Make it shiny – Polishing a zinc-alloy replica

Shiny things are good. A black painted replica is a pleasing thing, but a shiny, polished replica is even better. Now, there are lots of people who provide professional polishing or electro-plating services and if you hand them some cash, they’ll turn your replica into a thing of great beauty. However, what I want to look at in this article is whether it’s possible to achieve reasonable results yourself by using commonly available supplies and without spending too much cash.

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All of this is going to involve completely dismantling the replica and then putting it back together afterwards as well as working with some potentially hazardous stuff. If you’re not confident to do these things, don’t try this with one of your replicas, OK? You have been warned! If you attempt something like this and end up with a box of bits that you can’t re-assemble into a working replica or if your wife won’t speak to you because you have stripped the varnish off her prized dining table, it’s no use complaining to me.

That said, none of what I’m about to describe requires anything more than basic mechanical knowledge, simple tools and the kind of stuff you can buy in a good hardware store. OK, are you ready? Then let’s give it a try.

The Project

I have a Chinese made replica of the FN Model 1906. And it’s pretty reasonable (you’ll find a link to the review at the end of this article) except that it’s marked as an FN but the grips it’s supplied with are much closer to those provided with the very similar Colt Model 1908. So, here’s what I have got at the moment:

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While I was researching this replica I came across this picture of a beautiful nickel finish Colt Model 1908 with black hard rubber grips:

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It helps to have a final result in mind before you start making changes to a replica. In this case my plan is pretty simple – I want to make FN 1906 replica look as much like that that nickel plated Colt 1908 as possible. The main change I need to make is that the zinc alloy frame and slide of my replica need to have their black paint removed and to be polished. I also need to paint the black magazine, trigger and magazine release and while I’m working on this replica, I also intend to reduce slightly the length of the outer barrel so that it’s level with the front of the slide to make it look more like the original. Easy, eh? I mean, what could possibly go wrong. (If you really want to know what can go wrong when you’re working on a replica, read the account of my refurbishing of a Crosman Peacemaker – you’ll find a link at the end of this article).

What you’ll need

  • Paint remover.
  • Abrasive metal polish (I used Brasso, but any abrasive polish such as Autosol Sovol will do).
  • Enough tools to completely disassemble and reassemble your replica.
  • You may also need paint and thinner/brush cleaner.

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Step 1 – Take it apart

If you’re going to work on changing the finish of any replica, you’re going to have to disassemble it completely. I’m not talking about field stripping here: I mean you’ll have to remove every internal component until you end up with a bare slide and frame. If you plan on being able to put it all back together again afterwards, a digital camera is a very useful tool. Take lots of pictures before and during disassembly to make it easier to put everything back the same way it was.

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A picture showing the trigger and transfer bar and the magazine release in-situ in the left frame half. There’s enough detail here to remind me how everything goes back together.

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Everything disassembled. In a fairly simple springer like this, there just aren’t too many parts to worry about.

Step 2: Remove the existing finish

Once you have your replica in bits, the first step is to remove the existing finish. Generally, the finish on most replicas is a thin layer of paint, so removal isn’t too difficult or time consuming. You can remove the finish by abrasion, using, for example, wet and dry paper or wire wool, but I don’t think that’s the best way. The zinc alloy used for the castings of replicas is fairly soft and scratches very easily. It’s also just too easy to find that you have not just rubbed away the paint but also some of the detail and the sharp edges of the castings. For this reason, I’ll be using paint remover.

Paint remover is, as the name suggests, very good at removing paint. However, it’s also pretty good at removing the skin off your fingertips, the finish on some kitchen worktops and the varnish off your parquet flooring and it will dissolve nitrile seals. It’s also capable of leaving an interesting pattern of tiny holes in your jeans if you’re particularly exuberant when you’re applying it and if you get any in your eyes, you will be very, very sorry. So, a degree of caution is required. If possible, wear those thin rubber gloves that you can buy for working on cars and motorcycles to protect your hands, use eye protection, spread out plenty of old newspaper on your work surface and be careful how you dispose of the newspaper when you’re finished.

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Working the paint remover in with a brush. The paint comes off very easily.

All you have to do is apply the paint remover using a brush and then wash the resulting gunk off with water. You may find that a small, stiff brush is needed to work the paint remover into awkward areas such as slide serrations – an old toothbrush works well for this. Given that the layer of paint is very thin, this won’t take long though you may need two or more applications of paint remover to get rid of all of the existing finish.

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The left slide half after paint removal. The circled area shows slight surface defects – not unusual on a zinc-alloy casting.

When you remove the paint, you may be a little depressed about how all that zinc alloy looks. It’ll be mottled, dull grey rather than shiny silver and it’s likely to have patches of different colour. That’s normal at this stage and don’t worry, most of this surface discolouration will polish out.

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The frame halves after paint removal – lots of discolouration and mottling can be seen on the surface of the alloy here though happily it’s generally free from major defects.

