How difficult is it to learn to electroplate? I suppose difficult is
the wrong word - rather, how much practise will it take to prduce a
good quality item? From that question, you can see that I know NOTHING
about the subject, but am not too old too learn. I want to plate very
small filigree brass castings used in jewelrymaking. Am I on the right
track, or is there another process I should look at?
Very easy to learn, very hard to learn to do it well. The chemistry is
also noxious and hard to obtain - some of it's extremely toxic. You
usually need to either buy an expensive kit, or buy in vast
The acid copper-plating process is simple and easy to obtain the
ingredients for (copper sulphate and sulphuric acid) It's certainly the
best place to start learning techniques. It doesn't work especially
well on steel though, as the acid attacks the steel. OK for practice,
not so good for a finished item.
Nickel plating is another easy process to learn with, but you'll have
to buy the chemistry from someone like Caswell. It works very well in
conjunction with acid copper as a way to make steel items non-rusting.
There's also an even simpler electroless nickel process (just
chemistry, no electricity - dunk it in a bucket and leave it a while).
This is an excellent finish for "model engineering" parts, small tools
Other processes, such as cyanide electrolytes, chrome plating or
precious metal plating are outside the scope of almost all home plating
and certainly not something to attempt until you've had some experience
with the simpler processes.
Good books are the small EMAP / Argus book (any model engineering
"Electroplating" by J Poyner.
<(Amazon.com product link shortened)>
This book is quick and simple to read and gives a good grounding as far
as it goes. It also covers electroforming. However it completely
the old cyanide processes, which are worth knowing about (although
rather impractical to use). There's an older edition of a similar book,
"Electro-Plating for the Amateur" by L. Warburton (Model & Allied
Publications, ISBN 0853440565) which is fairly common on eBay and does
Also worth tracking down is a commercial plating handbook by "Canning",
who supplied the UK plating industries for years. Their recipes are all
in the form "Add 4 lbs of Canning Plate-o-matic Powder to a gallon of
water" and don't tell you what the chemistry is, but you can learn a
on techniques from it (especially about anodes).
Couple of old postings of mine, and similr web searching is probably
Most popular supplier of kits is Caswell
Alkaline copper plates very well directly on to steel, and it accepts
nickel well. Zinc also plates steel well, about as easy to do as
painting and considerably more resistant to abrasion and
metal-to-metal contact. I either zinc-plate or blacken about every
small object I make out of steel in the shop, except that I sometimes
nickel-plate things like knobs that will be handled a lot.
Electroless nickel is "easy" in that it requires no electricity or
anode, but slow because it takes a while to heat up the stuff to
working temperature. Also, the electrolyte is depleted with use so it
must be maintained and eventually replaced. My electrolytic nickle
juice is going on 5 years now and still works fine. I can be done
plating something electrolytically in the time it takes the
electroless to reach working temp. However, it is very good at
getting into holes and even to the roots of internal threads. It will
plate anywhere the solution can get.
Not cyanide, but I have no idea what the chemistry might be. I just
use the stuff. Works fine on steel. I have also occasionally had
trouble getting brass to "start" in electroless nickel, but a flash of
copper solves that problem.
Don, Andy, THANKS!
What I forgot to mention, is that although the items I want to do are
small, I need todo a LOT of them. I know I'm going to have to buy some
commercial equipment, but I want to first play and practice. As my
mother always said, before you start yet another project you know
nothing about, read and ask questions. So, that is the stage I'm at.
Can u use a basket or plate in the botom of a bath that you charge
instead of having to string all these small items on a wire to dip?
