Car Corner
Clear Up Foggy Headlights

March 1, 2010
By Scott Lewis

For those that were wondering what car I traded down to... it has not happened yet. A big income tax payment and repairing the A/C in our 2001 Acura MDX left no money for the $5,000-$6,000 down payment I needed to get out from under my BMW 335i. I am working on another plan, so this month I am going to show you how to clear up those foggy headlights.

I noticed the driver's side headlight went out on our MDX. Since I was going to replace the bulb I thought this would be the perfect time to fix the foggy headlights.

What we will cover here is the method I used to bring back the clarity of both headlights on my SUV. However, this is an unconventional approach, but IT WORKS!

I have to say I used this method because I am a cheapskate. I found my old polishing equipment recently when I was cleaning the garage and moving things into the attic. That's right, polishing equipment. I bought all the items needed to polish aluminum wheels... in 1985!

Before you think I am crazy using equipment to polish aluminum wheels on plastic headlights you need to understand the basic process. When polishing aluminum wheels you start with a reasonably aggressive polishing compound and stiff buffing pads. You work your way down to very fine polishing compounds with very soft buffing pads. The final polish of aluminum wheels is to bring out a chrome like mirror finish.

For the headlights I used Jewelers Rouge polishing compound designed for polishing gold and silver. I used this with the softest buffing wheel/pad I had.

Here is what I used on the headlights on my Acura MDX. I have included links to the products on The Eastwood Company's web site... because that is where I bought the stuff 25 years ago.

That's a total of $21.97. All you do is supply your own drill. Let Me be clear here... you will use about 1/1000 of that Jewelers Rough 18 oz tube. You can save some money if you can find a smaller amount for less.

Eastwood also has White Rouge for $7.99, which would bring us to under $20. I could have done that myself, since I also have the white rouge (from 25 years ago). However, I went with the Jewelers Rouge for one simple reason... the Canton Flannel Buff that was already attached to my arbor was the one I used with the Jewelers Rouge. I did not want to go through the trouble of taking one buff off and putting another on. BTW... once you use one compound on a buff it is best to use only that compound on that buff. For those that are going to buy buffing kits keep this in mind.

It really is as simple as pressing the compound stick to the buff while it is spinning to "load up" the buff with the compound. Then buff the headlight. It is critical that you do not let the plastic get hot. Start with a soft touch, and gradually add more pressure. Work the buff around the headlight and touch it from time to time to make sure it is not getting too hot. You should also change direction as you work your way around the headlight. Work the buffing wheel in a criss-cross pattern. This will minimize swirl marks or scratches in the plastic.

If it does get too hot it could soften the plastic and you could melt it. If this happens you will likely get some compound stuck in the plastic. Then you will have to be even more careful buffing out the excess compound out without doing any more damage. If you go slowly you should not have any trouble.

You might want to use some blue tape on the body panels that meat up with the headlights to prevent buffing through any paint. I did not, and had no trouble.

I did three passes on each headlight. The final result is to the left. I cleaned each headlight with regular glass cleaner and paper towels between each round with the buffing wheel. This allowed me to see my progress. The buffing action will leave a lot of compound on the headlight itself, so it is important to clean this excess off to properly inspect your work.

Although I used my 25 year old buffing equipment, you can save yourself some trouble and buy Meguiar's Headlight Restoration Kit for $24.95. Don't think you get away from the drill as Meguiar's kit uses a special plastic compound and a buffing wheel that you attach to your own drill. It is probably safer than the method I used, but otherwise it is about the same.

The Story

The above was a rather short article (and I could have made it shorter). But those of you that read my stuff regularly know, I like to ramble on. So now you get the story of how I came to have wheel polishing equipment.

I had a friend in the mid 80's that owned a 1976 Corvette. It had the factory aluminum wheels, and they looked like crap. I mentioned that there are places that could polish them to look almost like chrome. I had read about this in the hot rod magazines of the day.

I told her it would cost anywhere from $125-$250 for all four wheels. At least that is what I had read. She asked if I could do it. I told her I thought I could, but I would have to buy all the equipment. She asked how much it would be. So I dug out my Eastwood catalog and started pricing everything I would need to polish wheels.

I priced three compounds (Tripoli, White Rouge and Jewelers Rouge) and enough buffing wheels to have at least one of each size (3-1/2" and 6") for each compound. I also priced two Arbors, one for the small buffing wheels and one for the large. The large buffing wheels can also be mounted to a grinder to turn that machine into a buffing machine.

I also priced two optional pieces of equipment. One was a flexible shaft and the other was a mount system to mount a drill to a board (or table). The goal was to mount the shaft into the drill and have a handle with a drill head to mount the buffing wheels.

Everything cost $60. I may be forgetting some small details, so those of you that remember the prices of all this stuff from 1984-85 don't call me out on it. I told the price to my friend and she offered to pay me the $60 to do her wheels. She would assume the risk if I failed, and if it worked I would have everything to get into polishing wheels for extra money afterwards.

Everything worked perfectly... except that flexible shaft. I had my Dad mount the drill stand to a 2x6 board, but it would still tip over a bit. The real problem was that you could hold the buffing wheel in your hand and could easily stop it with hand pressure. You could not apply the pressure necessary to buff aluminum with it mounted in the shaft. As I look on Eastwood's website today, I see they sell these shafts with very heavy motors. I don't think it was intended to work with a drill, or at least not a drill as weak as mine.

I used my drill in hand to polish my friend's wheels. The factory coating on the wheels was already peeling off, and you could see how blotchy it was. It was fun to watch as the buffing wheel cut right through the coating with the most aggressive compound/buff combination.

I used regular aluminum wheel cleaner between the different compounds as I polished the wheels. I remember the drill being so hot in my hands that I had to wear gloves while working. In the end the wheels looked fantastic. They were very close to chrome in appearance. My friend got a lot of compliments on her Corvette after that.

I ended up doing another friend's Duster with slotted mags (a.k.a. Starsky & Hutch wheels). His front wheels were in pretty bad shape with lots of deep groves. I was able to shine them up quite a but, but I could not get the deep groves out. His rear wheels were smooth and came out with a near chrome like shine. I made a deal with this friend... instead of paying me $100, he paid me $50 to do his wheels and he got me a discount on the dual exhaust I needed for my own car.

I was asked to do another Corvette... with the same factory wheels as before. However when I tried the same techniques on this newer Corvette I could not get the factory coating to come off. I could not do anything to improve the wheels and had to return the car to the guy without getting paid. I later learned that The Eastwood Company sold a chemical that would remove the coating from factory aluminum wheels. Too late for this paying job, but at least I learned about it.

Finally I did my own wheels. I bought a set of American Racing wheels. They where the classic spun aluminum wheels that were popular in the mid-eighties. There were also fake rivets around the rim. I know they were fake because when I looked at the backside of the wheel you could see the stem of the rivet sticking through (it was a one piece wheel). I knocked the rivets out and polished the head of each one-by-one pressing it to the buffing wheel. By the time I was done my thumbnail was shiny for over a month.

These wheels looked good brand new, so I did a before after test. I polished two wheels before I got the tires. I then had the tires mounted and put the polished wheels on one side of the car and the as new wheels on the other. You could definitely see a difference, though it was not as much of a difference and my friend's 76 Corvette or the Duster.

I never did get into trying to make any real money from that experience. I kind of regret that. Who knows... maybe people would be buying Scott's Wheels today instead of Foose Wheels.


That's it for this month. You got a how to and a story... two for the price of one.