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Electroplating: Do-it-yourself


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Posted (edited)

I thought I would give a quick review of my experience with plating.

 

When I restored my 1923 Studebaker, I was shocked at how much I was getting charged for nickel plating. After the first few parts I decided to do as much on my own as possible. I bought the 1.5 gallon Flash Copper and Nickel plating kits from Caswell. That was in 2014.

Flash Copper Plating Kit - 1.5 Gals

I'm not trying to sell Caswell....there are other kits out there but this is what I have. 

 

All the parts that wouldn't fit in the 1.5 gallon bucket went to a plating company and I paid $$$. That included the bumpers, robe rail and headlight bezels. Everything else I did...all the fasteners, hood latches, gas cap, windshield pulls, lug nuts, gauge bezels, door handles (inside and out), door handle bezels, stop and tail light bezels, parking & turn signal light bezels, oiler cups, radiator neck, etc. The car doesn't have much "bling" but when you have to polish all the nickel, it is surprising how much there is. Self plating really saved me a lot of money.

 

1067292683_Parkedindrive.jpg.9a52cbf2fd9678d6816c347783f8cdd5.jpg

 

If you are interested in doing it yourself, here is the basic process as demonstrated on a few parts I recently did.

 

First and foremost - All the cost is in the polishing, not the plating itself. I pulled out my two plating baths which I haven't touched in the last 7 years. They just sat on the shelf in their little buckets with sealed lids on and, to my surprise, both worked like they did when new.

 

First, you need to clean up the part you want to plate. In this case it is some Model T parts that a friend wanted painted. I should have taken a "before" picture but here is the pre-plating shot.

516753629_Prepforplating.jpg.9b502004d2aabe3b3bd6a0c93e51d4cd.jpg

For each part I started sanding with 180 grit, then 220, then 320, then 400, then 600, then 800 then buffed it on the polishing wheel. I had to sand blast that steel steering wheel gearbox cover first. Note:  don't sand blast unless you really have to as getting it back to a high sheen is a pain.

Buffer.jpg.b7eceb9fa93aa1447b213d38caaeb44e.jpg

 

Whatever the part looks like before you plate it is how the finished plating will come out. If you sand blast it, the plate will be totally flat in sheen and look like it was just sand blasted. If you polish it into jewelry, it will come out of the plating bath that way.

 

Edited by Stude Light (see edit history)
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I won't get into all the nitty gritty but nickel will plate over copper, brass and steel. It is best to plate the steel with copper first for better corrosion protection. If parts are nicked or pitted, copper should be used first regardless of the substrate metal as it is easily sanded and polished to fill in the damage. It may require plating with copper a couple of times to build it up.

 

The copper anodes are covered with a fine cheesecloth to prevent any crystals from contaminating the bath which is just copper salts (ex. copper sulfate)

792104198_Copperanodes.jpg.4c05773d2fac323dbcf6a5f5e066269b.jpg

 

The bath is heated to 110 deg F. I use an aquarium heater that I hot wired to bypass the thermostat so it stays on all the time. I don't think most fish like 110 degree water! To speed up the heating a bit a dropped my plastic bucket into a container of boiling water first that got it close to temp. The aquarium heater will maintain that temp.

408473565_Heatingupplatingtank.jpg.0c5309687f145ddf0f4d28b9ecee6ce9.jpgIt is a nice sapphire blue. Next is the tank set up - it looks a bit complicated but has the copper anodes, the aquarium heater, a thermocouple, and two aquarium pumps. The pumps are used to keep the bath circulating around and prevent bubbles from forming on the parts which leaves little pits.

205518374_Copperplatingtank.jpg.57706ecc39930ec59b47ce456be8b625.jpg

 

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Before putting the parts in the plating tank, they need to be free of any oil or polish so I put them in my ultrasonic tank and just heated a degreasing solution (no agitation).

1277798001_Degreasingsolution.jpg.7559db5fe9e1f626a0a93267aceb2e48.jpg

 

Now it gets interesting looking. These are the control levers on the steering column.

817743673_Platingsummary.jpg.f92bbe32e151f83f92edbd27c92e1868.jpg

The surface area of the part is determined and plating requires 0.07 amps/sq in. I turn up my regulated power supply until my more accurate multimeter reads the correct amperage for the area of the parts being plated. The voltage doesn't much matter although you don't want is much more than like 12 volts. This was running around 2 volts. The copper anodes are hooked up to the + and the parts being plated (control rods in this case) are hooked up to - and are the cathodes. I supported the two control levers to keep them immersed at an appropriate level. The bath is kept at about 110 deg F (~43 deg C) using the aquarium heater and the two pumps keep the water circulating to keep bubbles from forming on the parts. It takes about an hour to get 0.001" of copper plate.

