Polishing 100 year old brass is no easy task. It takes patience and lots of practice to achieve a perfect, scratch free mirror finish. In this article I will explain the process I use that I have found yields the best results.
- Jeweler’s Bench Polisher - 3/4 to 1hp
- Spiral Sewn Cotton Wheel (With Tripoli Rouge-Brown)
- Loose Cotton or Flannel Wheel (With Red Rouge, we recommend Matchless Red Rouge)
- Domet Flannel Wheel (Blue Rouge- Optional)
- Wheel Rake (to keep the wheel clean)
- Nikolas Century Lacquer or Spray Can #2105 (If pneumatic spray equipment is not available)
- Pneumatic Detail Spray Gun with a 1.0 mm or 1.1 mm tip and Suitable Air Compressor
- 1200 and 2000 grit sandpaper
- Lacquer Thinner and Wax/Grease Remover
- Micro Mesh Towels
- Purple Power or Carb Cleaner
Step 1: Stripping and Sanding
The first step to any restoration is the complete tear down of the fan. Once that is done, now is a good time to clean all the brass parts. I take all the parts and soak them in purple power. It is a degreaser you can find at Lowe’s or Home Depot which works great for removing japanned paint and old lacquer finishes from brass. Let the parts soak for a couple of hours, then rinse with warm water. At this point, the brass will have a bluish grey hue to it. Now is a good time to remove the wings from the hub. This way, you can do all the brass parts at the same time.
The next step is to wet sand. I typically only sand the cage struts, wings, and parts that have small pits that I believe may be easily removed. I start wet sanding with 1200 grit wet/dry paper in water with a dash of dish soap for lubrication. This step may take some time, patience is key in finishing brass to a mirror finish! Continue sanding until the entire part is filled with small scratches left by the sandpaper. Try to only remove enough material as to remove the defects and make the part smooth. We don’t need the wings to be sharp like razor blades!! Don’t press too hard and keep the sandpaper wet! You could easily cause a scratch deeper than the 1200 grit paper if a piece of dirt or something gets into your sandpaper.
Next start sanding with 2000 grit sandpaper. You’re only trying to remove the 1200 grit scratches at this point. This step will be a breeze. Now, the part will look pretty smooth and have a slight mirror shine to it at an angle. You will easily see creases in the wings at this point as well. To remove these creases we use an English wheel. I will discuss using an English Wheel at a later time.
Step 2: Polishing
Tripoli (Brown rouge): If you have never polished before, I suggest you practice on a piece of brass you can purchase at any hardware or hobby store. Start with spiral sewn cotton wheel and brown (Tripoli) rouge. If this is a new wheel, apply the rouge until the white wheel is slightly brown, about 3 to 4 seconds. If it is a used wheel, rake it clean and apply the rouge for 1 to 2 seconds. Pressure will be determined by how much rouge sticks to the brass part. If there is a lot sticking to it, clean it off with lacquer thinner and a micro mesh towel and put a little more pressure on the part. You want just enough pressure so that the rouge gets removed as you're polishing the part. Do not try to polish out the rouge that is left on the part. It will leave a mark. Just wipe it clean with lacquer thinner.
Now while buffing, when moving the part up, you are cutting and while moving the part down, you are polishing. At this stage in the game, you want to “cut” the 2000 grit scratches off the part, so move the part up on the wheel. You will know when you’re done by noticing all the 2000 grit scratches are removed and the part is beginning to look like a mirror. At this point, rake the wheel clean and remove the rouge from your part with lacquer thinner. Now, lightly put the part on the wheel moving in a downward position. There will be just enough rouge left on the wheel to polish out the deeper scratches that the brown rouge left when more pressure was applied.
Jeweler’s (Red rouge) and Blue rouge: This step is where you will create that mirror shine that you have been patiently waiting for. The process is very similar to the last except you will be using a less abrasive wheel. A loose cotton or flannel wheel will do the trick. Experiment with both to see which one you like best. I usually switch back and forth but typically like to use the loose cotton since I always use blue rouge to finish up the polishing process. It is very important to keep the wheel clean during this stage. Raking it constantly! Make sure that you use enough rough as well. Remember, applying the rouge for 1 to 2 seconds often will yield the best results. And doing it more often is a lot better than less often.
Once you have a scratch free, mirror finish, you could move to blue rouge. This step is not absolutely necessary, but I have found the blue rouge to bring out the color of the brass. It will look a little like gold when done properly. Take your domet flannel wheel and barely put blue rouge on it. I’m talking less than a second here folks. Any more rouge and it will just pile up on the part. Remember, blue rouge is ONLY polish. There are no abrasives in this so only move the part in a downward motion. As you can recall, downward= polishing and upward= cutting.
Inspect the part. It should look like an absolute mirror! Continue with the raking and cleaning the part with lacquer thinner at the end of each polish session. It will not only remove the deeper scratches, but it will also help eliminate the “hazing” effect. If there is hazing, continue with light pressure over a cleanly raked wheel until it is gone.
Step 3: Protect That Surface!
Surface preparation is critical when applying lacquer over a newly polished part. If there are any fingerprints, dirt, dust nibs, etc., the part will tarnish under the freshly applied lacquer leaving less than desirable results. Start by gently wiping the part with lacquer thinner and a micro mesh towel. Don’t press too hard, even micro mesh can and will scratch the part! You want to ensure to remove all of the rouge in all the crevices at this point. If not, they will appear black under the lacquer and will tarnish. Immediately after wiping with lacquer thinner, dry the part off with a new, clean micro mesh towel.
Almost there! Prep the part for hanging in your paint booth or set it on a new piece of painters’ paper on a table. Flat parts should be taped down as shown in the picture to avoid the part flipping over when painting. Now, clean the part with wax and grease remover with a new micro fiber towel and dry. Wax and grease remover is perfect because it leaves absolutely no residue. Blow off the part with compressed air. Tack rags will not work. They leave too much residue on the part. Now, simply apply the lacquer using either your rattle can from Nikolas or a 1.0 mm to 1.1 mm pneumatic spray equipment. Two coats are recommended for the best protection. Any more coats and you are flirting with the possibility of orange peel. Now, show everyone you know what you have accomplished. Enjoy!!