How to Polish Aluminum by LRCXed
Here is a tutorial by Larry on how to polish aluminum, steel, and remove anodizing. Be forewarned that this can become addicting, is somewhat dirty, and when you run out of bits on the bike to polish, your wife will want to hide the cat. Have fun!!!!
First of all, I want you all to know that I am not a professional at this, and there are a lot more people more qualified at this than I am. But what I do seems to work just fine! What I am going to show you is the process I use in my humble little garage, with minimal equipment that most anyone can get their hands on. Some of the steps may use equipment that most don't have, like a glass beading cabinet, but you can improvise or take the parts to a shop that can do it for you for a few dollars. Most of what I use is air powered, but electric equipment will work also, it will just take a little longer.
I'm going to show you 3 different items being polished. These are old part that have seen much better days! The rim is bent and the valve cover has road rash on the side that I did not polish. I would suggest that in the beginning, you try to practice on an old part so you get the feel for what your doing, and the attachment to it won't be as strong. If it gets grabbed by the buffer and goes flying crossed the garage, you won't care as much if it gets banged up. Practice is the key to the feel for polishing here! YES, it can happen, and it has happened to me SEVERAL times! I lay packing blankets around the area I am buffing at, so that when after several hours of buffing parts, and my mind starts to wonder, the part will hit something soft as it gets grabbed out of my hand and wakes me up. One more thing you need to know is that this is a MESSY DIRTY job, and your hands and face will turn black from the compounds. So will everything around the area. So do this in the garage or outside on the patio. Your significant other will hate you if you do this in the living room.
Equipment & Tools Here is some of the stuff I use to do my work. There are 4 different types of compounds on the front of the bench that I use. There are more, but this works for me! Red Tripoli for soft aluminum, like valve cover's, forks, clutch covers etc... Black (the small piece in front of the white. I'm almost out as you can see) for aggressive buffing and stainless or mild steel. This is the one I use to buff marks out from sanding on harder aluminum parts, or buffing the ruff areas to get to. It cuts faster. You'll learn to like this one! Some parts like the radiator side plates and gas tank latches are cast from a much harder mix of aluminum to retain strength and shape. They are harder to polish and take longer! And the Green is the final step polish that brings your part to the luster you were looking for when you started this project. White is what I use to buff plastic like the tail light and turn signal lens's. Buff them very softly, don't push hard, the heat will melt the plastic. Yes, it will make them look new again. You can even sand them with 1500 grit wet and dry sand paper to remove scratches first!
See all the black dust everywhere, that's what you can expect when your doing this!
The sanders are a couple items I use to sand the parts to remove the corrosion and ruff casting surfaces. Then when I am done' I have a smooth surface to polish. I use the air sanders primarily, but for this tutorial, I'm going to use the electric palm sander because it can be had at a reasonable price for most anyone's budget if you don't already have one. And, as surprised as I was, it does a nice job. I'll be using it more in the future.
As for sandpapers for the palm sander, I prefer the Norton 3X brand. You can get it from most Home Depot or Lowe's stores. It comes in a pack of 5 and this stuff last a long time compared to standard sand papers. It's worth the money. Don't expect it to last for ever though, metal wares out any paper fairly quickly. You'll go though the stuff if your going to do a lot of pieces. In some areas, you will need to fold up a piece and sand by hand if your trying to get a perfectly smooth finish in all areas. But as you learn, you will find that the compounds can do the same thing with a little more buffing in that area.
There are several different types of buffing wheels. Some are treated with a chemical to assist in the buffing, and some are just straight material. I use the treated type for the aggressive first stage and the loose wheels for the final stage. I did a Google search for these supplies, and came up with a company that seems to carry it all. http://www.caswellplating.com/buffs/# The place I used to get from went under, so this is where I am going to order my wheels from in the future. HOWEVER, if you get in your yellow pages and look for a metal polishing company or supply store, you might be able to buy direct in your local area. I have one near by that I get my compounds from for about $6.00 a bar. You might have someone in your area that can supply you with what you need. Harbor Freight Tools has beginner kit you can get also for a pretty cheap price.
There are a lot of different types of wheels for polishing as you can see in this site. http://www.caswellplating.com/buffs/wheels.aspx The Treated Vented Buff are what I use for the first step more aggressive polishing, and the Acrylic Buffing Wheel is for the final finish step. There are lots of different sizes and styles, so as you get into this you will start to develop your own needs as you learn. All the different wheels and adapters on my bench are just a few of what I use.
I have 2 types of polishing motors. One is a regular grinder that spins at 3500 RPM. And the other is a 1750 RPM motor that came from an old swamp cooler that I have mounted in my vice. This motor has an adapter on it to mount the polishing wheels. For some wheels I have had to make special spacers to center them with. http://www.caswellplating.com/buffs/longsa.htm Have not gotten around to mounting it on a stand yet. The 1750 motor is what I use primarily. As you load the compound into the buffing wheel, the slower RPM does not sling the compound off as bad as the 3500 one does. You want the compound to stick to the wheel so it will do the work when you start to polish your part. The faster motor is where I mount the smaller wheels, (3 to 6 inch in diameter. They work well for small narrow areas like the fins of a valve cover or an oil filter cover. With polishing, you want the wheel to be able to conform to the shape of your part. The slower the better to a certain degree.
