Understanding the Mechanism of Floor Buffers

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Floor buffers are commonly seen in public places, but they can be used to make any kind of floor shiny and polished.
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When we think of smooth and clean surfaces, we usually don’t think of materials like sandpaper or steel wool. However, when it comes to polishing floors, these abrasive agents come in handy. Buffing a floor is similar to sanding a wood surface, but it results in a glossy finish rather than a smooth texture.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the process of creating a reflective surface through the use of abrasive agents is relatively simple. The scientific principles at work can be understood by recalling summer memories of looking at reflections in still bodies of water.

When a flat and smooth surface is hit by light rays, they reflect back straight with no distortion, which is why we can see our reflections in still water. However, when the surface of the water becomes rough due to waves, the light rays are no longer reflected straight back and instead bounce off in different directions.

In the same way, floors that contain a thin topcoat of polymer become pitted and scratched over time, resulting in a dull-looking surface when light hits it. A floor buffer is used to level out the surface of the polymer, creating a smooth and even surface for light to reflect off of.

The power of a floor buffer lies in its ability to take the mountainous landscape of the scratched polymer coating and level it out. This creates a smooth surface that reflects light evenly, resulting in a shiny and polished finish.

Parts of a Floor Buffer

While a floor buffer uses similar principles to sanding, it requires more than just manual labor to achieve the desired shine. The machine utilizes a combination of parts and power to maximize its effectiveness and efficiency, both for home and commercial use.

The key to a floor buffer’s success is power. Without it, achieving a high-gloss finish would be impossible. Floor buffers are typically powered in one of two ways: electricity from a cord or battery, or fuel (usually propane) [source: Donegan]. While home models are usually electric or battery-powered, commercial models use gasoline or propane due to their portability [source: Fitzel].

Propane buffers have fuel tanks and batteries placed behind the engine to counterbalance the weight of the front end where buffing takes place. The battery provides the electricity to start the engine, while the alternator keeps it charged [source: Shaw].

Gas-powered buffers have traditional combustion engines that require a water tank to cool them down. The vacuum force generated by the machine starts water flowing through a hose which then enters the combustion chamber of the engine. This cools the engine in the form of a mist that turns to steam when it encounters the engine’s high temperatures. The steam also powers the pistons and drive train for increased efficiency [source: Shaw].

The front end of the buffer, where the buffing takes place, has a drive belt attached to a vertical spindle. The spindle connects to a flat cylindrical buffing disk that rests parallel to the floor inside a metal sheath called the deck. When the engine starts, the drive belt turns the spindle and buffing disk, allowing the buffer to work [source: Warren].

How the Components of a Floor Buffer Work Together

The angle of the floor buffer’s handle affects the end result of your polishing work.

The deck of the buffer contains the business end where the buffing takes place. The drive belt and spindle are responsible for the rotation of the buffing disk, which, when paired with a buffing pad, creates a high-gloss finish. It’s important to note that the angle of the handle affects the end result of the polishing work [source: Warren].

The handle of a floor buffer is an essential component for both commercial and home use. Although it does not participate actively in the buffing process, it helps the user to steer the machine and contains the controls that determine the speed of the buffing disk. Unlike a vacuum cleaner, the handle on a buffer is attached to a round head. A set of buttons or switches that control the buffer’s actions is located at the top of the handle. The handle’s height determines the intensity of the abrasive pad’s cut, which should be around the user’s waist or an inch or two lower. The aggressiveness of the cut can be adjusted by changing the buffer’s position relative to the floor’s grain. The angle of the handle also affects the cut. A sharp cut is usually more effective for floors with severe damage or thick wax coating, while a softer finish requires a less sharp cut. Different buffing pads produce different results, and the two basic types are cutting and polishing pads. Cutting pads are more abrasive and made of natural fibers like wool. Although the rough surface of the cutting pad makes it more effective, it can be challenging to use due to increased friction.

When it comes to achieving a glossy finish on floors and finishes, using cutting pads can be damaging if used on the wrong surface. Polishing pads are made of softer materials, such as foam rubber, and are less abrasive, making them better suited for polishing soft waxes or finishes. Floor buffer pads are color-coded, with darker pads being the most aggressive and harshest, such as the maroon pad. However, basic classes of buffing pads can still be identified using this rule of thumb. Before buffing a floor to a shine, it is important to clean it thoroughly using neutral floor cleaners, which not only dislodge stubborn dirt but also protect the floor by lowering the pH of the water they are mixed with. Surfactant packages in cleaning solutions ensure that the cleaning compound sinks into all the cracks and grooves in the surface, softening the polymer coating on the floor for more effective buffing.

Choosing the Right Surface for Your Floor Buffer

Despite its name, a floor buffer does not work on the main material of the floor but rather on the thin, clear polymer coating that covers it. This means that a floor buffer’s effectiveness is not determined by the material of the floor but by the presence or absence of the polymer layer.

