What is a Mill Finish?

A mill finish refers to the natural appearance of metal after it's been manufactured and left unpolished. This untouched, raw state often displays minor imperfections, revealing the material's authentic character. It's a testament to the beauty of industrial simplicity. Wondering how this aesthetic can enhance your project? Let's explore the possibilities together.
Lori Kilchermann
Lori Kilchermann

A mill finish is typically the finish a material has as it exits the mill where it is processed. Most metals, such as aluminum, are polished after they leave the mill. This leaves the materials bright and shiny and removes any residue that might be present. A mill finish, however, will often be dull, grainy and without a certain luster. This is often referred to as an unfinished appearance.

Any aluminum with this type of finish will contain a slight amount of oxidation. This is a trait of all extruded or rolled aluminum. Steel will also contain a slight oxidation as it exits the rolling mill and typically undergoes a chemical wash to eliminate such an undesirable finish. Stainless steel, for example, will not be brightly polished as it exits the mill and will have a lackluster dull to even black appearance as it is processed.

A mill finished steel bucket.
A mill finished steel bucket.

Builders will often wish to incorporate a mill finish into a project that is traditionally completed with a chemically finished or a machined appearance. This offers a more rugged appearance and allows the builder to design an end product that is unique to the project. When planning to paint or seal the material, the finish will have a slightly irregular surface which will hold the finishing agent at different thicknesses across the surface, resulting in a unique appearance once dried.

By using this process, a builder can achieve differing appearances in a project without the bonding and coexisting difficulties associated with marrying different materials. A uniform method of attaching a product's pieces together may be used with several different finishes to the various parts by utilizing different levels of finish. While aluminum can be anodized, aluminum with a mill finish must not be sealed once anodized.

If planning to apply a sealant or a silicone base adhesive to a mill finished piece of aluminum, the surface must first be wiped clean of any residue from the extrusion or rolling process. This residue will only be removed by wiping with a light chromate or a phosphate etching material. Simply wiping the reside off with a finger will result in the residue re-forming on the surface of the material. In some applications, such as airplane or boat manufacturing, the raw materials are assembled into large sub-sections and then dipped into a phosphate bath to remove the reside left from the extrusion process.

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Discussion Comments


@MissCourt - How I prep it depends on if I'm going to paint it or not. I usually leave some of the grease on it if it's an outside piece of work or if I'm not painting it.

I use mineral oils to clean it. Just grab a box of wire scrub brushes and a pair of leather gloves. Scrub it with the mineral oils and then wash it off with really hot water. Pat it dry with a towel.

If I'm going to paint it, I just wash it like usual and then use regular old enamel spray paints.


@Jacques6 - I'm surprised you don't use scrap metal for your work, since you like the post-apocalyptic look.

Architects prefer mill finish because it can be combined with a bunch of different textures. When I used mill finish, I used it to add an interesting feel to my home office.

My only complaint is cleaning it. I scrubbed it with soap but it still has some grease on it. I guess if I keep cleaning it, eventually it will get clean.

How do you clean you mill finish before you use it? Any tips?


I do a lot of metal sculpting artwork and mill finish is one of my favorite textures to use. Mill finish aluminum is kind of expensive, but it's the perfect texture for painting.

I know a lot of metalwork artist use scrap metal, but if I use mill finish -- I get more control over the end result. Even the plain textures of mill finish are pretty neat.

I only paint about half of my projects – the ones that have plain mill finish have an almost post-apocalyptic look. It's very artistic, I can see why architects like to use it in their designs.

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    • A mill finished steel bucket.
      A mill finished steel bucket.