A Complete Guide on How to Polish Aluminum


Aluminum is a metal that is produced in many different finishes. Products made of aluminum are attractive when they’re brand new, but over time, they can start to look dull and tarnished. Did you know that you can polish aluminum to bring it back to a like-new condition? There are a lot of different aluminum products out there, from car and truck wheels to appliances. If your aluminum is starting to look old and dingy, you can restore it to its former beauty with a deep polishing. The methods vary for different objects, but we’ve included the most common categories in our complete guide on how to polish aluminum.

Know your aluminum

Before we get started, it’s wise to know what you’re dealing with. Aluminum is a lovely metal that tends to fade and discolor over time. The metal is prone to corrosion which creates a dulling effect on the finish. It’s best to take steps to prevent this from happening through regular maintenance and cleaning, but if you’ve gone past that stage, it’s still not too late. Here we cover all the proven methods for reconditioning dingy or discolored aluminum on wheels, appliances, cookware, trim, and more.

Assess the size of the job

The first step is to assess the piece made of aluminum to determine how much work it’s going to require. Some aluminum objects may need more work than others. Think about what the piece looks like now, and what you want it to look like when you’re finished. For example, aluminum that is just dirty and in need of a good scrubbing may polish quickly with little effort after it’s cleaned. Some of the more challenging jobs might include objects that are severely discolored or scratched. You may need to do some prep work before you move on to the polishing stage. If the item once had a mirrored finish, think about if this is your goal from polishing. Some brushed surfaces have a matte finish that is slightly dull, yet attractive. Consider what you want your final result to be, along with the size of the item, its intricacies, and what needs to be done first. This gives you a heads up on the steps you will need to take.

Gather the necessary supplies

When you know what needs to be done, start gathering the supplies you’ll need. We put safety first, so plan on using gloves to protect your hands, and eye goggles for your eyes. Sanding aluminum can cause tiny fragments to embed in your eyes and can cause a nasty eye infection. Slivers of aluminum can also embed in the skin of your hands and cause infection. It’s not worth taking the risk to go bare-handed. Safety gear is also recommended when working with various polishes that have chemical compounds in them. Some chemicals can irritate the eyes and skin. It’s best to protect your hands and eyes from all threats to their safety. Here is a list of items you will need for most aluminum polishing jobs both big and small. The list will vary, depending on the size of the job, the type of prep needed, and your preference in cleaning and polishing products, so amend the list as needed for your situation.

  • Protective eyewear
  • Gloves
  • Mild detergent
  • Commercial Aluminum cleaner or
  • Homemade Aluminum cleaner
  • Stiff wire brush or ultra-fine steel wool
  • Sandpaper in varying grits
  • Aluminum polishing compound
  • Soft clean rags and/ or paper towels
  • Tub of clean warm water

Step 1: Clean the object

The first step in the polishing process is to clean the item that you plan to polish. All the dirt, grime, and debris must be removed first. You can do this in a variety of ways. Flitz recommends using a mild detergent for a simple job. Wash the surface of the object to remove as much debris as possible, then rinse, and wipe it dry with a paper towel or a clean, soft cloth. Inspect the item after you have cleaned it. If it looks good, you’re ready to move on to the polishing phase. If not, get ready to do the needed prep work.

How to clean greasy aluminum

Some objects may have a thick covering of grease. It’s seen most in aluminum wheels or cookware. Items left to set without being cleaned. Grease buildups can thicken over time and be difficult to remove. Empire Abrasives suggests that grease buildups may be easier to remove with detergents that contain a degreasing agent such as Dawn dish soap, or a commercial degreasing agent for automobile wheels with grease deposits.

Step 2: Prep the object

Remaining signs of corrosion or other buildups that remain after a simple cleaning means you will need a different product to remove them from the surface of the aluminum. Several kinds of aluminum pre-cleaning products are available commercially. They help to remove buildups from corrosion. Fitz recommends products made of organic salts to help protect the environment from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Allow the treatment to sit on the metal for a few moments to loosen the buildup. Rinse it off. If there is still buildup remaining, repeat the process, but agitate the area with ultra-fine steel wool or a stiff brush to help remove the debris. Repeat as needed, then rinse the object off with warm water and dry.

Step 3: Assess for further preparation

Some objects may need further prep work beyond degreasing and cleaning. Severe discolorations, scratches, or pits in the material may flaw the surface beyond what polish can remedy. Not all objects will require sanding before polishing. Some will. It is a judgment call that you will need to make. If the surface is smooth, sanding may not be necessary, but if it is rough or uneven or has surface scratches, sanding may be an option for returning the look you want as a result.