Does that question REALY show my ignorance? Do you tumble the items
afterwards to get a smooth finish? Also, buying kits r not easy for
me, cause I live in the back of beyond in South Africa, and have to
find importers as hazmats can't be shipped overseas. Oh how I envy you
your craft shops and Walmarts! Thanks for the info guys, and I will
now take my time to get the recommended reading material. Any other
pointers will be greatly appreciated
Commercial plating has a lot to recommend it (in the UK anyway) as it's
a foul process, corrodes everything around it, and the disposal of
wastes afterwards is a pain. It's still pretty lo-tech though. If you
_can_ farm it out to a commercial plater, it's often a good plan to do
For lots of items then you'll probably want a "basket plater". This is
an especially common process for nickel, either electrolytic or
electroless. The parts are tumbled in a slowly rotating basket immersed
in the plating solution. The basket is part of the circuit and the
intermittent contact is sufficient.
Not necessarily. _Equipment_ can usually be improvised, it's the
chemistry that has to be bought as ready-made kits. A good
controllable PSU with current limiting is worth having, as electronics
is sophisticated these days and easy control makes life easier. Cheap
digital instruments like weighing scales, thermometers and pH meters
make things easier too. As to the tanks, then some basic engineering
and improvisation around rubber buckets or roofing lead can achieve a
This is where a Canning's handbook is useful, just to see how the real
kit works and then to copy it at home.
No. The tanks develop a sludge layer at the bottom and you want to stay
well clear of this. It's also characteristic of plating solutions that
old solutions work better than new. They have to be continually
refreshed as you use them, but an old solution is well known to
"stabilise" in service and often isn't considered ready for commercial
use until a couple of days dummy plating, or even well-behaved until
it's in use for a month. Certainly try to set up a plating rig and
leave it in service undisturbed.
You might, depending on the shape, but most are wheel polished by hand.
It's common to plate a thick layer of something soft and polishable to
hide defects ansd scratches, then return to another plating bath to put
on a different metal for show. Copper chrome is an example of this.
Tumbling in sawdust (tapered octagonal wooden barrels) is often used to
dry parts after washing.
AFAIK (from practical experience of South Africans) it's easier to
obtain the necessary chemistry in South Africa than in the UK -- even
cyanide solutions for case hardening.
Whereabouts are you BTW? I'm off to Durban in July for a wedding.
I bought the last plating rig from a farmer's supply shop. Copper
sulphate treats fungal diseases in sheep's hooves. Conc 96% sulphuric
acid is commercial drain cleaner. Copper electrodes are scrap plumbing.
Calf feeding buckets are conveniently smaller (less solution) and
stronger rubber than domestic buckets. Milking parlour fittings are
stainless steel and can supply parts for suspension bars. My S hooks
for hanging things came from a shopfitter's display rack.
And Walmart is the spawn of evil anyway!
The last comment first - anywhere that does not stock Festool or thinks
a Dremel is something that you might find in the laundry section to me
is the spawn of evil! Now, if hardware shops will only open a food
Howcome everyone in SA gets married in Durban? Even I did. I am in the
Limpopo province, about 4hrs drive north of Jhb, which makes getting
hold of stuff that little bit more difficult - hence wanting to
electroplate my own stuff, and once the quality is there, do it
commercially. At the moment, I import this stuff, cast in brass, and
have it plated in the states before it comes in, but I will get a lot
of tax breaks if I bring it in raw and process it myself Now, this
basket plater sounds like what I'm looking for, as the items I want to
do are TINY - the little bead caps and fancy ends used in jewelry - go
look at your wife's stuff. I thought of buying a kit or two to play
with and get a better feel for what I'm letting myself in for, but
shipping hazmats are prohibitively expensive, and exhaustive searching
on the net have not produced a supplier in SA yet.
Any idea who makes a basket plater? And do you have an opinion as to
which would be better - a magnetic finisher, a vibratory tumbler or a
rotary tumbler? Items r too small for spindle polishing. And then I
suppose before i start anything, it has to go in a pickle for cleaning?
Thanks again for putting up with all my questions
With my cynical hat on, probably no-one does. The last one was made in
the '50s and since then plating (in the West at least) has been in
terminal decline. There's so much around on the scrap market that
no-one makes new stuff any more. W. Canning Materials Ltd of
Birmingham, UK made all of it in the first place and they're still in
business at least. On the other hadn, if Harbor Freight can start
importing an English Wheel, anything is possible.
