Poor Man’s Chrome

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Chrome is pretty – and pretty expensive. Especially if you’re paying to have stuff plated vs. just buying chrome-plated stuff. Go price what it’ll cost to have a cam cover or fork lowers chromed and you’ll quickly see what I mean. The cost of chrome plating has increased by 50 percent or more since the 1990s – chiefly because of compliance costs that chrome shops have to deal with. Many have shut their doors – and the rest have simply increased their prices.now

Polishing metal – instead of chrome plating it – is more labor intensive. But it’s labor almost anyone can do. So, no need to pay someone else to do it for you. Also, it does not require special facilities or much in the way of special tools.  It’s a cheap – if not altogether easy – way to buff up your bike. I’ll walk you through the process using the fork lowers from my ’76 Kawasaki Kz900 as the guinea pigs.

First, a list of the stuff you”ll need:

* Sandpaper – in grits ranging from 220 to 2000. I like to buy large sheets, which are usually cheaper than the smaller, pre-cut stuff. It’s easy to cut the larger sheets into smaller sections – and you’ll probably have to do this anyhow to get the right size sheet to effectively get at whatever area you’ll be working on.P1040753

* A sink with running water – to wet sand.  Wet sanding is preferable to dry sanding for several reasons, chiefly that your sandpaper will last longer and there will be less mess. Well, sort of. Your wife may not be happy about using the kitchen sink for this sort of thing.

* A buffing wheel – which can be an attachment for a standard household drill or (better) a buffing stand. You can buy one already set up for this, or go “dual purpose,” as I have, by mounting buffing wheels on a bench grinder. If you already have a grinder, this is the least expensive/easiest way to go. All you need to do is buy some buffing wheels that will fit your grinder (replace the grinding wheels with the buffing wheels). Buy  a stick of “cutting” compound while you’re at it. This is a light abrasive you’ll use to do the final machine polishing.P1040763

* Some hand/paste polish – and paste wax. The hand polish you’ll use for the final detail work. The paste wax you’ll use to protect the finished work. The one drawback of polished metal is maintenance. Left exposed, the shine will decline. This is why, back in the day, most bike manufacturers shot a coat of clear paint on bare aluminum parts – like fork lowers and engine cases – to keep them looking nice. Unfortunately, the clear coat always yellowed and cracked after a few years. The only way to fix that is to do what we’re discussing doing now. And the only way to preserve the results is to – initially – wax the polished metal. This won’t render polished parts immune to future aesthetic deterioration – but it will help.  More on this in a minute.P1040770

Now, for the actual work:

* Clean the part thoroughly. Get rid of oil, grease and so on. It’s ok to use Brill-o pads for this. In fact, Brill-o does a pretty good job of removing any vestiges of ancient, yellowed, cracked clear lacquer that was applied to your parts 30 or 40 years ago. Yes, the Brill-o pads will leave scratches. It’s ok – you’re going to sand/polish them out.

Once the part is really clean, examine it closely. Look for deep scratches – and pitting. If you’re lucky, you’ll have neither. But if you do have one or the other, the first thing you’ll need to do is try to sand down the scratches/pits to smooth metal. I use 220 grit for the initial “cutting.” I also like to do the sanding by hand. It’s Zen (for me) and also allows fine control. You can use a Dremel tool or wire wheel on a drill to get at badly pitted areas, but be very careful as it’s easy to leave deep scratches and mess up the part. Sanding by hand takes longer but it’s almost impossible to hurt anything this way. Don’t be in a rush. It took me a week to do each of my Kz900′s forks. I put in 15 minutes of sanding here, another 15 minutes of sanding there.  When my hands got tired – or I got bored – I quit, cleaned up and left everything for manana. Remember Mr. Miyagi? Wax on … wax off. Same principle.sand

Work your way up the grits (no, not Vern, Dale and Jed). After 220 comes 400. Then 600. Then 800. As you sand, occasionally change directions (don’t sand in just one direction). Turn the part around. Go up and down – then from end to end. I also like to sand in a swirling pattern as part of the process. The point of all this is to get rid of small scratches in the material and leave a progressively smoother surface at each state of the process. By the time you get to the final grits – 1000, 1500 and 2000 – the part should look and feel extremely smooth. (See pic above – that part is not polished yet.)

Only very fine swirl marks/light scratches should be visible by the time you get to 2000. If you still see larger scratches and so on, you may have to go back down the grits, sand some more – and work your way up to the 2000. The ready-to-polish part should look like a fresh casting – “raw aluminum.” Shiny – but not yet mirror shiny.