Sanding aluminum

Once you start sanding an aluminum item, you’ve committed and will need to see it through to ensure the entire surface is the same. It’s best to start with low grit sandpaper. Use about 150 to 250 to go over the object the first time. This coarseness will give you more sanding power to work out any deep stains or scratches. Complete the aluminum sanding with fine-grit to get the best finish. Use sandpaper with a grit of 1000 to 1500. Sanding is one of the most vital steps for a damaged surface. It can help you achieve any finish. That includes a brushed or mirror shine quality. The finish you get depends on the coarseness of the grit you use to finish the job. You may choose to hand sand the object, use an orbital sander, or a combination of the two. Make sure that the surface is even with no pits or dips when you’re finished. Keep the sanding job as even across the surface as you can. Flatten any irregularities in the aluminum that you see. It’s best to sand the entire object, layer by layer. Take your time and keep working slowly. Keep going until you get the desired smoothness and appearance.

Polishing the aluminum

The final step in the process is one that you’ve been working for. For this step, you will need aluminum polish and a few clean cloths, depending on the size of the object you’re polishing. You have a choice of commercial polishing products to choose from, or you can make your own from ingredients that are easy to find. It’s essential to avoid using commercial aluminum polish for cookware or anything you might use to prepare food. Chemicals used in commercial polishes are toxic. We’ve included instructions for polishing food-grade aluminum items and non-food grades.

What kind of polish should I use?

There are hundreds of brands and types of metal polish. Some are better than others. We recommend avoiding any aluminum polish that contains toxic chemicals, especially if you are polishing items that come into contact with food. If you use commercial polishes, read the label and choose a product that is not harmful to humans or the environment. Some polish solutions contain harsh abrasives. It’s best to avoid these because they could damage the surface of a delicate aluminum object.

Aluminum polish for pots, pans, and other kitchen items

Hunker provides a recipe for a simple aluminum polish that you can make at home with vinegar and water. Combine equal parts of white vinegar and water in a clean spray bottle. Mix the ingredients well. Spray the solution onto the prepped aluminum surfaces. Wipe the surface clean with a soft cloth. You may also use a fine grain buffing pad of steel wool to increase the shine.

Alternate Homemade aluminum polish

An alternate recipe for homemade aluminum polish is to create a paste using equal amounts of cream of tartar and water. Apply the polish to the surface of the aluminum object. Make small circular motions, with the solution on a clean cloth. Do not allow the polish to dry completely. Go over the entire surface of the polish-covered object with a clean cloth, making the same circular motions to remove the polish and all its residue. Go over it a second time for a brilliant shine.

Polishing non-food grade aluminum items

You can use vinegar and water polish for any item made of aluminum, or you can purchase a commercial polish. You will need aluminum polish and clean clothes. Apply the polish in small amounts to the aluminum. Apply it to the surface using a clean cloth, making small circular motions until the entire surface of the aluminum is covered. Do not allow the polish to dry. You should follow the directions on the package. For smaller projects, you should be able to wipe the polish off of the surface of the object with a clean soft cloth. Make small circular motions to remove all of the residues from the polish. After you’ve finished, go over the surface again, using another clean dry cloth. Buff the entire area of the surface making circular motions. If you notice a black residue coming off the aluminum it is no cause for concern. This is the polish removing oxidation from the surface and it will result in a brighter shine.

Polishing large aluminum projects

If you’re working on a large object or a large area of aluminum, you may want to change your strategy. It’s faster to use an orbital buffer to do the job faster. Don’t be afraid to use power buffers to make the job go faster. It will reduce the amount of rubbing and buffing that you will need to do. If you’re not pleased with the luster after the first polishing, do it again until you get the results you want. It is possible to sand, polish and buff an aluminum surface into a mirror shine if you’re persistent.

Final thoughts

Old aluminum items can start to look hopeless. In most cases, all they need is a little TLC. Aluminum is a beautiful metal that can hold up for years if taken care of. If you own aluminum items that are starting to look old and run-down, it’s time to take action to revitalize them to their original beauty. It’s not difficult to clean, sand and prep them, but it can be time-consuming to do the job right. We recommend taking your time and doing the job right. You can even make your aluminum polish from simple ingredients found in the home cabinets. It’s nice to have items that look new around the house, and sometimes all it takes is a little polish and preventive maintenance. We hope that you’ve found our complete guide on how to polish aluminum helpful.

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