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How Floor Buffers Work

You're probably used to seeing floor buffers in public settings, but they can help put a shine on all kinds of floors.
You're probably used to seeing floor buffers in public settings, but they can help put a shine on all kinds of floors.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

When we think of clean, polished surfaces, we don't often picture abrasive materials like sandpaper or steel wool. In many situations, this perception is accurate: If you're trying to keep a glossy shine intact, rough and smooth don't generally mix well. And when you're trying to polish surfaces like the paint on your car or your grandmother's heirloom silver, this holds true. However, there are some notable exceptions to this intuition.

Buffing a floor is one such instance. The principle is similar to that of sanding a wood surface: The goal is to even out that surface to achieve a smooth, uniform look. However, anyone who has ever sanded wood furniture, for example, knows that the smooth texture it produces is a far cry from the glossy shine that results from buffing a floor. So what's the difference?

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Although it sounds counterintuitive, the role of an abrasive agent in creating a reflective surface -- the aim in buffing a floor -- is actually simpler than you might think. All we have to do is recall a few summer memories to understand the scientific principles at work.

If you've ever tried to look at your reflection in a still body of water -- say, a pond or a swimming pool -- you've probably been able to see yourself fairly clearly. That's because as light rays hit a flat, smooth surface, they reflect straight back with no distortion [source: Curtiss]. Ideally, the surface would be so perfectly smooth and reflective, like a mirror, that you'd be able to see all of the details of your reflection. The surface of a swimming pool may not be perfectly still or level, but it's close enough that you're able to make out your image.

Now let's say someone jumps in the pool. Water splashes everywhere, and suddenly, all you can see is the choppy waves lapping up on the sides. You didn't move, so there should still be light rays bouncing off your face to the surface of the water. But where did your reflection go?

Those light rays are still there, but the water's now rough surface is no longer able to reflect those rays straight back at you. Instead, they bounce off every which way as they hit the peaks and valleys of the choppy water. In a way, your reflection is still there -- it's just been shot off in all directions instead of straight back at you.

Although some materials require surface-only polishing with a smooth rag, flooring that contains a thin topcoat of polymer, or plastic, gets pitted and scratched with time and wear. On a microscopic level, this results in what you can imagine as tiny mountain landscapes in that polymer coating. When light hits the floor, it's reflected in all different directions, resulting in a dull-looking surface [source: Curtiss].

A floor buffer's job is to take that mountain range and level it out, creating a smooth, even surface for light to reflect off of. But what is it that makes a floor buffer so powerful?

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Although a floor buffer employs principles similar to sanding in its mechanics, simple manpower just isn't enough to achieve the kind of gloss that both home and commercial floor buffer models can. These buffing machines employ careful arrangements of parts and power for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

Power, first and foremost, is what enables a mechanical floor buffer to bring a floor to the kind of high gloss that simple manpower can't. Generally, floor buffers are powered in one of two ways: with electricity from a battery or electrical cord, or with fuel (usually propane) [source: Donegan]. Most home models are electrical or battery powered, but models designed for commercial use -- where a long extension cord draped across a large building would be impractical -- use gasoline or propane [source: Fitzel].

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In the case of propane buffers, a fuel tank and a large battery are placed behind the engine. These counterbalance the weight of the hefty front end, where the engine is located and where the actual buffing takes place. Even when a buffer runs on propane, a battery is required to provide the electricity needed to start the engine. To enhance agility and reduce lateral bulk, the battery is mounted above the fuel tank, which is then attached to the machine's handle [source: Shaw].

The battery provides the startup energy to the motor through relay contacts. The engine then powers an alternator, which -- much like in a conventional automobile -- keeps the battery charged and ready [source: Shaw].

In a gas-powered buffer, the engine is a traditional combustion engine-- again, much like the cars you see on the road every day. To offset the heat it produces, a water tank is mounted nearby to cool the motor. When the buffer is in operation, a vacuum force starts water flowing through a hose; as it enters the combustion chamber of the engine, it cools the engine in the form of a mist that turns to steam when it encounters the engine's high temperatures. For added efficiency, that steam also helps to power the pistons and the drive train [source: Shaw].

To find out more about these components and how they power the business end of the floor buffer, keep reading on the next page.

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The angle of the floor buffer's handle affects the end result of your polishing work.
The angle of the floor buffer's handle affects the end result of your polishing work.
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The business end of the floor buffer, where the buffing actually takes place, is housed inside a conical metal sheath -- a little like a cowcatcher on the front of a train. Called the deck, this front area contains a drive belt, which attaches to a vertical spindle. The spindle attaches to a flat cylindrical buffing disk that lies parallel to the floor. When the engine powers up, the drive belt turns the spindle and a buffing disk; when a buffing pad is attached, the buffer is ready to work [source: Warren].

Even though it's not actively involved in the buffing process, the handle is a key component of both commercial and home floor buffers. Not only does it enable the user to steer the machine, much like a vacuum cleaner, but it also contains the controls that determine the speed at which the buffing disk will turn [source: Fitzel]. However, the long, upright handles on buffers are attached to a flat head that, unlike a vacuum cleaner, is round instead of square or rectangular. At the top of the handle, you'll find a set of buttons or switches that control the buffer's actions.

