Updated January 2022
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Buying guide for best variable speed polishers

Many people have memories of their father in the driveway on a warm sunny day washing and waxing the family car, buffing it to such a sheen you could use it as a mirror. It’s an iconic image, and one that’s played out in driveways across the country, as well as automotive ads, television shows, and movies.

The fact is that your dad knew exactly what he was doing. The key to extending the longevity of a vehicle’s paint is proper upkeep, including waxing and polishing. With the cost of painting a vehicle hundreds or even thousands of dollars, waxing and polishing is an inexpensive way to keep your vehicle looking like new.

But something that has changed since your dad waxed his car all those years ago is the quality, availability, and affordability of variable speed polishers. What was once a labor-intensive task that required a lot of elbow grease can be done faster and with better results and less effort using a polisher. Read on to learn all about these useful tools, and take a look at a few of our favorites.

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Always keep the polisher’s pad level on the paint.

Key considerations

There are two broad categories and several different styles of variable speed polisher to choose from, depending on your needs and level of experience.

Orbital polishers

Orbital polishers offer the fastest learning curve and are the easiest to use without damaging your vehicle’s finish. An orbital polisher oscillates – or wobbles – while it spins. This helps protect the paint from getting burned as it keeps the polisher from applying too much pressure on any one spot. In fact, some orbital polishers slow down or stop altogether if you apply too much pressure.

Not all orbital polishers are the same, however, with different styles offering different benefits and abilities. The three types are fixed, dual-action, and forced rotation dual-action.

Fixed orbital polisher: This polisher oscillates around a fixed axis and is the most basic model available. It’s good at removing and applying wax, but that’s about all. It lacks the power and movement needed to buff out anything but the lightest of scratches or imperfections, making one suitable for casual use, but not much else.

Dual-action orbital polisher: Also called a random orbit polisher, this type is the next step up and offers significant advantages over the basic model. The pad is on an offset axis, creating a whipping movement as it spins. Because the pad is free-spinning, the motor doesn’t power it directly. Instead, its movement is caused by the whipping action of the counterweighted backing plate. This creates a random pattern as a result of the pad size, grip, speed, and stroke length. This polisher will slow down or stop if too much pressure is applied.

There are two types of dual-action orbital polishers:

  • Short-throw polishers have approximately an 8 mm offset between the back plate’s mount point and the spindle.

  • Long-throw models have as much as a 21 mm offset. This gives long-throw models more whipping action, more power, and the ability to cover more surface area with less work.

The improved action, dual movement, relatively easy learning curve, and safe operation make both kinds of dual-action polishers ideal for casual or professional use.

Forced rotation dual-action polishers: Like standard dual-action polishers, this type has both oscillation and rotation. The difference is how the rotation occurs. Whereas standard dual-action models are free-spinning, the rotation on these  models is powered by the motor. These units are still relatively safe for beginners, but there is a greater risk of damaging the paint because the polisher doesn’t slow down or stop spinning under pressure,  

Some orbital polishers give you the option of switching modes between dual-action random and forced rotation dual-action. This ability gives these models far more versatility.

Rotary polishers

The second category, rotary polishers, resemble angle grinders and have a much simpler design than orbital polishers. Simplicity doesn’t mean they’re easier to use, however. Because a rotary polisher doesn’t oscillate and the rotation is driven by the motor, it’s much easier to damage your vehicle’s paint using one. These polishers are unparalleled at removing major defects but harder to master.

Variable speed polisher features

Orbital and rotary polishers come with a number of features that make them easier to use and safe for your vehicle.

Electric vs. pneumatic

One of the biggest features to look for is how the polisher is powered. Many are electric, and some models are powered by air. If you’re working in a shop with ready access to an air compressor, a pneumatic polisher might be a better choice because many of them weigh less than electric polishers. Polishing can be a time-consuming process, and a lightweight polisher will be easier to use and maneuver. On the other hand, electric polishers only require an outlet and so are more portable.


Another feature to keep in mind is the style of the grips. Some polishers have side handles, while others are mounted on top. Depending on how you will be using the polisher – and for how long – one handle style might be more comfortable than another.


To get the most out of your variable speed polisher, look for one that allows you to install and use different sizes and types of pads or bonnets.

Expert Tip

Variable speed polisher prices

Because of the difference in quality and features and whether a polisher is designed for casual or professional use, there is a wide range in prices.

Inexpensive: The most basic models are standard orbital polishers. Due to their low power, they’re best for applying and removing wax. These cost $25 to $75.

Mid-range: These units offer more features, including dual-action, improved grips, and a selection of pads. These units range from $75 to $150.

Expensive: These are the best of the best. They feature precision-cut steel gears, fail-safes, ergonomic design, and powerful motors that can handle the most demanding tasks. These products range from $150 to $500, depending on the extra accessories included.


  • Wash your vehicle first. Make sure your vehicle is clean before using a polisher on it. Nothing will ruin your paint faster than a polisher grinding dirt into it.

  • Use the right polish. Different types of polish are designed for different types of paint and conditions. Use the right polish for your paint and its condition for best results.

  • Overlap your passes as you polish. Make sure you overlap your patterns for even coverage and to avoid missing any spots.

  • Use only one type of polish on each pad. Different types of polish can interact negatively with one another.
  • Never use a polisher without polish on your vehicle.

  • Avoid sharp edges and trim. These can shred the pad and damage the polisher’s head, which can damage your vehicle’s paint.

  • Don’t limit your polisher to your car. While variable speed polishers are often used on automobiles, they’re also useful in maintaining the finish on boats and RVs.
"In most cases, light pressure is all that’s needed. Let the polisher’s action do the work and only resort to medium pressure when you’re removing defects. "

Other products we considered

The Milwaukee 2738-20 M18 Variable Speed Polisher is an 18-volt, lithium-ion rotary polisher that delivers the same level of power and performance as a corded model. It’s an excellent choice for professionals and experienced users who want to work without the extra weight and hassle of cords. The unit sells by itself or as part of a kit for about a hundred dollars more. The TOPVORK Dual-Action Random Orbit Polisher is a nice entry-level package that includes two types of foam disks, swappable handles, and a carrying case.

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Use a spur tool to remove compound from a wool pad instead of washing it. This will help the wool retain its softness.


Q. Why do many professionals prefer rotary polishers?
Rotary polishers offer more power than random orbit models, allowing a person to quickly sand down imperfections or remove paint as needed. That power – and the very small margin for error – is what makes them a better choice for a professional or experienced user.

Q. Is it possible to lock the polisher to the speed I want?
Yes, most models have that option so you don’t have to manually keep it on the right speed.

Q. Are random orbit polishers, especially long-throw models, hard to use as a result of their offset rotation?
No, most models are counterbalanced so they’re comfortable to use, even for extended periods of time.

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