Oct 272010

I once heard someone say:

“Don’t want scratches on your metal? Then don’t put them there!”

I love that saying. And its really the number one tip, and the first place to start in a discussion of removing scratches from metal, or polishing/ finishing.

Don’t scratch it in the first place.

Store it carefully. And handle it carefully.

There are many different ways to store your metals, obviously some work better than others and not all suggestions will fit for all studios.

Do what works for you. Here are some popular ideas for storage.

Storing Metal Sheet

  • A small plastic filing box with hanging files
  • plastic ziploc bags (inexpensive and come in varying sizes)
  • wrap sheets in paper towels (or shop towels which are a bit sturdier)
  • use manila envelopes which can be clearly marked and can be folded over for sizing
  • cover it with layers of tin foil
  • or……………………. whatever else you can dream up that works for you to keep metal from rubbing on other metal or anything else for that matter.

Despite the best planning and your hard efforts though, chances are you will end up with some scratches. Whether during storage or during handling/crafting, you are going to need to figure out how to remove scratches. Even if you don’t want a mirror shine on your work, you don’t want scratches interfering with your design. You can either add scratches INTO your design, making them a part of a texture, or learn to remove them.

Handling the metal

Take care in how you handle your metal. Both while you are working on it and in between operations.

While working РUse nylon pliers, a ring clamp, or your hands when possible to hold metal. Place your piece on a cushioned surface such as an old fabric placemat, beaders mat,  folded dish towel, paper towel, or other soft surface. This protects the back from scratches as you work and they are easily moved around the studio and tucked away for storage. Just remember to shake them out well before each use.

In between operations – Keep small containers handy to place your piece in between studio sessions to prevent other items being placed on the piece or having it knocked on the floor. Some popular suggestions are altoids containers (place a paper towel or tissue inside), chinese take out containers, or stacked styrofoam trays from the grocery store (the ones meat, veggies, or fruit come in – just wash then well first!). Be creative and think of items you could recycle for this use.

BASICS on removing scratches

  1. Select an abrasive – This can be files, sandpapers, a flexshaft attachment.


  1. Select a grit – Most of the abrasives will come coarse to fine and are noted by ‘grit’, micron, or grade (coarse, medium, etc). Choose a grit that is only the coarsest needed to blend in with the scratch. You’re not technically removing the scratch, you’re removing the metal around the scratch. It may take practice determining what grit or tool to begin with, but don’t worry, if you go too coarse, its not the end of the world, it just means a little extra work getting THOSE scratches out.


  1. Move up in stages, going through finer grits, always ‘blending’ until your previous scratches are covered. It helps if you turn your work a half a turn each time you make a step to a finer grit/medium. This way you can look for the directional change in marks on your metal.


  1. Brace your work. It is tempting to hold your work in one hand ‘in the air’ and go at it with your other hand, but it is much more effective if you brace your work on a benchpin or other surface. This provides resistance which increases the impact of your efforts.

for removing scratches


Can be purchased from a hardware store, automotive store, or jewelry supply house. There is the typical sandpaper and then there is wet/dry sandpaper. Both serve a purpose and you may want to add both to your studio.

Rio Grande also sells ‘finishing paper’ which is a sanding paper charged on both sides and backed with a synthetic fiber – finishing papers are meant to last longer than traditional sandpapers. (IN GENERAL – the coarsest sandpapers I use is a 220 grit sandpaper and the finest is 4000 wet/dry. Before or after that another tool is probably a better choice)

Sandpapers can be used in the hand or on a stick. You don’t have to purchase sanding sticks (although that is convenient), you can make a sanding stick by wrapping sandpaper around a paint stir or for small jobs a popsicle stick and adhering with either glue or tape.


large, small, flat, half round, bastard, rifler, nail (YES, a nail file!). . . . the list of files can be overwhelming! When called for, with basic removal of scratches, I normally use a needle file or rifler file. and normally that is for small hard to reach places. For flat open areas of metal, I use sandpaper.

Flexshaft attachments

3m radial disks, abrasive wheels ( such as cratex or advantagedge), sanding bands, etc. There is an ever growing number of attachments for the flexshaft. Don’t run out and buy them all at once. If you can test them at a local studio, workshop, or with a friend, do that first! Find which ones match your equipment and style of work.

Finally –

Final polishing can also ‘blend’ surface scratches by burnishing. Polishing can be done with felt, cotton, muslin buffs . . . and every metalsmith seems to have their own preference for how polishing is done. These attachments can be used on a flexshaft or a polishing lathe. The buff is ‘charged’ with a polishing compound and the various polishing compounds all have different ‘grits’ and applications.

In Practice

Here is a small test piece that shows one progression.

This piece was fairly clean, soldered and pickled.

It then went straight to the 3m radial disks. It was worked through the 3m radial disks to pink and then put on a polishing lathe with either red rouge or ZAM. (sorry I can’t recall which!)

The final photo is straight from the lathe, in all of it’s polishing gunk glory.

All photos were taken directly on the bench during the process, between each disk and they are hopefully in order.

This is strictly as one example of what can be done, it is not suggestive of ‘the’ correct method or the ‘right’ way to do this.


Hand positions in photos may not be accurate as angles are often changed due to camera position.

* * *DISCLAIMER  * * * *

This was not originally intended to be anything more than some photos with an explanation of the specific process used for the photos. However, it grew and grew and could have grown more………..it is not as in depth as it could be, there are many area that could have been explored further…..but we’re capping it for now and will revisit it in the near future – maybe focusing on polishing buffs and compounds. If you have any pressing questions or curiosities, please feel free to leave a comment! In addition, any well meant and well stated critiques or corrections are also welcomed! * * * * *




  5 Responses to “OUT darn scratch! (or how to polish your metal)”

  1. Wonderful info! Thank you for writing, photographing and sharing this useful piece~~~

  2. thanks! its a great way to start…I liked the tip about the grits of sand paper that you use and then move on to other methods.

  3. Here’s a great tip from my former teacher, Lexi Erickson: cover new sheets of metal in plastic contact paper to protect them. You can write anything you want to remember on the contact paper, such as price, date, source, etc. I often use a ruler to divide my silver sheet into sections, and record the price for each section at the time of purchase. I do this before I put it away, while the bill is still in front of me. This helps me gauge my materials cost when I cut for a new piece.

  4. Thanks Janice, It’s great to hear the general guidelines, and then see how YOU do things! I live that you leave lots of room for interpretation on “the” correct method – I think there are as many opinions on how to polish as there are metalsmiths! That’s probably why so many of us are confused as to how to proceed, and why there is so much conflicting information. That what makes this such a great topic – thanks for tackling it, and keep it coming! I would love to hear your preferences for buffs, polishes, flex shaft attachments that haven’t worked for you as well as those that have, etc.

    Great job!!

  5. We got tired of removing scratches so we use a wire brush to give a matte finish