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Maintain and clean chrome effectively

The following procedure has been retrieved, of all places, from a Bicycle repair shop, but members have found it applies equally well to our cars' chrome.

The original source is Roberts Cycle, Chicago. We hope you will be as amazed with this method as we are. It has saved us a lot of time and effort and has yielded much better results than we've gotten in the past. Have fun!

Rub a dub dub - A simple solution

A simple and inexpensive way to remove rust from and polish chrome surfaces by hand is to rub it with aluminum foil dipped in water. This process yields two advantages. First, since the aluminum foil is softer than steel, it will not scratch the surface. And second, a by product of the process produces a fine metal polishing compound that smoothes the chrome surface to a bright shine.

Geek Stuff - Oxides are the key


Rust is basically oxidized metal or another words metal that has taken on extra oxygen atoms. As heat is generated by the friction of rubbing the aluminum foil on the chrome, a portion of the aluminum will oxidize to produce aluminum oxide. Aluminum has a higher reduction potential (i.e a tendency take on electrons and in the process reduce or break itself down) than the chrome, and will therefore leech oxygen atoms away from any rust on the chrome surface which changes the chemical properties of the rust and breaks it down.


Aluminum oxide is harder than steel, and the microscopic grains of aluminum oxide produced during the cleaning process creates a fine metal polishing compound which, mixed with the water you added, creates a paste that smoothes and polishes the chrome surface.

In English - How it works

A common way to clean a rusted chrome surface such as a fender is to use a fine steel wool. However, when you use this method you have to use a lot of elbow grease and you still end up with a slightly dull surface with some amount of scratching not to mention the messy 'dust' left over from the steel wool. That's because you are physically scraping off the rust. When you use the aluminum foil method you are dissolving the rust chemically so you don't need to rub nearly as hard and since the aluminum foil is softer than the chrome, you are left with few if any scratches. This method also allows you to get the rust out of some minor pitting without having to dig into the surface. The aluminum oxide that is created by friction when you rub the surface of the chrome leeches the rust away and when combined with the water you added creates it's own polishing compound so you end up with a clean, smooth, shiny surface.

Step by step

  1. Cut the aluminum foil into small squares. 3" by 3" should do.
  2. Wipe down or wash the surface to remove any surface dirt.
  3. Dip a square into some water or sprinkle some water on it and spread it around on the surface of the foil.
  4. Cup the wet square over the surface you want to clean so you get a nice even coverage.
  5. Start rubbing a 6 or 8 inch area and remember you don't have to rub very hard. As you rub, you'll feel the surface get smoother and smoother until the foil just glides over it. You will also notice a light brown paste building up. This is the polish that results from the chemical reaction.
  6. When the surface is nice and smooth and you have polished it, take a clean cloth and wipe the polish off.
  7. Once you finish cleaning and polishing the item you need to cover the surface to protect it from the elements. At a minimum you can wipe it down thoroughly with a clean cloth. Since cloth inherently contains some amount of oil, this will give you at least some protection. The best method would be to use a small amount of chrome polish or maybe something like turtle wax or an equivalent kind of wax or polish. Make sure you wipe the surface down with a paper towel first instead of a cloth because paper doesn't contain any oil so you will have a clean and dry surface for the wax or polish to adhere to.

Limitations - There's always a catch

If the surface is severely pitted or some of the chrome plating has peeled off, there is a limit to how much you can do. Since this method removes the rust chemically, you should still be able to get rid of most if not all of the rust. And since it creates it's own polishing compound, you should be able to feather (taper) the peeled off edges to help prevent more peeling in the future. Again, once you have the surface as rust free and smoothed down as much as possible, don't forget to apply some form of wax or polish.

Tips - Things we noticed along the way

  • Use a little extra water if you want a super fine finish.
  • Wad up a larger piece of foil when you work on pitted areas. The edges created will help smooth down the pits.
  • Don't rub too long with the first 'paste' created. Once the surface feels nice and smooth and you've wiped the gunk off, you can use a new piece of foil with some more water to get as much shine as you like.
  • Don't waste your time with a severely pitted surface since the rust has probably eaten down through the chrome to the bare metal. Smooth it down as much as you can with steel wool then use the aluminum foil method to remove as much rust as possible.
  • The aluminum foil method also works pretty well on steel. It removes the rust well, but don't expect that super shiny finish like you get with the chrome because it never had that to begin with.
  • To get the best results, remove that fender or other part so you can work on it easily without having nooks and crannies to dig into.
  • If you're working on severely rusted rims, you might want to use a steel brush to remove the worst rust spots first. This will also remove any caked on road gunk so you have a better surface to work with.

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