In search of shine

While chrome additions would seem to be just frills, they’re a lot like the rest of the truck – they do their job better and longer if you take good care of them. Here is how to choose, mount and maintain shiny chrome and stainless steel extras to make your truck shine.

Don’t compromise on quality
Our sources at several leading chrome shops and manufacturers unanimously recommend that you buy quality chrome and other bright parts.

Higher-quality chrome is made through hexavalent chroming rather than trivalent, says Andy Gobel of Denver-based Outlaw Customs. In chemistry class, you may have learned that a valence is a connection point or “bond” between atoms. Trivalent refers to three connection points, while hexavalent refers to six, so hexavalent implies a much stronger bonding between the chrome and the steel underneath.

“We use ‘hex’ in our product, which is what is used in OEM parts,” Gobel says. “The finish is better because of how long the manufacturing process takes. Hexavalent spends 15 minutes in the nickel process and an hour to an hour and a half in the chroming process.”

Gobel adds that in the trivalent process, the product is dipped for just 20-30 minutes. The result is “darker chrome with less luster,” he says, which you’ll see in a lot of overseas products.

All our sources agreed that, when it comes to chrome, you’d be smart to buy a domestic product. The process is so complex that only countries with the most advanced manufacturing can really do it in an ideal manner.

“You should buy a good American part from a company that has a reputation in chrome,” says Rob Fracci, who does all marketing for Grand Rock Exhaust Systems. “The part should have at least a one-year warranty. Beware of cheap Chinese parts.”

Another critical part of the process is preparing the part, Gobel says. “The most important thing in chroming to get the best finish is the prep work. The part must be perfectly clean, sanded and ground down to bare metal.” So, if talking with a plater, ask them not only about whether their product is trivalent or hexavalent but how they prep their parts.

Brad Taylor, sales and purchasing manager at 4 State Trucks, a chrome shop in Joplin, Mo., says it can be hard to know what you’re getting just by looking at the product. “The best way to protect yourself is to always deal with a company that you know and can trust,” he says, “[a company] that will stand behind the products that they sell.”

Ray Lucas of Valley Chrome Plating is president of the National Association for Surface Finishing. He reports that the organization is working on a program to certify chrome platers.

Of course, some parts on trucks that look shiny and almost like chrome are actually stainless steel. Says Lucas, “Most bright metal accessories are actually made of highly polished stainless steel. There are two different grades, 304 and 430. 304 is the higher grade. We make stuff for Paccar Parts, and they only use 304.

“There is an easy way to tell the difference. A magnet will stick on 430, but not on 304. If a magnet won’t stick to it, buy it.”

Chrome vs. stainless
Our experts’ other recommendation is to make the right choice for your needs between metals. Chrome has its appearance advantages, but stainless steel is normally more durable, at least as far as corrosion goes.

“It’s whatever you prefer,” says Lucas. “Stainless costs more. However, it can be buffed and it will never rust. On the other hand, there is nothing worse than salt on chrome. It will eat the chrome right off a bumper, so chrome almost always rusts and pits, eventually.” A chrome bumper might last 7-10 years, says Lucas, but stainless you can keep right on buffing. “But chrome is shinier and stays shiny longer.” Stainless, he says, “is more yellow and deteriorates some in a year.”

Taylor of 4 State Trucks says they sell many items in stainless steel, which will take more abuse from the elements. “I would recommend stainless for products such as rear light bars, under sleeper bars, air cleaner light bars and other exterior products that will see the harsh elements from the road,” Taylor says. “Front bumpers are still more popular in chrome for us. A lot of the reason is that it has a little better shine, and the price is still much lower than stainless steel. On an application on the front of the vehicle, stainless will also pit from physical damage more easily than chrome.”

When it comes to stainless, you should also look at the quality of the polishing job and how it’s accomplished. “We polish the part in the flat,” Lucas says, “and then bend it later.”

Maintenance for protection
Lucas says some of his customers actually have winter and summer bumpers. They run a standard bumper in winter and then switch to their fancy, chrome version in the spring and leave it on for the summer. Short of that, maintenance consists of “washing frequently and applying a good wax,” he says. “This keeps salt from attacking even in the worst weather. It also helps to use the right wash water.” Your wash water should be neither too acidic nor too alkaline – you may need to request it at the truck wash you use. “Rinse thoroughly,” says Lucas. “Salt and calcium chloride tear up chrome and aluminum. It’s best to wash every time you go through an area that’s been salted if you can. Some truckers will even apply a thin layer of oil with a rag if they know they are headed for a salted area.” Once a month is not too often to wax, he adds.

