Polishing the Airstream for that “Mirror” like Finish.
By: Lisa Renee Sherman
Every owner and spectator alike marvel at the sight of a caravan of Airstream trailers on the open highway. They sparkle and light up the pavement as the sun bounces off of their aluminum exteriors. What spectators don’t know and owners do is that much care is taken into maintaining the pristine finish that is desired. When new comers join the Airstream community they discover quickly that their Airstream, either new or vintage, requires detailed effort to maintain the pictures from the glory days.
The ultimate desired look of an Airstream is the classic “mirror like” finish. The polishing process isn’t a technique that is difficult to understand, or even to accomplish. Unfortunately though, it is a labor intense process that only the true Airstream enthusiasts could enjoy. Typically, the trailer is polished annually. The amount of labor is determined by how frequently the trailer has been polished. It a set routine has been established then the process goes much smoother. If the trailer hasn’t been polished in years, or are restoring a vintage trailer, then there are several factors that must be considered before the polishing process can begin.
There are two types of Airstreams. The first types were made prior to 1982, and were made from alclad aluminum panels. This was a .032” thick aircraft grade aluminum alloy which then had a very thin layer of pure aluminum adhered to both sides. At some point during 1982, the company switched to using a .040” non-alclad aluminum. The non-alclad aluminum panels are thought to be softer and easier to work with. How this affects the appearance of modern Airstreams verses that of vintage Airstreams is that the finish doesn’t quite have the shine that the older ones do. The pure aluminum adhered to the alclad panel created that true “mirror finish”.
Another important consideration to determine is if a plasticoat was applied. Plasticoat is a lacquer glass wax that became standard issued on Airstreams around 1964. The desire was to protect the aluminum finish from scratches and abrasions, but unfortunately it only lasted for a short time. Current finishes are placed on new Airstreams, but not the plasticoat made of glass wax. Before any polishing can begin, if there is any plasticoat, it must be removed.
The first overall step, regardless if it has plasticoat or not, is to completely wash the trailer. When choosing a detergent to use be sure and stay way from any product containing ammonia. Aluminum does not react well with ammonia or ammonia based products. The simplest option is good old warm water and soapy dish detergent. The use of a toothbrush is a good idea along the trim and rivets. The toothbrush is soft enough to not leave any scratches on the aluminum exterior. After it is washed it needs to dry completely before any polishing may begin.
It is important now to determine if plasticoat had been applied. Most restoration professionals recommend standing back and viewing the trailer from a distance. The plasticoat tends to wear off the most on the top of the trailer, where the sun hits it the most. The standard description is that of a sunburn. If the top of the trailer shows signs that resemble a blistering sunburn that is a sign of plasticoat. Normal paint stripper or lacquer stripper is used to remove the plasticoat. Be sure and never use any steel wool, or scrub pads during this process. They will scratch and mark the aluminum. Restoration professionals have recommended using a large paint brush to work the coating free.
Another main factor with Airstreams is that of oxidation. Aluminum doesn’t rust like that of iron, but the aluminum does react with oxygen and produces a build up. This build up is referred to as oxidation. Rust “eats” through iron and that does not happen with aluminum. There are different grades of polish; coarse, medium, and fine.
Depending on the intensity of oxidation determines on what polish you use. If the oxidation is severe one would need to use the coarse polishes. Hence, if the oxidation is present but not severe, one would use the medium. Using a sander, most recommend polishing in a three to four foot area at a time. Once all the oxidation is removed, the Airstream trailer will set as it did the day it was made. The aluminum will be bright and unmarked.
Once all the plasticoat, and oxidation has been removed then the final process of polishing may begin. The fine grade polishes are used along with the sander. Once the complete polishing process is over, it is recommended to wipe down the entire trailer with a clean cotton towel. This will remove all excess polish and help create that much desired “mirror” finish. If you are contemplating polishing for the first time a recommended technique guide can be found at Vintage Trailer Supply.
All writing on UsedAirstream.com is copyrighted and enforced! © 2009