Steve Summers is a metal polisher who treats everything from fuel tanks to iron skillets.
One of his specialties is polishing and buffing car and truck wheels.
We explore how he gives the filthiest wheels a mirror-like finish.
Steve Summers: Hi, my name’s Steve Summers, and I’m the owner of SummerShine Metal Polishing here in east central Illinois. When a dirty wheel comes into the shop, the first thing we need to do is assess how bad it is and how deep we need to sand it, and then move on to the polishing and then the buffing process from there. So, on a wheel that has a lot of caked-on debris or dirt, break dust, something like that, sandpaper takes too long, and it’s not really efficient to use sandpaper sheets. So for that scenario, we’ll use a fiber disk, where it’ll go through, and the fiber disk itself will strip off all that dirt and debris ahead of time and get us down to a clean aluminum finish.
In the sanding process, we use a rotary and then also a random orbit sanding styles. The rotary just moves in a circular clockwise motion, whereas a random orbit moves in various directions as it’s sanding. Using a random orbit sander instead of using the rotary sander is because the rotary sander takes off so much material so fast that you can leave actual waves or ripples in the material. When you come back with a random orbit sander, it allows you to smooth that back out and get a smooth finish across the top of the metal so there’s no waves in it.
The sanding grits that we use start as low as a 120 grit and go up to a 600 grit. Now, the difference between those is how coarse they are. The 120 grit is very coarse, like you would find on the coarse side of a nail file, whereas the 600 grit is much more smooth, like you would also see on the smoother side of a nail file, something that would be very smooth and almost to a polish. The reason that sanding is such an important step is because you have to get a metal to a surface that is ready to be polished. So the sanding step is actually more important than the actual polishing step. It’s your prep side. You have to make sure that the surface is smooth and ready to be polished, otherwise what’ll happen is the metal will start to gall and start to move around, and you won’t get the clarity that you’re looking for.
So, polishing, buffing is kind of a synonymous term when it comes to the industry that I’m in, but the polishing process uses a much heavier grit that still leaves some haze, some fine scratches behind, whereas when you move into the buffing process, it uses a softer pad and a less gritty compound to go with it. It’s a lot softer compound that will leave a much higher finish, higher shine on it.
Some of the worst wheels that we get in are wheels that are coated with either paint or powder coat, and the reason for that is that paint and powder coat is hard to sand it. Sometimes we’ll more smear rather than sand, and then when you go to something like a media-blasted wheel that comes in, it’s very difficult because the media blasting cuts down so deep into the aluminum that you have to sand an extreme amount to get to the bottom of those media-blasting pores.
On a wheel that has intricate spokes and details within the wheel, we have to use smaller bits. We’ll use a rotary tool much like a Dremel and things like that that are very small, eighth-inch and quarter-inch die grinder bits. The eighth-inch and quarter-inch bits sometimes have a felt point or a cotton tip on them, and what that allows you to do is it allows you to get down inside those fine details and polish them out to that mirror finish that we’re looking for.
A situation where I’d have to work it by hand would be where the wheel that I’m trying to do, whatever finish I’m trying to achieve, I may not have a tool that goes up high enough in a grit for that, so high enough finish, and so I’ll have to use other tools and hand-sand it, or sometimes you just can’t get the tooling down in there, so it requires you to use your hand and work in there and get in the tight corners and stuff like that.
When it comes down to how long it takes to do something, it really depends on what condition it is when it comes in. If you get something that’s a very new wheel, it can take you a half hour to an hour to do a wheel. Or if you get something that’s really bad, it can take three to four hours to get that wheel back to a high finish.
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