Homemade Metal Polish (“Secret” Ingredients of the Super Expensive Stuff)

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My plan for today is to reinstall the front fork legs on the 1972 Shovelhead.  It has been a long journey taking the entire front end apart and rehabilitating/rebuilding every component.

However, before doing that, I want to take one more step. 

I want to give the bottom of the fork legs a good polish. 

They have already been vigorously sanded, and the polishing is really just the finishing touch.

Restoring Old Motorcycles with Metal Polish

When I first started working on bikes, I didn’t have a car, so basically everything I used in restoration came from either the local Ace Hardware store or the motorcycle shop I worked at on weekends. 

Ace carried Flitz, which (funny-story) started out as one of those “As-Seen-On-TV” products. 

Turns out that the stuff is downright amazing. I could only afford the most beat up bikes, and Flitz helped me bring back a little luster to some long forgotten metal.

I picked up an orbital polisher from Home Depot on Friday and then started polish shopping. 

Call me cheap, frugal, or whatever, but I realized while doing some price comparisons that Flitz is really expensive. 

A 32 oz. can will set you back almost $50. 

That comes out to about $1.60/oz. (nerd alert!).  That seemed kind of crazy when there are much cheaper alternatives out there, and led me to ask a few questions.

1) What are the common ingredients in most metal polish?

2) Is there a big difference between the cheap stuff and the expensive stuff?

3) Could I make my own homemade concoction?

Metal Polish Ingredients

When you go to the supermarket, every item of food has its list of ingredients on the package thanks to FDA regulations.

On the other hand, a product like metal polish is not required to list its ingredients. 

The only requirement with respect to package labeling is to list health hazard warnings due to toxic ingredients. I think this is partly due to the fact that companies wish to protect their trade secrets.

That said, there are a few ways to figure out what is inside metal polish without a degree in chemistry and a laboratory at your disposal.

First, I did a little research on the the world-wide-interweb.  Metal polish ingredients typically include a mixture of:

  • Cleaner:  Ammonia, alcohols, or hydrocarbon solvents.
  • Acids:  Oxalic, phosphoric, sulfuric.
  • Silica: Used to hold the compound together.

The Big Difference Between Cheap Polish and Expensive Polish

Although metal polish isn’t required to list all the ingredients on the packaging, companies do have to file what are called safety data sheets (SDS) with the EPA.  

I went ahead and reviewed a bunch of them as part of my research for this blog post. I even found a few websites that list all the ingredients in their polish.

Here are the ingredients in some popular metal polish products.

  • Brasso:  Water, pH adjusters, acids (tall oil, oxalic, ammonium hydroxide), alcohols (isopropyl), and aluminum magnesium silicate.
  • Weiman: Water, acids (ammonium hydroxide), alcohols (alcohol ethoxylate, propylene glycol, and thickener (acrylic, anthem gum).
  • Flitz: Distillates, thickeners, and solvent.
  • 3M Polish – Water, mineral oil, isobutane sorbitan oleate, ethanol.

And the commonalities of metal polish ingredients goes on-and-on.  

Therefore, I would venture to say, there isn’t much difference between the cheap and expensive stuff.  Find something you like at a reasonable price and stick with it.

Homemade Metal Polish

You can absolutely make your own metal polish using natural acids, such as those contained in vinegar or lemon juice, and a base/thickener such as flour or baking soda.

However, after what I told you above regarding the ingredients contained in most metal polish, I think you should go with the cheaper off-the-shelf stuff.

First, big companies are able to get by-products of hydrocarbon production in bulk as ingredients for their polish. In other words, they can pass the savings on to you. Second, mixing your own polish takes time.

Factoring these two things together, and it makes sense to just buy something in the store.  

For example, Brasso comes out to about $0.30/ounce. At that price, why bother mixing something yourself?

That’s more than you probably wanted to know about metal polish ingredients, but hopefully it answered some questions.