Review: Polishing Your Airstream
Why we decided to polish
CLEAR COAT: Our Airstream was 30 years old when we bought it and the exterior definitely showed it’s age. Most Airstreams come from the factory with a clear or plastic coating protecting the bare aluminum underneath from the elements. If the trailer is not properly treated over the years (left out in the sun for long periods of time, exposed to the elements without proper storage, not washing regularly etc.) then this coat can degrade over time. Most lifetimes on these finishes last at least 10 years so this only applies to the older models like ours. As that coating breaks down it can peel or thin exposing the untreated aluminum underneath which will turn white aka burn due to the sun. Our trailer had signs of both of these.
AESTHETICS: Okay, okay… we are suckers for that polished Airstream look and this is the only reason that we chose to polish it. That and the fact that the faux wood paneling haunted my dreams (seriously - why???). When it comes down to it, there is really no other reason that everyone polishes their trailers other than for good looks - outside of the of the very small exception whose exteriors are badly damaged. Knowing that, and knowing the cost, we weighed how important loving the way our home looks both on the inside and out. We decided that since we would be calling this bad boy home for at least a couple of years, that the investment of polishing was small compared to the investments that four walled homes tend to take. That and a lot of nagging done by one of us…
The Process in a Nutshell
There a number of steps to be completed if your trailer has never been polished before:
PREP WORK: This can be the one task that is either severely underestimated or forgotten all together but will definitely add to the total time. This includes:
Removal of any decals or stickers (think Airstream letters)
Removal of awnings
Taping off of any areas that need protection: bumper, tongue, rub rails etc.
STRIPPING (not the hot kind… unless it's a really warm day): Airstream began offering clear coat as an option as early as 1962 and at some point thereafter made it standard. This will need to be removed before any polishing can take place. These chemicals are really icky stuff folks and you are going to want to be very careful with yourself and your surroundings. Our trailer took 2 rounds of stripping before the clear coat was fully removed.
POLISHING: This step is repeated at least twice, possibly 3 times, with a finer polish each time to get that true mirror shine. Now be happy that you probably didn’t buy all 34 feet of aluminum glory like we did. Every foot counts (or costs) when polishing!
DIY or Hire someone
TIME: Expect this process to take you weeks working full time hours. Our 34 ft trailer took 23 days to complete and you will be battling mother nature unless you are lucky enough to have a large garage or warehouse to work in. If you are getting it polished and full time or don't have another home you will need to find alternative arrangements for at least 2 weeks.
EXPERIENCE: If you have never polished anything before you are going to want to do your research. There are a lot of steps involved in getting to the shiny finished product and expect to run into some gotchas and bumps along the way. The experienced polishers are well versed in this and it will ultimately cut down time. This is also very messy, toxic and labor intensive work, so if you are not capable of holding up a polisher for extended periods of time, you may want to hire instead.
EQUIPMENT: You will need tools and lots of 'em. If you are lucky enough to have a shop or garage full of such things you will probably not need to invest too much in this category. Renting equipment is an option that many of the big hardware stores offer too.
LOCATION: Do you live on the road with no home and yard to return to? If so, this was the deal breaker us too. Finding a spot to keep the trailer for weeks with access to water and electricity that wasn't going to be an extra thousand dollars on top of the already steep costs was impossible for us to find. Most storage locations will not allow you to do work on your trailer while it is being stored and campgrounds and RV parks almost always state that no work is allowed to be done on premise. Have a family member with a big yard and a bigger heart? That may be your best bet, but you better hope that they have a lot of patience ear plugs - the polishing can be very noisy.
