How to Polish Aluminum

Commonly used in appliances, car wheels, and cookware, aluminum is incredibly versatile. At the same time, the metal is prone to discoloration and corrosion, both of which can damage its finish. Fortunately, with polishing, you can keep an aluminum finish looking great long into the future.

Today, we’re here to share everything you need to know about polishing aluminum, including recommended materials, safety tips, and step-by-step instructions.

Aluminum Polishing Benefits

There are many reasons to polish aluminum, such as:

1. Appearance

You can remove nicks, scratches, and other aluminum defects with polishing, resulting in a smooth surface. Plus, polishing can give the metal a clean, professional look. 

2. Durability

Aluminum polishing can help improve the durability of the metal’s surface, reducing the risk of contamination and oxidation. 

3. Corrosion Resistance

Polishing provides corrosion resistance, as it helps make the surface of aluminum more resistant to chemical reactions. 

Many aluminum distributors understand the ins and outs of polishing aluminum. Of course, with the right supplies, you can polish aluminum on your own. 

Aluminum Polishing Supplies

Here are the supplies you’ll need to polish aluminum:

  • Aluminum pre-cleaning product
  • Aluminum polish
  • Protective eyewear and gloves 
  • Masking tape 
  • Mild dish detergent 
  • Stiff wire brush or fine steel wool 
  • Sandpaper in various grits 
  • Polishing compound 
  • Clean cloths or paper towels
  • Orbital sander

These supplies will help you quickly and efficiently polish aluminum, protect yourself and others from chemical and equipment hazards, and limit the risk of mistakes. 

How to Polish Aluminum to Mirror Finish

You can polish aluminum in three steps:

1. Clean the Metal

Remove dirt and grime from your aluminum. With minor buildup, use a mild detergent. Wash the surface, rinse it, and dry it with a clean cloth or paper towel. 

If there’s still buildup on the surface, you may need to use a commercial aluminum pre-cleaning product. Once you apply this product, let it sit for a few minutes to loosen the buildup, then rinse it off. Repeat the process if buildup remains. You can also use a stiff wire brush or fine steel wool to remove debris. 

You won’t always be able to remove severe discoloration, scratches, and other surface flaws with cleaning or polishing. If you want to remove these blemishes from the surface of your aluminum before you polish it, you may need to sand them down. 

2. Sand the Metal

Before you start sanding, apply masking tape to the areas of your aluminum you don’t want to sand. Along with this, put on protective eyewear and gloves.

With sanding, begin with a low-grit sandpaper and work toward a finer grit. In many instances, a 320-grit abrasive works well. If you’re dealing with deep pits or gouges, you may want to go with a grit in the 180 to 250 range. Generally, you should not go below a 180-grit abrasive since it may damage your metal’s appearance. 

In terms of the grit to use when you sand the surface, work your way up. For example, you may start with a 320-grit abrasive to remove blemishes. Next, you can move up to a 400-grit abrasive to further prepare your metal for polishing. Depending on your project, you may want to go as high as 1,500 grit. 

3. Polish the Metal

If you want to polish an aluminum pan or any other metal surface that will have food on it, make your own polishing compound instead of using a product that’s made from chemicals. You can make this compound by combining equal parts of water and white vinegar or water and cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate). 

Apply a small amount of aluminum polish to the surface of your metal. Then, with a clean paper towel or cloth, wipe the surface using small, circular motions. 

After you remove the polishing residue, use another clean paper towel or cloth to buff the surface. When you do, use the same small, circular motions as before. 

For a large polishing job, you can use an angle grinder with an airway or muslin buffing wheel in lieu of completing the work by hand. When you use this tool, buff each section of aluminum and add more polishing compound as needed. When you’re finished, wipe down the polishing residue from the surface and change your grinder’s buffing wheel.

When you use a grinder with a buffing wheel for aluminum polishing, start with a coarse abrasive. For instance, you can begin with a gray metal buffing compound bar, move on to a brown tripoli, and finish with a white rouge buffing compound to give your aluminum a mirror finish. 

Aluminum Polishing Safety Tips

Use personal protective equipment (PPE) when you polish aluminum. Protective eyewear and gloves protect your eyes and hands when polishing chemicals and equipment. You can also protect exposed skin from the absorption of chemicals or metal with a barrier cream. 

