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How to Cut and Buff Paint

Final Touches

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You often hear people lament the cost of painting a car, but done in a way that's not always accurate. The actual painting part of the process is really just the tip of the iceberg. For the most part, what really sets a show-worthy paintjob apart from the budget spray-and-pray deal from Mr. Scheib is the amount of time perfecting the body before it goes into the spray booth and the time spent polishing the paint to perfection afterwards. Having a painter who can expertly wield the spray gun is important, but what is done before and after has a huge effect on the final product.


Color sanding, if done correctly, can turn a good paintjob into an amazing one. The general 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. Specialized high-grit papers are used that range from 400-grit all the way to super-fine 3,000-grit varieties. Depending on the desired final result, the process can take anywhere from 20 to 60 hours to complete.

This is definitely an area where "practice makes perfect," and if you're new to this you might want to spray a few test panels to practice on first. For some professional guidance on how it's done, we cruised over to Best of Show Coach Works in Escondido, California, to watch Jon Lindstrom work over project Track Rat, our '68 Camaro, which was recently covered in Axalta paint. As you can tell by the gray hair, Jon has been doing this quite a while and he's learned there's no shortcut to achieving a show-winning finish.

01. This is what we're trying to get rid of: the finish-killing bumps known as "orange peel," and the ridge at the edges of the red stripes. How much orange peel is present, along with how many coats of clear were put on the car, determines the grit of paper you should start with.


02. Best of Show's Jon Lindstrom never starts with anything more aggressive than 600-grit paper, and in this case he chose to start with 1,000-grit. 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 make or break a paintjob.


03. You can see that Jon was careful not to sand the sharp edge on the top of the fender lip. Areas like this can easily be "burned through" since there's less clear on these peaks due to how the clear flows when wet. Some guys use pinstriping tape to protect the edges from being accidentally hit with the sanding block, but Jon is skilled enough to know how to stay away from it.


04. After some time with Meguiar's 1,000-grit paper and a 3M hard pad, it's easy to see how the finish is going from lumpy to smooth. Soon, the orange peel will be history.


05. Jon used to go from 800- to 1,200-grit, but after talking with Mike Pennington at Meguiar's, they decided to add an extra 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 makes the buffing process far easier.


06. At this point the side of the fender was done with 1,200-grit, and the result was an evenly "scratched" surface. Again, it's a process of patience and staying consistent with the pressure applied to the paper.


07. Jon then moved on to Meguiar's 2,000-grit paper. When sanding over graphics, he used a 3M hard pad, but other areas of the car necessitated a softer pad sourced from Meguiar's. The uniform grit of the Nikken silicon-carbide paper from Meguiar's doesn't tend to load up quickly, which means it lasts longer. Did we mention that water, lots of water, with a touch of Ivory dish soap is the key?


08. Once the panel has been gone over with the 2,000-grit, Jon gets busy with some Buflex 2,500- (green) and then 3,000- (black) grit paper and a soft foam pad. Some shops start the buffing process after the 2,000-grit, but Jon feels that using 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 (www.kovax.com or www.eagleabrasives.com). It runs over a dollar a sheet, but given how much a typical paintjob costs, there's no point in pinching pennies.


09. It's finally time to address that edge we avoided earlier. For this, Jon used 1,200-grit Meguiar's Unigrit paper followed by the ultra-fine Buflex paper. No pad, just his hand and lots of slightly soapy water. Patience is the key since horizontal ridges like this typically have less clear on them compared to flat surfaces.


10. With the sanding done, it was time to start the buff and polish stage. This is done in three stages using progressively finer materials. For this we used Meguiar's Pro Speed Compound (PN 100) followed by 3M machine polish (PN 06064), and finally 3M Ultrafine polish (PN 06068).


11. We were trying out 3M's new line of quick-change pads, and they necessitated us having this quick-release adapter (PN 05752). At over $30, it isn't cheap, but it really did make swapping pads a snap.


12. First up was a 100-percent wool compounding pad from 3M (PN 05753). The compound used here is Meguiar's Pro Speed 100 since it's designed to remove scratches from 1,200-grit and finer paper. The key was not to overload the pad with compound and to take care not to burn through the paint. Speed comes with practice, so if you're new to this, Jon advises you go slow and get a feel for the process.


13. At this point the scratches were gone, but now we had even finer swirls. To get rid of these, Jon switched to a 3M foam polishing pad (PN 05707) and their machine polish (PN 06064).


14. The final step in perfecting the finish was a few passes with the 3M 5708 pad along with their Ultrafine polish (PN 06068). Like the wool and polishing pads, this was double sided thanks to the design of the quick-release adapter. Being able to utilize both sides meant we could get double the life out of each pad.


15. Jon then cleaned the panel with Meguiar's Final Inspection spray detailer. This cleaned the panel without leaving behind a residue so that Jon could look for any spots he missed. It's also perfect for cleaning up the panels between the different polishing compounds.


16. And here is the result of all the time and effort: a mirror-like shine that sets a high-dollar paintjob apart from a squirt and scuff deal. In all, Jon will have over 40 hours of cuttin' and buffin' on Project Track Rat just so we can look good flinging it around various tracks.


17. The effect of the Anvil Auto carbon fiber under the layers of polished clear is spectacular out in the sunshine. Most of the cost with a quality color sand and buff falls on the labor side of the ledger, but expect to shell out around $300 for materials.



Anvil Auto
El Segundo, CA
Irvine, CA 92614
(800) 752-8000
Best of Show Coach Works
San Marcos, CA
Axalta Coating Systems



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