Aluminum Polishing 101! By Scott Winger (Car Care Section)

Yeah, Yeah, I know it’s been a while since I promised this Tech article.  But I had to wait till winter to pull the parts off the car.  Then I had to polish them.  Then I had to get the film developed On-line.  Then I had to write the article.  Anyway, I hope you get something out of it.

The purpose of this article is to do 2 things.  First, to give some instructions on how to change a “Dull” looking aluminum part in your engine bay into a shiny beautiful addition.  For this example I have used a MAF.  The second part is how to “Bring back the shine” on your POLISHED rims.  If some day you decide to buy new rims and you are deciding between chrome and polish, I think the second part of this article will convince you which way to go.

The first thing to remember is that Aluminum is a very soft metal.  Being a soft metal, it’s almost as easy to manipulate it as hardwood.  You can file it and sand it just like a chunk of Maple, with similar results.

I wanted to write this article with a certain type of person in mind.  Someone who does not have $3000.00 worth of fancy tools and machinery.  No side arm sanders needed – no tabletop grinders needed either.  For the MAF, the only power tool I used was a Dremel, and that is NOT required.  It was only used in the final polishing to speed up the job.  Just as good a job would have been done by hand but would have taken a bit longer.

OK – so first lets see a picture of a “Stock” MAF

Wonderful.  Now that we all know what a Stock Maf looks like, lets make it look pretty.  First of all as you see, this Maf does not have a sensor on it.  That’s because it’s attached to my other Maf.  The Maf above use to belong to Spence.  He sent this extra one up to me when my sensor went bad (we all love you Spence).  You really should NOT remove the sensor to polish the unit.  Leave it in place but be careful working around it!

OK …. Let’s get a list of the materials needed to polish this up.

1).  Sand paper – 4 different grades.  I used 220/330/400/600  ….. you can even use finer paper if you can find it.

2).  Aluminum polish.  I use 3 different types – Mothers/Flitz/ and Autosol.  You only need one kind, along with a basic rag.

That’s it.  If you DO have a Dremel, then I would highly suggest calling “The Eastwood Company” and order their “Felt Bob Kit”.  It is absolutely incredible for fine polishing.  The small buffs that come from Dremel are VERY small (too small).  The ones from Eastwood fit a Dremel and you get 5 in a kit (cassette box) ranging from 3/8” long with a 3/16” diameter up to 1 inch long with a ½” diameter (nice and big).  They come with their own “Shanks” which NEVER slip.

Here is a picture of what I used.

And here is a close up of that Felt Bob Kit from Eastwood.

All right – lets get started.

Cut a piece of the most course sandpaper approximately 2 inches by 2 inches and start sanding the Maf in one direction.  Do the entire Maf cutting new paper as needed.  Then do it again in the other direction.    Keep in mind if you are lazy, that only one side of the Maf is visible from above (hint, hint) – hehe.  The corners are tricky to get into but you will manage.  Then once most of the dull silver is gone and you just have lots of sandpaper scratches, move up to the 330 paper and repeat.  Do this for the 400 paper and then finally the Finest paper (for me it was 600).  You definitely want to go as fine as 600 or else fine scratches will remain and the polishing step will be tough – finer is better.  When you are up to the 2 finest steps you will have to replace the paper often as it will “Wear” out fast.  Spend lots of time on the final phase, as this is to remove ALL scratches left by the previous papers.  You should NOT be able to see any scratches at this point.  If you see scratches then go over it again with the fine paper.

SIDE NOTE:  You will notice above that the sandpaper with the 600 on it also has a “W”.  This is “Wet Sandpaper” and can be used for “wet sanding”!  Watch for my “Wet Sanding 101” article coming SOON!

Once you are satisfied with the smoothness, it is time for polishing.  “Mothers” for this procedure I have found to be the best.  Make sure it is the “Mag & Aluminum Polish”.  Just smear some on with your finger and “rub like the dickens”.  Elbow grease will help so don’t be afraid to push down.  A Dremel with a felt bob will make this step a little easier but don’t go out and buy one just for this step.

This next picture shows the stock Maf and the polished one after the sanding step.  Not the best shot in the world but you get the idea.

And here is the Maf after the polishing step.  You should be able to use the Maf as a mirror now.

The total process with a Maf will take maybe one-two hours.  The more time you spend sanding the final step the better it will look when finished.  There are lots of other parts under the hood of every Mustang that can be done.  The Throttle body – Idle air Bypass and EGR are 3 of them.

The BIG stuff under my hood I had done professionally.  Although it can be done using these steps – it would take many hours without machinery to assist you.

Polished or Chromed Rims????  That is the question.

OK….. Let’s move on.

