It’s one of the most abundant minerals on the planet and it shows up just about everywhere in our daily lives. Aluminum’s light weight and structural strength make it the ideal construction material and it’s no slouch in the decorative department either! But like every metal, sooner or later, oxygen begins to take its toll, oxidizes once pristine aluminum finishes. So how do you clean, polish and protect aluminum? Buckle up, it’s easier than you think.
First: A Little Detective Work
Before you can start to clean and polish aluminum, it necessary to get to the bottom of things. That is, to make sure that you’re actually working on the actual metal and not something that’s been added as a protective coating. Some coatings are obvious, some are not.
The Clear Coats Are Coming!
A lot decorative aluminum, like alloy wheels, auto and boat trim and the like, leave the factory with a layer of clear coat to keep things looking shinier longer. No polish in the world is going to work on an aluminum item that’s been clear coated. So, if oxygen has gotten underneath that clear coat and the aluminum has begun to dull, you’ll have to remove that clear coat first. For the most part, as trip to your local hardware store will put you in front of a number of chemical strippers that will do the job. As with all chemical strippers, gloves, a respirator and a well-ventilated area are all a good idea. Once the clear coat has been removed, you can get to polishing and we’ll walk through that in a bit.
Anodized Aluminum – Just Say No
The anodizing process makes aluminum stronger and more resistant to the effects of weathering. It’s not a good candidate for polishing to a mirror finish. In fact, the only reason to try and remove anodizing is if you want to really change the look of what you’re working on, otherwise you should just leave it alone and clean it the best you can.
Removing regular anodizing requires the use of dangerous caustic chemicals, while removing “hard anodizing” actually requires sanding off the coating to get down to the bare metal. Again, in most cases, it really isn’t worth it.
As for cleaning anodized aluminum, our Flitz Metal Pre-Clean will remove gunk and buildup but it will not clean down to the bare metal. It’ll be clean, but it probably won’t be shiny.
Aluminum Polishing with a Purpose
Assuming you’re now down to the bare metal, depending on what kind of aluminum piece you’re working on, the first thing to do is to decide how far down the polishing rabbit hole you want or need to go. The truth is, just about any piece of aluminum can be polished to a mirror finish. So, do you need the final result to be a mirror finish or will a soft satin finish be enough? The difference between the two is largely a function of time and friction.
Whether you’re working on an aluminum door threshold that’s seen better days, diamond plate the needs a facelift, or a set of aluminum wheel that have been through a magnesium chloride winter north of the Mason-Dixon line, the process is pretty much the same: Clean, Polish, Protect.
Flitz Metal Pre-Clean
Our Metal Pre-Clean is an acid-free formula that uses organic salts to remove crud right down to the bare metal. A simple rinse with water to neutralize the organic salts stops the cleaning and leaves your aluminum ready for polish. Stubborn crud can be agitated with a stiff nylon brush or #0000 steel wool. It’s a tremendous time-saver and highly recommended if you’re dealing with heavily weather aluminum.
The Polishing Principle
All polishes are definitely not alike, but the underlying process is basically the same; a combination of solvents and micro-abrasives remove the oxidation layer from the metal while the friction burnishes the metal to a high shine. That means you’ll need polish, something to apply it, something to burnish it and buff it.
We are admittedly a little biased, but you can’t go wrong with Flitz Paste or Liquid Polish. The paste polish is a little more aggressive, but they’re both technically non-abrasive and will deliver the finish you’re looking for. The icing on the cake is they’re non-toxic and eco-friendly. Always read the labels and warnings of any polish you’re considering. You’d be surprised just how dangerous and, in some cases, flammable some products are.
Your best friend is a good a buffer and our patented Flitz Buff Balls are washable, re-usable and won’t self-destruct like cheap foam buffers. Better still, they’re self-cooling and will work with any standard 3/8” drill. If you’re looking for a mirror finish, your arms will thank you for getting those buff balls!
No Hocus Pocus
With the right tools and the right polish there really is no magic to the process. Apply a thin layer of polish, rub it in and buff it out. Depending on how weathered your aluminum is, be prepared to have a LOT of black oxidation come off the metal. The more that comes of the better. The more you buff the closer you get to a mirror finish. It really is that simple. It’ll take some time and you may have to repeat a step to get to where you want to be, but as long as you work a small, manageable area at a time, you’ll be just fine. Once you get where you want to be, a final hand buff with a clean microfiber is the finishing touch.
Keeping It Shiny
Flitz Polish leaves behind a thin film of wax to protect the metal from direct contact with moisture and the elements. In most cases, that protection is good for about three months. If your conditions warrant tougher protection, you’ll want to take a look at our Ceramic Sealant for protection that lasts for up to a full year.
And that’s really all there is to it. With the right gear the job is straightforward, but it does require time and some considerable effort depending on the look you’re going for. Always check labels and warnings and do your best to always find solutions that take good care of the only planet we’ve got.
Also remember that we’re always here to help. If you’ve got questions, drop a note to email@example.com and we’ll be happy to assist!