Steel Wool: The Unbelievable Chrome Shiner

Yucky old chrome.
This is a chrome wheel before steel wool. Matt Wright

Don't hate me for being over 30, I know that most cars on the showroom floors of today have little to no chrome, but if your car does sport some of that super-shiny metal, you'll want to keep it bright. Chrome is an interesting finish. It is used not only cosmetically to give parts of your car or truck a brilliant shine, but also functionally in places that a super smooth finish may be required. 

Chrome will keep it's shine indefinitely if it's kept clean and dry, but what if the guy before you didn't do such a good job on the upkeep?

There's a wonder-solution out there, and it isn't a space-aged polymer. It's not a polish and it's not an electrolysis machine. It's been around forever, and it's plain old steel wool.

Steel wool can turn what appears to be a corroded, rusty chrome bumper or trim piece and make it gleam again. All you need is some elbow grease and some fine (as in not coarse) steel wool. Check out the tired old wheel in the photo, it's like magic.

 

  • Clean the chrome with soap and water. While it may seem like you can jump right to the step where you get that chrome bumper or wheel to shine brightly using your steel wool, there are a number of things that might be lurking on your chrome. These substances can turn a quick polish job into a much more involved affair. Grease is one of the worst. If you try to polish a greasy bumper with steel wool you'll have a smeared mess. This is why I always suggest cleaning the part with soap and water before you try to polish it. 
  • Dry it completely. Technically, steel wool still works when wet. But we like to use it on;y on dry parts for a couple of reasons. First, since steel wool is made of unpainted, untreated steel, once it gets we it's only a matter of time before it rusts. Once a steel wool pad rusts, it can't be used to polish chrome because the rusty part of the pad becomes too abrasive. Second as you polish dry chrome with steel wool, the rust particles and other contaminants that you are polishing away simply fall to the ground. If the chrome is wet, those contaminants will turn into a murky soup. 
  • Take some fine grade steel wool (usually labeled #0000) and rub the chrome firmly. There are different grades of chrome, so tread lightly at first to be sure you won'y permanently mar your finish by scrubbing too hard. Turn the steel wool pad over often to expose a new surface to polish with. 
  • BLING!

*It's important to use only fine grade steel wool on your chrome. The rougher grades can scratch the chrome permanently.

*Test a small, inconspicuous area first. Some forms of "plastic chrome" can't take even one firm rubbing. If you discover that steel wool is too rough on your chrome (or fake chrome), you can use a quality chrome polish instead. Chrome polish works the same way car wax works and will polish chrome that's in good condition to a brilliant shine. Chrome polish can also be a good follow up to your steel wool polishing job.