Gobel agrees the best way to maximize the life of both chrome and stainless is to regularly wash and polish. “The best polish we’ve used is White Diamond Metal Polish, and in between polishing their detail spray works great,” he says. “They add a lot of protectants that make it last longer in between washes, and it’s easy to apply and remove.”

Taylor suggests consulting the folks who made or supplied you with your chrome accessories. “There are several good chrome polishes on the market, and we offer a full line of chrome polishing products from Zephyr as well as other companies that have polish for chrome that will protect and clean at the same time,” he says.

Fracci says, “We have parts over five years old that still look new because they have been given good care. Soap and water with a non-abrasive chrome cleaner type of wax seem to do the trick.”

Most of our sources frowned on the idea of re-chroming a part that has deteriorated. Lucas says the labor involved is so extensive, and steel so cheap, you’re not likely to save much money. Fracci says, “For quality assurance, we only do new tubing.” Gobel says, “There are actually not that many places anymore who do chroming because of EPA regulations.”

The companies we’ve mentioned all install chrome and stainless items or, as in the case of Valley Chrome, which only sells through dealers, provide such service through them. But installing chrome yourself is usually a simple job, and our experts agree that most parts can be installed by a do-it-yourselfer with the right, simple tools.

Debbie Spencer, owner of Spencer’s Chrome (a Valley Chrome dealer) in Watsontown, Pa., reports that about 90 percent of what her shop sells is successfully installed by the buyer. She recommends caution in installing some types of dashboard modifications, however, saying, “Some people do their own, but you really have to know what you are doing.”

Lucas says bumpers can normally be installed quite easily. “A bumper typically has four bolts on each side. You just need somebody to help you hold it in position while you line up the bolt holes and get the bolts started.”

“Bumpers are definitely a do-it-yourself part,” agrees Taylor of 4 State, which sells all its parts through a catalog and website. “Chrome exhaust, seats, rear light bars and air cleaner light bars are all items that can be installed by the average do-it-yourself mechanic.” However, 4 State will also handle custom work in stainless steel, “from the littlest custom part to a complete makeover of an 18-wheeler.”

In fact, all the folks we spoke with will do custom work of one type or another, so if you have a slightly wild and original idea for a modification on your exhaust system or a unique part of another sort, you’d be smart to pick up the phone, speak to a large chrome shop, and check out the possibilities.

What’s Available?
Chrome and shiny stainless steel parts range from the front of the truck (bumpers, emblem surrounds and air cleaners) to the middle of the truck (mufflers and exhaust system parts) all the way to the back (special mud flaps and hangers, light bars under the sleeper and at the back). Rob Fracci, marketing specialist for Grand Rock Exhaust Systems, says the company specializes in custom exhaust systems. Many chrome companies offer dashboard modifications like chrome or stainless switches and gauge surrounds.

Valley Chrome Plating sells all its parts through distributors and dealers, according to Ray Lucas, and makes bumpers, visors, Wingmaster air deflectors, mud flap hangers and instrument panel dress-up accessories.

Brad Taylor of 4 State Trucks says, “We sell a lot of different items, but bumpers would be our No. 1 volume item, and next would be our Chrome Monster Stacks, which are exhaust system parts, and rear light bars (mud flap hangers), cab and sleeper bars either with or without lights, and stainless steel grilles.”

Andy Gobel of Outlaw Customs says, “The most common parts we sell in this market are bumpers, exhaust stacks, mud flap hangers, and various small accessories. Most products are being manufactured out of stainless these days. We also just introduced a line of chromed, twisted gearshift sticks – the El Diablo, which is twisted half a revolution, and the Twisted Soul, which is twisted a full 360 degrees.”

For more information:
4 State Trucks
(888) 875-7787

Grand Rock Exhaust Systems
(800) 321-3674

Outlaw Customs
(303) 952-8109

Spencer’s Chrome Parts
and Service
(570) 538-1828

Valley Chrome Plating
(559) 298-8094

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