There are several ways to achieve an eye-popping shine to the metal components of your houseboat. The most expensive is to have a plating company re-work them. The middle-of-the-road approach is working with a skilled craftsman like Bill Norris of Norris Marine and Restoration in Rock Island, Ill., on the Mississippi River. He uses standard shop equipment to polish and buff all the exposed metal to a gleaming finish, including the screw and bolt heads.
Or, you can do it yourself, achieving essentially the same results. It takes some time and effort with tools you probably have and a couple you might not have.
The process is the same for virtually all metals. First you sand the surface to remove deep blemishes and burrs, then continue with finer grits until you polish with a special buffing wheel and compound.
For demonstration purposes, we chose a stainless rub rail with some nicks and scratches, a round piece of stainless, a dull aluminum rod and a piece of badly pitted anodized aluminum.
For many of his projects, Norris bends, welds and fabricates parts from stainless. Once he has that done, he starts the polishing process by using an air-powered DA (dual-action) sander set in the grinder position. Generally he starts with 220 grit paper for the first pass. If that is not coarse enough, he drops down until the blemishes are gone. After the 220, he goes over the piece with 400 grit. Frequently, especially with stainless, that is fine enough to then take them to the buffing wheel. Sometimes he wet sands with 600 and then 1000 grit paper.
He uses a special buffing wheel in a dedicated buffing machine. The wheel is made of a special type of muslin, manufactured by Grobet USA and sold at lapidary shops. The wheel spins onto a special tapered shaft that attaches to whatever you use for a buffer. You need to know which way your buffer shaft rotates because the spindles come in either left or right rotation. The final product you need is a buffing compound called Fabulustre that is made to polish metal.
Norris works the piece against the dressed wheel using plenty of compound until he achieves the high shine he demands. Screw heads are polished by sliding the shaft into a hollow rod to make it easier to hold up to the wheel. A small vice grip can also be used, taking care not to damage the threads.
This same system, using similar but not professional tools can be used by anyone to obtain similar results. It just takes more time to successfully complete each step.
To demonstrate this, Norris finished one end of each sample and we did the other. First, we created a backer pad for hook and loop sandpaper using a kit sold to repair or create these types of pads. We then attached the pad to an old, high speed sander.
On the anodized bar, the pits were so deep we had to go down to a 60 grit flap wheel in an angle grinder, followed by a 120 grit flap wheel. From there it was 220, 400, then wet sanded with 600, 800 and 100 grit before polishing. The aluminum rod and stainless rub rail were sanded with 220, then 400, and just to make sure, wet sanded with the 600 and 1000 paper.
The buffing wheel was attached to a spindle on a 41-year-old Shopsmith, a multi-purpose woodworking tool. That doesn't have the torque of Norris' buffer, but a slow and steady polishing session yielded essentially the same results.
All the metal except stainless steel will start to oxidize and become dull or rust, so the professional fix is to spray them with a clear coat. The D-I-Y approach is to polish them with a protective finish and maintain them with repeated coatings.
Although it is hard to see in the photos, the ends Norris did and the ends we did turned out very similar. The mirror-like finish on the round stainless steel plate does show what can be accomplished.
Norris has used this system to detail engines where every piece of metal including both regular and stainless steel and all the copper and brass fittings end up gleaming.
For a modest amount of money and some time and elbow grease with tools you probably already own, you can refurbish, buff and polish the metal on your boat to a mirror-like finish. And your dock-mates will probably ask where you got the new metal pieces.