 

Finished with copper

517140421_ModelTcontrollevers.jpg.d31d01cafc27e142e2d054e52dec14d5.jpg

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Here is the gearbox cover getting plated

1114660807_Copperplatinggearboxcover.jpg.fc1a3d3398057fd78d2afe3f9c613f23.jpg

And after completed with copper plate

1317807784_CopperModelTgearboxcover.jpg.10473aaa757608324356075093f567c3.jpg

 

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This is another part I was restoring. It is the heat tube/cylinder assembly from a circa 1916 Lake Breeze Stirling Engine Fan. A flame from an alcohol lamp heats the brass and originally it had copper and nickel over the brass to reduce corrosion on the brass.

unnamed.jpg.04dba2d3f001ef7f237e31f81ee7f5d0.jpg

First step was to polish it up and then mask off what I didn't want plated. You can do this with tape or clear coat paint that you can strip off later. 

844164188_Fancylinderbeforecopperplate.jpg.f9ec901f5a9a8dbb7c07a52a3dae593b.jpg

You'll notice some scratches that will show after plating but this is not a cosmetic part.

206698949_Copperplatingfancylinder.jpg.74ca705a1b64e945332f11a744128e23.jpgAfter copper plate

1461304536_Fancylinderaftercopperplate.jpg.52892520696c68752cf68243d27e8b77.jpg

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Posted (edited)

Nickel plating is basically the same process as copper. First polish, then degrease, then plate at same amperage and temp but it uses nickel anodes and a different salt bath. My nickel anodes were used so much that they are turning into swiss cheese with plenty of holes. Not a problem as there is still a lot of nickel left.

543287777_Nickelanode.jpg.b8b32563c99c9270aa4553f4fc0d614a.jpg

I used a bearing separator to support this part in the nickel bath - beautiful emerald green

998252164_Nickelbath.jpg.2f98ed0608a9aa04c5dfd83d9f29f19e.jpgAnd after the nickel plate over the copper. Again, not cosmetic, otherwise I would have built it up with copper, sanded then copper again until all the pits were gone. Like copper, the nickel plates at about 0.001" per hour.

896979394_Nickelplatedcylinder.jpg.0b9401f6abbf738e6f1c460fa4aab206.jpg

Edited by Stude Light (see edit history)
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Posted (edited)

One last thing I'll mention. After each plating operation it typically requires a little buffing to get the jewelry look. Occasionally, a little 800 grit sanding helps first as sometimes the plate is a bit hazy. The Caswell manual provides a lot of tips and troubleshooting. All of the plating on my Studebaker is "jewelry" quality as I took my time polishing and fixing any defects. This is the reason plating costs so much - it is time consuming. It can be fun and very rewarding though. Let me know if you have any questions I can help answer.

Scott

Edited by Stude Light (see edit history)
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Thanks for sharing.  I've done this and used very similar technique.  I think you covered all the bases.   I'll add that multiple anodes of various shapes can be helpful for parts that are not straight. It is helpful to think of plating as line of sight and make sure you have anode coverage around the part at roughly the same distance away.  I found that various YouTube channels cover making your own solutions at significant cost savings.  Caswell is nearly foolproof and making your own requires some experimenting.  The cost saving can be significant. 

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I use another company's product but essentially it is the same as you mention. We were talking about this in another thread but I'd say your process and write-up is spot on! I have nothing to add except to also encourage others. On small parts this is a "no-brainer". It does take time to figure out the details and quality control as the final nickel plating can be fickle but once mastered it makes one want to go around the house and plate everything. One day my family found me bending over the bathtub with wires, etc as I was trying to re-plate the drain...*laugh*.

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According to the website, you can  chrome plate as well.

I'd love to try it but ......

 

Biggest question for me, which I didn't see addressed on the Caswell website, is disposal.

Plating companies are noted for having some of the most contaminated sites. They are a heavily regulated industry from an EPA point of view and cleaning up their sites is a nightmare. That is one reason plating has become expensive.

How safe are these to use at home and what does one do with solutions when you are done? I imagine parts have to be rinsed off between processes. How does one do that without sending product down the drain? I typed in 'disposal' in the search field on the Caswell site and got back crickets.