While it is difficult to identify types of flooring that universally work with a floor buffer, there are some materials that usually feature the polymer layer, such as wood, vinyl composition tile (VCT), terrazzo, and concrete. Wood is a perfect surface for floor buffers as it has a slightly more pliable composition that makes buffing easier and more effective. Similarly, VCT, terrazzo, and concrete can all be buffed using the same process, but different types of pads and cleaning solutions are recommended for maximum effectiveness.

However, without a polymer finish, a floor buffer is much less effective, and most flooring materials will not produce the kind of wet shine that can be achieved with a finished floor. Additionally, especially hard floors like ceramic and quarry tile make buffing much less effective.

Choosing the Right Floor Buffer Model

Commercial floor buffers are large and heavy, making them practical for buffing very large areas. However, they are not the best choice for residential homes due to their bulky size and weight. Home models are more suitable for smaller spaces and can effectively buff floors with a polymer finish.

Commercial floor buffers, also known as floor burnishers, use buffing pads that rotate at high speeds of 1,000 rotations per minute or more, enabling them to achieve a wet-looking shine similar to NBA basketball courts. These buffers can be powered by electricity or propane, but propane is often more practical and less dangerous. On the other hand, smaller and less expensive low-speed buffers are available for home use, featuring pads that swing side to side and rotate at speeds under 1,000 RPM. While these models cannot achieve the same high shine as commercial buffers, they are still capable of giving floors a nice new-looking sheen and offer versatility as they can accommodate various attachments for a wide variety of home improvement and construction tasks. Home floor buffer models feature easily interchangeable pad drivers that can be removed to attach different accessories, making them suitable for tasks like cleaning grout and stripping glue. With carpet brush attachments, home floor buffers can also deep clean dirty carpets using the same power that makes them effective for glossy floor finishes. Despite their unwieldy nature, floor buffers are versatile and effective enough to be a valuable addition to both homes and businesses.

Additional Information

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More Useful Links

  • National Wood Flooring Association
  • Contract Flooring Magazine
  • Concrete Network
  • National Terrazzo & Mosaic Association


  • 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
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1. What is a floor buffer?

A floor buffer is a machine used to clean and maintain various types of floors. It uses a rotating pad or brush to scrub, polish, and buff floors, removing dirt and other debris to leave a clean and shiny surface.

2. How does a floor buffer work?

A floor buffer works by using an electric motor to rotate a pad or brush at a high speed, which in turn scrubs or polishes the floor. The buffer also has a weight on top of the pad or brush, which provides extra pressure for a deeper clean or a higher shine.

3. What types of floors can be cleaned with a floor buffer?

A floor buffer can be used on a variety of floors, including hardwood, tile, marble, concrete, and even carpet. However, it is important to use the appropriate pad or brush and cleaning solution for the specific type of floor being cleaned.

4. Is a floor buffer easy to use?

With proper training and practice, a floor buffer can be relatively easy to use. However, it is important to follow safety guidelines and use the appropriate settings and techniques to avoid damaging the floor or injuring oneself.

5. Can a floor buffer be used to remove stains or scratches from a floor?

A floor buffer can help to minimize the appearance of light scratches or stains on a floor, but it is not designed to remove deep scratches or stains. In those cases, it may be necessary to use a different type of equipment or seek professional help.

6. How often should a floor buffer be used?

The frequency of floor buffer usage depends on the type of floor and the level of foot traffic or use. Generally, it is recommended to buff a floor once every few months to maintain its appearance and prevent dirt buildup.

7. Can a floor buffer be rented or purchased?

Both options are available, depending on the individual’s needs and budget. Floor buffers can be rented from hardware stores or cleaning equipment rental companies, or they can be purchased from online retailers or local suppliers.

8. What safety precautions should be taken when using a floor buffer?

Some safety precautions to take when using a floor buffer include wearing appropriate footwear, avoiding loose clothing, using eye and ear protection, and disconnecting the machine from the power source before making any adjustments or repairs.

9. What is the difference between a floor buffer and a floor scrubber?

A floor buffer is used to polish and maintain floors, while a floor scrubber is used to deep-clean and remove dirt and grime from floors. Floor scrubbers typically use water and cleaning solution to scrub and suction up dirt, while floor buffers use pads or brushes to polish and buff the surface.

10. How long does it take to buff a floor?

The time it takes to buff a floor depends on the size of the area, the type of floor, and the level of cleaning needed. Generally, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to buff a floor, depending on these factors.

11. Can a floor buffer be used on uneven or damaged floors?

It is not recommended to use a floor buffer on uneven or damaged floors, as this can cause further damage or create an unsafe surface. In these cases, it may be necessary to repair or replace the floor before attempting to clean or maintain it with a floor buffer.

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