The Art of Harley Polishin'

(Works on Other Bikes, too!)

By Dave Murray


There I stood, new bill of sale in hand, staring at my '96 Sporty. She was freakin' beautiful! Well, she was if you stood back about fifteen feet. Her former home had been in a salt-air environment, and she was parked outside. She is the mostly "polished" aluminum model, but now the rocker boxes, engine cases, triple tree, and a set of PM spun-alloy wheels were all gray and salt-pitted. The paint had seen better days, too, but that's another article. Well, Winter was comin' on, and I would have some serious polishin' to do.

Why? Well, if I have to explain, you probably won't understand. It's a Harley thing, although I am sorry to see the Motor Company going to more anodized and flat-black parts. The concept, well developed in the Orient, seems to be that if it looks like Hell when new, nobody will notice when it looks like Hell in a couple of years.

As I write this piece it's the following March, and a couple of days ago I was accused of having had the above parts chromed. Made my day. They ain't chromed, just polished. It didn't take as long as I expected, about 15 hours for the resurrection (one rainy weekend), and maintenance promises to be reasonable. Let me tell you what worked, and how to avoid the pit falls.

Chrome

You don't polish chrome, you clean it. Unlike aluminum and stainless, chrome don't oxidize much, it's pretty inert, very hard, and usually pretty thin. I have tried a bunch of polishes, including the expensive German ones, and have found nothing that will remove scratches from chrome. You live with a scratch in chrome, or replace the part.

If you are real careful not to scratch it, all you have to do is remove the schmutz and the shiny chrome will be (somewhere) underneath. Use soaps and solvents, but keep abrasives far away from chrome. Be very careful to use clean, soft rags, one imbedded metal chip will ruin your day.

Aluminum and stainless

There are hundreds of alloys of both, but all share the fact that they oxidize at the surface. In fact, that oxide layer is what protects the metal from further corrosion. All you have to do is remove the oxide, and get it smooth enough (easier said than done), and it will rival chrome in shine. I actually prefer the softer look of polished aluminum, but I may be conning myself as I can't afford all those chrome parts.

Smoothing

If the part is just oxidized and gray, but smooth, skip on down to "Buffing." But if it is pitted or scratched, it must be smoothed. Ya can't polish pits. Trust me in this.

Wet-sand the part with #600 wet-dry paper using a little liquid dish soap in the water. Sand for a while, then wipe off the dreck, and look closely. If you can still see the pits or scratches through the dark, dull gray, ya ain't done. When you have a uniform, dull gray, you're ready to buff. Don't worry too much about screw recesses and other hard to reach places, they don't show in the finished job if the edges are smooth.

Buffing

The final polish on metal is achieved by buffing it with a rotating wheel which has been loaded with a buffing compound. These compounds are very fine abrasives, usually combined with wax in a bar form. From the coarsest to the finest, they are:

  • Emery (gray) - aggressive, usually used on steel.
  • Tripoli (brown) - usually used on brass.
  • White compound (white) - for fine polishing.
  • Jeweler's Rouge (usually pink) - the finest, for a mirror finish.
  • I usually don't use any except emery and rouge. Emery is good for a first cut on stainless, or on aluminum where I didn't sand enough, followed by rouge. Usually you can go directly from wet sanding to rouge.

    Buffing is a "feel" thing. Keep the wheel moving and you will see when it is polishing effectively. Wipe off the wax schmutz now and then and have a look. Different alloys require different compounds, speeds, and pressure. You can't really hurt anything, so experiment. If you want to get really anal, do a final hand polish (see "Maintenance" below).

    Wheels

    Use only cloth wheels. Sisal is too aggressive, and felt doesn't conform to the odd shapes of cycle parts. Look at the side of a buffing wheel and note the ring(s) of stitching. Fewer rings means softer (for polishing), more rings means harder (for cutting). A 6" wheel can have from one to seven rings. Use a harder buff with emery, a softer buff with rouge. Speed depends on wheel size. For a 6" max. 3500 RPM, 4" about 6000 RPM, 2" about 12000 RPM, and the little sub-1" wheels can be turned up to 15000 RPM. Go by the wheel manufacturer's specifications.

    Wheels come with a bunch of different hole sizes, so get the right mandrel or bushings. An unbalanced wheel at 6000 RPM will get your attention! The mandrel is the Steel shaft which holds the wheel, and is turned by the tool. You can get sets for use in an electric drill at the hardware store, but you need a drill that turns up to about 2000 RPM.

    Start at slower speeds, and work up. You can be too fast as well as too slow.

    Use the buff so that it rotates off the edge of the piece. If it rotates toward the edge, well, let's just say you will learn quickly after it throws a couple of pieces at you.

