Garage Life / Tech

Tech: Down & Dirty Metal Polishing Tips

Polishing metal is a challenging and rewarding job. How much of challenge depends on your starting point… but bringing a weary and neglected part back to life also reaps the biggest rewards. I recently ran through the metal polishing minefield and have some tips and tricks that may help you produce great results, save time by reducing trial and error, and have more fun in your garage.

Our victim is the valve cover off the Toyota 20R four-cylinder that powers my $600 1980 Celica Sunchaser. The cover has been long neglected and the fact the car had been off the road for two years did not help its cause. The cover was removed and wiped down with some engine cleaner so it could be transferred to the workbench.

Once in the friendly confines of the garage, an additional cleaning was made with Citrus Multi-Surface Cleaner and a Long-Reach Wheel Scrubber Brush. The cleaner is surprisingly effective on oil and grease and any wheel brush or stiff bristle nylon brush will work. It’s also wise to give steel wool a try as it can remove some of the tough stuff too.

With the above-surface crud off, I thought I was ready to break out the polish and make a mad dash to glory. Not so fast. Metal polish isn’t magical… it optimizes the surface you have, it doesn’t transform it. There were decades of oxidation stains and corrosion to deal with… some etched into the metal… and these maladies require extra effort.

Enter Griot’s Garage BOSS™ Finishing Papers. Sandpaper is the next step up in abrasiveness. I started with the coarsest paper, 800, and used some random 600-grit hardware store sandpaper on the more severe spots. Once in proper nick, 1,200-grit Finishing Papers were used to remove any lingering sanding scratches.

With the surface up to spec from an oxidation standpoint, it was time to hit the polish. I used Heavy-Duty Metal Polish applied with a Foam Metal Polishing Cone, Felt Polishing Cones (which we no longer sell), and by hand with Detailing Swabs for the ‘Toyota’ script. A Microfiber Edgeless Towel was used for wipe ups. It was an ‘all hands on deck,’ ‘use whatever works’ situation.

The success of this project comes down to how much time you wish to invest and the look you’re going for. I wasn’t after a mirror-like reflection… and there was some deep etching and gouging that made such a result impossible… a vast improvement would be enough.

The rugged look of the valve cover appeals to me. I like the casting imperfections like where the metal puddled during casting, creating a lava-flow effect. The valve cover could never be perfect but it has exactly the look I was after.

The big lesson for me was realizing that you can’t jump from basic cleaning to polishing… polishes don’t remove very much, if any, oxidation or blemishes. Treat the valve cover like you’re painting it… with the prep stage being the sanding. Also script and ‘styling cues’ on valve covers suck… they’re hard to reach and make it difficult to get a uniform look. Lastly, ‘a quick polish job’ may not exist. The plan now is to keep the shine alive with some Foaming Metal Detailer and touch-up polishing sessions when needed.



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