The manual might address it but it costs $30 . If anyone has info on the enviro affects, please post some thoughts.

 

I accept that our hobby is 'messy' and I try not to feel too guilty about the VOC's i send out the door since I am a small contributor to the global output but metals are a whole different ball game.

If you are going to use this product please keep in mind the downstream users of your waste ( physically and temporally ) and do so responsibly.

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Chrome wants vats of cyanide in addition to the chromium itself. Contamination issues aside, I don't want any of that around. I'll tackle almost anything on a car, and I have done zinc, but zinc can be done with chemicals you already have in your kitchen. Chrome may be expensive, but it is worth letting someone else do in my opinion.

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Caswell was local to where I use to live and they came to our regions meeting back about 30+ years ago and did a demo. They made it look very easy. I was serious considering setting up an area of my shop to do a couple of the simpler plating processes. With time I decided against it. Glad to see they are still in business. 

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8 hours ago, bradsan said:

According to the website, you can  chrome plate as well.

I'd love to try it but ......

 

Biggest question for me, which I didn't see addressed on the Caswell website, is disposal.

Plating companies are noted for having some of the most contaminated sites. They are a heavily regulated industry from an EPA point of view and cleaning up their sites is a nightmare. That is one reason plating has become expensive.

How safe are these to use at home and what does one do with solutions when you are done? I imagine parts have to be rinsed off between processes. How does one do that without sending product down the drain? I typed in 'disposal' in the search field on the Caswell site and got back crickets.

The manual might address it but it costs $30 . If anyone has info on the enviro affects, please post some thoughts.

 

I accept that our hobby is 'messy' and I try not to feel too guilty about the VOC's i send out the door since I am a small contributor to the global output but metals are a whole different ball game.

If you are going to use this product please keep in mind the downstream users of your waste ( physically and temporally ) and do so responsibly.

The copper and nickel baths are pretty safe. There are no fumes and can be used in your house with no issue. They primarily use salts of the metals (copper sulfate, nickel sulfate, nickel chloride). To dispose of the salt bath, you could take it to your local municipality during one of the waste disposal days along with the MSDS. It shouldn't be an issue.

 

I've not done chrome plating. The Caswell kits are cyanide free but do require better ventilation as they use a bit more hazardous chemicals. 

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Thanks for the info.

I've had my eye on their kits for some time .

 

I asked about because I recently tried to get rid of two buckets of used parts washer solvent at our local municipal recycling facility and boy , did that turn into an exercise!

- the municipal guys would  take it as long as it is was in a 1 gallon container. My pails ( purchased retail at our version of Harbor Freight) were 5 gallon pails. 

- 5 gallon pails are considered commercial . No, you can't just put it in a 1 gallon oil jug as it has to be marked with the original label.

- Was advised to call the recycling line, very helpful lady gave me several numbers of commercial disposal places.

- called several, only one would take it for a small fee of $90CDN  per bucket! which was about twice what I paid for it.

- Eventually made friends( or just plain wore him out)  with the guy at the municipal facility who listened to my whining and turned his back while the buckets went in the bin.

 

Point is, just make sure you can dispose of the stuff you are getting  at a price you will be happy with!

The Caswell kits aren't cheap. and the disposal costs might surprise you.

I'd make a comment here about how does government best encourage the right behavior when it comes to disposing of goods and materials but that might turn into a political discussion so I won't!

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How long would it take the SUN to evaporate 1 gallon of fluid?  If you place the solution in a 2' x 3' oil drip pan, maybe a few days in the hot sun?  I have used a very watered down solution of copper sulfate in my pond to kill surface algae with no ill effects.  

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5 hours ago, 63RedBrier said:

How long would it take the SUN to evaporate 1 gallon of fluid?  If you place the solution in a 2' x 3' oil drip pan, maybe a few days in the hot sun?  I have used a very watered down solution of copper sulfate in my pond to kill surface algae with no ill effects.  

I would think you could evaporate off the water and just discard what is left.

 

I needed to buy a new aquarium pump but I did finish up the nickel on the rest of the parts today. The picture is deceiving with the lights over my workbench as they look coppery but in real light they look just like nickel....with that buttery off-chrome color. You can see where the nickel starts and stops on some of them.

1900938863_NickelPlatedpartsforAaron.jpg.13364b30eac94b576b157a3038027691.jpg

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