    Load the wheel by arranging it so the top is turning away from you, then apply the bar of compound for a few seconds. You will see it melt in. After you load a few times, you will see clumps of compound build up in the wheel. Again, have the top of the wheel turning away from you while you"rake" the wheel. They sell wheel rakes, but I just use an old "Sawsall" blade. Rake between different compounds, too, but it's best to have one wheel dedicated to one compound. Mark the wheel with a magic marker. WEAR EYE PROTECTION! Read that last sentence again.

    Tools

    Ah, the Tim Allen moment (argh!). Listed below in order of purchase.

  • Electric drill turning 2" and 4" wheels at about 2000 RPM. I use a Bosch, which was the fastest I could find, and it does a nice job with hardware store wheels. The problem is, those wheels won't fit into all the little spaces. By and large, use the biggest wheel that will fit, as the smaller ones can streak.
  • "Dremel" type tool. I use a $30 Black and Decker (at Home Depot) as I think Dremel is overpriced. It will turn all Dremel bitts and buffs, which you can get in hardware stores. I usually use the low or middle speeds (12000, 24000). The 1" buffs will fit most places, and there are small (3/8) felt bullet shapes which fit into screw recesses.
  • Bench mount grinder with two 1/2" buffs on each shaft, a hard pair for emery, soft for rouge. This is wonderful if you can take the part to the buffer. When I had the rocker boxes and front sprocket cover off to install 20 more cubic inches (argh!, argh!) it did a beautiful job. Limited use though.
  • Sources

    Southwest Metal Finishing Supply Co. (http://www.swmetal.com/)
    Get their L-1000 liquid hand metal polish, more below.

    Quality Buff Co. (http://qualitybuff.com/index.htm)
    See "midget buffs" and "adapters" and "arbors" and "compounds."

    These are sister companies, and they have just about everything for metal polishing. Call and ask for whatever you need at 903-509-4500.

    Maintenance

    As I mentioned above, the oxide protects the metal, so as soon as you are finished polishing, the metal starts to oxidize again. I haven't found anything really good to protect it.

    Waxes tend to "gray" the sheen, and don't last long in any case. "HarleySpray" from the dealer seems to do as well as the wax, and is quick to apply. You can do the whole bike with it once a week.

    About once a month I do the following, which takes about 90 minutes for the entire bike. Use the L-1000 polish you got from Southwest Metal (above). It is liquid rouge. Shake Hell out of the bottle, upside down (careful!), until there is no residue at the bottom. Soak a 6" square piece of clean terry or sweatshirt cloth, then squeeze it as dry as you can. That one rag will do all the aluminum on my whole bike. It turns really black and groty, but it seems to keep polishing.

    Polish by hand, rubbing in a circular pattern as much as possible, until the area turns black. Allow to dry and buff off with another perfectly clean rag. If you drop the rouge rag, throw it away and start another. For me, this works better than "Mothers," and is a Hell of a lot cheaper.

    So far this seems to be all that is required to keep the polish bright, but I expect that I will have to touch-up the aluminum by machine buffing lightly about every six months.

    Miscellaneous

    My windshield (yeah, I'm a wuss) came with brush-finished stainless strapping. It polished to mirror finish using 2" buffs at 24000, starting with emery, then finishing with rouge. Tape the Plexi to protect it, as you will run off the stainless (don't ask).

    Get a bike lift for convenience and comfort. Tie the bike down to it. Get a roll-around seat.

    If it means nothing to you to be sitting by the window in a diner and watching as someone walks slowly around your bike, appreciating every detail, then don't bother with any of the above. If, however, you own a Harley you will probably feel a swell of pride. Remember that Harleys are apt to last longer than we do. We are custodians as much as owners.

    Below is a picture of my Sportster after being polished and repainted. (See my article Harley Paintin' for the Under-funded and Under-skilled for more on the latter).


    Addendum

    In the two years since writing the "Harley Polishin'" article, Sportzilla has kept her shine with what I consider minimal effort, requiring perhaps a rainy day twice a year. I have also discovered a final metal polish which is better by miles than anything I have ever used. It's called, so help me, "Bom's Away" from: http://badtothebom.com/ This stuff has no abrasives, does a lovely job on aluminum, and will even take light blueing off pipes. It contains a wax that doesn't "grey" the aluminum, and the metal comes back to mirror finish just with washing for about 4-6 months. Use two polish rags. Get the worst of the schmutz with the first, then finish with the second. When the second starts getting groty, demote it to #1, and start a new #2.

    Another good source for polishing products is http://eastwood.com/ Their red rouge is great.

    I have also acquired a second bike, a "Royal Enfield." Yup, the bike they forgot to stop making! This is huge fun, and has a polished motor. The alloy they use doesn't respond well to rouge, but polishes beautifully with emery compound. Go figure. It pays to experiment. I have no connection with any of the above companies. Go forth and be joyful!




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