How to Polish a Revolver
September 23, 2010
This revolver is in need of refinishing. For the best results, the old finish needs to be stripped off, and the metal needs to be re-polished. It's easy to see the pits and scratches under the bluing, and the S&W logo looks washed out from improper polishing.
Don't you just hate to see nice guns ruined by someone's misguided efforts? I sure do, and I bet you're the same way. It's bad enough when I find a rifle or handgun in rough shape from hard use and neglect, but it's even worse when I find one unintentionally damaged by poor gunsmithing. Unfortunately, this is all too often the case with revolvers that have been reblued.
I honestly don't think the work is deliberately poorly done. Most folks really do want to do a good job and take pride in their work. It's just that frequently the poor guy doin' the work doesn't realize his technique is not up to par, or he doesn't fully understand what a good bluing job should look like.
I've been in a lot of shops, and the differences you'll find in what people perceive as "good" work versus "bad" or "unacceptable" work are amazing. For some folks, if a reblue job has a shinny black finish, then by golly, it's great. The fact that the screw and pin holes are dished out, the lettering in the stamping is barely visible, pits and roughness can be seen under the bluing, or the corners are not sharp and distinct doesn't seem to matter. If it has a high-gloss finish, that's all it takes.
Recently, I bought an older 4-inch-barreled .32-20 Smith & Wesson revolver that had suffered through some very bad refinishing. At some point in the past, it had been poorly polished and then reblued. Consequently, the value of the gun was greatly reduced. In fact, it was darn cheap, and since I'm a fan of the old .32-20 cartridge, I couldn't resist buying it. I figured I could strip off the old finish and re-polish the gun, correcting as many of the flaws as possible in the process. Guns like this are great wintertime projects when it's too cold and nasty for outside activities like shooting. Eventually, I'll blue this gun, but first, I have to re-polish the metal.
The first step in the process was to completely disassemble the revolver and separate the parts. All the parts to be refinished were placed in a plastic parts box, and all other components were placed in a labeled zip-lock bag. This helped to ensure that no small parts would be lost.
Remove The Old Finish
The old reblued finish was removed by use of a chemical stripper. In this case, I used Naval Jelly, which you can pick up at almost any local hardware store. This is a liquid rust remover that is basically just a mild acid. It'll remove rust and bluing, but it will not damage the base metal. The finish could be taken off with an abrasive, but that would also remove metal, which you normally want to avoid.
Don't make the mistake of using Naval Jelly to try to take off rust on a blued gun if you don't want to remove the bluing. If you do use it on a blued gun, you'll strip off the bluing as well as the rust. Remember, bluing is a form of rust.
Once the metal had been stripped, I was able to see many imperfections that had been hidden by the bluing. There was quite a bit of fine pitting on both sides of the frame. In addition, the screw holes were slightly dished out, and many of the sharp edges on the frame were slightly rounded. Most of this could be corrected with some judicious hand polishing.
Lots of scratches and pits can be seen under the finish, the sideplate fits poorly, and the screw hole is slightly dished out.
Polish--The Proper Way
It's definitely possible to properly polish a handgun with a buffing wheel. After all, that's how they were done at the factory. But there are two problems with this for guys like you and me. First, the fellows at the factory had years of experience and lots of skill. Realistically, you and I will never have the time or resources to duplicate that level of expertise. Second, those guys didn't do the work with just one or two polishing wheels.
Many years ago, I was visiting the Colt plant and had a chance to talk with the fellow who was in charge of polishing the Single Action Army revolvers. I believe he told me he had something on the order of 30 different wheels of various sizes, shapes, and grits to polish just that one gun.
While we can't duplicate that setup, we can still do a credible job, and it won't take near as much equipment. The secret is to do all the polishing by hand. We can still get a darn nice finish without the use of any powered equipment or multiple polishing wheels.
In addition, there are a few tricks that can make the work much easier and result in a more professional finish. By the way, there's often confusion in the use of the terms sanding, polishing, and buffing. For me, sanding is the use of an abrasive on wood, polishing entails use of an abrasive on metal, and buffing is the use of a motor-powered wheel to polish metal.
In using an abrasive, I prefer cloth-backed strips in progressive grits. I start with the lowest--coarsest--grit that will remove the pits or imperfections, which in this case is 120 grit. I then work my way up through progressively finer grits. The object here is to always remove the previous coarser grit marks. By the way, I seldom see the need to go beyond 400 grit.
A backer or sanding block is always used with the abrasive. These blocks are often nothing more than small pieces of wood. I shape them to match specific surfaces of the frame. Also, I use kerosene or honing oil to act as a lubricant when polishing. This helps to keep the minute bits of metal that have been removed from clogging up the abrasive strips, keeping the abrasive effective for a much longer time.
A trick to avoid dishing out screw and pin holes is to make sure they're filled with screws and pins. I use damaged or worn screws that I place in the screw holes when I'm polishing. Filling the holes supports the edges of the holes and prevents the abrasive from dishing them out. The same applies to pins. Also, if the screw slots or heads are worn or damaged and new ones are available, I always replace the screws. In this case, the good folks at Numrich Gun Parts Corp. were able to supply replacements for all the sideplate screws. New screws can often make a refinish project look really nice.
Proper polishing requires disassembly of the revolver. Note that when removing the S&W's extractor rod, be sure to support the extractor with at least two empty cartridge cases.
With the bluing removed, the damage to the gun's base metal is readily apparent.
Coffield uses Naval Jelly to chemically remove the old bluing. It's fast and easy, but it does not harm the revolver's base metal.
Avoid Major Obstacles
A major obstacle in good polishing is being able to hold the gun so you can easily get to the various surfaces. You need to use a sturdy vise, but you have to be darn careful that you don't damage the gun with the vise jaws. I use wood inserts lined with cork or leather to cushion and protect the metal. I also make up a wood support to clamp the barrel between the vise jaws. This is just a piece of pine with a hole approximately the size of the barrel diameter that has been split with a saw so it can clamp around the barrel. It is especially helpful when working on the sides of the frame, and it allows almost unlimited possibilities for positioning the gun as you work on it.
The cylinder flutes often cause polishing problems. I get around this by using a wooden dowel as a backer for the abrasive. The flutes are polished lengthwise with the abrasive wrapped around the dowel. As you polish the flutes, you'll want to maintain a sharp edge where it merges with the rest of the cylinder.
Lettering, numbers, and other stampings are always a challenge because you want to keep them as crisp and sharp as possible. It's generally best to do very little or no polishing over stampings. The S&W trademark on the right side of my gun's frame is especially vulnerable and must be treated with care.
The sideplate and crane should be left in place in the frame while polishing. This ensures that the edges of the parts are not rounded or beveled. Also, by polishing these parts with the frame, there shouldn't be any difference in the height of the exterior surfaces, so the joints are smooth and even.
Always keep in mind that the quality of the bluing job is directly related to the quality of the polishing work. The gun will never look good if the metal preparation work is poorly done. That's the bad news. The good news is that good metal preparation and polishing can be done by hand with minimal equipment and expense. All it takes is a bit of time, patience, and thought. It's a great wintertime project that will often enable you to turn a "junker" into a darn nice firearm.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!