Chrome is great. It’s one of those classic finishes that never goes out of style. It’s also something that we get to revel in on vintage cars since it’s present in abundance from bumpers, to trim, to the interior, and even under the hood.
That’s great and all, provided the chrome is in good shape. The biggest problem with chrome is that once it’s neglected and begins to break down and become porous, there’s not much that can be done to save it. And you can’t just pretend it’s not there. Bad chrome is the bane of projects; a car will forever look neglected and unfinished no matter how nice the paint and wheels if the chrome is still pitted, bubbly, or rusty.
Traditionally a trip to a re-chroming shop was the only acceptable answer, or a new replacement part if available. Anything else was viewed as cheaping out and even tasteless. That’s been changing in a big way the few years; we’ve noticed a trend toward alternative finishes to chrome; they keep popping up on everything from track cars to show cars. Sometimes it’s about standing out, other times it’s embracing the fact that while chrome is classic, it isn’t always the right sheen to complement every build style.
With that in mind, and some questionable chrome on some of our own projects looking ratty, we decided to see what alternatives the aftermarket holds. Some of these options will require a professional touch, but we discovered quite a few great DIY options as well. Even better, a lot of these alternatives ended up coming in cheaper than re-chroming, so you get to be a style trendsetter and save money!
Ten cool visual surface treatments for engine, trim, and graphics that will set you apart from the crowd.
You might be surprised how perfect the absence of paint looks. There’s just something about the appearance of perfectly worked bare steel that really captures the interest of hard-core hot rodders and casual enthusiasts alike. It’s too bad it’s nearly always covered up with paint. This photo shows a perfect example: the ’67 Camaro built by RideTech known as Velocity, which had a unique set of SS stripes. Rather than go with the expected white or black, these guys decided to paint everything but the stripes, leaving them in raw steel. Sounds simple, right? Just mask off the stripes during painting and uncover them when it’s time for the clearcoat? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple since clearcoat won’t adhere well to an unprimed or prepped surface.
The trick is to prep the steel without covering it up or removing the sheen we’re after. To make it happen on Velocity, the stripes were progressively sanded starting with 180 up to 600-grit paper, then treated with DuPont Metalok PN 230S followed by DuPont Hot Seal 2k (PN 4140). This is the critical step that will give the clear something to bite onto. To add in texture, Velocity’s stripes were scored with varying steps of 80-, 180-, and 320-grit sandpaper, then re-coated with Metalok and locked in with DuPont Hot Hues Urethane Panel Clear (PN HHC 5000). The result is a glossy steel look that can be waxed and treated like normal paint. If you’re more inclined toward a satin finish, opt for DuPont’s Hot Hues Matte Clear (PN HHC 5300).
Brushed & Scuffed Finishes
Speaking of bare metal parts, to really get the most out of the bare metal look the surface needs to not only be perfectly metalworked flat (we’re not building rat rods here), it should also be given consistent texture of some kind. Typically, brushed is the look of choice for most, and it’s actually much easier to achieve than you might realize. All you really need is varying grits of quality sandpaper, and a very flat board or sanding block to attach it to, both of which are available through Eastwood or Harbor Freight.
If you’re planning to clearcoat it like the Velocity Camaro, the metal should be stripped and very clean before you start, otherwise you can push contaminants down into the brushing. Once your surface is clean, start with the heaviest-grit sandpaper and only move it in one direction with a steady speed and no stopping. As for the progression of grits, there really is no set standard, just keep working it and changing papers until it looks good to you.
If you’re working with small accent pieces and would rather leave them bare than hassle with the clearcoating process, it can be even easier. On Project Laguna, our NASCAR-inspired aluminum plates over the headlights, rear quarter window covers, rear window straps, and hood air extractor vents were treated with a red Scotch-Brite pad and WD-40. The WD-40 is the trick, and will make it look much smoother and satiny than just the Scotch-Brite alone. This will create a nice, even finish and protect the aluminum from corrosion. Just remember to re-treat it occasionally, especially after it rains or is washed.
Powdercoating used to just be a tougher alternative to paint for chassis parts or other high-wear areas, but the technology has advanced to a point where a good gloss powdercoat can look as slick as paint. Matter of fact, we’ve seen a couple track cars prepped this way since powdercoat tends to last longer in the harshness of racing. Not only that, but the color range has expanded to hundreds of options, plus textures and satins. Want a finish that’s chrome-like and nearly as tough? Check out Eastwood’s HotCoat Reflective Chrome.
The best part about powdercoating though is that it’s simple enough for anyone to do at home. Both Eastwood and Harbor Freight carry DIY kits that can get you going right out of the box. The only potential downside is that you will need a dedicated oven to cook your coated creations. We prefer to scan the classifieds for secondhand ovens, but Eastwood also offers solutions with industrial-type ovens, and a very nice infrared powdercoat curing system. It might take a while since the unit can only cure a 10x10 area at a time, but it’s the DIY solution for powdercoating large parts like rearend housings at home without having to find space for an oven.
Engine turning (or damascening) has long been recognized as a hallmark of fine quality metalwork and engineering, since it’s historically been a process requiring specialized tools and years of experience to perfect. That, of course, means it was a bit pricey to have panels done since it was time intensive. All that changes in short order with Eastwood’s Engine Turning kit. With this, a drill press, and some patience you can create an engine turned-style finish on almost any metal surface. The kit includes special solid abrasive cylinders with abrasive impregnated throughout a rubber bonding material. You can choose from ½- or 1-inch size turns. Alignment and spacing is the key though, and that part is all up to you. The trick is to lay out a grid for yourself on the panel that makes it easy to see exactly where the abrasive needs to be placed, and always make sure the panel is securely clamped in place before attempting to apply the abrasive.
