The “New Deal”: An Alumacraft “FDR” restoration part two: Polishing aluminum…

For whatever reason I have gotten many…many calls about my Feather Craft Vagabond that we sold last month.  Every single call was somehow related to how to polish the aluminum for a mirror finish.  While not any kind of expert, the work is time-consuming and slow-moving.  The work on the Vagabond was good, but had its issues owing to the vessels rough life.

All that being said, I will attempt to help others by showing in a step-by-step fashion how to polish an aluminum boat, or whatever.

Choice one would obviously be to have someone else do it.  However, being a cheapskate…this work will again be done by yours truly on this 1959 Alumacraft FDR.  I acknowledge that neither the Feather Craft or Alumacraft boats came polished, but rather in natural aluminum.  If upon completion you desire the original look of natural “satin” aluminum, you can always acid wash the boat to give it the original luster.

Let’s get started with this edition being a comparison of before and after photos with explanation.

Alumacraft FDR 10-18-09-001

The vessel as it was when it arrived in its new home port. 50 years of dirt has accumulated on its hull. But the worst was yet to come when it was rolled over.

Alumacraft FDR 11-09-09-003

Using a one gallon garden sprayer full of aluminum brightener, the hull was sprayed and brushed gently, then thoroughly washed with water from a garden hose.

Let’s talk about the topic of aluminum brighteners.  I buy mine in a one gallon jug from a local vendor who sells products to car washes.  The same type of product is made under trade names such as Toon Bright, available at local marine stores.  There are others that are available from auto parts outlets.

Aluminum brightners contain phosphoric acid and other goodies…so a respirator is a must!  These brighteners should be “cut” as they are a concentrate.  The instruction on the bottle should be adheared to as well.  I “cut” my formula 3 parts water to 1 part brightener.  It can be mixed stronger as needed.

The process starts at the BOTTOM of the vessel and works its way UP to the top of the vessel.  So if your ship is upside-down on saw horses, as mine was, you will need to start at the gunwales and work your way up the hull to the keel.  Why is this? 

You must first remove all the dirt at the bottom to prevent streaking.  In other words, if you start at the keel, the aluminum brightener will run down the sides of the hull while still actively cleaning and leave streaks that can be very difficult to remove after the fact.

Starting at the gunwales spray with the garden sprayer along the length of the vessel working in two foot lengths, then using a medium or soft bristle scrub brush, gently work  along the section “massaging” the aluminum brightner.  Don’t scrub!  Let the aluminum brightner do the work.   You may need to make several passes at the area or the entire hull to make sure it is good and clean before moving on.

After you have cleaned the area with aluminum brightner, be sure to rinse thoroughly with water to stop the acidic action.  This is a must.  Then move on to the next section and repeat the process along the gunwales.  After the entire length of the hull has been cleaned, move up to the area above and repeat the process until the whole hull has been done.

Alumacraft FDR 11-09-09-004

The Alumacraft FDR has been completely cleaned with aluminum brightner on the sides. The worst is yet to come!

The aluminum will initially turn a light shade of white or grey following application of the aluminum brightener, but upon washing with water should return to aluminum.  Of course it will be dull or satin at this point.

Now we’ll move onto the bottom…which was a shocker!

When the boat was rolled over onto the saw horses, I was horrified to find the bottom coated in dirt and filth.  The boat must have been left in the water over the years, as it was covered with very thick growth.

Alumacraft FDR 11-09-09-001

A half-n-half view of the bottom of the hull. The left side shows the dirt that existed over the entire bottom of the hull. Also if you look at the far left, you can see the streaking caused by the aluminum brightener that was washed over the keel when rinsing the right half. Those same streaks are the reason we began cleaning at the gunwales, or the bottom of the hull. This eliminates the streaks running down the entire side of the hull.

Alumacraft FDR 11-09-09-002

After applying the aluminum brightener over the entire hull, the boat looks like new.

The inside was washed before the outside.  The reason is simply that there is aluminum brightner overspray that could louse up the work on the outside leaving white spots everywhere.  The inside also cleaned up very nicely.

You may need to repeat the steps above multiple times to be sure the hull is devoid of all dirt and grime.

At this point you will want to inspect your hull very closely.  You’ll be surprised at the number of dents and dings that you’ll find now that she is clean.  Things you never noticed will now stand out.  We’ll correct these issues in the next step as we prepare to use compounding polish to begin the buffing process.

6 Responses to “The “New Deal”: An Alumacraft “FDR” restoration part two: Polishing aluminum…”

  1. 1 Paul
    November 25, 2009 at 12:28 am

    I certainly am enjoying your story of random generosity…reinforces what’s good about folks. The Feathercrafters love to polish their boats…AlumaCraft guys not so much. I am enjoying seeing what develops and learning from your experience. I have the same boat and enjoy it very much. Redid the upholstery this year…a fun project that involved plenty of heavy treated plywood and the help of a good upholstery shop. Thought I would mention that your boat at number 130 is the 30th FDR made; AlumaCraft started their numbering at 100. Thanks again for taking the time to put your experience out there for us to see. Well written and informative.


    • 2 conductorjonz
      November 25, 2009 at 11:39 am

      Thanks Paul!

      I love working on these old boats. They are so over-built it is amazing. I have half of the bottom sanded and buffed, but unfortunately the weather in NW Ohio is catching up to me, so the rest of the story may well have to wait until spring.

      I have been able to continue to work on restoring old outboards in my shop. The latest is a 1958 CD-15 5.5hp Johnson. It was junk when I got it, but hope to restore it to like new for fun.

      Thanks again! Stay tuned!


  2. 3 Eric
    May 16, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Hi Greg,
    I’m not sure if this is the best way to contact you, but I wanted to pick your brain about your aluma craft and the cleaning process… I have a 1954 Feather Craft Deluxe Runabout and would like to restore the finish to the original matte aluminum tone. I bought some ‘Toon Brite’ today and was hoping for your $0.02 worth on the process. Your description seems to be more that enough, but I just wanted to say hi to you before I started. thanks, Eric

    • 4 conductorjonz
      May 16, 2010 at 10:23 pm

      Toon Bright is one of many products out there for this application. However it is faily price by comparison to going to a supply house that works with car washes or truck stops and sells a concentrated “aluminum brightener”. My one gallon jug of this stuff cost 20 bucks or so. Goes along way. An I can control how strong or weak it is depending on my needs.

      Aluminum brightener is basically phosphoric acid, so wear a respirator while working with it. Make sure to start at the lowest point on the workpiece and work your way UP. Otherwise streaks will appear as dirt runs down the sides cleaning dirt off in the path of these streaks. Also make sure to rinse with lots of clean water after you clean the aluminum to neutalize the acid.

      Good Luck!


  3. 5 Sal
    July 23, 2011 at 11:45 pm

    I just bought a 58 Feather Craft Vagabond and really need some advice on restoring this beauty. I have no engine yet but first need to put the life back into her. Where do I start?

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