This page was last updated on $Date: 2000/03/06 00:01:07 $
Cleaning Aluminum Engine Components.
Note: This was originally posted to rec.motocycles by Mark Holbrook
(firstname.lastname@example.org) and has since been added to.
Updated on 4 May 1995.
Some time ago I posted a request on how to clean aluminum engine
components, mainly exterior unpolished heads, cylinders, cases, etc., i.e.
the stuff that gets really grungy and corroded from years of leaking oil,
road tar, salt, bugs, and neglect. (Polished metal is a different subject
although there is some overlap.) Since then I have absorbed the distilled
wisdom of the net on this subject (effectively none), talked to several
wrenchers locally, and tried a variety of things. This post summarizes my
research. Some of it is applicable to iron, too. Caviat: I have not tried
all of them, but wanted to get this out so that you may benefit from my
experience (i.e. destroy your bike (or cage) like I'm destroying mine.) I
list the various attacks, what they're good for, and what to watch out for.
Before I begin:
WEAR EYE PROTECTION. WEAR SUITABLE PROTECTIVE CLOTHING
AND/OR BREATHING APPARATUS AS NECESSARY. WORK ONLY IN WELL VENTILATED
AREAS AND KEEP THE SOLVENTS AWAY FROM FLAME.
You'll be glad you did. I
accidently squirted xylene in one eye once during this effort and it burned
like hell. Also avoid getting the acids, carb cleaner, and gasket remover
on anything other than what you're cleaning and dispose of used solvents,
etc. in an environmentally responsible way.
- Normal wash: Good only for removing pure dirt and light oil. Use
your favorite cleaner (I prefer Dawn dishwashing detergent over
Simple Green or other "automotive" cleaners simply because a strong
detergent gets the most of this type of crud off with the least
- Pressure wash: Removes heavier dirt and oil but not any corrosion.
Recommended only for whole engines. Avoid spraying at any exposed
seals (like around the countershaft or tachometer pickoff, possibly
the exhaust header seals, too). OK to hit normal gaskets.
- Dishwasher: For individual pieces you get results similar to a
pressure washing. Of course cleans the insides of pieces so be
sure to blow air through passages to get out residual water. Do
or don't tell your spouse about doing this depending on which path
minimizes negative spousal reaction. (Mine was pretty skeptical -
sniffed the dishes that were in with the parts to see if they
smelled like oil.)
- Sand blasting: Sand (silica or carborundum particle) blasting will
seriously remove metal and leave an uncorroded, but pitted surface.
Particles may become imbedded in aluminum if air velocity used
is too great and/or the alloy is particularly soft. Use with
incredible care if at all, especially on pieces with oil/water galleries.
If you do, mask off all possible entrances carefully since any grit
that gets in will be difficult to completely get out and any left
in will likely destroy something in your engine.
- Bead blasting: Small glass beads which shatter on impact clean off
surface crud and leave the aluminum looking like it was tapped with
a zillion microscopic ball peen hammers. Same warning on
keeping grit out of passages.
- Shell blasting: Ground up walnut (or other hard) nut shells are
the gentlest of the three blasting methods. Removes crud and
shallow corrosion and leaves the surface looking the most like
it originally did. Note that the blasting methods are the only
ones that will get corrosion off metal in the nooks and crannies.
- Kerosene, paint thinner, gasolene, naptha (in decreasing order
of flammability and increasing order of volatility, I think):
Use to remove oil, oily dirt, and tar. Use a wire brush or
toothbrush to assist in getting off thick gunk. Does nothing for
corrosion. Build/rent/buy a parts washer to speed cleaning of
- "Gunk" or equivalent: Gunk combines a petroleum-based solvent
and a detergent in one can. Does a pretty good job on heavy dirt
and light oil, nothing for corrosion. I think using a heavy
detergent wash to remove heavy dirt, then a separate treatment of
solvent to get heavy oil/tar off, and finally a second detergent
wash works better than trying to do it all in one pass.
- "Carb cleaner": is xylene and/or MEK (methyl ethyl ketone), i.e.
an active, very volatile solvent. Good for getting the "varnish"
and "parafin" that form on the inside (and outside) of carburetors
from old gasoline. Good as a general solvent, too.
- WD-40: The solvent doesn't work as good on varnish as real
carb cleaner, but of course WD-40 leaves the surface protected
due to the oils in it. Use it immediately after you have de-crudded
(like that verb?) and brushed/blasted to keep surface shiny.
- Hydrochloric acid: (available as muriatic acid). Takes off
corrosion (not oily gunk), bubbling as it does so, but leaves the
surface dark grey. Use a stainless steel wire "tooth" brush
($1 at your local car parts place) to expedite activity. Don't
use it unless you really like this color. Avoid the fumes.
- "Etching formula mag wheel cleaner": Available in a spray
bottle and labelled "B" on the ABCDE specifier for automotive
cleaning products, it contains phosphoric and hydrofluoric acids
and bubbles when applied. Use a stainless steel wire "tooth"
brush to expedite activity. Avoid the fumes. Leaves a dull
light grey finish which can be lightened up by wiping with a
paper towel/cloth immediately after brushing with the wire brush.
