Winning strategies for a truck show ‘n shine

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A couple of truck show ‘n shine events are scheduled for later this summer, but they are admittedly few and far between these days. In the before time, it seemed there was one show or another practically every weekend between June and September.

With such a long time since the last show, here’s a primer on preparing your truck for a competition.

truck show n shine
Old or new, nothing turns heads like a well turned-out, well-manicured big truck. (Photo: Jim Park)

If you haven’t had it cleaned and polished in a while, you’ll have your work cut out for you. The paint will be looking a little drab and those once gleaming tanks will be a strange shade of grey. Best to start with a serious wash job.   

Clean it thoroughly first

The first step should be to give the truck a good solid surface clean to remove road grime and bugs. You also want to free the truck from all the corrosion-inducing winter road spray. If you wait too long, there won’t be much truck left to polish.

A good soap and water wash will cut through most of the road grime, says Rob Summerville of the Blue Beacon Truck Wash in Woodstock, Ont. “We use pressure washers because we think the bristles in a brush can affect the painted finish,” he says.

A little brightener on the aluminum will help remove some of oxidation, but it must be used sparingly and not on the whole truck. It’s not good for glass and it will leave the paint dull if it’s over-used. Apply it just to the areas that need it, like the fuel tanks. It sometimes leaves a whiteish finish, but that will disappear with polishing.

If you hand wash the truck with a brush, make sure the bristles aren’t too stiff. They can scratch the paint. When using a mitt, make sure there’s no grit between it and the paint. That will leave a lasting impression.

If you’re feeling ambitious, a hand buffed wax will help keep the paint cleaner between washes and make the next wash a little easier.

Degreasing the truck with a spray-on chemical product will also save you hours of hand-scraping later. Read the label carefully to ensure it won’t damage paint or rubber products like hoses and tires. Most products recommend a little soaking time, but don’t leave it on longer than the manufacturer recommends. Some of that stuff can be nearly impossible to remove once it dries.

truck stacks
Start at the top – with the stacks – and work down when washing, so all the road gunk and maybe some soot won’t wind up on the clean paint. (Photo: Jim Park)

Make the brightwork shine

With the paint now gleaming, it’s time to move onto the brightwork. The diehards and aficionados insist on using progressively finer-grit sandpaper or emery cloth, whereas most of us grunts would be happy enough using a high-speed grinder with cloth polishing wheels and cutting/buffing compound. Also known as Jeweler’s Rouge, these compounds are available online and from specialty shops along with the buffing wheels. The different-colored compounds do different jobs:

  • Red rouge is a coarse compound designed to cut away the oxidized surface of the metal. It also grinds away the bumps and craters formed by stone chips. It’s the first step on the road to rehabilitation.
  • Green rouge is a medium-rough compound designed to remove the sanding marks left by the red rouge. It smooths out the surface even further.
  • White rouge is the finest compound and the final step in the process. It smooths the surface right out and provides that deep mirror-finish shine.

The polishing wheels are usually yellow or white. They come in different sizes and shapes designed to work into corners or flat, smooth surfaces. The wheels are usually mounted on an electric grinder or handheld drill, and the tool’s speed is important. If it’s too fast the rouge will burn and turn into a gooey black mess. Too slow, and it will take forever. Follow the recommendations on the package, but you’ll need something between 1,500 and 3,000 rpm.

The white wheels are made with a stiff material and designed to “scrape” the surface of the metal. It’s the first wheel used, typically with the red and green rouge. The yellow wheel is more like a buffer, used with the white rouge to smooth out all the cutting marks.

Buffing pads are best for paint or prepared aluminum surfaces and apply the final finished shine. These can be handheld or drill-mounted, but are designed for a low-speed tool.

engine compartment
The engine compartment should be meticulously clean, no leaks, and the more extras the better. Keep the hoses as neat as possible and add a little touch-up paint where it might be needed. (Photo: Jim Park)

Randy Camden, a freelance truck polisher who works the Stars & Stripes Truck Show and Shine at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., says the Rouge and cutting wheels are fine, and they get the job done much faster than hand rubbing the metal with sandpaper, but the sandpaper will yield a nicer job.

“At a truck show like this one, I have to work fast,” he says. “If I had a weekend to do an entire truck, I can make it glow with a hand polish.”

