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

0506_01z Chevrolet_Corvette Workshop 1/15

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.

Tools

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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.

0506_03z Chevrolet_Corvette Sander 3/15

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.

0506_04z Chevrolet_Corvette Hand_Tools 4/15

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. jlindustrial.com) and Eastwood(www.eastwoodcompany.com) are two sources for buffers. The Multi-Toolcan be found at Multi-Tool (www.multitool-usa.com) and Van Sant(www.vansantent.com/multitool.htm#belts). 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.

The Process

0506_08z Chevrolet_Corvette Molding 8/15

This is our unrestored stainless molding. You can see the dents andscratches.

The following steps are important for stainless restoration:

1. Clean the parts: Remove all existing sealant, oils, wax, and such.Use a small putty knife, wooden scrapers, and 3M General PurposeAdhesive Cleaner for as the first step. This will give you a clearpicture of what work needs to be done.

2. Evaluate the parts to be restored: If there are no dents orscratches, proceed with the polishing process outlined in steps 5 and 6below. If there are damaged areas, proceed with the third step.

0506_09z Chevrolet_Corvette Cleaning 9/15

Cleaning the part is the first step. Using small wooden scrapers and 3MGeneral Purpose Cleaner will help.

3. Remove dents and scratches: Small dents can be removed by carefullytapping the area from the underside to raise the area even with orslightly above the surrounding area on the surface of the piece. Workfrom the outside of the dent and gradually progress toward the inside toshrink the dent back into shape. A block of oak under the piece workswell, along with an assortment of handmade hardwood tools to work outthe dent. These can be made from dowels of different diameters or smallpieces of hardwood shaped to work the damaged area. Raise the damagedarea level with the top surface or slightly above it, which will then besanded flush. To determine your progress in removing the dent, use ahand-block sander or a fine, flat file over the damaged area. The highspots will appear shinier, and the low spots will be darker. Continueworking the dent until the area appears even in color and feel.

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Here's the part after smoothing and sanding the surface area of the dentprior to buffing.

4. Smooth the surface: The objective is to get the part as smooth aspossible prior to polishing. Remove small scratches and level any dentswith assorted sandpaper grits to smooth the surface in preparation forpolishing. As with any polishing job, try to use the least-abrasivematerials. Fine sandpaper often removes minor scratches. For deeperscratches, you may have to be more aggressive. The Multi-Tool or anexpander wheel with a fine-grit (1,200) 3M Trizact belt can be helpfulfor deeper scratches, but don't remove too much material as it cancreate waves or a depressed area (the material is often thin). Be sureto "feather" the area so the part won't be wavy. This process is similarto repairing a fender where the damaged area is blended with thesurrounding area. After removing the dent, use a hand-block sander toget the surface smooth and even. In some instances, especially forlarger parts, an orbital sander or a Trizact belt helps with initialsmoothing. For work by hand, use finer and finer grits of sandpaper, andfinish with foam-rubber-backed sanding pads until you have removed allbut the minor scratches and achieved a smooth and even surface. We usean assortment of sandpaper grits--220, 320, 400, 600, 1,200, and1,500--depending on the depth of the scratch. The 3M or Ultraflexfoam-rubber-backed sanding pads of assorted grits can help, especiallyfor irregular and curved surfaces. Your goal is to reduce anyimperfections to a finer and finer degree until the polishing step canremove what remains. If you do a good job at this stage, you'll haveless polishing to do.

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Buffing the part. Note the position (see arrow) of the part against thebuffing wheel and the use of safety equipment.

