Although the word "floor" is in the name, floor buffers don't actually do their work with the main material of the floor. Instead, they buff the finish -- a thin, clear coat of a polymer (plastic-based) substance that's about the thickness of a piece of cellophane [source: Curtiss].
Because a floor buffer's effectiveness is determined more by the presence (or absence) of that polymer coating than the material that the floor itself is made of, it's difficult to identify types of flooring for which a floor buffer will be universally effective or ineffective. However, what we can do is identify the types of floors that usually feature that polymer layer.
You're probably pretty familiar with some of these. Wood flooring, for example, is a perfect surface on which to use a floor buffer; if you've ever stayed until closing at a basketball court, you've probably seen an employee pushing a large commercial floor buffer around. But wood is an especially good candidate for a floor buffer for other reasons as well.
When we discussed cleaning solutions, we mentioned that a cleaning agent works to soften the polymer coat slightly in addition to dislodging dirt from the mountains and valleys in the finish. Just as this ever-so-mild softening helps the buffing pads do their work, so too does the wood itself: Its slightly more pliable composition makes buffing easier and more effective [source: Curtiss]. You can think of this like trying to carve or shape a hard, dry piece of clay versus doing the same for one that's been worked around with water: With a more malleable surface, the floor buffer can shape the floor and its coating into a flat surface much more easily and efficiently.
Wood floors, of course, aren't the only ones with polymer coatings. Floor buffers are also effective on materials like vinyl composition tile, or VCT, terrazzo, and concrete [source: Curtiss]. While different types of pads and cleaning solutions are recommended for each type of floor for maximum effectiveness, the buffing process is much the same.
Without a polymer finish, however, a floor buffer is much less effective. While the buffer will even out the small imperfections and crevasses in an unfinished floor, most flooring materials will not produce the kind of wet shine that can be achieved with a finished floor. Additionally, just as the relative softness of wood makes buffing easier and more effective, buffing is much less effective with especially hard floors like ceramic and quarry tile [source: Curtiss].
As you may imagine, not all floor buffers are created equal. We'll explore the different types of floor buffers on the next page.