If you are working in an enclosed space, you may need respiratory protection. This helps prevent inhalation of chemical fumes or metal dust. 

Additionally, tools used to grind and polish aluminum can be noisy, so you may want to wear earplugs or earmuffs to protect against noise hazards. 

Lastly, as you search for tools you can use to polish aluminum, consider their safety features. Tools are available with variable-direction exhausts, which allow you to direct toxic fumes away from you while you work. You can pick up handheld tools with shock-resistant handles to protect against vibration and hand fatigue. There are even tools with ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) that help prevent electric shock.

Want Aluminum for Your Next Project?

In addition to providing tips and tricks for how to polish aluminum, Pennsylvania Steel Company serves as one of the leading aluminum suppliers in the northeast.

We offer a wide range of aluminum products for projects in Pennsylvania, New England, Long Island, and other parts of the country. Contact Pennsylvania Steel for aluminum near you.

Aluminum vs Steel: Which is Better for Your Project?

The steel vs aluminum debate is ongoing. If you’re getting ready to kick off a construction project, there are pros and cons to using either of these metals. To help you determine which metal you should select in the aluminum vs steel debate, we’ve put together a list of five factors to consider. 

1. Corrosion Resistance

A metal’s corrosion resistance refers to its ability to withstand the elements and other conditions without changing. 

Generally, aluminum offers better corrosion resistance than steel. There are several reasons why. 

First, aluminum oxidizes in the same way iron rusts. However, when this happens, aluminum oxide remains on the metal. This helps protect aluminum against corrosion. It also means you won’t have to add paint or another coating to shield your aluminum from rusting. 

Meanwhile, after you spin carbon steel, you may need to paint it to safeguard the metal against corrosion and rust. And in many instances, zinc is used to guard against corrosion when this type of steel is galvanized. 

Comparatively, stainless steel protects against corrosion but can still rust. If this type of steel rusts, you may be able to scrub away the damage. At this point, the steel’s chromium shield will start to rebuild itself. 

2. Strength 

In terms of strength, steel is the superior choice over aluminum. 

Steel is harder, denser, and heavier than aluminum. These things help make it less likely that steel will bend when exposed to heat or force.

Due in part to its strength and weight, automakers commonly use steel to manufacture cars. However, some car companies have used aluminum, which helps them build lightweight frames that promote fuel efficiency.

3. Malleability

If you want a flexible metal, aluminum may be better than steel. 

Aluminum offers plenty of design freedom, giving you the flexibility to form the metal into a wide range of custom configurations. 

If you try to form these same configurations with steel, the metal may break due to its stiffness. 

4. Cost

Steel and aluminum prices change frequently, since both metals are constantly in demand. 

In many instances, steel is more affordable than aluminum. 

For example, you may pay less for mild or carbon steel than aluminum. 

On the other hand, stainless steel may cost more than aluminum. 

Along with these things, it may be more economical to create a custom shape or profile out of aluminum than trying to do the same thing with steel. 

5. Weldability

Welding may be more challenging with aluminum versus steel. 

Common ways to weld steel include:

  • Stick Welding: Involves the use of a flux-coated electrode.
  • Metal Inert Gas (MIG) Welding: Requires a continuous solid electrode wire that’s heated and put into a weld pool via a welding gun. 
  • Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW): Lets you use a tungsten electrode to join steel and other metals.
  • Flux Core Welding: Consists of a wire electrode that goes from a welding gun through a joint.

With any of these steel welding methods, applying too much heat may impact the quality of your results. 

Much in the same vein, welding aluminum may be difficult because the metal is highly sensitive and protected by an oxidized layer. These may make aluminum susceptible to impurities and lead to weak welds. 

If you want to weld aluminum, preparing your metal is key. Here are things you can do to get aluminum ready to weld:

  • Apply an acetone or other mild solvent to remove grease, oil, or other impurities from the metal’s surface. 
  • Utilize a stainless steel brush to get rid of surface oxides.
  • Make sure your aluminum is dry and stored at room temperature. 

MIG and GTAW are two of the most commonly used methods for welding aluminum. 

In addition to these, you may be able to use laser beam and electron welding, which allows you to apply a precise amount of heat to a specific zone. 