5. Polishing and buffing, general guidelines: Now that the piece is freeof all dents and all but minor scratches, you can begin to prepare forpolishing, which further smoothes the surface in preparation forbuffing. Great care is required to avoid injury to you or damage to thepart being restored. Pay careful attention, have a firm grip on thepart, and hold it against the buffing wheel at the right location andangle. As a general guide, it's best to hold the part toward the frontlower area of the buffing wheel (below the centerline of the wheel).Imagine the buffing pad is a clock face. When viewed from the right sideof the buffing wheel, hold the part at the 8-o'clock position. Be sureto avoid catching an edge and having the piece ripped from your hands,especially with the higher-speed buffers. Holding the part in a verticalposition and moving it in an upward and downward motion is somewhatsafer than going side to side, as there is less chance of catching theupper edge of the part. Start buffing the part at the lower end and workupward until you reach a little over the halfway point. Then turn thepart 180 degrees and work from the bottom up toward the middle of thepart where you left off. With a little experience, you can also go sideto side if you're careful to avoid catching the upper edge. Try topolish the lower half of the part first and turn it around to do theother half. For your safety, it's important to hold the part in theproper location against the wheel and use light-to-moderate pressure.Make sure you have plenty of light, check the piece often to see howwell it's progressing, and pay attention at all times. If you're new topolishing, it's a good idea to practice with an old part.

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The finished part prior to flash-chroming.

6. Polishing/Buffing steps: There are at least two steps to polishingstainless, and some companies suggest three. The polishing step removessome material to eliminate all remaining scratches, while the finalbuffing step provides the finish shine. The three-step polishing processbegins with a sisal buffing wheel using emery compound, moves to aspiral-sewn wheel using red or brown compound (sometimes calledstainless compound), then to a loose-section wheel with white rougecompound. Eastwood sells a kit with these buffing wheels in variousdiameters with the right compounds for stainless. Avoid mixing compoundson the same buffing wheel, as they have different grits. The first stepisn't always required, and the last two should work fine for mostpieces, especially if there are no dents or deep scratches to remove.

After you have the proper safety equipment (respirator, gloves, and eyeshield), adequate lighting, and are wearing tight-fitting clothes, applythe appropriate abrasive/buffing compound to the buffing wheel. Ifyou're following the two-step process, apply the red/brown (stainless)compound to your spiral-sewn wheel. Apply light-to-moderate pressure,and hold the part in your hands firmly and in the right location againstthe buffing wheel. Check your work often and avoid overheating the part,as it could become discolored. Work in smooth movements with evenpressure and avoid catching an edge. Reapply the abrasive compoundperiodically. This step should remove any remaining small scratches.

When you're satisfied with the progress, clean the part with 3M GeneralPurpose Adhesive Cleaner (PN 08984) or a similar product, and proceedwith the final buffing step. Cleaning avoids contaminating the buffingwheel with different compounds. Now you can apply the white rouge to theloose-section buffing wheel and proceed with final buffing. This laststep will bring out the shine in preparation for flash chroming. The topphoto at left shows a part after the polishing step.

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The unrestored molding with dent, scratches, and bends.

The middle photo shows a molding with a major dent, deep scratches, anda bend. Frankly, we weren't sure it could be saved, but there wasnothing to lose in trying. The bottom photo shows the same part afterrestoration. The left side shows the piece after the dent, scratches,and bend were removed and after sanding. The right side of the moldingshows the part after the two steps of polishing and buffing.



0506_15z Chevrolet_Corvette Restored 14/15

The restored molding; the left side is after sanding, and the right sideis after two steps of polishing but prior to flash chroming.

It's important to note that a flash-chrome process was applied tofactory moldings, which gave them a bluish tint and helped retain shine.This process involves applying only the chromium finish layer, not thecopper and nickel layers used in typical chroming. If your parts needonly polishing, you can usually avoid going through this finish. You'llnotice a color difference in the part. If you want to retain theoriginal factory appearance, this service is usually provided by a goodchrome shop.

Final Note

There are probably as many approaches to polishing stainless as thereare methods for getting your paint to shine. With practice andexperience, you'll know what works best for you; these steps and methodshave worked well for us. If you're uncomfortable with any aspect of theprocess, especially if you have a part that can't be replaced or don'tfeel you'll be doing enough of this work to justify the equipment,consider having a professional do the job.

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