Hot weather is approaching and most Airstreamers across the country are now on the road, enjoying camping season 2015. Many vintage owners are also readying to tackle—some for the first time—a polishing project.
Patrick Scharff, Process and Procedural Technician with Nuvite Chemical Compounds, was on hand during Alumapalooza 6 at Airstream, Inc., where he demonstrated the aluminum polishing process on a 26ft 1966 Overlander at 8am each morning in the Terraport. He offers the following insider intel about polishing and tips for achieving that mirrorlike finish.
Polish now—or wait until fall.
“The best time to polish is in the spring or fall, in a covered area, or on a cloudy day,” said Scharff, “but I’ve polished in 40 degree weather and all the way up to 110 degree weather.” (He lives in Phoenix.) Temperatures affect the materials and chemicals less than you think. “Most of it has to do with keeping the polisher comfortable.”
More than just a pretty face.
There benefits to polishing other than the knockout aesthetics of a gleaming, reflective trailer. “Corrosion prevention is much easier and manageable with a polished trailer,” said Scharff. “Once aluminum has been polished the surface becomes ‘healed’, or less porous.”
“Aluminum naturally is covered in tiny holes that are prone to contamination,” he explained. “When corrosion sets in, these pores become visible in the form of pitting. Taken care of early on, the pitting is reversible with polishing alone.” (Pitting that has been allowed to progress can be harder to reverse.) Abrasives—including sandpaper and scouring pads— remove small amounts of aluminum and can cause damage if too much is taken away. “Polishing is a very non-intrusive way to take care of these cosmetic blemishes,” said Scharff.
What you’ll need
Scharff recommends the following “bare essentials to make a polishing experience go smooth and quick”: a rotary buffer—similar to a right angle grinder—a handful of wool pads, and for finishing and maintaining your polished trailer, a pack of 95-5 cotton flannel polishing cloths and a dual head random orbital polisher. (Scharff recommends the Cyclo polisher, as it’s “really nice and smooth.”) And, of course, the corresponding Nuvite metal polishing compounds.
“You can certainly polish by hand if you want to,” said Scharff. “Sometimes it’s even necessary in some situations,” (around logos and letters). “But with all the tools available, doing a whole trailer by hand is not needed unless you are a glutton for punishment.”
How to use Nuvite
“Nuvite Chemical Compounds Corporation is primarily an aviation company but a lot of our products work well in other applications such as Airstreams, automobiles, and boats,” said Scharff. “Our best-known product is our metal polish, NuShine II, in a graded system, meaning the amount of work needed to apply to the metal determines what grades you would start and continue with. It’s a very effective system that yields results that are unmatched.”
“A typical procedure begins with grade F7 and a wool pad on a rotary buffer for the primary polish,” he explained. “A quick intermediate polish is needed next, which is our Grade C with a rotary buffer and wool pad. Finally, use Grade S, a finishing polish, with a random orbital polisher and a cotton flannel cloth. Don’t forget the last, and most important step,” he added. “Camping in and showing off your polished Airstream!”
Additional polishing products are available as well, like NuPower II, a dry wash and paint polish used by many airlines. “It’s a pretty cool chemical,” said Scharff. “I’ve used it with great success to polish out scratches and scuffs caused by trees and shrubs on the new Airstreams. The factory coating on the new models is extremely durable and scratch resistant, but it still happens. You simply apply NuPower II to the surface with a rag, emulsifying the dirt and contaminants. The product will flash (dry), then it can be simply fluffed away to leave a nice clean shine behind on your clearcoat, paint, or gel-coated surface.”
“If used as a polish, simply apply it to the surface and force dry the product; meaning, you use more of a buffing action compared to just a cleaning action,” said Scharff. NuPower II also works well on tow vehicles, and as a dry wash it’s ideal for use at campgrounds with water restrictions.
“Little known secret,” said Scharff: “Though our NuShine II is well known and always recommended for polishing metal, the NuPower II is a surprisingly easy and effective product for your non-metal issues.”
A little dab’ll do ya.
“Most of the people that say NuShine is too expensive for them either haven’t used it before or they are using way too much of it,” said Scharff. “The NuShine II spreads very easily so the amount of product used is very low. A fingertip worth of product will cover about a two-foot square area. The Grade S spreads even further. It’s an efficient product for how much you actually use, and what results you achieve.”
