compounds, and papers expect to use up about $280 in materials, give or take. For this cut and polish we decided to use Meguiar’s line of professional-grade materials.
2. This is what we’re trying to get rid of—the infamous orange peel. How much you have determines which grit of paper you should start with. Lindstrom never starts with anything more aggressive than 400-grit paper. The idea is to replace the coarse scratches from leveling the paint’s surface with finer and finer scratches that can eventually be hidden with polish. It’s a tedious, time-consuming process, but the results can be well worth the extra effort.
3. After some time with 800 grit and a 3M hard pad, it’s pretty easy to see how the finish is going from lumpy to smooth. Soon that orange peel will be a distant memory.
4. You can also see that Lindstrom was careful not to sand the sharp edge on the top of the fender. Areas like this can easily be “burned through” and require extra diligence and care. Some guys use pinstriping tape to protect edges like this from being accidentally hit with the sanding block, but Lindstrom is skilled enough to know how to stay away from it.
5. Lindstrom used to go from 800 to 1,200 grit, but after talking with Mike Pennington at Meguiar’s they decided to add a step and go over the car with 1,000-grit paper. The reason is that the 1,200 doesn’t always remove every 800-grit scratch and the extra step really pays off when he gets to the buffing stage.
6. At this point the side of the fender is done with 1,000 grit, and Lindstrom can move to 1,200 grit. Did we mention that water is the key? If you’re wondering about the green tape on Lindstrom’s fingers that’s another tip from Charlie Hutton. It keeps Lindstrom’s digits from being worn, since he often spends 8 to 10 hours a day sanding and polishing.
7. It’s finally time to address that edge. For this Lindstrom uses 1,200-grit Meguiar’s Unigrit paper; no pad, just his hand and lots of slightly soapy water. Patience and care are the key since horizontal ridges like this typically have a bit less clear on them compared to larger surfaces.
8. Lindstrom then goes at the panel with 2,000-grit paper and a soft foam Meguiar’s pad. Lindstrom really likes the properties of the Meguiar’s paper. Its uniform grit doesn’t load up quickly, which means it lasts as well as performs. Lindstrom also feels that cheap paper doesn’t pay off in the long run. He had used this Nikken silicon-carbide paper years ago, but it became impossible to find. He was very happy when it turned up under the Meguiar’s label.
9. Once the panel has been gone over with the 2,000 grit, Lindstrom gets busy with some Buflex 2,500 (green) and then 3,000-grit (black) paper and a soft foam pad. While some shops stop at 2,000 and start with the buffer, Lindstrom feels that going the extra steps with the finer grits pays off big in the final finish. The Buflex paper is hard to find, but is made by Kovax out of Tokyo, Japan (kovax.com or eagleabrasives.com). It runs nearly a buck a sheet, and it’s worth every penny.
10. It’s hard to see, but this is how the panel should look when done. Notice the crosshatched pattern of the sanding marks. With this done it’s time to move on to some fun with power tools.
11. First up is a 100 percent wool 8-inch cutting pad from Meguiar’s. The compound used here is Meguiar’s Ultra-Cut. It’s designed to remove scratches from 1,200 grit and finer. The key is not to overload the pad with compound and to be careful not to burn through the paint with the wool pad. Speed comes with practice, so if you’re new to this Lindstrom suggests you go slow and get a feel for the process, or better yet practice on a spare fender to get the hang of it.
12. The scratches are gone, but they’ve been replaced by even finer swirls. To get rid of these Lindstrom switches to a Meguiar’s Soft-Buff 8-inch polishing pad and their professional Ultra Finishing Polish.
13. Lindstrom then cleans the panel with Meguiar’s Final-Inspection spray detailer. This cleans the panel, but it doesn’t leave behind any residues so that Lindstrom can look for any spots he’s missed.
14. Compare this shot to the earlier one, before Lindstrom started buffing, and you can see that the difference is downright amazing. You can also see the orange peel on the gas door to the left. When you think of the work required on this one section and then apply that to the entire car it’s easy to see how a high-end show-quality job can take well over 40 hours to do right.
15. Here’s a good before-and-after example of the big payoff from doing a proper cut and buff on a car.
16. This is on the hood of the Corvette.
17. When Lindstrom can’t find just the right block he switches to small flexible pads. These conform better to curves so that Lindstrom can get consistent results. Again, extra care is taken with sharp body lines, since burning through the clear would mean having to repaint the panel.
18. Sometimes the larger 8-inch wool pads are just too big to get into the smaller areas around the car. In those cases Lindstrom breaks out this mini wool pad. In areas that are even too tight for this, Lindstrom has to finesse the finish by hand.
19. To finish up the car we used our Meguiar’s Dual-Action polisher along with the appropriate pads and their Ultimate line of polishes and wax.
20. And this is the intended result, a mirrorlike shine that sets a high-dollar paintjob apart from a scuff and squirt deal.
21. Here’s the stash of a guy who’s been doing this for a very long time. Over the years Lindstrom has collected a menagerie of various pads, blocks, and widgets for getting paint just right. We found sections of radiator hose, metal tubes, and even blocks of wood. There was even a small block of aluminum that Lindstrom says is perfect for sanding out runs.
Stripes or other graphics painted on a car require a slightly different approach. Sure, they are typically covered by numerous layers of clear, but the lines can still be felt so it’s necessary to do some sanding to get that true “buried” look.
Lindstrom has been doing this a long time, and over the years he’s picked up quite a few tricks. When cutting down over graphics, like these stripes, he uses a different technique compared to regular panels. As Lindstrom told us, “Charlie Hutton, of Foose and Coddington fame, stopped by the shop and said that we should start with a coarser paper and a harder block to knock down the areas over graphics.” This is because, with today’s high-solid clears, a soft pad will just float over the bumps rather than knock them down. Depending on the condition of the paint, Lindstrom starts with either 400- or 600-grit paper. In this case he chose 600 grit.
The 600-grit paper is wrapped around this 3M rubber squeegee. Lindstrom has found that it’s hard enough to knock down edges yet flexible enough to conform to the contours of the car. Also key to this process is water, lots of water. Lindstrom ads a bit of Ivory dish soap to the water and lets the paper soak for a bit to get soft. The soap helps the paper slide against the paint and Lindstrom has found that Ivory, over other brands, is easier on his hands.
Here’s the result after a little bit of work. If you look close you will notice shiny areas adjacent to the white stripe. These are “valleys” in the paint and the goal is to sand until those areas become level with the rest of the clear. Once level, the area is finished in steps like the other sections of the car.