You may also perform resistance welding, which enables you to apply pressure and pass a current through areas of the metal you want to join. 

How to Choose Metal for Your Project

If you are debating between aluminum vs stainless steel or similar metals, there is no shortage of options at your disposal. 

Here are tips to help you select the best metal for your project:

  • Determine the Application: Think about your project’s purpose, and you can narrow your search to metals that’ll help you achieve your desired results. 
  • Put Together a Budget: Figure out how much money you have to spend, as this may dictate the type of metal you use and other aspects of your project. 
  • Connect with Steel and Aluminum Distributors: Find a distributor to get insights into metal products so you’ll be well-equipped to make an informed decision.  

Pennsylvania Steel Company is an aluminum and steel distributor that offers an extensive collection of products from our regional warehouses across Pennsylvania, New England, the Southeast, and other areas of the United States.

Our team can help you choose between aluminum and steel and find metal products that deliver long-lasting results. 

Contact Pennsylvania Steel to purchase aluminum or steel products in your area.

How is Aluminum Made?

Although it’s the most abundant metallic element in the Earth’s crust, aluminum never occurs in its metallic form in nature. Its compounds, however, are present in nearly every form of vegetation, mineral, and animal. So, how is aluminum made?

When the silvery-white metal is isolated (first achieved in 1825), we wind up with the periodic element Aluminum (Al). Thanks to the modern method of producing aluminum, it surpassed copper in world production of nonferrous metals back in the 1960s. Today’s seamless process – electrolysis of purified alumina dissolved in cryolite – has allowed aluminum to remain widely used in several settings for decades. In this article, the aluminum distributors at Pennsylvania Steel Company break down everything you need to know about aluminum and its production process.

Basic Properties & Structure

What is aluminum?

Natural aluminum compounds are universally present in igneous rocks and various gemstones. Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians used organic clay for assorted projects, including pottery, medicines, and textiles. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that experts recognized aluminum for its application as a metal.

The versatility of this metal is due to its ability to be combined with other alloys (ex: magnesium or silicon) in small amounts to diversify its applications. Although pure aluminum is malleable and somewhat brittle, commercial aluminum is very strong while still relatively flexible.

aluminum periodic table

What's the difference between aluminum and steel?

Steel is more rigid than traditional aluminum and is more durable because it’s more than twice as dense. Both steel and aluminum consist of a combination of two elements. Steel contains iron and carbon, while aluminum contains bauxite and cryolite.

Features & Manufacturing Process

How is aluminum made?

Stage 1: Finding the Ore

  • As previously mentioned, the metallic aluminum alloy doesn’t appear anywhere in nature. As a result, it can only be extracted from naturally occurring compounds.
  • Ore is the natural rock or sediment that contains one or more valuable minerals in the form of clay, slate, or granite sediments. The essential aluminum ore is bauxite. Bauxite is commonly found in deposits close to the Earth’s surface and contains about 52% aluminum oxide with iron oxide impurities.

Stage 2: Mining

  • Investigatory drilling allows geologists and researchers to determine the location of bauxite deposits for mining alumina. Once found, they extract the bauxite and remove the earth using various methods, including blasting, drilling, and ripping with specialized bulldozers. The resulting product is alumina: the raw, crystalline form of bauxite. 
  • Four tons of high-quality bauxite will produce approximately two tons of alumina, from which producers can manufacture about a ton of pure aluminum.

Stage 3: Refining the Bauxite (Using the Bayer Process)

  • In the first step of the Bayer Process (Digestion), the bauxite is ground, mixed with caustic soda, and pressurized. This step separates unwanted impurities and forms what is known as sodium aluminate.
  • The second step (Clarification) involves reducing the pressure, removing the separated impurities, and cooling the clarified solution.
  • In step three (Precipitation), the addition of aluminum hydroxide seed crystals results in precipitation, causing the aluminum to become solid.
  • The fourth and final step (Calcination) entails a thermal treatment process using rotary kilns. This heating method removes remaining impurities, and the subsequent material is the alumina or aluminum oxide.