MONEY: This the moment you ask yourself: what is my time worth and would I rather pay someone else? Five or so years ago you could be quoted $100 a linear foot for a polish job. That price has now increased and I would expect you to be quoted anywhere between $125-$150 a linear foot*. We paid a little less than $4,000 to have our trailer polished at 32 feet of actual trailer length, it came out to ~$125 a lf. That's a lot of money for something that is only cosmetic so make sure you weigh this option heavily. Of course, if you have an adorable little Bambi this is much more cost effective over our gigantic beast…
*NOTE ON COSTS: I called 8 different polishers in 4 different states and was quoted within this range every. SINGLE. time. Everything is negotiable, but because it is not fun work (I MEAN, IT’S REALLY NOT FUN), I found there was not a lot of wiggle room.
Maintaining the large sum of $$ that we just dropped was our biggest concern. We are living this lifestyle to spend our time outside of work exploring - not doing trailer maintenance. After stripping the clear coat off of the aluminum you remove any protection that it had from the elements: rain, salt, UV. These are all killers to bare aluminum and the reason most folks decide to polish comes from the fact that their trailer's clear coat had thinned or peeled from areas and the aluminum was burned from too much sun (white areas that cannot be washed off). We asked a few polishers on what the upkeep for a polished trailer would be, and were told the below:
Wash often. Anything that is left on too long will effect the aluminum underneath. That means: bird poop, smooshed bugs, rain, road salt, and snow will all affect the finish. If you are traveling full time in your Airstream, expect to wash it every 2 weeks to at least once a month. Our polisher suggested using a soft soap like Dawn dish soap for cleaning.
Wax or no wax? We have read differing opinions on how to treat the aluminum after it is stripped. We are following the advice of our polisher (no wax is needed) and only washing.
You will need to re-polish your Airstream every 1-2 years after it was initially done if you want to keep it looking decent. This shouldn't be the same effort as the first time you have it polished. It's just a "once-over" to bring the shine back. Expect to pay around 1/3 of your original polishing price for this.
There will also be areas that you will need to touch up every now and then by hand.
post polishing thoughts
WASHING: Depending on how long you spend in an area this can be difficult. Right after having our trailer polished we stayed 2 months in Park City, UT during the end of the winter to ski. Let’s just say the weather was all over the place: ice, snow, hail, sun… we could not keep up with the cleaning - we would have been outside in freezing temps every other day! And so we left it and rinsed it when we could and hoped it would be fine. Honestly, it was never the same as when we first picked it up. There are hard water streaks all over it and despite how much we scrub it, we cannot get it to look like it had prior to going to Utah. I am still happy we decided to polish it but it is a lot more maintenance than we had previously with the clear coat still on. If you don't have a lot of time or do not enjoy washing and doing polish touch ups than you may want to think twice before making a large investment.
DENTS: All those small dings, dimples, love scrapes that your trailer picks up while living it’s best life are 100 times more noticeable after you polish.
RE-POLISHING: As I stated above in the maintenance section, once you strip and polish, you will need to polish it at least every 1-2 years. Expect this to cost around $600-$1000.
ALTERNATIVES: I’ve heard of some people getting their trailer re-coated but after researching this found that Airstream no longer coats entire trailers (new or old) and instead purchases the panels pre-coated. You could of course find a third party that applies clear coat but I was not able to find many.
We hired John at Mirror Metal Polishing to polish our Airstream. He is based right outside of Austin, TX. If you have been to Austin then you know the food truck game is strong - as well as the Airstream presence. Help yourself to a doughnut or 5 at Gourdough’s - served hot and fresh from a number of remodeled Airstreams and admire that shiny finish. John does all of the polishing for their fleet of Airstreams and this gave us the peace of mind and confidence that he knew what he was doing. Find him here or on Instagram @MirrorMetalPolishing and tell him that the Elishes sent you!
Want to DIY? Good for you! Check out Air Forums for all of your polishing Q&A’s, pictures and lots of options on stripping agents, polishers and tools!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda is a coffee addicted, arts and crafts obsessed, digital nomad. She travels the country in her renovated '88 Airstream with her husband Dave and dog Ozzy. If you don't feed her every 4 hours she can't be responsible for her actions.