Chrome can’t be simply painted over, and prepping the surface can be costly. Then again, sometimes the simplest answer to bad chrome is the right way to go. A quick session of mediablasting can be used to clear away chrome or paint and get to a surface that can be prepped for paint—or just left as is. Clever use of media can also achieve different nice surface textures.
Check out the two bumpers in the photo; the one in the foreground looked as bad as the rusty and pitted one in the rear before it was blasted with garnet. This medium aggressive abrasive left a soft satin look to the bumper that nicely mimics finely cast aluminum. This could be coated with DuPont’s Hot Hues Matte Clear (PN HHC 5300) and left as is for a great low-maintenance, industrial look. On a side note, blasting with medium to fine media is also the perfect way to hide modern billet components and give them a finely cast look. Large components will likely require a professional’s help, but for smaller parts affordable blasting cabinets are available through Harbor Freight and Eastwood.
The current trend toward industrial finishes and treatments on cars is actually a blessing for DIY guys since the rattle can industry has been rolling out new-and-improved cast metallic finishes in the past few years. Just rethinking the tone of your trim can make all the difference on even lowly stock parts. If your chrome or polished aluminum is still in decent shape, you could re-coat it with Dupli-Color’s Shadow Chrome Black-Out Coating. It’s a two-can system with a translucent black basecoat and clearcoat that creates the look of black chrome on polished metal or chrome surfaces. It’s even resistant to brake dust, road abrasion, chipping, and fading, making it ideal for chrome wheels, bumpers, interior/exterior trim, accessories, and underhood components. Like the look of polished copper? Dupli-Color’s Copper Plate uses a similar process to re-coat polished or chrome parts to appear like they were plated with copper. We’d love to see this on a black car.
Creative Platings & Anodizing
Believe it or not, you can do your own custom plating and anodizing at home on a small scale with kits from Caswell Plating (www.CaswellPlating.com). You’re not exactly limited to just a few options either; they also carry home DIY kits for anodizing. Among the treatments available are nickel, copper, gold, silver, cadmium, brass, tin, bronze, black chrome, and yes, even good old classic chrome plating. This isn’t modeling toy stuff either (though Caswell has solutions for that as well), the anodizing and plating kits are designed to provide a commercial quality finish on a miniature scale, in approximately 20 minutes. Most of the finishes can be applied as a final satin metal treatment, or with a little buffing taken up to a mirror shine. The only hang-up is that the quantities of material are designed for smaller parts along the line of what can fit in a 5-gallon bucket. Still, that covers an awful lot of trim parts on most classic cars. Want to hear the part that really got us interested? They have kits for replating pot metal!
Perhaps made famous by Carroll Shelby and his line of Cobra valve covers for Ford powerplants, black crinkle coat is an excellent (and cheap) maintenance-free alternative to shiny stuff under the hood. Often relegated to vintage-style builds, and mostly Fords, we’ve been seeing modern variations on crinkle coat appearing on high-end cars from the likes of the Ringbrothers, and this ’62 Chevy II (known as The Runt) from RPM. The paint is a custom-blended two-tone of metallic red and root beer brown. Obviously money wasn’t an issue on this build; chrome just didn’t look at home with this palette. What you can’t see here is that Runt also makes use of black crinkle coat on all of the trim including the grille, wind wings, and so on, to create a completely chrome-less look. This is an easy one to duplicate and will instantly give any car a more hard-core appearance. Crinkle finish powdercoat should be used on areas that will see lots of abuse or use, but a good ol’ rattle can of Wrinkle Paint Black Aerosol from Eastwood can handle everything else and will match perfectly.
Relatively new to the scene, automotive wraps have been advancing in technology on a rapid pace. 3M’s new line of Scotchprint Wrap Films are specifically designed to provide dimensional stability and durability without the need for an over laminate. Basically, that means the stuff is made to be durable and last up to 12 years outdoors (according to 3M), thanks to a UV protective layer. While professional installation is recommended, we happened to get a firsthand preview of how easy the Scotchprint is to install. The pressure-activated adhesive allows you to slide and reposition the film multiple times for fitment, until you apply firm pressure. And thanks to non-visible air release channels, bubbling won’t be an issue either. One word of caution though: The wraps must only be laid on factory paint or high-quality repaints. Even though they are designed to release with relative ease, the adhesive is strong enough to peel paint if the surface beneath was improperly prepped. This stuff is so good that we thoroughly plan to use it in the future on a project.
My Dip Kit is a DIY version of the commercial process known as water transfer imaging. That’s the same process that many automotive manufacturers use to print woodgrain or brushed patterns on plastic interior pieces. Similarly, My Dip Kit allows you to apply a variety of decorative finishes to pretty much any submersible, hard, non-porous surface such as plastic, glass, hardwoods, fiberglass, and metal. It’s actually a very quick and easy way to refinish just about any part. The print itself resides on a thin base of water-soluble film, so when the film is placed in water the base begins to dissolve. An activator chemical is then sprayed over the film causing the ink to remain floating in an oil-like state on top of the water. Next, the part to be coated is immersed into the water, and the upward pressure of the water causes the ink to wrap around and adhere to the item. From there, it’s just clean and then clearcoat. Currently you can choose from camouflage, carbon fiber, metal finishes, skulls, animal prints, woodgrains, and illusion patterns.
Want to see some of these processes put to the test? Watch for web exclusive stories on some of these products on PopularHotRodding.com!