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Frame Off Restoration - Step 6 - Restoring the Brightwork (Chrome, Stainless, Aluminum)


Outside of an amazing paint job, nothing will make as much of a visual impact as beautiful unblemished brightwork on your restoration. This is also one of those segments of the restoration process where you will have to rely on the skills of someone else, something that always bothers me as I'm a control freak about this stuff.

There are three basic types of brightwork you will find on a vehicle. These are Chrome, Stainless steel and Aluminum. The first two items are created using a chemical and electrical plating process. The latter is made by polishing aluminum up to a good brilliance after it's been formed. What you will find on any given vehicle will vary greatly. For example my '53 Studebaker has many big chromed pieces front and back with a small selection of stainless trim pieces, the '60 Austin Healey 3000 is an amalgam of chrome, stainless and aluminum, and the '74 Jensen Healey is a very small amount of stainless steel. You will have to evaluate your vehicle to determine how much and what types of brightwork it has.

As you assess your brightwork, the first question is the condition. Like preparing for body work you'll want to note any dents and dings that will need repair. I like to outline the dings with a sharpie, as it makes them much more obvious for the person who will have to repair them.


As you start to remove the chrome parts from the vehicle, try cleaning them first and then using chrome polish/cleaner on the part. With the part cleaned and polished it's easier to evaluate the quality of the chrome. You'll want to look for pits (especially in 50's cars), cracks, scratches, thin spots, and other imperfections. It will be up to you to evaluate whether or not the Chrome needs replating. The good thing is, should you decide not to get it replated, you can always change your mind later. Plating can be expensive, so you'll need to plan for the expense. Now, if you do decide that some parts do need replating, then I strongly suggest you get it all replated at once. If you get things plated piecemeal you will wind up noticing subtle differences in the chrome, and it's generally easy to spot which parts have been replated vs. not replated.


Stainless is much the same process as chrome, the one difference I've noted over the years is that it seems to hold up better over time. Quite frequently I'll find myself replating chrome, but only needing to polish the stainless. That being said, stainless can still get dented and have deep scratches. It's up to you on what to do with the stainless. The challenge, in terms of replating, is that not all chrome plating shops also do stainless. So you'll have to ask around.


Aluminum bits are drastically different from the previous two because they are solid, there's no plating process. Also, aluminum is self protecting. When exposed to air it immediately (or nearly so) creates a molecule thick layer of Aluminum Oxide over the exposed surface. The most common issues with Aluminum bits are denting and deep scratches because of the softness of the metal. The tough part about this is that if the piece is in rough shape the only real otion is to replace it.

Getting a great shine

When it comes to getting that perfect shine on the brightwork, it's all about the right tools. On my workbench I have a two wheel buffer. I use one side with the metal polish and the other side without. The with side does the grunt work of the cleaning segment and the without side does the final polish. For larger pieces (like bumpers) you can get hand held orbital polishers to do the work. Like the buffing wheel, you'll want one pad for application and a second one for final polish.


I like to start with the smaller pieces as they take up less space immediately. When removing the trim, be very carful with the fasteners. Most trim is held in place with secialized spring clips or push fits. If you lose or break these it may mean you're not able to replace them or will pay an exhorbitant price for a little piece of plastic/metal. As you remove each trim section, back the fasteners separately and label the bag with the specific piece that they held in place. As you finish each piece's removal and bag the fasteners you may then put the bag of fasteners into a box or a larger bag. Trim tends to collect a lot of dirt in between the piece and the paint. Make sure to approriately clean each piece as you remove it. If you're not planning on having it replated, go ahead and polish it up on the wheel. Once the piece is polished, wrap it in bubble wrap to protect it (you'd be amazed how easy it is to accidentally ding or bend trim). If it's going in for plating set it aside and start building a plating pile. If the fasteners are metal, then they're probably covered with a layer of surface rust or worse. You can either sandblast them or clean them up with a wire wheel on a dremel tool. Once they've been cleaned, paint them to protect them for the future. Whether you use a clear coat or a colored paint, make sure it's rust preventative.

With all the smaller pieces removed and accounted for, it's time for the larger stuff. Generally this is radiator grilles, bumpers, light assemblies and the like.

If you're taking things in for plating, ensuring that they are completely disassembled will save you money because the platers won't have to do it. Frequently bumpers are made up of multiple pieces bolted together (like bumper overriders). Even if you're just planning on polishing the parts yourself this is still a good idea. The bolts on the back of chrome pieces are frequently not chromed, and in many cases were not painted or treated with any sort of rust preventative. You want to be very cafeul disassembling these pieces because if you shear a bolt you'll wind up having to find a replacement part. I normally clean any/all exposed threads with my dremel and a wire wheel. From there it's a matter of liberally dousing the nut and threads with penetrating lubricant to help free the parts. Let it set a bit, and then try it. Remember, do not force it or you take the chance of busting the bolts. So, always move slowly and carefully with these.


Outside of the information given above for how to deal with the differing metal types, there's some important prep work if you're planning on sending the parts out for plating. First, you'll need to find a reputable plating shop. Caveat Emptor. Ask around through the local car community to find out who has the best reputation. And I warn you now, you'll pay for quality, but the end result is almost always worth it. Once you've found the shop you want to use, take your camera and photograph every single piece you are taking in for replating. Print the photos out and number them, then make a list of the parts with the picture number, general description and part #. Make two copies of this information. One is for your records, so that when you go to pick up your parts you have something to compare against to ensure that all your parts are there, and that they've been done correctly. The other list is to give to the plater. It gives them a good visual inventory of all your parts and helps keep small bits from being lost in the process. A good shop will appreciate this, a questionable shop won't want it (as it's a record of bits recieved). I also always make them sign an acknowledgement that they recieved all the parts in the list. This may not sound nice, but this is the voice of experience talking. If you don't document things appropriately and some of your parts are lost, then this gives you the approriate mechanisms for recourse.


Whether you polish the parts, or you send them out for plating, when they are returned it will be a fairly long time before they are reinstalled on the vehicle. You need to store them approriately to ensure they are not damaged while sitting around in the garage awaiting the day that you do put them back on the car. First, wrap them all with bubble wrap. Then, depending on the size and length store them appropriately. I've found two items that are good for storing these parts. The first is a wardrobe box (like you'd use when moving). They are tall boxes. The other item I use is a concrete form (the round concrete tubes you see at the harware store). Cap one end with tape, then lay a circular pad of foam at the bottom. Put your parts in there. If you've got everything done you can do the same to the top of the tube and store it away.

On to Step 7: Interior - Hard

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Contents copyright 2008, 2009 - Jody F. Kerr

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