The last six weekends have been spent on the first stage of polishing, bringing the initial shine out of the dull and partially oxidized aluminum.
We decided to start polishing this early in the process for two reasons. The first is that the weather in Texas is still spring-like, and polishing an aluminum trailer in the heat of a late Texas summer is guaranteed to be a bad time. The second is that we borrowed money to buy this trailer when the deal suddenly presented itself, and we've focused our financial resources on paying back that loan as quickly as possible before investing in larger renovation expenses.
Having already started this process on our previous trailer, we already owned the necessary tools and equipment, we just needed consumable supplies. Here is the list:
- Two Makita Polishers - The workhorses, variable speed and capable of bearing a lot of pressure when needed.
- Six Wool Polishing Pads - Having several clean ones on hand reduce the number of times you have to stop to clean pads.
- A Cleaning Spur - For de-matting the pads periodically as you work.
- A Pound and a Half of Nuvite F9 Polishing Compound - Used for the roughest patches of aluminum, namely the roof and the area previously covered up by the blue stripe.
- Three Pounds of Nuvite G6 Polishing Compound - Used just about everywhere else to bring relatively clean but dull aluminum up to a nice bright finish.
We also stocked up on shop rags, old tee shirts, and mineral spirits, which are used to clean off residual polishing compound.
Our process and technique was largely modeled on the excellent guide by Vintage Trailer Supply (PDF), with some adaptations as needed. To summarize it, you apply some polishing compound with your finger to an area of the trailer no larger than roughly 18 inches square, use the polisher to spread the compound evenly over the area, and then slowly and methodically work the polisher back and forth over the now blackened polish to reveal the shiny aluminum underneath. Wax on, wax off.
Many polishing guides will tell you to use the polish sparingly. We found mix results with that approach. I found that if I used the recommended amount, I'd have to repeat the whole process on a single section two, three, or even four times to get to a point where the aluminum's texture finally gave way to anything close to a "mirror-like" finish. I found myself preferring to apply more polishing compound, and work may way through it more slowly and with more pressure, getting to the same level of polish in a single pass. Laura seemed to prefer the first approach. Whatever pace you prefer, it's important to slow down and keep your process methodical.
It's also important to clean your pads regularly, as they will start picking up aluminum and polishing compound to the point where they become matted, shiny, utterly ineffective, and sometimes difficult to work with. I had a hard time justifying the cost of the pad washing systems out there, and opted to use a stiff-bristled brush, dish soap, and a hose with a high-pressure nozzle. Simply spray down the pads (take them off the polisher first!) with the hose for a while to rinse off the loose material, then squirt a fair amount of dish soap on the pads and scrub with the scrub brush to work the rest of the material loose. Rinse again until the water runs off mostly clear, and shake the excess water out. Then put the damp pads on the polisher for a spin dry and a quick run with the cleaning spur. Having several of these pads between the two of us allowed us to keep making progress throughout the day without having to stop every time the pad got gummed up.
Getting to this point took six full weekends with two people working six to eight hours each day. And even still, as you can see, the finish isn't perfect. This was a rough cut with coarse polishing compound to get the oxidation off and bring the previously un-polished aluminum up to a baseline shine. There will be another round of polishing with Nuvite Grade C (medium compound) to smooth out the finish a bit more, and then a final pass with Nuvite Grade C to really bring out the mirror finish, free of swirl marks left by the previous two steps. But those are projects for another time. Next, we move inside to start on the real work - the interior.