1. They didn’t come that way from the factory—usually.
Lots of people who see shiny vintage Airstreams flashing by on the highway think that Airstreams were made that way originally. A few were delivered with a polish by special request, back in the days when you could custom-order an Airstream any way you wanted. But the vast majority of them came from the factory with a rather ordinary aluminum finish, which is more matte than mirror.
2. Polishing is more about chemistry than abrasion.
If you thought polishing was about removing the top layer of tarnished aluminum, you might be surprised to find that a professional grade polish like Nuvite actually converts the oxidized aluminum layer chemically back into shiny aluminum. That layer is “recycled” and re-deposited on the surface. Microscopic peaks of metal are worn down to fill scratches and pits, smoothing the surface at the same time that it gains that unforgettable shine.
This is why abrasives such as rouge and sandpaper are never used for a good polish. Those methods are destructive because they scrape off aluminum. Getting a great polish on an Airstream that has previously been abraded is much harder.
3. It’s cost-effective to do it yourself.
Professional Airstream polishing typically runs $100 to $200 per foot of trailer length. So a 25 foot Airstream could be quoted at anywhere from $2500 to $5000. The price is mostly driven by the cost of local labor.
If you’ve got the time and the inclination, you can do it yourself with only a few tools (buffer, pads, polish, mineral spirits, a ladder and a few small supplies like gloves). Good polish isn’t cheap but it’s a pittance compared to the cost of paying someone else to do it. The longer your Airstream, the more you’ll save.
4. The polish doesn’t go into the metal.
OK, so you’re buffing away with a can of Nuvite F7 for the first time, and you’re blown away by the speed with which the oxidization disappears. But the polish disappears, too. Is it going into the metal?
Surprisingly, it’s evaporating. The polish is in a base similar to mineral spirits, and as it is worked into the metal it “flashes off” or evaporates. Very little of the polish gets into the metal, so after it has done its work of converting oxidized aluminum and smoothing the surface, it just goes away.
5. Even newer Airstreams can be polished.
Just because you mostly see Airstreams from 1948-1980 polished doesn’t mean that the newer ones can’t be. Airstream changed the type of aluminum it uses a few times over the years, but even the newer alloys can take a polish, at least up to the 1999 model year. The only trick is that any clear coat on the trailer has to be chemically stripped off first.
Since 1999, Airstream has been using a very tough fluorocarbon clear coat by PPG. As of now, nobody has yet devised a chemical method for efficiently removing it, which makes polishing impractical for trailers made 1999 to present. Of course for those Airstream owners that’s good news—the clear coat seems to be exceptionally durable and long lasting. But undoubtedly sometime in the future a clear coat stripping method will be found, so in a few decades even owners of “vintage” 2005 models can have a mirror shine if they want.
6. It’s not as messy as you think.
You can definitely get messy polishing. Black bits of partially-used polish seem to have an amazing ability to get everywhere. But you don’t need to end up looking like a chimney sweep from Mary Poppins each day. Vinyl gloves, some work clothes (black is a good choice for shirts), and a hat will keep the worst of it off you. The rest washes off pretty easily.
For clean-up, Goop or a similar mechanic’s hand cleaner will work well on your skin, followed by ordinary soap and water. Clothes should be done in a separate wash load. To dilute polish stains on surfaces such as the garage floor or tools, mineral spirits work very well.
7. There’s more than one way to polish.
All kinds of polishes can be used to make an Airstream shine. Your choice of polish should be based on the depth of shine you want. A middling shine can be had quickly with various “one step” polishes, and you can use your hands, a rotary buffer, a Cyclo, or whatever tool you want.
If you want the ultimate mirror shine with no cloudiness, the best method is the way the airlines do it, working up through three or four grades of polish. This takes more time than the one-step polishes but the results are exceptional.
Regardless of the technique you use, if you see twisty reflective “swirl marks” or “strike lines” on a sunny day, you’ll need to use a finer grade of polish. The swirl marks are caused by scratches in the surface, left by the rotary buffer. A finer grade of polish will reduce the swirl marks until they are unnoticeable.