Stage 4: Smelting

  • The last stage of aluminum processing is called smelting, also referred to as the Hall-Héroult process, invented in 1886. Smelting, which takes place in steel reduction pots, extricates the aluminum from the alumina.
  • The resulting molten solution – 99.8% pure – is poured into molds and cast. Subsequently, it can be alloyed with other metals or refined to create super pure aluminum (99.99%).

Why choose aluminum metal for my project?

If you’re trying to determine the appropriate alloy for your construction project, you may consider multifaceted aluminum for its many benefits:

  • Lightweight
  • Flexible
  • Impermeable
  • Recyclable
  • Odorless
  • Corrosion Resistance
  • Ductility
  • Electrical and Thermal Conductivity
aluminum supplier near me

Applications & Sustainability

What is aluminum used for?

Since this alloy is so versatile, its applications span enterprises and industries of all types. Some of the most recognizable aluminum functions include aerospace construction, food-processing equipment, household appliances, and electrical conductors. Because of its high corrosion resistance and conductivity, aluminum is ideal for manufacturing various consumer and commercial products.

If you want to use aluminum in your next project, check out our tips for safe aluminum welding.

Is aluminum sustainable?

While the mining and electricity used to make new aluminum have an environmental impact, many consider aluminum to be a sustainable metal because of its ability to be recycled. Aluminum’s durability means it can be recycled over and over without a loss of quality. In fact, almost 75% of aluminum ever made is still being used today. Plus, aluminum is lighter than many other metals, meaning it’s more eco-friendly to ship than other metal choices.

Contact Pennsylvania Steel for Premium Aluminum

Are you looking for top-quality metal and alloy supplies near you? Pennsylvania Steel Company is the trusted manufacturer for premium metals all over the east coast and beyond – from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Long Island, New York to Cleveland, Ohio. The best aluminum supply company is your nearest PA Steel sales office, where our team is eager to provide you with superior materials for your next project. Contact our sales offices in Pennsylvania, New England/New York, the Southeast, or Ohio to receive fast, dependable customer support regarding local inquiries.

The Top 6 Tips For Welding Aluminum

When it comes to welding, one method doesn’t fit all. Certain qualities can make welding aluminum a challenge. Leading East Coast steel company and metal manufacturer Pennsylvania Steel Co. provides insight into the processing and production of construction materials. Below, we offer professional advice for ensuring a safe and effective aluminum welding process.

Aluminum Characteristics

Commercial aluminum alloys offer impressive strength-to-weight ratios and corrosion resistance. These qualities make aluminum a desirable and practical engineering material.

Aluminum is available in numerous forms and grades. They differ in purity, hardness, ductility, thermal conductivity, and various other properties. In other words, aluminum exists in a vast range of types. Here are several commonly utilized grades:

  1. 1100 Aluminum (the purest form of aluminum commercially available)
  2. 3003 Aluminum (most frequently used in the industry, pure aluminum with an addition of manganese)
  3. 5052 Aluminum (excellent resistance against salt water corrosion)
  4. 6061 Aluminum (most commonly used aluminum alloy in construction)
  5. 6063 Aluminum (often referred to as the “architectural alloy” for its use in building structures)

The specific grade of aluminum speaks to its chemical composition and how aluminum is made. These attributes determine the material’s ultimate application and price point.

Can You Weld Aluminum?

You can weld aluminum, but standard welding methods can be unsafe and ineffective. Aluminum is highly sensitive, susceptible to impurities, and offers a small window of workability. Since pure aluminum is soft and malleable, adding various alloys creates its diversified range of types. Although the element naturally has a low melting point, the tough exterior oxide layer complicates the welding process. 

Why is Welding Aluminum Difficult?

Specific metal properties can make them challenging to weld. For example:

  • Oxidation: the chemical reaction that occurs at the surface of a metal when exposed to oxygen.
  • Porousness: measurement of permeability and other energy absorption properties.
  • Impurities: the presence of trace amounts of other elements.
  • Thickness: the metal’s “gauge,” expressed in mm (millimeters).

Physical properties vary widely in terms of aluminum grades and often present obstacles when welding. The following characteristics can make aluminum difficult to weld:

  • High thermal conductivity (resulting in high dissipation of heat)
  • Hydrogen solubility (causing excessive porosity)
  • Oxide layer (requiring thorough cleaning/preparation)

Types of Aluminum Welding

When it comes to welding aluminum, there are a number of welding methods to choose from. The best one for each project depends on the specific use case.

