Polishing Stainless Steel TrimMake your stainless steel trim look factory-fresh in your own garage
If you are restoring a vehicle built in the '40s-'60s, chances are that it has a few pieces of stainless steel trim attached to the body. The good news is that most stainless steel will not rust or pit from corrosion. However, over a period of years, stainless steel trim can be dulled by thousands of fine scratches and the once chrome-like sheen will take on a dull matte-silver appearance. Stainless steel trim was often used to accent bodylines and to protect the paint from door dings or stone chips. Consequently, your stainless trim may have small dents and dings that should be removed. Those repairs can also be done at home with a few special hand tools (but we'll save that procedure for a future resto story). In this article, we will deal with restoring the factory luster to your stainless steel trim while it's still on the vehicle.
Our restoration subject is a late-'60s GM intermediate musclecar, a '69 Buick GS convertible. It's adorned with lots of stainless steel trim including the windshield posts, windshield surround trim, outside window/door trim, door handles and the convertible top surround molding. The secret to successfully polishing stainless steel is to assess how bad its condition is then decide on the correct course of action. If your vehicle has dull stainless trim without any deep scratches, you may be able to bring it back to life with triple-X steel wool and some paste-type metal polish found at your local auto parts store. The best technique is to start out with the triple-X steel wool and the coarsest polish you can find. Then use finer four-X steel wool and a finer grade of polish. Afterward, finish with the fine polish and a soft cloth. The results can be dramatic.
For industrial-grade scratches like those found on our Buick, a more aggressive approach is required. We went to an industrial supply house and purchased a stick of stainless steel polishing compound and a corresponding buffing pad and arbor that fits our 3/8-inch electric drill motor. We also purchased a finish-buffing pad that would be used with finer compound for the finishing steps. Before we started, we taped off the surrounding areas to be buffed with a couple of layers of masking tape and newspaper. This accomplished two things-it protected the paint and window glass in case the buffer jumped off the stainless trim, and it also protected the surrounding areas (such as the white convertible top) from the black polishing residue. Then we began the process of polishing the stainless with the coarse polish and the drill motor. It is important not to exceed approximately 3,000 rpm of drill speed or overheat the part being polished. If the trim piece gets too hot to touch, you need to move to another area and let that one cool.
After the stainless has been polished as much as possible with the coarse compound, the new buffing wheel was installed and we switched to a finer polishing paste like that sold for chrome and aluminum finishes in auto parts stores. After several applications, the factory luster was restored with a final hand-polish with fine compound and a soft cotton cloth. The molding that surrounded the convertible top was too small for our 3/8-inch drill motor and too far gone to hand polish, so we used a Dremel-type die grinder with some very small buffs. Working on this narrow piece required more patience but the results were just as good. After polishing, a final coat of wax was added to increase the brilliance. Going over your stainless with metal polish and a soft rag every six months will keep it looking good for a long time to come.
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