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With both home and commercial models, the intensity of the abrasive pad's cut is determined by the height of the buffer's handle. Generally, the handle should be around the height of the user's waist or an inch or two (2.5 to 5.1 centimeters) lower. By changing the position of the buffer relative to the grain of the floor, you can adjust the aggressiveness of the cut [source: Fitzel]. Because many people think of the buffer's position in terms of the numbers on an analog clock face, the process of adjusting the intensity of the cut is called clocking the buffer.

The cut is also affected by the angle of the handle. Picture a clock: If the handle represents the 12-o'clock mark, the sharpest cutting area is between 2:00 and 3:30. Depending on the kind of job you're using the buffer for, by turning the handle, you can affect the intensity of the cut [source: Fitzel]. For example, if the floor is very damaged or if you need to strip off a thick wax coating, a sharp cut will be much more effective. If the floor has a thinner, softer finish however, a sharp cut may do more harm than good.

But the clocking process isn't the only way to adjust the intensity of a floor buffer's cut. To learn about other methods and why they might be difficult if you're colorblind, read on.

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Just as different recipes require different cooking utensils, floors require specific buffing pads to produce the best, brightest and glossiest results. While these pads are available in a wide variety of textures, the two basic types are cutting pads and polishing pads [source: Mrs. Clean].

As the name suggests, cutting pads are more abrasive. These might be used for a floor with deep scuffmarks or scratches where a gentler pad wouldn't be powerful enough to level the finish to its optimal shine [source: Parish Supply]. Cutting pads are usually made of natural fibers like wool [source: Fitzel].

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The rough surface of the cutting pad is what makes it so effective at its job, but it also makes the pad slightly more difficult to use. If you've ever been ice skating at a rink that's been in use all day, you might have noticed that it's hard to get up to the speeds you might achieve on a newly smoothed rink. That's because a rougher surface creates more friction between itself and anything it touches than does a smooth plane.

Just like you need a sharper knife to cut a watermelon than you do a piece of cake, softer floors and finishes simply don't require cutting pads to achieve a glossy finish, and a cutting pad can do damage if it's used on the wrong floor. Polishing pads, which are less abrasive, are better for polishing soft waxes or finishes [source: Parish Supply]. These pads are made of softer materials like foam rubber, which is smoother than the wool fibers of a cutting pad [source: Mrs. Clean].

If you didn't want to read up on which pads work best on which floors, however, there's a cheat sheet: Floor buffer pads are color coded. As a rule, the darker the pad is, the flatter and more aggressive its cut will be; harshest of all is the maroon pad, which contains additional abrasive materials woven into its fabric [source: Fitzel]. While delicate jobs may require a bit more research into the appropriate pad, you can still identify basic classes of buffing pad using this rule of thumb.

So we know that floor buffers can polish a floor, but what about cleaning? Read on to find out about a floor buffer's role in cleaning and how tap water can ruin your floor.

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Polishing your floor to a nice shine requires using the right buffer pad and cleaning solution.
Polishing your floor to a nice shine requires using the right buffer pad and cleaning solution.
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Just like you wouldn't get dressed without taking a shower first, a floor needs to be cleaned thoroughly before it's buffed. But cleaning solutions do more than just dislodge tough dirt; they actually help to protect your floor in the process as well.

On a pH scale, cleaning solutions like the ones you'd find under your kitchen sink are almost never neutral; in fact, most have a pH balance of eight or above, which means they're bases [source: Ophardt]. So while these products, such as ammonia and bleach, may work well in some areas of your house, you'd actually be doing damage if you used them on your floor [source: Curtiss].

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Instead, cleaning solutions used with floor buffers are called neutral floor cleaners. Neutral floor cleaners not only work to dislodge stubborn dirt, they also lower the pH of the water they're mixed with to neutral -- a pH level of seven -- to avoid damaging your floor [source: Curtiss].

Even with a neutral pH, however, a cleaning solution wouldn't be effective without what's called a surfactant package [source: Curtiss]. If you've ever washed your own car, you may have noticed that the water starts to bead up on the outside. That's because of surface tension; it's the same force that allows a mosquito to skitter across the surface of a lake without falling through.

This is all well and good if you're a mosquito, but surface tension is less than ideal when a thorough cleaning depends on the solution's ability to reach into all of the cracks and grooves in a surface. Surfactant packages make sure your cleaning compound will sink in instead of just sitting on the surface of your floor [source: Curtiss].

That works really well for another reason: When water soaks into the polymer coating on the floor, it also begins to soften it. It's not enough to damage the floor or sink through the thin polymer coating, but it does just enough to increase the effectiveness of the buffer significantly [source: Curtiss].

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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.

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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.

