A Spotless Image

A rotary buffer can often be used to effectively remove scratches from the finish.

Truckers who take pride in their ride drive clean trucks. Image is the No. 1 reason truckers say they wash their trucks, but there are other important benefits: appearance is key for attracting business and keeping DOT inspectors at bay, and a clean truck maintains a rig’s value, which helps at resale and trade time.

But there are right and wrong ways to keep your truck shining bright. Truckers News visited Jeff Byler’s shop, Jeff’s Large Truck Detailing, in Bethel, Pa., to witness firsthand how finish care and restoration are done. Byler, his wife Kelly, his son Josh and his father Marvin make up the team at Jeff’s.

Keeping the paint bright
You don’t have to wash your truck by hand, but you should ask truck wash workers what detergents are being used in their process. The wrong detergent can damage your truck’s finish. Clear detergents are usually mild, and it’s a good sign if the truck wash removes most of the dirt with elbow grease or effective automatic brushes.

The rinsing process is also important. Good washes either rinse by hand or flow plenty of water over the truck and allow time for that water to work. Even mild soaps can damage paint if they are left on the truck after rinsing.

One of the worst things you can do to a truck’s finish over the long term is to clean it too aggressively.

“When you wash, do not use any kind of paint brighteners like they offer at truck washes,” Byler says. “It’s not good to use harsh chemicals to take off the dirt.”

These products, which are acid-based, will definitely remove dirt, but they will also dull the paint after years of use, Byler says. “You’ll end up with a film that can only be removed by buffing.” After a truck is washed repeatedly with harsh detergents, you can actually look at the finish at a sharp angle and see a film over it that reduces the brightness, he says.

Byler believes a weekly wash is ideal because it gives the dirt and chemicals less time to attack the finish. And if the truck gets coated with road salt, wash it off as soon as you can.

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The best way to get a cleaner result is to keep a good polish on your paint. Wax protects the clearcoat, which OEMs put on the truck to protect the paint from the constant pressure of the wind, especially in areas such as the leading edge of the hood, Byler says. An effective clearcoat serves as armor, keeping the oxygen and chemicals in the air from attacking the paint, dulling the shine or fading the color. Wax allows the air to flow more easily, which could save you a tiny bit of fuel, too.

When the truck is waxed, dirt will come off easily, allowing use of a gentle detergent. “If you have a good wax on the finish, rain washes off the heavy dirt,” Byler says. And soaps that are less harsh will allow that wax to stay on longer.

But don’t just grab the first – or the cheapest – wax on the shelf. In this case, name brand stuff might actually be better; in Byler’s experience the cheapest wax doesn’t work as well as brands that cost more. Wax does not have to be specifically for a truck; a quality product designed for cars will work just fine.

“There are a lot of good products, and everybody has their own preference,” Byler says.

It’s best to wax or polish twice a year, in spring and fall. Fall is even more important than spring, because the wax will protect the truck from the combination of moisture and the chemicals used to melt snow and ice. If you can manage a couple extra coats during the summer, Byler says that will “enhance the protection.”

Buffing out scratches
Regular waxing and washing are important to preserving your truck, but you can’t stop there. Removing the small scratches that inevitably crop up is another part of preserving your finish. You can take care of them yourself with a rotary buffer, powered by a small electric motor. Use a buffing compound and a finishing polish or wax. This same technique may sometimes work where chemicals in the air have attacked the finish and dulled your paint.

First, thoroughly clean the finish. Apply the buffing compound to the buffing pad and work it over the scratch until it disappears. Then repeat the process using the finishing polish to restore the shine.

If the scratch or chemical discoloration is so deep that this won’t work, try very gently sanding with fine sandpaper wetted down with ordinary water. This will dull the shine but will often restore the color. The shine can then be restored with the buffer and finishing polish.

If all these fail, or if you have damage that you find goes down to bare metal, Byler recommends calling a vendor who will come to your location in a van with all the right equipment to do spot painting. “There are many skilled people who do this. They prep, sand and repaint, and the result looks good,” he says. One key to success here is getting the right, matching color. You need a paint number and manufacturer, Byler says. Look on labels on the door-jamb and inside the glovebox for this. If you can’t find it on the truck, call the manufacturer with the serial number; usually your truck maker can supply the paint ID.