Now, you’re ready for the buffer wheel. I use “black” cutting compound (the stuff comes in color coded sticks) to take off the light scratches that remain. Use less rather than more compound – and don’t apply heavy pressure to the buffing wheel as you work. Easy does it. Let the compound do the work. Work the part until you see no more scratches – and a warm, deep luster.P1040764

For the second-to-last step, I use an orbital polishing ball and Mothers mag-alloy polish. The ball fits onto any standard household drill. It’s made of soft individual flaps that lap (and polish) the metal. Dab a small amount of the polish onto the part and – working carefully-  use the polishing ball to bring the part to the next level of shininess. The last stage is to hand rub with a soft cloth to remove any remaining polishing compound. At this point, the part should glisten.B&A2

But, you’re not quite done. Before re-installing the part, I like to give it a thorough coat of wax. This will help keep maintain the shine you worked so hard to get. Down the road, you will probably have to polish the part again – but if you’re diligent about maintaining the wax coat, you ought to be able to avoid having to sand the part again.

My process is to lightly hand polish (rags and Mothers) the polished parts – on the bike – once a year, with a fresh coating of wax every time the bike is washed/detailed (which means 2-3 times a year). This method works well on a bike that’s kept inside and not ridden in poor weather (rain especially).

For a more permanent, less labor intensive and more durable solution, you could also do what the factory used to do: Clear-coat the freshly polished part. This is probably the way to go if the bike is going to see weather – and if you don’t have the time (or inclination) to be doing the polish/wax drill every so often. Just remember: Eventually, the paint will yellow and crack and look like you-know-what. P1040765

Just like back-in-the-day.

Throw it in the Woods?  

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eric

Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia. 

  13 comments for “Poor Man’s Chrome

  1. John G.
    December 20, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Great patience that you have, Eric. Very nice work!

    • December 20, 2012 at 5:25 pm

      Thanks, John!

      I was talking with Dom the other day about projects… the critical thing is to not be in a hurry. I learned this when I was a teenager. Working Sunday night trying to finish a major engine job in time to drive the car next morning. That is a great way to screw something up.

      Don’t put pressure on yourself. I have the entire front end of the bike in pieces – but the bike is not needed for anything and it’ll keep until I get ‘er done.

      That’s the way to handle these jobs!

  2. Infidel
    December 20, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Another, easier option is Chrome Paint. Less maintenance but subject to chips and scratches.

    • December 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Hi Infidel,

      Chrome paint looks like scheisse!

      No offense meant. It’s just I’ve been there/done that – and it’s not worth doing again!

      • Infidel
        December 21, 2012 at 7:43 pm

        Not the examples I have seen at SEMA. There are also Matt and Polished Aluminum paints.

        • December 21, 2012 at 8:55 pm

          All I can tell you is what I know based on my own experience. Unless some new paint/process has been developed, the end result looks cheesy and nothing like real chrome. Nothing like the cap on the can of spray paint.

          I’ve seen passable nickle/aluminum paint. But it also lacks the depth/glow of actual polished metal.

          • Infidel
            December 22, 2012 at 5:32 am

            Have you investigated alsacorp.com? The chrome paint is a bit more yellow than real chrome but the paint can now be tinted to pretty-much match the blue shade of real chrome. At SEMA, the difference could only be seen if the paint and the real chrome were compared side-by-side.

          • December 22, 2012 at 11:04 am

            No, I haven’t tried this product. If it works as you say it does, I’ll be very impressed!

  3. BrentP
    December 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Eastwood makes a kit for alloy wheels. Pads and dill mounts plus the compounds. I used it on some pretty beat up and weathered wheels I got. (factory original maverick alloys) They shine like chrome now.

  4. Tor Munkov
    December 21, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Looks very nice, Eric. Well done. A blog exceptionally well done also, kudos.

    It would seem the more things you make for yourself, the closer you get to self-sufficiency. Surplus things you make for yourself can be bartered with others for different goods they make for themselves.

    Eventually a metal polisher, knife blade forger, sandpaper maker,
    tool maker, tool-attachment maker, hand/paste polish maker, paste wax maker, rag maker, brill-o-pad maker, trading amongst themselves achieve critical mass and become a well-regulated bourgeois.

    A nation of well-regulated self-sufficient bourgeois is a wealthy nation.

    Many Americans, to be blunt, are straight-up urban refugees. For them being a metal polisher is a trade they could aspire to. Especially mobile ones. They could head to the nearest junkyard or blighted junk-strewn area and polish all the metal they could find there. Learn as they go.

    They’ll need a stuff-provider friend or patsy with electricity and a suitable sink as well. They’ll need a goodwill drill. And drill-attachments mentioned above. Maybe a handy friend to get the drill operational.

    Urban refugees need to get permission or trespass responsibly and stealthily – don’t make messes or destroy – run away fast while not frightening property owners. At all times be max-ethical, leave things the way you find them or even improved. Be personable and content knowing the people you meet are better off in the long run than you found them.

    Some urban refugees can transform into sub-proletarians.

