Restoring chrome and stainless trim is easier than you think
Many refer to all the brightwork on cars as chrome, but often as not, much of it is actually stainless steel or polished aluminium. Whatever it happens to be on your classic, you’ll want it to look dazzling if you are doing a restoration — and stainless steel or aluminium trim can be made to look good as new at home, provided it isn’t torn or mutilated to the point of no return. Dents, scrapes and scratches are all fixable, and then you can buff the parts to a dazzling shine.
You will need a buffer, the bigger the better. You can use a smaller bench grinder as a buffer using smaller wheels, or you can even use an old washing machine motor with a collet attachment if that is all your budget will permit. However, a larger buffer means faster buffing.
If possible, find an assembly manual for your car so you can see how to remove brightwork. There are also special tools available for trim removal, depending on make and era. Save all the fasteners in labelled plastic bags, because you may not be able to find replacements. Masking tape is handy to protect paint if you are not going to repaint the car.
Use a body hammer, or one of the special little hammers designed for working stainless to pick out any dings. Work from the outer edges of dents in toward the centre to help draw in the metal. Don’t tap very hard, and use a small anvil or the tail of a vise to back your work so you won’t stretch the metal and make new dents. Wooden dowels and pieces of soft wood are also good for tapping out dents. Do this on a wood surface so as not to mar your trim.
Use a fine file to clean up any pimples. If you find small, low spots while filing, tap them out before going further. Only file enough to level the high spots. And be careful not to take off too much metal and weaken the part. Stainless steel is very hard, so sanding out scratches is time consuming. The fewer scratches you make, the less time you will have to spend getting them out.
Polishing and buffing
Next, take out the file scratches using #220-grit wet and dry sandpaper. Work back and forth across the scratches so as not to make them worse. When the file marks are all gone, switch to #320-grit paper, then finish with #400-grit. Be sure to sand in a criss-cross fashion, moving the part back and forth, to minimise the scratches.
After taking out the dents I prefer to go over all my stainless steel completely again with #400-grit wet and dry sandpaper to get rid of the years of scratches from buffers, polishers and other abrasive items that may have brushed past the stainless while it was on the car. This may seem like overkill, but I have found it actually saves time and gives me a better result. After going over the whole item with the #400-grit I switch to #1000-grit for a final sand. The result is that the part has a uniform satin sheen before buffing.
Use a sisal wheel and preferably a high-speed buffer that turns at 3400rpm to take out the sandpaper lines. Just touch the wheel with a little heavy-duty stainless steel polishing compound, and then start moving the part lightly back and forth across the wheel, letting the wheel — not pressure — do the work. Keep moving the item to be buffed in order to avoid heat build-up and discoloration. Coat the buffing wheel frequently but lightly while working.
Back any delicate strips with pieces of wood to avoid bending or kinking them. Let the part cool after each buffing, then clean it with lacquer thinner so you won’t contaminate the next polishing wheel. If you do happen to scorch and discolour the metal, sand the scorch off with #400-grit and then #1000-grit and re-polish.
Next, go to a sewn cotton wheel and emery compound and work at right angles to your previous polishing. Let the part cool again, then clean it and do the final buffing using jeweller’s rouge and an open, unsewn wheel. Store your buffing wheels separately in plastic bags to avoid contaminating them with the wrong compound or dirt.
Painting decorative stainless trim in the areas that were painted originally requires a little care. And chances are, if your classic’s stainless needs restoring to look its brightest, the painted areas need restoring too. Fortunately, that can be done easily and quickly. The most important challenge is to make sure the paint sticks. Here’s how to do it.
First, wash the part carefully with hot water and dishwasher detergent to get any grease or dirt off. Then lightly scuff the area to be painted using a grey Scotch Brite pad, being careful not to dull the polished areas. I do this after the part is masked, just to avoid problems. Finally, shoot on a thin coat of primer followed by three coats of colour. That’s all there is to it.
If you follow these simple tips even old, dented and dull stainless can be made to look as good as when it came from the factory. And when you drive your classic out onto the judging field, your stainless trim will look dazzling.
Most buffers are powerful enough to do serious injury, so be sure to follow these safety tips.
1) Dress properly. Fairly tight-fitting leather gloves (available at welding supply stores) are important to protect your hands and to prevent hot particles from burning your skin.
2) A full face shield and a dust respirator or at least a particle mask are also important to protect your eyes and lungs.
3) Hold the part under the wheel, never on top of it. A 0.4kW motor spinning at 3000rpm can eject an item at very high velocity, and do serious injury if it hits you.
4) Brace long, slim items with wood slats as backing to stiffen them and keep them from slipping out of your hands. Never look away from your work while buffing.
5) Never put your fingers in holes to hold parts. Grinders and buffers have been known to rip items out of your fingers, and many stainless steel and sheet metal parts have sharp edges.
6) Never polish or buff a part with its edge in front of the rotation of the wheel. Turn the part around so the edge follows the direction of the wheel’s rotation. Buffers can grab an item unexpectedly and throw it at great speed.
7) If you have long hair, tie it back or wear a cap. Hair can get twisted around spinning shafts with disastrous results.
8) Press lightly. Let the buffer do the work. If you press too hard you just create more heat, and you run the risk of losing control of the item to be buffed.
Guide to restoring chrome and stainless trim
Words & Photos: Jim Richardson