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Common Tread

Clean chrome for a penny

Jan 12, 2016

Depending on who you talk to, "chrome" and "motorcycles" may be one and the same.

It’s more popular in a decorative sense on cruisers than other styles of bikes, but there’s at least some chrome to be found on nearly every motorcycle. Yet, for all its prevalence, not everyone knows how to take care of it.

Chrome questions usually come to me in two forms. “How do I clean or polish my chrome?” “Can I make this old, rusty or bad chrome look presentable again?” An understanding of what chrome is can help answer both questions.

What is chrome?

Chrome — or chromium — is a plating meant to beautify and protect metal. It comes in two varieties: show and hard. Hard chroming is an industrial coating that is used in areas requiring a very hard finish and long-wearing components. (The inner fork tubes on your bike are likely hard-chromed.) Show (or decorative) chrome is what is used on most of the shiny motorcycle bits you see. Though not as tough as hard chrome, this is an attractive and very durable finish, relative to other surface treatments like paint and powdercoat.

Chrome forms a “skin” on the part being chromed. The deep luster you see is actually the result of polishing the metal beneath to a mirror-like shine. Decorative chrome is pretty thin, generally around a hundredth of a mil or so. If it is damaged, the only true repair is re-coating the part, which is expensive, so it pays to care for your parts.

Chrome maintenance

Since chrome is so thin, maintaining its surface integrity is key to long life. Corrosion, peeling, and rust all happen when the chrome layer is breached and moisture and foreign particles work their way through and under the chrome. Chrome is hard, but it’s not impervious.

Ideally, chrome is not polished. In its traditional meaning, “polishing” involves microscopically leveling a surface. Given how very thin chrome is, true polishing is terrible for it. You’ll polish the chrome right away! Instead, you want to clean, dry, and protect your chrome, then seal it from moisture and corrosion.

I asked for some advice from Danielle Camarco of Superchrome, a chrome plating shop in Asbury Park, N.J., with a bundle of motorcycle experience.

“It’s really easy to clean chrome," she said. "Use a soft rag and Windex glass cleaner. And when you wax, you have to use a wax with no harsh chemicals. Polishes made for other metals can ruin your chrome!”

Chrome is used extensively on motorcycles due to its reasonably hardy nature and brilliant appearance. Taking steps to preserve its appearance goes a long way. These cam covers are more than 20 years old. Photo by Lemmy.

I clean and dry with the gentlest cloths and substances I can. Start off by wetting everything well. A short soak can be beneficial for removing caked-on goop. For your average dirt and water stains, soap and water or glass cleaner should be effective. Keep in mind if you are cleaning a chrome exhaust pipe, surface dirt may be cleaned, but “bluing” and gold coloration are not fully removable, in my experience. Rarely do I meet someone who was pleased with the way a commercial “anti-blue” agent worked. We get lots of calls at RevZilla about exhaust bluing. I can make it plain as day: Full-coverage heat shields are the best way to have pipes that never exhibit bluing. The solution is simple, though expensive.

If you have something burned onto your pipes, there are a few ways to deal with it. I like to soak the item. I have found bug and tar remover, carburetor cleaner, and oven cleaner to be terrible for my health, but excellent at softening and helping remove things like boot rubber that can cook onto pipes. Be exceptionally careful. Most of those products are severely harmful to paint, rubber, and plastic, too. Protip: Don’t go sprayin’ the stuff all willy-nilly, or you will ruin something nice. Soak a rag in the solvent, then set it on the offending residue for a bit to promote softening.

Now, about that penny chrome cleaner from the title. Grab a pre-1982 penny and use the edge of it to help gently lift the softening rubber, schmutz or whatever from the pipe. You want an old penny because they’re made from copper. On the Mohs scale of hardness, which runs from 0-10, chromium is an 8.5. Copper is a 3. Softer metals have a lesser chance of scratching harder ones. High school chemistry was useful! Obviously, you still want to be as gentle as you can. Even water can wear away a stone.

After your chrome is clean and all cleaning agents have been rinsed, dry everything well with a soft cloth. (Microfiber does well here.) Then apply a layer of automotive wax, buffing it off after it dries. This helps seal the surface. The goal is to provide a transparent barrier that blocks moisture and particles from mechanically damaging the plating and also from lying against the surface and eventually moving through it.

Rescuing old chrome

“Saving” old chrome that is no longer bright and lustrous is always a compromise. If you want a brilliant finish once again, the very best way to achieve it is to re-chrome the item. However, there are times when perfect chrome won’t blend in with other aged pieces on a bike. Sometimes the appearance is less than critical. In some cases, like “crustorations” and original-appearing bikes, well worn chrome can actually be an asset. I’ve picked up plenty of swap-meet pieces that looked ready for a Dumpster, but after some work, they looked great!

This intake is showing its age. You can see some areas where the nickel layer beneath the chrome is popping through. Blistering is a sure sign of compromises in the finish where moisture can gain a foothold. Does it need to be re-chromed, cleaned, or left as is? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Photo by Lemmy.

If re-chroming is off the table as an option, there are still some options for cleaning up what you have.

If your part is really rusty, removing the rust is key. The chrome doesn’t rust — the steel beneath it does. If it’s bad enough, the metal will be pitted and there’s nothing that can repair that. I value my innards, so I often use white vinegar, instead of harsher chemicals, to soak really rusty stuff. Soaking inside a container helps to localize the mess. For small items, finding a suitable container is easy. For larger items, get creative! I renew large parts in refrigerator boxes that I line with a tarp.

You want to knock away loose rust and dirt, but not at the expense of chrome that’s left. Some folks utilize steel wool for this task, but I personally stick with copper for this, too. Old chrome that’s in bad shape likely won’t get damaged badly from the steel wool, but as you scrub, little bits of the steel will embed themselves in the chrome, especially around pitted areas. The steel plus some ambient moisture will have rust returning in no time. I’ve also tried lots of other stuff with varying degrees of success — aluminum foil, ketchup, Coca-cola. Bronze wool is next on my to-try list.

I've stopped using Scotch-Brite chrome scrubbies. If you look at the packaging, it mentions copper coating. They spray copper over steel. Chore Boy makes a solid copper scouring pad, and that's what I recommend. Photo by Lemmy.
Ultimately, you’re saving something that’s already ruined. Like many skills, this is one where some practice can be beneficial. I’ve definitely scored some parts with chrome in various states of disrepair and then tried different techniques and chemicals just to gauge efficacy. I picked them up inexpensively. Better to learn on a junk part than one you need, right?

In the end, you might be surprised how well that old chrome cleans up. Chroming processes have changed over the years and some of the old stuff looks really good compared to today's chrome.

“Chrome now is not like it was in the old days," explained Danielle at Superchrome. "A good life expectancy for a chrome finish is probably 10 or 12 years.”

Chrome is a functional, good-looking finish. Realistic expectations coupled with a modicum of care should let you enjoy your chrome for a very reasonable amount of time.

Another before and after shot. Older "triple-plated" chrome is surprisingly forgiving of negligence. Photo by Lemmy.

As always, if you’ve got any slick tips of your own, let others know about them! Heck, I’ll try anything once. Give me a new excuse to buy another neglected part!