- Gasket remover: Water-based liquid that softens fiber gaskets
so they can be scraped off without damaging the machined surfaces.
I mention it here because I found two uses for it: 1) it
softens up the carbon and crud on the inside of the cylinder
head, the ports, and the valve heads, which eased scraping those
parts clean considerably. 2) It seems to soften/dissolve clear-coat
(and other paint as well - be careful where you paint/spray this
- Wire brushes: You can get ones that fit in your drill and brush
either circumferentially or radially (oh hell, go look at them)
and in different wire thicknesses. I recommend the softest
wire for aluminum. Also get the wire "tooth" brush (and more
than one) I mentioned above. Look in the welding section
of your hardware store if you don't see them in the tools section.
You can also mount a wire wheel on your grinder for small parts.
Frankly, wire brushing (and blasting) are the only things I've found
that clean off corrosion and leave the surface bright. It's a lot
of work and can't get in the nooks and crannies but gives the
best results. Clean surface with solvent first to keep brush from
simply smearing the crud around.
- Scotch-Brite pads: Available in about 6 by 9 inch sheets for a
buck, they work well on clean, smooth aluminum to brighten it up,
don't do squat for rough-finished aluminum.
- Aluminum jelly: I tried this stuff years ago so don't remember
exactly what it is (more acid-based stuff, I guess) and was
disappointed in the results. But then perhaps that was when I
still hoped for some magic method that didn't involve elbow grease.
- Don't use steel wool on aluminum. Tiny bits of it will break off
and stick in the aluminum. These then rust and you are left with
- Polishing Aluminum: Simichrome works very well. There are a number
of other commericially availabe aluminum polishing products.
Additional non-aluminum specific cleaners:
- 3M metal-stripper-wheel. This is a round plastic sponge,
impregnated with abrasive grit, which you chuck into your electric
drill. These remove tar, paint, rust from steel frames, tanks,
panels. Probably a bit too abrasive for use on alloy, though. With
one of these wheels, you can remove all the paint from,say, a gas tank
without using any evil chemicals. It also removes surface rust,
leaving you with bare metal covered with a network of fine scratches,
ideal for paint adhesion. You then swab off your part with
"metalprep", wash it off with water, dry it thoroughly, and paint
away! That new paint will stick like glue!
- Get yourself a can of "Carburetor & small Parts Cleaner". This
milky-white stuff will take the hide off an elephant. It'll take
carbon off the tops of pistons. It'll clean your carbs good. Just
don't put any non-metallic parts in it. You just dump your castings,
jets, etc into the can ( get the kind that comes with a dip basket ),
and fish them out a half-hour or so later. Bright-squeaky-clean.
- Another good carb cleaner is Berryman Chemtool. This stuff is
about as poisonous and flammable as gasoline, but at least it's a good
cleaner. Berryman's comes in a spray can, and its great fun to spray
it on a grease- and-varnish encrusted carburetor; the stuff just
liquifies and flows away. I personally use chemtool to clean carbs I
don't want to take apart or off.
- Spray it heavily with Gunk and leave it covered over night, then
scrub with those plastic scratch pads. For the corrosion, Aluminum
Jelly works good, but do it after you rinse the engine cleaner off.
My engine came out looking great.
Chuck Stringer (email@example.com)
- Being the sort who hates paying more than $50 for a motorcycle I've
run into a lot of corroded aluminium and have had good luck with
scotchbrite(tm) pads (plastic wool) followed by Nevr Dull. Nevr Dull
doesn't have much problem cleaning up the scratch marks left by
really fine scotchbrite. This works pretty well on both smooth and
sand-cast surfaces, though it doesn't get the all the crap out of
the sandcast surface, which in my book is Ok because it doesn't make
it look like you've got nothing better to do with your life than
sitting around polishing your crankcase (hmm, sounds like a
euphemism...). For bad corrosion (or shitty castings - like old
ducatis) I've had to bead blast followed by 320 grit followed by 400
grit followed by 600 grit followed by Nevr Dull, but it's usually
just easier to buy another motorcycle. The progressive stages of
sandpaper can also be used with some success to take the sand cast
marks out. As for the jugs, good luck. A brass brush will take out
what crap it can reach, but you probably can't find one long enough.
It shouldn't leave any visible scratch marks on a rough cast surface
if that's what you've got. Bead blasting will cure it for sure.
Latte' Jed (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- In general, the rough cast cases clean up pretty well with some
aluminum cleaner or carb cleaner solvents available at auto parts
stores. Tide works ok, a brass bristle brush works really well.
You *don't* want to polish the cases with buffing wheel, etc.
Polished side covers, like most of the older British and Italian
bikes had, are fine, but polishing the engine cases themselves will
cause the engine to retain heat.
If you do complete disassembly and have stubborn corrosion/need
for resurfacing, a bead blaster with walnut shell grit works
wonders. Finding someone to do this, however, is often a bit of a