I want to talk about rims.  Specifically, choice of rims when shopping for new aftermarket ones.  I see threads on message boards all the time that say “Chrome or Polished Cobra R’s ….. which should I get?”

Here is the “answer”.  Chrome rims are generally shinier, and they are easier on a daily basis to keep looking shiny.  Plus, they are more readily available for purchase.  You usually have to have polished rims sent out to be done.  Polished rims look (in my opinion) a little more genuine, but are harder to keep perfect on a daily basis.  NOW HERE IS THE BIG POINT>>>>>> Polished rims can be fixed if you hit a curb, (DOH), or get stone chips/scratches – with VERY LITTLE EFFORT!!!!

You do not believe me?????????

OK … I have Cobra R rims that are polished.  For this article I have taken one of my front rims, Scraped it up using a BRICK to simulate a curb, and totally fixed it (yes, sometimes I’m a bit eccentric to prove a point).  Then I used a drill with special buffs to go over all the rims to bring their shine back up to “perfection”.  I do this step once a year (in the winter).

Let me make the point right now that this can NOT be done with chrome rims.  Chrome rims are ruined and will need to be sent out for re-chroming.

Time and time again I see people post “How do I fix my Curb Scraped Chrome rims” …… and I just put my head down.

Picture time again.  Here is the picture of my Cobra R after I took a brick to it (prayers are accepted at this time).

Here is a “Close-up” of that rim ……

If you are wondering how good of a job I did scraping it up ……  I did a GREAT job although the pictures don’t do it justice – it is VERY noticeable.   I cover a distance approximately from 12 o’clock to 3 O’clock.  Yes folks I am a Crazy Whacko Canadian who needs his head examined.

OK…. So how do we fix it???? 

The exact same way we polished the MAF.  Step by step.  It took me approximately 5 minutes to fix this rim.  I am NOT kidding.

Start with the course sandpaper and go over the entire area that has been scraped.  Work your way up to the “Fine” paper extending the area past the damaged spot so it blends in a bit!  You will be taking the rim “down” in substance so try and blend it in as good as you can.  Just like if it was a piece of wood.

If you are considering doing a “Stock” Cobra R rim this way from scratch, forget that idea.  It would take over 20 hours by hand I would guess to polish it.  Send it out to a professional and pay him around $100-125/rim.  He will need the rims for approximately 1 week (it will take HIM about 8 hours per rim.

Here is a picture of the finished rim ….. good as new.

Well….. Wasn’t that easy??????

I must admit though – chrome rims DO look pretty!

If you decided to have your stock aluminum rims polished, or if they are already, let me tell you how to keep them looking shiny all year round.

First and foremost, for a Daily Driver …. Try not to let the rims go too long between hand polishing.  Aluminum rims ARE more susceptible to the wet weather and will lose their shine faster.  Always dry your rims entirely, immediately after washing your car.  Use Mothers “Mag and Aluminum” polish to polish them.

I also wax my rims with a wax that does NOT contain cleaners.  Good O’l Turtle Wax is one of my favorites.  It’s cheap, green and goes on and comes off with ease.  This will make the rims super slippery and prevent dust build-up and repel water too.

Once a year (in winter) I pull the rims off the car and bring them inside to give them the once over with a drill and buffer.  Everyone owns an electric drill, so just buy some buffs and again you are all set and ready to polish.

These buffs I purchased locally.  I’m sure Eastwood would sell these too.  These are 8” in diameter and NON STITCHED.  Non stitched are more forgiving than stitched.  They come with a shank that will fit a drill so you are all set.

Here is a picture of the buffs.

Just use your finger a smear some “Mothers” on an area (I do one spoke area at a time), and hit it with the drill.  The buff will almost immediately turn black, and you can use it for months like that!  You will need to go over it afterwards with a rag to remove the “Black” buildup left behind.

Again, you could do this by “hand”, but a lot of elbow grease and time would be required.  Always use safety glasses when using a drill or a Dremel.

You can go over the rim as many times as you want.  As you are progressing spoke by spoke, it’s hard to tell which ones you have done – you will wonder to yourself “is this really working”?  But, when you finish an entire rim, place it next to an un-polished rim, and you will be amazed how much better it looks.

Using the drill and polish for other applications can also be done.  For example, here is a picture of my 8 nuts that hold down the spark plug covers on my Cobra.

4 of them are polished and 4  are un-polished – can you tell the difference????

This was done by using a clamp to hold the nut at the base.  I applied a tiny amount of “Mothers”  and hit it for 10 seconds with the drill.  Pretty simple but effective!


Well, that’s all folks.  I hope you enjoy polishing up parts under your hood.  Sometimes it’s hard to find the time, but in the end it’s well worth it.

Take care,

Scott Winger
§cott 96Çobra

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