He starts with a coarser grit to remove blemishes from the surface, and works his way down to a really fine grit for a smooth finish. “For the final step, I’ll use a terrycloth towel sprinkled with flour and gently rub the entire surface. The fine texture of the flour does a final sanding,” he says.

interior truck theme
Some prefer to upscale an original interior with a few new bits while sticking to the original theme. (Photo: Jim Park)

Focus on the inside job

If you don’t want your interior judged at a truck show, standard practice it to simply leave the doors closed. That will hide multiple sins.

There’s no shortage of add-on for interiors, like light switch covers, hardwood flooring, gauge bezel covers, and covers for just about everything from the gear-shifter to the driver’s seat. You are only limited by your imagination and budget, but not always in that order.

“Interiors are probably the top concerns for drivers doing some customizing today,” says Brett Akey of Belleville, Ont.’s Chrome Supply Warehouse. “What’s popular goes in cycles. A few years ago it was color-matching the interior surfaces with the exterior paint scheme. Today it’s all about the stainless accent pieces.”

truck interior
Others like to create a themed environment, often coordinated with the exterior paint scheme — in this case, Pirates of the Caribbean. (Photo: Jim Park)

On newer trucks, getting those accents can be a problem. OEMs change the design of the switches, for example, and it takes some time before the aftermarket suppliers come up with new designs.

“Paccar uses the same switches in their Kenworth and Peterbilt models from 2006 to 2020. Now they have new ones,” he says. “But drivers have already figured out workarounds to get the old switch covers to fit. It’s the same with the new steering wheels with the thumb switches. They aren’t popular with the custom crowd, but they will figure out a way around that, too. Drivers are ingenious. They will figure out how to move those switches up onto the dashboard in no time.”   

Like the rest of the truck, the key to a strong interior is cleanliness and neatness. If you have a theme in mind, exploit it, but keep it consistent.

Imaginative accent lighting usually scores point with judges, as does a neatly made bed. You don’t have to go overboard, just do it right.

truck tires
Blacking the tire sidewalls enhances the appearance, and lettering always helps. Stage the tires with all the logos at the top. Pick all the rocks out of the treads. (Photo: Jim Park)

Play for the judges

Here’s what you need to do to catch the judges’ eyes during a competition. Sometimes a win comes down to a few small details your competitors overlooked, like leaving stones embedded in the tire treads.

  • General – Consider the overall appearance and cleanliness of the truck or tractor-trailer, as well as the site. Stash all the rags, ladders and cleaning supplies and keep your site tidy. Decorating the site helps, too. Get all the junk off the dashboard and straighten up the bedding in the sleeper. Make your mom proud.
  • Exterior – Cleanliness and overall appearance is very important. Judges look for dirt everywhere, under the hood, in the cab, and inside the frame. Mind the paint, especially where it’s peeling from rivets. If you’re really out to impress, paint hidden areas like brake drums and under the cab.
  • Engine – Unless entered in a separate class, engines are usually judged only on overall appearance. The engine compartment should be meticulously clean, no leaks, and the more extras the better. A clean stock engine won’t score as high as a custom engine. Keep the hoses as neat as possible and add a little touch-up paint where it might be needed. Look for grease on the inside of the frame here, as well as inside the front bumper.
  • Tires – Even though tires are the most abused parts on the truck, they should be in good condition, with even treadwear. Blacking the sidewalls enhances the appearance, and lettering always helps. If they aren’t all the same make and model, don’t draw extra attention to the fact by lettering them. Stage the tires with all the logos at the top, and pick rocks out of the treads.
  • Lighting – Lights are often judged separately, but they are considered in overall appearance. Custom lights can make the difference, and they should be working if on the truck. Originality counts, too.
  • Undercarriage – There’s lots of room here to earn extra points for appearance and cleanliness, but you’ll have to work for it. Excess grease should be removed. Bolt and nut covers score extra points, as does some fresh paint. Some judges will run their hands along the inside of the frame rails. Those fingers should not come up dirty.
  • Interior – Adding tons of bling to the dashboard is a start, but judges look for themes or patterns. All the extras count, but is it neat and orderly? Clean the floor and the floor mats, vacuum the carpets, and get everything shipshape. If it’s messy or dirty, you’ll lose points.

We may yet see a few more show and shines in 2021, so start getting the truck ready now, while you still have a little time. 

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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  • “We use pressure washers because we think the bristles in a brush can affect the painted finish,”

    You will never get a vehicle fully clean with just a pressure washer. All you’re doing is getting the surface dirt off, and leaving dirt there for when you polish. Seriously the dumbest comment ever made by someone in the detailing business.