Tips & Techniques For Polishing Steel
January 04, 2011
Reid shows you how to polish steel the quick and easy way.
After gunsmithing for over 30 years and seeing a lot of guns, I honestly believe that more firearms are ruined by improper polishing by both amateur and professional gunsmiths than are ever worn out by shooting. You've seen guns like these. They're the ones that have been refinished where every sharp edge or angle on the metal has been rounded over. Screw or pinholes have been washed out and now look like funnels. Even the edges of the slots on the screw heads have been rounded over. I've seen some so severely rounded that a screwdriver would no longer hold in the slot. As one old gunsmith buddy of mine puts it, "They look like used lollipops."
Common chalk is used on the file to keep the teeth clear of metal particles.
This is really unfortunate as the person responsible for this often has absolutely no idea of the damage he's doing. I well remember a customer years ago coming into my shop with an original, signed, North Carolina mountain rifle made in the 1850s by a well-known maker. It would have been a very desirable collector's item worth thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, he allowed a "friend" to talk him into letting him "fix up" the muzzleloader. He fixed it up alright! He polished the octagon barrel with a buffer until all the flats were rounded over and then blued the metal with a hot caustic salt bath. It was bright and shiny and had more ripples than a fast movin' stream. And it was now virtually worthless. I still remember how uncomfortable I felt answering his questions as to the value of this family heirloom. It would have taken a restoration genius to repair the damage done to that nice old rifle.
There is a place for a buffer in a shop. When used appropriately, it can be a great tool to save time and energy.
Regrettably, very few people with access to buffers really understand how to use 'em. About 15 years ago I toured the Colt plant in Hartford. It was an amazing place, and I had a great time. What most impressed me was the time I spent talking with the one fellow who at that time was responsible for polishing all Colt single-action revolvers.
Reid uses a 10-inch smooth mill file for draw-filing out pits. Note how he has rounded the edges of his file.
He was located in a fairly small room and worked on a bench of modest size. Mounted in the middle of the bench on the front edge of the top was a small buffer. As I recall he used something on the order of over 30 different-shaped buffing wheels of various materials as he worked on each revolver. He had a wheel to polish the inside of the flutes on the revolver cylinder, one to polish the curved areas between the flutes, one for the topstrap of the frame, etc. He also had multiples of each shape that were coated with progressively higher grits of polish. As he worked he was constantly changing wheels on the buffer even when working on a single part. His skill was truly amazing.
The fellow could not understand how anyone could believe that a gun could be polished properly with nothing more than three or four wide, flat-faced muslin or felt wheels because there was just no way to get into the many tight curves and rounded areas that are so frequently seen on a gun. And he was right!
Both hands are used to draw the file along the flats of this older Winchester 94 barrel, removing pits but preserving the edges of individual flats.
I don't claim to be an expert in polishing with a buffer. In fact, even after 30 years I'm a bit reluctant to use the one in my shop. I know all too well how just a moment's inattention can cause a problem when you take off too much metal.
Long ago I decided I could do better work polishing by hand than I ever could with a buffer. And it was safer. I ran a lot less risk of damaging the gun. Polishing by hand is a slow process, but there are ways of making the task faster and more efficient.
Many folks think that you can and should polish out all rust pits. Yes, you can do that, but it'll take a lot of time. A better way is to first use a file. I use a 10-inch smooth-cut mill file for most of my draw-filing to remove pits. I modified the file just a bit by rounding the edges so the sharp teeth on the side would not dig into my work piece. This was especially helpful when working on Winchester Models 94, 12, and 97 where you have a machined ridge on the front and rear of the sides of the receiver. If you run a file with a 90-degree corner into these curved areas, you'll leave tiny gouges. The rounded edges of my mill file avoid this.
I also use plenty of common blackboard chalk on the file. This prevents metal from clogging the file teeth and then creating gouges or deep scratches as the file is used.
Reid believes the best way to perform finer polishing--especially for a smooth, flat surface on a flat receiver--is to do it by hand using abrasive paper backed by the file.
Once the file work has been completed, I wrap the file with abrasive paper for further polishing. I work my way up through progressive grits until I reach the desired shine or luster.
Hand polishing really shows its value when working on a flat-sided receiver. To me, it doesn't matter whether it's an old Remington 870 shotgun, a Winchester 94 lever action, or a Colt 1911 auto pistol, the only way to get a true, smooth flat surface is by hand, using abrasive backed by a flat file. Think of it this way: How can you possibly keep and maintain a flat surface over a large area using only the small contact area of a large round buffing wheel? Yeah, someone somewhere can probably do it, but I have yet to meet that person.
Once you have worked on a few flat-sided receivers you will be amazed at how irregular many of these surfaces are. Guns that have never been touched after leaving the factory will be found with major high and low spots due to buffing. When using your file and abrasive you can make t
hese surfaces true and flat.
That's all well and good for flat surfaces, but what about round barrels? If you have pitting, you still want to draw file. Just keep in mind that with every stroke of the file you'll leave a narrow, flat strip the length of the barrel. To avoid creating flats on the barrel, simply overlap your file strokes so your "flats" are as narrow as you can make 'em.
One goal in polishing metal is to keep the edges of the screw holes sharp and distinct.
The next step is to take a strip of abrasive and "shoe shine" the barrel, working from one end to the other. Don't over concentrate in one spot, or you'll get a low area and later have ripples on your barrel.
With the next higher grit, wrap the abrasive around a flat file and work back and forth along the length of the barrel. Do this until you have eliminated any grit marks or scratches from the previous grit abrasive that went around the barrel. Don't forget to overlap your lengthwise strokes to avoid flats.
With each successive finer grit of abrasive, alternate the direction of your polishing. Lengthwise, then around the barrel, then lengthwise again, and so forth. Be sure to finish with a circular, or shoeshine, polishing motion around the barrel.
Lettering can be a problem. Reid cautions to use extra care and thought when polishing over or around any markings on a firearm.
Markings or stampings are a problem. Many are very faint or shallow, and if you polish away metal around the stamping you can easily obliterate it. More often than not that's considered a mark of poor workmanship, and it will hurt the value of the firearm. Also, don't forget that it's a violation of federal law to even accidentally damage or remove a serial number. I strongly suggest you simply avoid polishing over any markings. On your last grit, you can carefully--oh so carefully--make one pass over the lettering. That's it! If there's pitting in the lettering, you'll have to make a decision. You can get rid of the pits, but you'll lose your lettering. I much prefer to leave a few pits in the lettering. It's much less objectionable in my opinion.
Good polishing does not require expensive equipment. A few files and some abrasive are basically all you need. That plus some time and careful thought will enable you to polish a gun far better than most gun manufacturers and a great many amateur and professional gunsmiths.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!