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Chances are, you won't need a commercial-grade floor buffer to take care of the floors in your home.
Chances are, you won't need a commercial-grade floor buffer to take care of the floors in your home.
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The kind of floor buffer you're probably most familiar with, either by firsthand observation or from watching any of a number of movie scenes featuring maintenance workers, is the commercial model. Because these are quite large and heavy, they are far more practical for buffing jobs that require the buffing of a very large area, such as a large warehouse or the floors of an office building. While commercial floor buffers are highly effective, they're also unwieldy in the small spaces you typically have in a residential home.

With commercial floor buffers, also called floor burnishers, the buffing pads rotate at 1,000 rotations per minute (RPM) or more -- usually 1,500 to 3,000 RPM [source: FloorBuffers.com]. It's this high speed that enables a commercial floor buffer to achieve the kind of wet-looking shine that you'll find on, for example, an NBA basketball court [source: Curtiss]. Commercial floor buffers can be electrical or propane-powered, but propane is often more practical and less dangerous -- especially during a large buffing job where a long extension cord can serve as a tripping and mechanical hazard as well as a nuisance [source: Warren].

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If you need to add some shine to your floors at home, however, you're not out of luck. Smaller, lighter and less expensive floor buffers are available as well. Also called low-speed buffers, these feature pads that swing side to side in addition to simply rotating. The buffing pads rotate at speeds under 1,000 RPM, usually around 175 to 350 RPM [source: Curtiss].

While home floor buffers won't buff a floor up to the high shine that a commercial floor buffer can achieve, they're still capable of giving a floor a nice, new-looking sheen. However, what home models lack in power, they make up for in versatility [source: Curtiss].

Commercial floor buffer models have pad drivers that can't be removed without some serious tools and a good deal of elbow grease, so it's highly impractical -- and unusual -- to use them for anything but buffing floors. However, for home models, that's not the case. Home models are designed to accommodate other attachments that can be used for a wide variety of home improvement and construction purposes like cleaning grout and stripping glue. Read on to find out how.

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While commercial floor buffers are used almost exclusively for buffing and polishing floors, since a home job scale is much more reduced, there's a greater need for mechanical multi-tasking. That's why home floor buffer models are designed specifically to accommodate a wide variety of additional attachments [source: Parish Supply].

Where the pad driver on a commercial model is extremely difficult to remove, home models feature a pad driver that is easily unsnapped and interchanged. With the right attachments, floor buffers can be used for nearly everything in the flooring process -- from stripping off old wax coating on tile, to removing glue from under tile or other flooring, to leveling a concrete base before installing new flooring materials [source: Fitzel]. A home floor buffer can also be used for more specific tasks, such as cleaning grout or buffing marble [source: Curtiss].

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Until now, we've mostly discussed a floor buffer's functions on hard flooring. However, attachments enable these home floor buffer models to live up to their vacuum cleaner-like appearance. With a carpet brush attachment, a home floor buffer can deep clean a dirty carpet using the same power that makes it so effective for bringing floors to a glossy shine [source: Parish Supply].

While floor buffers can be unwieldy, they're versatile and effective enough that they can be a welcome and worthwhile addition to a home or business. For more information on floor buffers and other cleaning and maintenance tools, take a look at the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Barnhardt, Roy, James Carey, Morris Carey, Gene Hamilton, Katie Hamilton, Don R. Prestly, Jeff Strong. "Home Improvement All-in-one for Dummies." Hoboken, N.J.:Wiley Publishing. 2004.
  • Curtiss, Kirk, Representative, Michco, Inc.. Personal interview conducted Aug. 2011.
  • Donegan, Fran. "Ultimate Guide to Floors, Walls and Ceilings." Upper Saddle River, N.J.:Creative Homeowner. 2007.
  • Fitzel, Galen. "Taming the Buffer: Understanding How a Wood Floor Buffer Works, Part I." Hardwood Floors Magazine. June/July 2003. (Sept. 7, 2017) https://www.woodfloorbusiness.com/sanding-finishing/taming-the-buffer-understanding-how-a-wood-floor-buffer-works-part-i.html
  • FloorBuffers.com. "Floor Machine Types for Cleaning Hard Floors." (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.floorbuffers.com/floor_machine_types.htm
  • Mrs. Clean. "How to Use a Buffer/Polisher." (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.housecleaningcentral.com/en/cleaning-tips/tip/buffer-machine.html
  • Ophardt, Charles E. "Virtual Chembook." Elmhurst College. 2003. (Sept. 7, 2017) http://chemistry.elmhurst.edu/vchembook/
  • Parish Supply. "Floor Maintenance Pads." (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.parish-supply.com/floorpad.htm
  • Shaw, Patrick A. "Floor Buffing Machine." Patent 5,203,046. 20 April 1993. (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.google.com/patents?id=vBEiAAAAEBAJ&pg=PA5
  • Tatum, Malcolm. "What Is a Floor Buffer?" WiseGeek. (27 July 2011) http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-floor-buffer.htm
  • Warren, Loring Ferdinand, et al. "Floor Buffer." Patent 3,921,244. Nov. 25 1975. (Jan. 21, 2012) http://www.google.com/patents?id=rG0vAAAAEBAJ&pg=PA1

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