What’s the Best Technique for Porting and Polishing Cylinder Heads on a Chevy Big Block?

April 8, 2024

Understandably, the performance of your vehicle is paramount. It can be significantly improved by focusing on the engine’s cylinder heads – specifically, the ports and valves. Why? These components are crucial for controlling the air and fuel mixture flow into your engine. This article will delve into how this is done, the best techniques available, and how you can do it yourself.

Understanding the Purpose of Cylinder Head Porting

Before we dive into the best technique for porting and polishing cylinder heads on a Chevy Big Block, let’s explore why this process is vital. Cylinder head porting refers to the process of modifying the intake and exhaust ports of an internal combustion engine to improve the quantity and quality of the air flow. Cylinder heads, valves, and ports play a vital role in your engine’s performance.

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The Function of Cylinder Heads

Cylinder heads are found on the top side of the engine and play a vital role in the internal combustion process. They contain critical components such as the spark plug, intake and exhaust valves, and combustion chamber. The cylinder head seals the cylinder block, ensuring maximum compression and preventing the leakage of coolant or engine oil into the cylinders.

The Role of Ports and Valves

The intake and exhaust ports are passages that direct air and fuel into the engine and expel exhaust gases out of it. The valves control these flows – the intake valve lets air and fuel in, while the exhaust valve lets exhaust gases out.

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When your engine is functioning optimally, the intake charge (air and fuel mixture) will enter the cylinder head intake port, filling the combustion chamber. The spark plug will ignite this mixture, and the resulting combustion will drive the piston down, creating power. The exhaust gases left behind are expelled out through the exhaust port.

The Art of Porting and Polishing

Now that we’ve established what cylinder head porting is and why it’s essential, let’s dive into how it’s done. Engine porting is a bit of an art form, requiring a good understanding of the engine, precise work, and a lot of patience.

Porting: Making Space for More Air Flow

The aim of porting is to enlarge the ports on the intake and exhaust side of the cylinder head, thereby allowing more air and fuel to flow into the engine and more exhaust gases to flow out. By doing so, you facilitate the engine’s ability to breathe and subsequently increase its power output.

A good porting job involves careful planning and execution. It’s not just about making the ports larger; it’s about reshaping them to optimize the airflow. Starting with the intake port, you must grind away material to increase the area while maintaining a smooth and consistent flow path. It’s crucial to ensure the port is not too large as this could decrease air velocity, reducing engine performance.

The exhaust port needs careful attention too. The goal here is to facilitate the fast and efficient removal of exhaust gases, again by enlarging and reshaping the port. Additionally, the exhaust port should have a slightly larger area than the intake port, as exhaust gases are hotter and therefore take up more space.

Polishing: Creating a Smooth Path

Once you’ve finished porting, the next step is polishing. This process involves smoothing out the newly enlarged ports to reduce air resistance.

Using a rotary tool and a variety of sanding and grinding attachments, you will need to smooth out all the surfaces inside the intake and exhaust ports, focusing on removing any rough spots or sharp edges that could disrupt the flow of air and fuel.

The Best Technique for Porting and Polishing

The best technique for porting and polishing your Chevy Big Block cylinder heads depends heavily on your goals and skills.

Use the Right Tools

Firstly, using the right tools is a must. You will need a variety of grinding stones and carbide bits for the porting process. For the polishing phase, you will require sanding rolls or flaps of various grits, starting with coarse ones and gradually moving to finer ones.

Understand the Original Design

Secondly, understanding the original design of your cylinder head is crucial. Study the shape and size of the ports, and plan out where you will remove material before you start. It’s also a good idea to leave some margin for error; you can always remove more material later, but adding it back is not an option.

Smooth and Consistent

Thirdly, ensure that your work is smooth and consistent. This consistency is crucial in ensuring good airflow, so take your time, and don’t rush the process.

Safety First

Lastly, always prioritize safety. Wear safety glasses, a dust mask, and ear protection when working.

A Note on Seat and Valve Work

In conjunction with porting and polishing, seat and valve work is often necessary to ensure that the valves seal properly. It involves grinding or cutting the valve seats so that they form a perfect seal with the valves. It’s a specialized job, and unless you have the correct tools and know-how, it’s best left to professional engine builders.

In the end, while the porting and polishing process can be time-consuming and requires a certain level of skill, it’s a job well worth the effort for the noticeable increase in engine performance it provides.

Evaluating the Result on a Flow Bench

After porting and polishing your cylinder head, it’s critical to assess the result. This is where a flow bench comes into play. A flow bench is a device that measures the amount of air that can flow through the port. The more air that can flow, the more power your engine will produce.

To use a flow bench, you attach the cylinder head to it, and it measures the air flow at different valve lifts. Valve lift refers to how high the valve is lifted off its seat when it opens. The measurements at low, mid, and high valve lifts give you an idea of how well the port is performing throughout the valve’s range of motion.

The flow bench can also measure the air flow at different pressure differences across the port, giving you an understanding of how well the port can maintain high air flow rates under different driving conditions.

While the flow bench gives very useful quantitative data, it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t take into account the dynamic effects of air flow in a running engine, such as the pulsations caused by the opening and closing of the valves. Therefore, a good flow bench result should always be validated with a good performance on the road.

Finishing Touches: Valve Seats and the Short Side Radius

The most critical areas of the cylinder head from a flow point of view are the valve seats and the short side radius. The valve seats are where the valves make contact with the cylinder head, and a good seal here is crucial for good engine performance. A valve job involves cutting or grinding the valve seats to ensure a perfect seal.

The short side radius is the tight curve on the floor of the port just before the valve. This curve should be smooth and gradual to ensure good air flow, especially at low valve lifts. If the short side radius is too sharp, it will disrupt the air flow and reduce the engine’s performance.

These areas require careful attention during porting and polishing. Special tools such as a die grinder with a long reach bit for the short side radius and a valve seat cutter for the valve seats are often necessary.


Porting and polishing the cylinder heads on a Chevy Big Block or any other engine is an art as much as it is a science. It involves an intimate understanding of the engine’s internals, specifically the combustion chamber, intake manifold, and exhaust port. It is a job best done with patience, precision, and a keen eye for detail, but the resulting increase in air flow and overall engine performance is well worth the effort.

With the right tools, such as a die grinder for reshaping and a flow bench for evaluating, an accurate understanding of the original design, and a focus on the critical areas such as valve seats and the short side radius, you can successfully carry out the porting and polishing process.

However, it’s important to note that this job is not for the faint-hearted. It’s best left to those who understand the mechanics of their engine well or are willing to learn. If you’re unsure, consulting a professional is always a good idea. After all, the goal is to improve the engine’s performance, not to damage it.

In the end, the satisfaction of hearing your Chevy roar to life with increased power and performance is the ultimate reward for a job well done.