YEP, it gets dirty doesn't it! NO, the art work on the door that my son did is not for sale!
OK, lets polish a part! The first is going to be a valve cover. Clean and degrease it as best you can!
To keep the amount of pictures down, I am showing you this with the step already done with the glass beading on one half. This step gets all the corrosion out down in the hard to reach areas. You'll see in a minute that it won't show the ruff areas. Sanding depends on how bad the corrosion is. If you have none, go straight to 320 or 400 grit. If it badly pitted you might need to start wit 220 to sand out the pits. Don't be afraid to get rough with it. You can sand it down from 220 to 320 to 400 or what ever it takes before you start your first stage of polishing. The smoother the better. Less time on the polishing wheel!
You can use the edge of the sander where it folds to the clamp to get into the fins a little. It depends on how badly pitted they are. You might have to sand a bit by hand! After your sanding, load the buffing wheel with compound. Turn the motor on and hold the compoud of choice to the wheel. Press it into it till it turns the color of the compound.
Now start polishing the part with fairly aggressive pressure. As you polish, move slowly and rotate the part so the compound on the wheel pulls at the sanding marks in different directions. Thats how it cuts the marks out and creates a smooth finish. You'll have to add compound as you go. It won't stay on the wheel forever, especially if your doing sharp edges like the fin's.
PLEASE BE CAREFUL NOT TO CATCH AN EDGE LIKE THIS!!!!! THIS IS HOW PARTS GET RIPPED FROM YOUR HANDS AND BECOME PROJECTILES!!! Let the rotation of the wheel go in the direction of the edge NOT against it!
If you discover there are some sanding marks still in the aluminum, don't worry, either keep buffing with more compound added to the wheel, or if they are DEEP scratches or corrosion pits, re sand with the finer grit paper, 320 or 400, and start again. This is a normal part of the process. THEY WILL COME OUT with enough persistence.
Now when your satisfied with the finish, change to a softer wheel and load it with the GREEN compound and be prepared to impress yourself. This step will smooth out the polishing marks from the first stage with the less aggressive compound and softer wheel. Take your time. At the end of it, try to polish in one direction moving the part away from you as you push it against the wheel. This will produce the nicest finish. It's called coloring the aluminum.
When I am done, I wash the part with dish soap and hot water, rinsed well, then dried well. The product I use to protect the finish is called MAAS. It's a cream polish protective coating that keeps bare polished aluminum or any other metal looking sharp, and keeps it from being dulled from road grime and the weather. This stuff works great. The cheapest place I have found it is floating in the Bay. Do a Google search for MASS Metal Polish or a Bay search for it. It's great stuff and I have only had to use it 2 or 3 times a year to protect my polished parts.
This is what you will end up with when your done!
OK, Now for doing the anodized parts like the controls on your handle bars.
There will be NO sanding in this step unless you have dents or corrosion on them. Most of these part don't suffer from this though. At your local parts store, you will find a gallon jug of CASTROL SUPER CLEAN. This is the stuff that will stain and aluminum parts, even the anodized stuff. That's how I figured out that it melts an anodized surface. I cleaned my 78 CX 500 with it and it stained and clouded my rims. That's how I got started polishing my first set of rims. Put your part in a container of this stuff, and sit back and watch the action. Leave it for about 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour and it will dissolve the anodized surface. Make sure your container has enough room for the foam to rise without spilling over. It will! Hmmm, make sure you take all the electronic components out first, OK!
The white in the bottom is the anodizing being eaten away. COOL huh? Take the part out after your selected time, some times it takes longer. If it does not buff off easy, put it back in for more soaking. Then rinse and dry it off and go straight to the polishing wheel. NO SANDING!
The black surface will buff off like it was never there. Do both black then green stages as described above, and you have one fantastic set of controls in your hands! Get it.... in your hands....hahaha... Make sure you change the buffing wheel to a clean white one, or one the has not had the black or red compound on it. You need to dedicate certain wheels to final buffing only. Mark on it the with a felt pen so you don't get them mixed up. The final buff is much finer, and the mixture of the 2 different compounds will be over shadowed by the coarser black one.
Cheap camera, 2.1 pixel. Sorry for the pic quality or the lack there of!
SEE.......Shinny huh.... For only $9.95 you could own th...... Oh never mind....
OK, for what started this, THE RIM...
If you have an aluminum Comstar rim, the spokes can be done just as in the following steps with only the polishing. The 78 CX500 and maybe any standard CX, not sure what they have, has plated steel spokes, and this process will brighten them up a lot, but will not bring them to a smooth shine if you try to sand them because the plating is so hard. Don't sand them please. They won't get any smoother, and the sanding marks will be a PITA to remove.
