Tips for Cleaning License Plates
This information was originally compiled by Chris Woodcock, ALPCA #7082.
All of this information comes from collectors such as yourself. If you have any tips on cleaning plates, please feel free to let us know!
- Formula 409, Fantastik, Windex, or similar all-purpose surface cleaners
- Pros: This is an inexpensive and easy way to remove dirt and grease from the surface of the plates.
- Cons: This doesn't always work, but is worth a try because it is so simple. A caution is to be careful when cleaning recent graphic plates. The cleaner can sometimes start to remove the ink from the letters/numbers on the plate. Be careful when working with older plates - it has been known to remove paint from the numbers.
- Car wash soap
- Pros: An easy and quick way to clean dirt off plates. As with any soap, make sure you rinse the plate thoroughly and dry it off.
- Cons: Doesn't get big stains out, but does great for surface dirt.
- Palmolive and warm water
- Pros: An easy and gentle way to remove dirt from the surface of plates. Let the plates soak a minute or two, then sponge the dirt off, rinse, and dry with a towel.
- Fast Orange Cleaner
- Pros: Does an excellent job of removing grease and oil from plates. Use your hands to rub the cleaner on and the grease off.
- Cons: Make sure you don't use the pumice variety- this is abrasive and will scratch plates.
- Bar-Keepers Friend
- Cons: It is reported that this can damage the paint.
- Naval Jelly
- Pros: This can be very effective in removing rust from older plates.
- Cons: This is a VERY STRONG acid, and must be used with caution. It will burn exposed skin immediately upon contact. If left on the plate too long, is may also start to remove the paint.
- Pros: This can preserve the finish on a newly-cleaned plate.
- Cons: This can also detract from the appearance of the plate, and will yellow over time. Many collectors don't like this finish on a plate. If you like the look of shellac and are not worried about what other collectors may think, then go ahead. If you are trying to fix up a plate for sale or trade, don't shellac.
- Pros: This may remove some light surface rust, and will also help prevent further rust from forming. This is an easy way to clean up some lightly-rusted plates, and will not leave a 'greasy' feel.
- Car Polish
- Pros: This can remove surface marks and some light scratches in the plate. It will also help give the plate a nice clean gloss.
- Cons: Most car polishes are abrasive. They will remove paint if rubbed too hard, especially on the numbers. This also requires a LOT of elbow grease.
- NU-FINISH Car Polish
- Pros: First, clean the plate with a very soft-bristle brush and dish-soapy water. Followup with NU-FINISH to remove light oxidation. You'll have a smooth clean plate.
- Cons: As with any polish, don't rub too hard or you'll lose paint from the numbers.
- Auto Wax
- Pros: This will remove some light blemishes on the surface of the plate. It will also give the plate a nice smooth finish, and make for easier dusting later on.
- Cons: This requires some elbow grease, and can remove paint from the numbers if applied too forcefully.
- Soft Pencil Eraser
- Pros: Works good on removing surface rust from plates.
- Cons: Can leave fine scratches in plate if done too forcefully; be careful around numbers.
- Pros: This will do a good job of removing any surface dirt and grime. It also requires almost no work.
- Cons: Sometime this will do too good of a job, some unfortunate individuals have tried this and had all the paint completely removed from the plate. Also, don't forget to do this when all other family members are safely out of sight!
- Dishwasher Detergent
- Pros: Let the plate soak in hot, hot water and detergent for 2-3 minutes and let air dry.
- Cons: Don't let graphic plates sit too long, or the plates may fade.
- Naphtha (Lighter fluid)
- Pros: This is said to be excellent for removing decals from plates. Let the decal soak in a small amount of the fluid for a minute or two, then carefully scrape the decal from the plate with a new razor scraper blade. (Be careful not to scratch the plate!) If done properly, most decals will come off intact.
- Cons: As to be expected, this is flammable and can be dangerous. This can also burn sensitive skin on contact. USE EXTREME CAUTION if you intend to try this!
- Dow Bathroom Cleaner
- Pros: This wil remove stubborn grime from many plates; and may work better than cleaners such as Fantastik.
- Cons: While this generally does a good job, it may bleach out some older plates with chalky paint; and also may affect plates with reds and yellows. Diluting with water will help prevent this, but will also reduce the effectiveness of the cleaner. Also, don't use this on plates with paper vaildation stickers (e.g. NM and Arkansas). This could give a 'sticky' feel on lacquered plates (like current New Hampshire). This can be avoided by rinsing the plate with water right after sponging it clean.
- Korkay Spray Cleaner
- Pros: Very effective at removing light surface rust and yellowing, especially on white numbers and letters.
- Cons: This stuff is very strong, and can remove paint, so test on back of plate.
- Iron Out
- Pros: Very good at removing light surface rust and "smoothing" the metal. Doesn't appear to affect the paint.
- NEVR-DULL Magic Wadding Polish
- Pros: Does a great job at removing grime, rust, tar, and all surface dirt, while serving as a polish as well. Made by made by the George Basch Co., Inc. Can sometimes be found in antique stores.
- Cons: Can be somewhat expensive! Be careful on natural aluminum plates. Always test on the back of the plate. Can leave an uneven finish at times.
After washing your plates
To protect the finish of plates, use a polish/wax designed for use on modern clearcoat paints. These waxes are non-abrasive, and really give plates a good protective finish.
Use a chisel-pointed x-acto blade (carefully, so as not to damage the underlying plate). Moistening the sticker can help it come off cleaner, but can cause the sticker to split and crack.
Removing sticker adhesives
Goof-off, brake cleaner, Goo-Gone, Castrol Purple Power (this may also remove oxidized paint), and believe it or not, hair spray.
Why do some of my license plates smell so bad?
This is from sprayed varnish that was used on many 1970s and 1980s plates, mainly from the Midwest. It can be smelled even if they are in their original envelopes. It is a varnish protecting the surface of the first use of reflectorized plates. This varnish is not used anymore.
Fortunately, the varnish disappears in the sun. Plates were made to be mounted onto bumpers, and the varnish was expected to dissipate with use. So the only way to remove it is to leave these plates in bright sunlight for a couple of weeks - a yard, roof, or someplace in the open. They will also brighten up, because the yellowish varnish will turn a brighter white.
Member Tom Boyd (#3753) has written a book called "The Care and Feeding of Your License Plates" that covers many of these topics. You can contact him through the ALPCA Member Roster.
Thanks to everyone who has contributed tips!