Do-It-Yourself Stainless Steel Corvette Trim Restoration

Putting the shine back in your Chevy Corvette's lack luster stainless steel trim

Rich Lagasse Mar 28, 2006 0 Comment(s)

Many Corvette enthusiasts have been faced with the prospect of restoringthe stainless moldings and trim during a restoration. While stainlesssteel trim and moldings are seldom used on modern cars due to the costof materials, manufacture, and labor, they were often used on earlierCorvettes during a period when the underlying philosophy focused onsubtle styling cues and attention to detail.

The intrinsic value of stainless is in its timeless appearance anddurability. Its beauty comes from the way it refracts light and thecontours of the surfaces around it. But, like all metals, stainlesssteel also oxidizes and is subject to marking from wear and tear overthe years. Restored stainless trim is a thing of beauty that can quicklyremind us of the qualities auto manufacturers of yesteryear wanted us toenjoy.

Stainless steel can deteriorate over time (especially on 40-year-oldCorvettes), but the main advantage to this metal is its resistance torusting, staining, pitting, and exposure. The best we can hope for isthat the trim will simply require buffing, but often there arescratches, dents, or damage, especially if someone has removed themoldings incorrectly.

After assessing the condition of each piece, there are three options ifthey're damaged: replace the molding if reproduction parts areavailable, source original pieces and have them restored by a pro, orrestore and refinish the original parts yourself. There are numerousshops that can restore stainless, but if you like to tackle jobs likethis and the part isn't a total disaster, you can do it yourself. Thefollowing is a recap of what has worked for us; it addresses theprocess, setup, tools, and safety aspects.

Getting Set Up

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Basic setup of work area including bench, lighting, and vise.

Several preparation steps will make the job easier, safer, and produce abetter end result. First is setting up a work area. Ask anyone who hasdone polishing work, and they'll tell you it can be an extremely dirtyjob. Try to segregate the work area as much as possible. We set up asmall work area, screened off with plastic curtains, to contain the"fallout" from polishing. Residue from polishing compound and bufferwheels can get into areas you never imagined. Have a sturdy work bench,a vise, and good lighting. A fluorescent light mounted on a moveable armcan position the lighting where you need it.


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A curtain is used to confine the mess from polishing.

With the exception of polishing and buffing, much of this work can bedone by hand, but power tools make it much easier. Basic handtoolsinclude: various-shaped files, an assortment of different-gritsandpaper, a rubber sanding block, and a bench vise with soft jaws.Making a few dent-removal tools from hardwood can be a real help. Formachine tools, in addition to the buffer unit, a belt-sanding tool suchas the Multi-Tool can be helpful. A Dremel tool with an assortment ofsanding and polishing bits can also be useful for small areas.

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Multi-Tool belt sander.

There are a number of alternatives for the buffer unit, ranging fromconverting your bench grinder to a buffer by installing polishing andbuffing wheels, to the purpose-designed units such as those from Baldor.Most companies recommend a unit that will turn 3,600 rpm for stainlesspolishing, but an 1,800-rpm unit should work fine as well. You also haveyour choice of horsepower ratings: 3/4, 1, and 11/2 hp. Thelower-horsepower units should work well for most jobs and areconsiderably less expensive. The larger units have longer spindles andlarger-diameter buffing pads, which can help you get into tight areas.Which one is best for you depends on how much of this work you plan todo and the size of the parts being refinished. Companies such asEastwood offer buffers, buffing wheels, and compounds for this type ofwork.

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Handtools: sanding block, files, assorted sandpaper, and foam-backedsanding pads.

Having a sturdy stand for the unit is also important, as there must beenough space for the piece you're restoring and the unit has to be heldsecurely in place. Most sources recommend bolting it in place, but ifyou can't do that, making a platform to bolt the stand to should workwell. We use a 1/4-inch diamond plate as a mounting base. Bench-mountingcan work for small pieces, but you usually won't have the access youneed for larger parts.

J&L Industrial Supply (www. and Eastwood( are two sources for buffers. The Multi-Toolcan be found at Multi-Tool ( and Van Sant( This tool can be purchased asan add-on to your bench grinder or as a stand-alone unit that includesthe motor.

Safety Equipment

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Safety equipment: face mask, respirator, and gloves.

Metal restoration, particularly the polishing/buffing aspect, requires agreat deal of care for your safety. Eye, hand, and breathing protectionare essential. Use a full-face shield or goggles to protect your eyes.For gloves, we prefer tight-fitting leather ones that provide a goodgrip and help in handling a part, which sometimes becomes hot and oftenhas sharp edges. The respirator should be approved by NIOSH (NationalInstitute for Occupational Safety and Health).

A great deal of concentration is required when using the high-speedbuffer. One slip could injure you or damage the part you're restoring.Always focus on the part and avoid distractions. Companies such asEastwood offer videos, which can be helpful. Also consider wearing oldclothes with long sleeves, or a workshop apron or an old windbreaker, tohelp keep peace in the family. Whatever you wear, make sure nothing isloose, as it could get caught in the buffing wheel.




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