Aluminum vs. Chrome: Aluminum Fork Leg Rehab

For those who have been following me on Twitter or Instagram recently, you have probably seen a bunch of pictures of me disassembling the front-end of my 1972 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead FLH.  With the aluminum fork legs finally free, this weekend has been all about cleaning them up, inside and out (the wife is busy).

This, of course, naturally got me thinking about aluminum versus chrome and the advantages of the former over the latter.

Look, there is no denying that new chrome looks fantastic.  However, chrome is just plating over heavier metal.  Aluminum parts are lighter, more rust resistant, and are easier to rehab when they start looking shabby.  Depending on your level of motivation, hand/wrist strength, and/or power tool inventory, you can make old aluminum fork legs look fantastic again – literally, almost to the point of shining like chrome.

fork legs

Caption: The fork leg on the left is untouched, and the one on the right is today’s handiwork prior to final polish.

So, what is my process for cleaning up fork legs?  It is pretty basic and can be explained in just a few bullet points

-First, it is all about different grades of sandpaper.  Get some big sheets from your local hardware store (cheaper to order online).  Start with something pretty coarse, approximately 80 to 150 grit, and go at the aluminum hard.  This will take off rust (see related post on rust removal), grime, and that first partially oxidized layer of aluminum.  It might leave a little bit of a “swirly” pattern in the surface, but that is no big deal as that will get cleaned up later.

-Sanding can be done wet or dry.  For the first few grades of sandpaper, I dip the fork legs in a bucket of water, then sand, then dip, then sand…….etc.

-You can do the sanding by hand or with an orbital sander, although I wouldn’t go coarser than 220 grit with the orbital sander as it will dig deeper into the metal than hand-sanding alone.  No matter what, you will have to do some hand sanding around sharp corners.  My mother-in-law gave me a DEWALT orbital sander for Christmas, and I finally unpacked it today for this job.  I am looking forward to showing her the pictures later.

-Once you have put in as much effort as you can tolerate, switch to the next finer grit sandpaper.  Honestly, I usually just do 220 and 400.  I have read articles where people go even finer (600, 800, 1000, etc), but I generally don’t see these in my local hardware store.  Again, you might do better online.

-Also, I like to finish with “0000” steel wool, which is super fine, plus some quality polish.  Don’t laugh, but I am a HUGE fan of Flitz.  It cracks me up because this stuff started out as an “As Seen on TV” product (I am dating myself here), but then slowly made its way into Ace Hardware and other big box hardware stores.  The stuff works really well.  I would know, because I have owned and done TLC on a million old bikes.  It isn’t the cheapest, but also not too bad if you buy the big can off Amazon.

And that is pretty much it for cleaning up fork legs.  As you can tell, it isn’t complicated at all.  It just takes time.  If you are having any issues getting the fork legs off your bike, feel free to reach out.  Otherwise, good luck and please Facebook share, Tweet, or whatever this page.

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P.S. The featured image for this article are my fork legs.  The one on top I cleaned up this morning, and the one on the bottom is for me to work on tomorrow.

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