Polish sooner rather than later.
The task can be more labor intensive the longer you allow oxidation and corrosion to set in, and once you’ve completed a polish, touch up can be simple. “The nice thing about getting the first polishing job done is having the surface healed up to a point to where it becomes more corrosion resistant,” said Scharff. “This also allows for longer times between polishing.”
For the first three years after the initial polish, Scharff recommends touching up the aluminum annually with Grade S finishing polish and a random orbital polisher. After that, you can relax the schedule. “There are some Airstreamers out there that only polish once every five years,” he said. Variables include where the trailer is stored, how often it’s used, climate, cleanliness, and the amount of corrosion an owner is willing to tolerate before taking steps to eliminate it.
Speaking of corrosion…
“Other than polishing, the best thing you can do to avoid corrosion and oxidation is keep that area clean and use a clearcoat touch-up pen to line the edges of the metal and high rub areas, where the clearcoat has a tendency to wear away pretty quick,” said Scharff. “Keeping a touch-up pen in the trailer can be a good way to keep those areas from wearing away.”
“If you’re going to polish an Airstream with clearcoat, be sure to strip that off first,” Scharff advised—but newer models (since 1999) have rolled off the factory floor with a virtually unremovable fluorocarbon finish, and polishing isn’t practical, or even possible. “The newer Airstreams have a coating developed by PPG, and holy cow, is it tough,” said Scharff.
“Until then, Airstreams were 2024, 6061, and 3003 aluminum,” he explained. “Most of them had a clear or plasticoat finish, which can be easily stripped and polished. A lot of times the stripping has been done naturally over the years thanks to those nasty UV rays the sun puts out.”
“Older trailers tend to polish out really nice,” he said. “In the 80s and 90s the aluminum had a brushed flat look of 3003 aluminum; it will still polish well, but takes a little more effort.” Nuvite is currently testing sheets of aluminum from units aged 2002 and newer to develop a process for successfully stripping the tenacious PPG clearcoat and polishing the resulting bare aluminum. “We have found ways, but as of right now, those methods are very time consuming,” Scharff said.
How long, O Lord?
“The average time for someone who has never polished their Airstream before is about eight hours a linear foot. That’s from the start—including stripping clearcoat—to finish,” said Scharff. “A good, experienced polisher can pretty easily cut that number in half.”
Just call the man.
If you hire a company or individual to do your polishing for you, “make sure they give you a quote of everything finished,” advised Scharff. “Clearcoat stripped and all. Be aware of price as well. Most polishers will charge anywhere from $80-$180 a linear foot.”
Before hiring, educate yourself about polishing, and fire away with questions. “It would be a good idea to see some of their work,” he suggests. “If they don’t have any to show you, ask them do a small section of aluminum to demonstrate what your finish result is going to be. Ask what products they use. If they use an edger and rouge bars, their price should be on the lower end; the result will be okay but you’ll see a lot of strike marks and lines. If they’re using Nuvite the price will probably be higher, but they will give you a better finish.” Ask around to find the best polisher in your area.
What about the inside?
“Yes, some people do polish the interior of their trailers,” said Scharff. “If it’s metal you can polish it, so if you want to, why not? The thing that’s awesome about these trailers is that they’re as unique as their owners. Express your individuality by polishing something inside, or pieces of the trailer that most people don’t.”
Is polishing worth the time and trouble?
“That might be the biggest question in your mind before you get started,” said Scharff. “The answer is yes. The value of your trailer will go up once it’s been polished.”
Don’t be intimidated—help is a phone call away. “When in doubt with anything, give us a call,” said Scharff. “Sometimes just having someone to talk to about polishing can make the decision that much easier. An added bonus of using Nuvite is that you can pick up the phone and you’ll get someone on the other end. We’re there to help you along the way with any questions that can and will pop up while polishing.” Contact Scharff directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 217-433-5438.
Where to find Nuvite—“We’re a specialty product, and you won’t find us at Walmart or Autozone,” said Scharff. Order Nuvite polishes directly through the Nuvite website , Vintage Trailer Supply, and at Perfect Polish at a discount. Non-polishing products (cleaners) are available through the Airstream Life Store, and watch for Scharff and other reps at upcoming Alumaevents. “We usually have some pretty good show specials when we are at the rallies,” he said.
-By RG Coleman