How to Quickly Restore the Shine on Your Brass Headlights

I recently purchased a pile of antique lights and after going through the pile I found a few I liked for my own projects. I decided to play with restoring a couple of the leftovers to resell and pass on to other collectors. I had a couple key things I wanted to accomplish with this project. I wanted to bring the "bling" back to the lights, without taking away from their "age". Most of these antique lights had brass buckets and trim rings with either cast iron or steel bases. This particular light I believed to be from an early 1900's fire truck. From what I could gather it was used as a spotlight on the corner or side of the truck. It has a mounting base that is made of cast iron and is pretty rusty, but the cradle the light sat in was copper. The light itself is brass with a silver reflective inner surface and a glass lens. Brass and Copper don't rust like steel or cast iron, but they DO still corrode. Brass and copper parts usually have a gray-ish corrosive coating, sometimes with hints of green on the surface. When they've been sitting as long as this light had been, you can't just use a degreaser or cleaner to cut through the corrosion. It now has a hard coating over the base metal and it has to be abraded to be removed.

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On this light the corrosion was pretty bad so I decided to blow the light apart and attack each part separately. It's a good idea when working on fragile, antique parts like this to take your time and start with the least aggressive cleaning methods first and work your way up until you find one that's the most effective without damaging the metal. Brass and Copper are pretty soft metals and they can be worn away and damaged easily. This means you don't want to just go at the surface with an angle grinder and a flap disc! Will it remove the corrosion in a hurry? Yes.. but it'll also remove a LOT of the metal QUICK and you'll be left with a pile of dust. I started by trying some Emery buffing compound to cut through the corrosion on a 1/2 hp buff motor. It worked, but took a lot of time,force and put a lot of heat into the parts to even begin to cut through the hard core of the corrosion.

lightbefore1

I decided to jump to a Palm DA sander and some 400 grit sand paper. Now I was on the right track! It took the corrosion off a lot quicker, but the paper clogged pretty quickly. I decided to move up to 180 grit paper and light pressure on the DA sander. This worked beautifully and in no time all of my parts were at least their original color again. From here I worked my way down with the DA and progressively finer grit sandpaper until most of the scratches were out. Normally I would hand sand something from here and spend hours rubbing it out with SimiChrome or Autosol. The secret I found to speeding this process up was by taking some Norton Dry Ice DA Sandpaper in 1000-1500 grit and going over the parts. This gave the parts a nice shine and only required a couple passes by hand with the metal polish to get a brilliant shine on the parts.

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I didn't go nuts taking every scratch and imperfection out of the light because I wanted to leave some character to the light so that it may proudly show its age without looking like it was a lost cause! This entire project from start to finish was done in an afternoon and was extremely rewarding considering the transformation only took a DA sander, sandpaper, and some metal polish. My only problem now is that it looks so dang cool I want to keep it and repurpose it into a lamp for my house!

-Matt/EW

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15 thoughts on “How to Quickly Restore the Shine on Your Brass Headlights”

  • Peter Constantine
    Peter Constantine September 9, 2014 at 4:47 am

    It does look pretty dang cool!! Nice work, Matt.

    Reply
  • Tom Wood

    Now, how do You maintain that great finish?
    I discovered a busniness in Chicago, called JK Nickolas coatings, that used to manufacture a lacquer, that did an excellent job of keeping that just polished look, for a long time. Maybe Eastwood products may do the same, but this lacquer was manufactured to go over brass and keep it looking good.

    Reply
  • Scott Ciardi

    It doesn't look bad, but there are much easier way and quicker ways to do this and get a much better longer lasting finish. But this advice will keep people coming to someone like me to save themselves all the time and aggravation that this sets them up for. Why? First....remove the dirt and scale with sanding? No Glass beading is easier, faster and much more thorough. Polishing creams will make it look better, but not nearly as good as buffing wheels and proper compounds. And though I used Nickolas lacquer years ago, the best to use is Agate lacquer #2B , thinned with lacquer thinner (air dry) 2 parts lac to one part thinner. I have been doing this for forty years and do work from all over the country because I do the work as best as it can be done. Your method will work, but you will be forever polishing to maintain. I have yet to see anyone offering advice on polishing brass or copper that actually gives truly good advice. Funny thing is Eastwood has a lot of the proper materials for sale. Next time, try using some of them and you will be even more impressed with yourself. Just my opinion.

    Reply
  • DAL JONES

    THE NAME OF THE BRASS COATING COMPANY IS G.J NIKOLAS AND CO. 1 800 346 4741 .YOUR POLISHING JOB LOOKED GREAT BUT IF YOU WANT IT TO STAY LOOKING GOOD IT NEED TO BE CLEAR COATED EITHER SPRAYED OR DIPPED.

    Reply
  • John Wakefield

    A technique for removing tarnish & oxidation from silver, brass & copper, uses a mix of water & 'Barkeeper's Friend' (non--abrasive cleanser) paste. Use a soft wet cloth to wipe the paste onto the surface and let time do the work needed. Rinse with water, repeat paste mix as necessary. If the surface is smooth, no buffing may be needed. After drying, any clear lacquer seal may be applied.
    I witnessed an antique restorer use a clear women's hair spray lacquer as a seal on a brass chandelier and silver candlestick holders. Still looked amazing after 15 years.

    Reply
  • James Marsala

    If you are going to use sandpaper, use "wet & dry" 600 and a lot of water. Once you have removed the "crust" and reached the "original" color use 1200-1500 with lots of water. When it begins to shine, switch to metal polish. When you have reached the FULL shine, use spray can lacquer. Just be aware that eventually it will begin to tarnish and to re-polish you will first have to use "paint-remover" to get off the lacquer. the re-polish and repeat the lacquer.

    Reply
  • Michael Geraghty
    Michael Geraghty September 9, 2014 at 6:31 am

    I'm have been polishing metals for 30 years
    also purchasing from Eastwood every since.
    Eastwood polishing products work very well
    also you need to clean the parts really well
    before using lacquer as buffing compound can
    cause runs, fish eyes. but don't use on parts that
    get hot, motor parts.

    Reply
  • Mike

    It looks very good. But, what is the best way to keep it that way with little maintenance? How about shooting it with automotive clear? And when it has been treated, what would be the best way to remove the treatment so it can be rebuffed and treated again?

    Reply
  • Salvatore Cottone
    Salvatore Cottone September 9, 2014 at 7:11 am

    try soakin in plain white vingar,exspecially for rust...Wit Sandy I gots lotsa practice!

    Reply
  • Tim Emmons

    I f soak your parts in Apple Cider vinager, It will remove all the rust and corrosion, and will not harm the metals. It works great and Iv'e used many times in restoring lights and other parts.

    Reply
  • ERROL

    Yes...echoing Tom's comment....I'm starting to get REALLY tired of spending at least a day each Spring repolishing the brass on our Model T Ford. Is there a product that will maintain and/or preserve the beautiful shine brass emits?
    Thanks

    Reply
  • Butch Foley

    After polishing, most of us clean things with lacquer thinner and then spray clear lacquer over the item. To avoid having a fog of small bubbles show up later, heat the item to about 200 degrees for 15 minutes in the oven. It drives off any residual thinner adsorbed in the metal. Found that the hard way.

    Reply
  • TIM E

    USE A SODA BLASTER
    OR PECAN SHELL MEDIUM TO CLEAN YOUR PARTS

    Reply

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