Finish restoration
Finish restoration is done with a rotary buffer. To get the supplies you’ll need, visit a truckstop with a large chrome shop or look on the Internet under “buffing supplies.”

There are two kinds of polishing pads – wool and foam. Wool, says Byler, is a ‘cutting pad.” This is for removing a thin layer of oxidized paint. Exercise extra caution with wool on darker colors because it will leave buff marks.

If you just need to polish up the surface to restore the shine, especially with dark colors, use a foam pad and a finish polish, which is not aggressive. Also, choose a low rpm setting on your buffer because higher settings can mark or burn the paint, says Byler. If you’ve created buff marks, you can often remove them with a foam pad.

What do you do if your paint is badly oxidized? Paint oxidizes from the outside in. So it may be possible to carefully remove paint down to fresh, un-oxidized material, leaving your finish like new – unless the oxidation is down to the bottom.

That paint removal is a process like grinding, which means it dulls the finish. The solution is a three-stage process to restore a smooth surface. If your finish is badly oxidized, you’ll need to get three grades of foam pad and polishing compound: harsh, medium and finish. Then use the harsh pad and compound until the color has just about come back. Follow up with the medium combination to begin restoring the shine and fully bring out the color. Once the appearance has smoothed out noticeably, apply the finishing pad and compound gently at low rpm to restore the full shine.

All this is a lot of work. But a truck that gleams will be worth the time and trouble. And if you keep up with the job, you won’t need to spend days cleaning it up when it’s time to sell.

Aluminum Accessories Need Special Care
You may have aluminum wheels, bumpers, air cleaners, toolboxes and other accessories on your truck. “Aluminum is a soft metal and very hard to take care of,” professional truck detailer Jeff Byler says. “Any chemical or road dirt can attack it and make it dull.” He recommends an acid wash every spring to restore the luster.

Many truck washes will do this work for you. If you prefer to do it yourself, the acid wash is a liquid you can buy, but you must dilute it properly to keep it from damaging the finish. Using at a stronger concentration than recommended, or even full strength, is not a good idea unless the finish is extremely dull. It’s best to dilute following the instructions exactly or leave that kind of work to a pro. The pros also have stronger acids than you can buy for finishes that need really aggressive treatment.

To do a routine cleaning, use an ordinary weed sprayer. Make sure to have a hose with plenty of flowing water available and to wear your watch:

  1. Apply the diluted acid quickly to a small area.
  2. Wait only 15-20 seconds while the acid works.
  3. Thoroughly flush the acid off with plenty of clean water.
  4. Repeat on slightly overlapping areas until you’ve finished the job.

If your finish has oxidized for such a long time that acid washing won’t restore it, Byler recommends getting an arbor buffer or sander with a 5/8-inch shaft. You need to get three levels of aluminum polishing pad: a cutting pad, a medium pad and a finishing pad. You also need three kinds of rouge, a grinding or polishing compound that comes in a cake-like soap. These are red, green and white, each more aggressive than the next. To polish aluminum:

  1. Install the purple cutting pad onto the buffer shaft. Make sure the attaching bolt or screw is tight.
  2. Power up the buffer at low rpm and run it over the surface of the rouge block until the edges are thoroughly coated.
  3. Buff the area you want to shine up with the pad until bare metal appears. Then go over the area by hand with aluminum polish to remove the rouge and enhance the shine.
  4. If you want the best possible shine, repeat the three steps first with the medium (yellow) pad and green rouge, and finally with the white finish pad and white rouge. Always end with hand polish to remove the rouge.

“Once you’ve cut and buffed all the aluminum areas you want to shine, the shine will stay if you hand polish,” Byler says. “Hand polishing puts off the need for buffing, but if you want the truck to really shine, you will need to buff once a year.”

Aluminum is so sensitive to chemical attack that in winter when running through heavy salt, Byler recommends always washing it off as soon as you can. Salt, calcium chloride and all those other wonderful ice-melters attack aluminum so aggressively they can cause pitting if they stay there for a couple of months.

Also, when refueling, if you spill diesel on your aluminum tank, flush it off as soon as possible.

For further information, please contact the following:

Autopia Car Care
(877) 570-1572

Jeff’s Large Truck Detailing
Bethel, PA
(610) 413-5835

(914) 764-5775

Valco Cincinatti, Inc.
(800) 788-3865

Blue Beacon
(785) 825-2221

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