The polishing project

Although the North has been dealing with winter storms and the usual inconveniences of winter, down here in the southern Arizona desert it’s the best time of year for outdoor work. For the past couple of years I’ve taken the opportunity to do major Airstream maintenance between mid October and January, taking advantage of the cool and generally dry weather we get at this time of year.

This time around it looked like I might get away with just chilling out, but then Patrick called and prodded me about getting the Caravel polished. He’s The Guy from Nuvite Chemical Corp., and if you have a vintage Airstream you probably know the name Nuvite.  It’s the premiere polishing compound used to make Airstreams shine like mirrors.

Now, Airstreams never came out of the factory with “mirror shine.”  They generally had a sort of matte shine, the color of factory-fresh aluminum (which of course is exactly what they were.) You could see yourself in it, but not very clearly.  With time, the aluminum would gradually oxidize to a dull battleship gray color, not particularly attractive, which is why Airstream began applying a clearcoat in the 1960s.  The clearcoat delayed the oxidization so the trailer looked new longer.

But eventually the aluminum oxidized anyway, and so vintage trailers owners have a choice: live with the dull patina, or get to work with some polish.  Polishing is a labor-intensive job, so for my 1968 Airstream Caravel I chose the path of least resistance for many years.  I had the clearcoat chemically stripped off back around 2005 when Colin Hyde was doing some sheet metal replacement on it, and then around 2010 my buddy Ken took it upon himself to do a polishing pass on the trailer, to even out the differences between new metal and old.  But the Caravel has never really been super-shiny, and lately it has oxidized back to a patina that belies the trailer’s 46 years.

The photos below show what I’m talking about.  The first photo is a 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud that we used to own. It is fully oxidized. Once a layer of oxidization forms on the trailer, it protects the rest of the aluminum and doesn’t deteriorate further. So there’s no harm in leaving it like this, but it’s not very pretty.  (The streaks below the reflectors are from rusting steel trim around the reflectors. This trailer had been sitting for over twenty years when we bought it.)

The second photo shows another 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud, but nicely polished.  (It belongs to Dicky Riegel, former president of Airstream and more recently the founder of Airstream2Go.) Hard to believe that the metal can go from one state to the other, but it’s absolutely true.  This is what you can do with a few cans of Nuvite and some work.

1953 Airstream Flying Cloud patina1953 Airstream Flying Cloud polished

Enter Patrick.  He is The Guy who goes around the country demonstrating how Nuvite works. I can’t figure out how he does it, since polishing is a demanding task that involves holding a heavy power tool against the trailer body for hours. The black aluminum oxide stains your clothes and skin too.  Yet Patrick is always smiling when I see him, and his fingernails always seem to be clean. He seems to think he has the greatest job in the country.

That must explain it, because he called me and reminded me that months ago we talked about polishing the Caravel.  He certainly could have let it go, since I wasn’t chasing him, but instead he’s going to drive down from Phoenix on December 19 and spend a day or two in my driveway showing me how Nuvite can turn the Caravel into a mirror-like “jewel.”

I’m going to help him, or at least attempt to.  I’m pretty sure he can finish the trailer before I figure out how to get my gloves on, but he’s a good sport and willing to give me lessons on technique. I’m also inviting some local friends to drop in and observe or help. With luck this might end up as a Tom Sawyer-esque episode where all my friends help do the work.

If you are in Tucson or willing to drive down on Dec 19, ping me and I’ll give you directions to the fun (email: my first name at airstreamlife.com).  If you want to observe from afar and keep your clothes clean, I’ll post photos here of the process.

I also hope to learn more about the chemical process of polishing.  It’s interesting in a geeky way. From what I know so far, we aren’t removing anything from the aluminum, but rather “turning over” the surface material chemically.  I’ll ask Patrick for details. And if you want to see the trailer in person, drop by Alumafiesta in late January.  I’ll have it on display in the campground or inside the Event Center.