GTAW/TIG Welding

Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW), commonly known as TIG welding, is a popular precision welding process for aluminum. It uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode and an inert gas to create a clean and controlled arc. It is ideal for welding thin aluminum sheets or intricate designs while producing minimal spatter.

GMAW/MIG Welding

During Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW), or MIG welding, a welder feeds a continuous wire electrode through a welding gun with a shielding gas to protect the weld pool from contamination. This process is efficient for high-speed production and thicker aluminum sections, providing good weld penetration and strong, dependable results.

Laser Beam and Electron Beam Welding

Laser beam and electron beam welding are advanced processes that welders can use for aluminum. These methods use concentrated energy beams to melt and fuse the aluminum surfaces with pinpoint accuracy, making them suitable for applications where precision and minimal heat-affected zones are critical.

Resistance Welding

​​Resistance welding is a method used for aluminum, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries. It passes an electrical current through the aluminum parts to cause the metals to fuse. With aluminum, the welder must be cautious of the high electrical and thermal conductivity.

Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW)

Due to its limitations, SMAW, or stick welding, is not the primary choice for aluminum. It involves a consumable electrode covered with a flux coating, making it better suited for welding steel. However, welders use it for aluminum in specific applications with specialized electrodes and techniques.

Friction Welding

Friction welding bonds aluminum through a solid-state process. It involves rubbing the aluminum parts together to generate heat through friction and then applying pressure to join them. When welders require high-strength, reliable bonds, they may use friction welding.

6 Tips for Welding Aluminum

Pennsylvania Steel Co. specializes in metal processing services for commercial fabricators throughout the United States. We possess decades of expertise in the metal production industry. By sharing our expert knowledge, we strive to educate our valued clientele. Above all else, Pennsylvania Steel Co. values its partners’ and customers’ safety, loyalty, and trust. Properly and safely execute your next aluminum weld by following the expert advice we’ve provided below. We also have a guide on how to weld steel if you have a different material in mind.

1) Clean and prepare your material thoroughly.

Proper preparation of your aluminum alloy is essential to effective welding. Cleaning and degreasing the metal beforehand removes the outer oxide layer. Adequate removal of this tough layer exposes the raw aluminum material, which has a much lower melting point. For reference, pure aluminum melts at 1200ºF while the oxide layer melts at 3700ºF.

2) Correctly store your aluminum materials. 

Adequately storing prepped aluminum prevents re-oxidation. As stated, the oxide layer is tough to remove. You want to avoid additional preparation and scrubbing.

3) Use a heat sink.

A heat sink is a supplemental component that absorbs or dissipates unwanted heat. The appropriate heat sink ensures optimized thermal transfer during the weld.

4) Tailor your technique for different building materials.

As previously mentioned, aluminum’s complex chemical structure can complicate welding as it’s highly sensitive. Before diving in, take the time to do your research, assess your materials, and refine your technique.

5) Always wear proper PPE.

Once again, we aim to educate and protect our clientele. As a result, we urge all of our fabricators to wear the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when processing or working with any metal. When welding aluminum, for example, we highly recommend wearing a respirator!

6) Be patient and don’t rush.

Speeding through the welding process is undoubtedly dangerous. No matter how much PPE you wear, the best protection is practiced knowledge!

Allow the Pros at Pennsylvania Steel to Simplify the Welding and Production Process

Our goal at Pennsylvania Steel Company is the success of our valued clientele. We’re advancing this sustainable industry by sharing our expertise, providing superior customer service, and supplying metal fabricators all over the eastern U.S. Beyond our Bensalem, PA facility, we have warehouse locations throughout Pennsylvania, New York, Richmond, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, and more. We take pride in being a superior steel and pipe supplier and processor for manufacturing businesses throughout the U.S.

Our passion for advancing the steel trade stands over 50 years strong. Numerous industries – including the construction, defense, and technology sectors – rely on our experienced steel company as a vital source of premium metal production and processing services. We’re committed to facilitating growth – as a company, as an industry, and as a community. Request a quote or contact our metal specialists for inquiries regarding our product lines and services.