    A sub-proletariat is an under-employed wage slave. He wants or needs more than to pick the cotton to get the check. He must trailblaze a path through any obstacles to rise to the level of the well-regulated bourgeois.

    To thrive, he need to adapt. Cultivate a network of people and places who give you free-shit. Resolve to make it beneficial for them. Property owners are less threatened by sub-proletarians who have no inclination to take. Purge yourself of envy and desire for others’ possessions. Don’t be two-faced, waiting for an owner to turn their backs and then robbing him blind. Learn who and where the free-shit can be found. Be open and notorious about your life of easement to those you can safe do so with.

    Don’t respond immediately to criticism of your facility to take liberty with the domains of others. Consider the objections and attenuate your game strategy at your convenience. Stay in this sub-proletarian state until you acquire the property and skills to move out of this phase. Don’t let others arrest your development or pressure you into the proletariat or the glorious gaggle of decency, chastity, and home depot shoppers.

    Tune out the Daffodils with daffy ideas about having to go through proper channels for everything. Daffodils bloom with pride about all their beautiful virtue. Don’t be one of those fembot flowers. They are slaves and slave-makers. Dime-a-dozen Daffodils dither in flower boxes and boxy gardens, what a bore these bible-basher flag-fluffer bastards are.

    A nation with upwardly moving sub-proletariats subliming right into the well-regulated bourgeois is a healthy nation

    A nation with parts-yards and legacy commercial districts full of gleaming like-new metal is a wealthy nation.

    These are many ways to make a living as cats. Never get skinned though, because that’s gross and absurd. These are only two.

    The well-regulated bourgeois way will make you feel proud like a lion. The upwardly mobile the sub-proletariat way will teach you to be a strutting stray alley cat, who one day wakes up as a well-groomed well-regulated bourgeois lion as well.

    Some media creators are sub-proletarian in regards to their dissemination of their art. They create outside the approved system, because that is where they are able to write the kind of things they want.

    This has become widely accepted on the internet. Not so much in the real world.

    Many are also media traders and collectors. Many find it acceptable that a man acquires media without payment, or with greatly reduced payment.

    Less men will tolerate the men who take nude pictures off Scarlett Johansen’s cell phone. The Clovers in coordination with the Daffodils are working hard behind the scenes to get the internet in line with every place else. Don’t be a part of that narrative. If someone gets your pictures, even those of your daughters, shrug it off just like Atlas does. Don’t be a dumb Daffodil and take the Clover bait.

    Know the difference classes and personality types. Defend your practices, and modify them when you feel its appropriate. Don’t live to please or antagonize others. Don’t feed the trolls. Trolls will muckrake because they are unfree.

    Pity them if you wish but be resolute. Avoid and boycott organized groups or establishments of trolls, Clovers, and Daffodils. They prove difficult to overcome, the greater their numbers. Stick to paths less travelled by and your own phyle. The phyles of your friends and fellow freemen.

    DIY Home Chrome plating kit (Part 1 of 3)
    http://www.youtu.be/D63yOLJdcN8

    How to Make Your Own Sandpaper
    http://www.diynetwork.com/videos/norton-abrasives/22457.html

    In posting here, I have come to envision soon visiting a new land: Peckerwood Switzerland.

    Its the 8 million people of Virginia transformed to the 8 million people of a new American well-regulated import/export dynamo like European Switzerland. Yet better, because it has American Indepence Philosophers.

    A Switzerland with dozens of Cantons. Each Canton – a different philosophy of libertarianism – yet all Cantons in harmony and common cause. A Switzerland both rural and urban. Not some idiot Woebegon where everyone is of above average morals and discipline.

    A real, buildable Switzerland built with the scheisse morals and discipline of real Americans, including nearly everyone of you Posers that visit this blog. The meat I buy from my butcher is delicious and well priced. I care not a whit what kind of race, creed, gender, or morality he practices, save for how it affects my sirloin.

    Once this goes in motion, it may well be that men of superior ability and intelligence migrate to this new realm. I really believe the more you are a producer of goods, the more you yourself become good.

    We know Cloverism is a failure. I assert that Daffodilism is a non-starter as well. It’s great to be liked and hold your head high wherever you go. But in the current environment, that is of much less importance.

    The main criteria for self-sufficiency is to have a lot of neighbors and contacts who produce goods, and who own capital-producing equipment. The purpose of business to make things and become richer as a whole. Don’t get stuck in the muck of the Daffodils, those dastardly devils and their superfluous details.

  5. December 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Looks very nice. Actually, the slightly matte finish looks even better than chrome to my eyes.

    But I do have one question.

    “Mother’s Mag and Aluminum Polish?”

    Whose mother polishes mag and aluminum?

    • December 21, 2012 at 1:05 pm

      Ha!

      It’s a brand name – a line of products, all of them excellent in my experience.

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