Step 3: Polishing

OK, now that the paint is off, take a good look at the alloy. Sadly, there are sometimes serious defects and blemishes in zinc alloy castings. These are usually hidden by the paint but when this is stripped off, they may become apparent. Where these are just surface marks, they can usually be polished out. Where they are deeper, I’m afraid there’s not a great deal you can do. You’ll either have to accept that your replica won’t have a perfect finish or consider applying a new coat of paint to cover them up. On this FN 1906, all the castings seem to be of reasonable quality without any major problems though there are some small pits, scratches and minor defects which were previously covered by the paint.

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One frame half after polishing, the other is as it was after paint removal. The difference that a little polishing makes is quite dramatic.

Polishing takes time. Lots of time. Sit yourself down, stick on your favourite TV or radio show and just let your mind wander as you polish and re-polish. It’s oddly therapeutic but it is going to take time. Keep going until you have a consistent finish that’s as shiny as you want. There will inevitably be bits that need more polishing to achieve the finish you want – just keep going back and re-doing these until you’re happy. Of course, if you have access to a polishing wheel or some form of powered polishing mop, that can speed things up a great deal. However, on this replica I’m going for a hand-o-matic finish. Incidentally, if you’re lucky enough to have real wood grips on your replica, keep these well away from any abrasive polish. Liquid polish like Brasso will permanently stain wood.

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The polished slide halves. Most of the minor defects from the previous picture are now barely visible on the left half and the overall finish is good. You’ll also note that I have left the original black paint on the ejection port and round the extractor, just to provide a bit of visual contrast.

Step 4: The details

If you’re changing the finish of a replica, you also have to consider the details. If you’re starting with a black replica and polishing it, you need to consider what you’re going to do about the other black bits and pieces like the slide release, safety, trigger, magazine and magazine release? And what about any retaining screws? Are you going to leave these black? That kind of contrast can work well to highlight a polished slide and frame but it can also look kind of odd – it’s your choice.

On the FN 1906 replica, I will have to deal with the trigger, magazine release and magazine. These are all black plastic so I don’t have the option of stripping paint off and polishing them. This leaves just two options: leave them black or paint them. I’m trying to end up with something that’s as close as possible to the nickel finish Colt 1908 pictured earlier so I’m going to use paint.

I’ll be using enamel paint applied with a brush. I like enamel paint because it sticks well to plastic and it gives a fairly hard and durable finish. However, you do need to give it plenty of time to cure before handling. I’d suggest that you leave any parts painted with enamel to dry for at least 24 hours before handling and 48 hours if possible. You can also use acrylic aerosol paint if you want, though this will give a much thinner coat of paint and it may take several attempts until you get a decent finish.

Wash any parts you intend to paint in warm water with a little detergent added to remove any oil or grease and then handle the parts as little as possible before applying the paint. To get the best finish, make sure the paint isn’t too cold before you start – sitting the pot or aerosol can in warm water for five minutes before you start painting helps to ensure this. You’ll probably want at least two coats – it’s best to apply thin coats of enamel paint. Keep the paint off parts like the trigger pivot and anything else that moves. The finish using brush painting is never going to be perfect – you have to decide whether it’s good enough for you.

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Starting to put it all together – the painted trigger and magazine release are inside the frame halves.

I have also used paint remover on the five retaining screws and given the heads of each a quick polish so they’ll more closely match the new frame and slide finish.

Step 5: Putting it all back together

Right so, now that you’ve done all the hard work, it’s time to put it all back together. However, because you took photos before you disassembled (you did take those photos, didn’t you?) that isn’t too difficult – just make sure everything goes back the way it was (and take this opportunity to lubricate everything that moves). Do remember to test everything carefully before you shoot any re-assembled replica. I had a couple of minor issues when re-assembling this replica. The first was that, although everything seemed to be properly assembled, the frame halves wouldn’t join properly at the rear. It took some head scratching to discover the internal weight had a tiny flat ground in to it that had to align with an internal frame web in order for everything to fit. Finally, the magazine release didn’t latch properly. This was due to some of the enamel paint finding its way on to the shoulder of the release, preventing it moving fully to the left and latching. Once I cleaned off the paint, it worked as it should.

Once it’s all back together, it’s time to step back and admire what you have achieved.

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Overall I’m happy with how this turned out. For a little effort and next to no money my $5 springer now looks much more like the Colt 1908 I wanted to replicate. Of course it isn’t perfect: the finish is reasonable but there are a couple of small marks, like all polished guns it is going to show fingermarks when I handle it, it no longer has any markings and the join between the slide halves is now more evident. But I feel that I have now got something that is better than what I started with, and that’s always the final test of any project like this.

So, do you feel inspired? Isn’t it time you took that sad old replica with the chipped and faded paint and turned into a thing of joy and beauty? If you’re willing to put in a bit of time and take some care you can do what I did to any metal replica. If you do, send me your before and after pictures and I’ll share them here.

Related pages

FN 1906 review

Refurbishing a Crosman Peacemaker

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