First step is to use a high quality aircraft paint stripper on the black paint of the spokes. Yep, paint not anodizing. Were luck in that account. Let the stripper do it's work and soften the paint. Sometimes I have to use a small brass wire brush to loosen up and remove the paint. It's pretty tough after all the years in the sun. Wash it off with a hose and dry it.
Now the good news, NO SANDING in this area, of coarse if you have corrosion or deap scratches, you can sand them out with progressive grits as outlined above. The edges of the spokes are sanded with 320 grit and the electric palm sander, or by hand if your feeling frisky! But the flat sanding of the palm sander does a really nice job.
After the edge sanding, go straight to the RED compound, unless your trying to pull off a little black paint that's still on it. Then you can use the black for a more aggressive bite and it will polish the small bits of paint off that you were getting tired of scrubbing off. For this stage, your going to need a high speed drill or as I use, an air powered die grinder. These do the best job because if you have a good High PSI compressor, it has the torque, and is controllable enough to work around in the tight spots. You'll need to buy some different size wheels for this! For the main part of the spoke, the 3 to 4 inch wheels do well. But for the ends of them, anywhere from 1" to 2" inch wheels work the best. You will go through about 25 2 inch wheels on one rim. I had to make a long extension for my die grinder to get into those cramped areas of the ends of the spokes. It's another one of those PITA areas. As you polish, the aluminum will build up on the wheel. You will need to clean it off a few times as you go. I use a bench grinding stone resurfacer that looks like a bunch of sharp spurs on a handle. You can use any sharp ended object to do this or get one off line like this. http://www.caswellplating.com/buffs/wheel_rake.htm
Just as in all the above steps, finish with the green for your best finish. Followed by a good protection polish like MAAS.
For the rim itself, this is the worst part! If you choose to, you can do just the spokes. Because if you start into the next phase, you can not turn back till it's done after you start sanding it. The rim in the last picture here took me about 5 or 6 days. Lost count. Lots of sanding in this step to remove the anodized coating. LOTS AND LOTS. Hand sanding as well! I know what your thinking, why not dip in the Castrol Super Clean! Well, I did, but I'm still keeping an eye on the rims to see if the hammered rivets loosen up. So far, after about 700 miles, they seem OK.
This really made it a lot easier when it came time to sand and clean off the anodizing on the rim. It still needed to be sanded though. The factory coats the rim after doing a power sanding on the rim to help it hold to the aluminum. The large side winder polisher on the bench in the equipment picture is the main tool I used to polish the rim. The small die grinder was used with the long extension to get into the tight areas. But as I have demonstrated, it will work on this step as well as an electric drill. Just slower.
Polishing with the black compound.
All these steps can be adapted to most any metals, Steel can be done as well, as long as you put a clear coat of paint on it afterward to protect it. I use the Dupli Color engine enamel.
The center section of the starter is polished steel with a clear coat on it. No Chrome!
This is a speedometer top half I was testing out!
The bottom strip of a radiator grill mount!
THIS ONE IS FOR YOU GUY'S DOING THE CAFE STYLE, I know you like to remove stuff! This will add to the RETRO look! First of all, I can't believe I even did this! A RADIATOR! I have been trying to get a good radiator for a while now, and finally found one. I painted it yesterday, and went to put a coat of clear on it and forgot that some spray paints only have a short time frame to be able to re coat it self without lifting and making the paint wrinkle up. So, I ended up stripping it with paint stripper and found myself staring at, you guessed it, BARE METAL. OK, I'll show them all what can be done with this a little, and then I'll paint it....NOT! I ended up getting carried away with my addiction, POLISHING ANYTHING THAT'S METAL! Dam. I think I need medication at this point! After stripping the paint off and cleaning it, I used the hand die grinder with a 3" stiff buffing wheel on it. I started out by using the palm sander and 400 grit Norton's 3X sand paper on it to sand down all the bare metal of the side's of the radiator, and a little bit on some of the brass tank. Then I used the GREEN compound and loaded up the polishing wheel on the die grinder. I put 2 piece's of wood in the vice clamps and tightened it up so I did not have to hold it and try to polish it at the same time. The large wood plates will keep from crushing the fin's! After about 45 minutes, this is what I came up with! Keep polishing the areas a little at a time and every 30 to 45 seconds, add more compound! It uses a lot to polish metal or brass. ENJOY!
So, as you can see, there are a lot of ways polishing can add to any project. Even the wife's copper bottom pans, brass radiator tanks, (see, I told you) carburetor parts, the plastic lens on your riding goggles, even brighten up those blue exhaust header pipes... you name it! NO, don't try to clear the header pipes!
I hope this helps out on your deciding what could be done with the weathered motorcycle or ATV you have sitting out in the garage. This process is a bit of work, but the rewards are more than worth it. You can even use a drill and mandrell mounted wheels to polish the parts while they are still on the bike.
When your done, and your looking at the rest of it like the motor that needs freshening up! That Dupli Color I mentioned earlier! They make an aluminum engine enamel color that I use on the block. It looks and holds up great. Even dipped a painted part in 5 gallons of Chem dip for cleaning carburetors, and it didn't touch the stuff. It's very durable. Enjoy the possabilities! Larry
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