Classic Motorcycle Build

How To Polish Aluminum Engine Parts

Article by Mark Trotta

Polishing aluminum engine parts is always a better choice than chroming.

polishing aluminum motorcycle parts

Not only does chrome plating hold in engine heat, it pits and flakes over time.

To read about how to polish aluminum motorcycle forks click here.

fork sliders before and after polishing


Removing Chrome From Aluminum

There really is no easy or safe way to remove old chrome in your home workshop. I sent the primary cover, cam cover, and rocker boxes from my 1962 Sportster to a plating shop to have the chrome chemically removed.

polishing motorcycle valve covers

Six weeks later, the engine parts returned in raw metal form. I began working on the rocker box that had the heaviest corrosion first.


Steps Before Polishing

Depending on how badly the aluminum is pitted, they'll be 3 to 5 steps of filing and sanding before going to the buffing wheel.

First, there's filing to get out any deep pits or grooves. Next is the sanding to remove all the filing scratches, and make the finish uniform.

how to polish aluminum valve covers

Filing Aluminum

Because the depth of the pitting, I began with a 12" course metal file.

NOTE: Aluminum is a soft metal and is easy to over-file.

You don't need to apply much pressure - let the file do the work. Work slowly and evenly - you only want to remove enough metal to get to a flat, level surface.

polishing motorcycle valve covers

Notice the diagonal (45 degree/135 degree) swipes left by the metal file. This is to offset the left-right filing, which helps keep the surface flat and even.

Next step is sanding.

Starting with a hand-held piece of coarse Emory cloth, "check" or cross-hatch the surface left and right, and then up and down.

The check marks give you a visual of how much you've sanded off, so you don't sand down too far (or not far enough) in one area.

TIP: Stop periodically and hold the work up to the light at different angles. This gives you a better perspective of the entire work-piece.

polishing aluminum motorcycle valve covers

Take long, even strokes both ways. If the base metal isn't dead-flat, it will not produce a shine when polished.

how to polish aluminum valve covers

TIP: If you're getting blisters from sanding, you're probably pressing down too hard. If the paper you're using is not cutting, switch to a coarser grit.

polish aluminum valve covers

After the diagonal swipes are no longer visible, switch to fine Emory cloth.

Wet sanding with 240 grit paper should bring the aluminum to a flat, dull finish.

polish aluminum valve covers

The aluminum is now ready for buffing.


Buffing Wheels

Metal polishing can be done by hand, but a buffing wheel on a bench grinder is much faster.

There are many different styles and sizes of buffing wheels.

polishing aluminum valve covers with a buffing wheel

Buffing wheels are available in different diameters. Since my DIY sander is small, I use 6" buffing wheels.

Homemade Sander/Polisher

This DIY polisher is nothing more than an old electric motor fitted with an arbor.

DIY buffing wheel

Drawbacks to a homemade polisher are, it only has one-speed and one arbor, so you'll be stopping to switch wheels quite often.

DIY bench sander and polisher

TIP: If you need more buffing wheel surface, you can mount two of the same wheels next to each other.

2024 Update: Grinder/Polisher

I founder this used bench grinder locally at a moving sale, and added a buffing wheel to one side.

buffing wheel on stand

The motor spins at 3,300 rpm, which is a little fast for a buffing wheel. But as long as you're not polishing paint (particularly clearcoat) you'll be OK.


Buffing Compounds

There are three main Polishing Compounds, coarse, medium, and fine.

how to polish aluminum valve covers


Metal Polishing Kits are readily available that will include buffing wheels, compound, and 1/2" arbor.

how to polish aluminum engine parts

Shop: Metal Polishing Kit


Cleaning Aluminum

After several months, the lustre of the polished aluminum fades. To bring the shine back up; clean off any dust or dirt, scuff with a Scotch-Brite pad (fine, not coarse), then apply a small amount of polish.

best polish for aluminum engine parts

One of the best aluminum polishes on the market today is Autosol Metal Polish.

Should I Clear Coat Polished Aluminum?

On motorcycle forks and other parts that aren't exposed to engine heat, you can spray clear coat paint after the polishing is done. Personally, I've never had good results with clear coats looking good or lasting for any length of time. I'll leave the polished aluminum bare, then clean and polish when needed.

Here's a Harley 45 cam cover that was polished following the same procedures; filing, sanding, then polishing with a buffing wheel.

polishing motorcycle engine case

True, polishing aluminum engine parts is time consuming, but it's also very satisfying. It's almost relaxing. And it's a nice change of pace from other restoration tasks, such as rebuilding a bottom end or finding an electrical short.

polished brake caliper Norton Commando

Norton Commando polished brake caliper


Automotive Valve Covers

Here's a pair of vintage Corvette valve covers that were sitting in storage for 20 years.

polishing engine valve covers

Aluminum Valve Covers Before and After Polishing


Articles of Interest:

How To Polish Motorcycle Forks
DIY Motorcycle Tools
Kick-Starting An Old Motorcycle
Motorcycle Quotes and Sayings