You really do need to get hold of a copy of the "Canning Handbook on
Electroplating" though -- it's _the_ book on doing plating
commercially. No doubt the jewellery trade have something similar for
their small-scale preciousses. Oppi Untracht's huge and worthwhile book
probably covers plating too (although I don't have it to hand).
No idea, as it's out of my size range for my limited experience.
Cleaning is important, but there's a whole range of these cleaners and
pickles. Some are so powerful that exposure is timed to the second,
others are themselves electrolytic.
To be honest, I think you might need to have this stuff done
commercially if it's for jewellery. You have to be careful to avoid
_any_ nickel (legally careful, with preserved records and everything)
and the plating baths for precious metals have high set-up costs.
You want to accomplish your polishing before final plating. Objects
are sometimes copper plated and then polished because copper is easy
to polish and takes a mirror finish. Then they must be cleaned
(again) before final plating. An ultrasonic cleaner might be
excellent for the small objects you describe. I've found that work
that is bright before plating is bright after plating. Decorative
plating is typically quite thin (microns)so it won't permit much
I don't think chemistry for nickel plating is hazmat.
It might be useful to explore things a bit with Caswell, at least to
get started. They say they do supply to small commercial
operations. I don't know if they ship to Africa or have an affiliate
They might be willing to anwer a lot of your questions. I think their
clientele is comprised mostly of hobby platers like myself, and small
commercial platers like auto restorers, gunsmiths, jewellers, etc.
It is quite easy to do well if you are able to follow simple
Caswell's stuff is not cheap, but everything I've tried from Caswell
has worked beautifully and his instruction book is excellent. Except
for chrome, the chemistry is no more toxic or hazardous than a lot of
household stuff and he provides instructions and additional chemicals
for safe, ecologically-responsible disposal.
You need not buy the whole kit for each process; just get the
chemicals and anodes. You can get everything else at Wal-Mart.
The keys are:
1. Follow the damned instructions!
2. Included in the instructions is the repeated admonition that
things must be absolutely clean. That's the hardest part to get
right. If the work is not absolutely clean, the plating will be
Use of a DC power supply with variable voltage or variable current is
a great help, because there is a "right" current (mA per square inch)
for each process. You need not pay big bux for a supply; if you are
able to build simple electronic circuitry you can build an excellent
current regulator for a few bux that you can use with a battery
charger or 12-volt battery. I'd be glad to supply a schematic. A
current regulator is nice for two reasons: current is the relevant
parameter in plating and anodizing, and it won't blow the fuse in your
ammeter when(not if) you inadvertently short things out while hooking
up. A $3.95 digital multimeter is quite sufficient.
Based on recent experience, I would strongly recommend eventually
having an ultrasonic cleaner as part of your plating kit. I've done
a lot of plating without one but it is MUCH easier to get stuff clean
replying to Minki, J wrote:
Its an old post so I am only posting in case others tread this path - after all
I came in from Google.
Firstly the OP did not state what metal he wants to plate onto brass.
You can get way with acid copper plating process on brass - it is true that the
acid will attack the zinc in the brass but reasonable plating can be done in
this case assuming that your copper acid bath contains the appropriate additives
( levellers and so on ).
In general plating is not a great idea for the amateur its usually cheaper and
less disapointing if you go to a professional.
The level of cleaning to produce a good long lasting finish is beyond the
amateur in most cases - a plating that looks good today may peel blister or
display stains at a much later time otherwise - if you intend to sell how are
you going to know you will not get returns in a year's time. Commercial outfits
use things like vaour solvent cleaning ( heat up really nasty solvents so that
they turn to gas in a sealed chamber and effectively "steam clean" only the
"steam" is not water but some really nasty solvent that would do you significant
damage if you inhaled ).
Plated surfaces require protection fron tarnishing in most cases and spray on
lacquer from your DIY supplier is not going to give reliable protection for
commercial application ( again if you are selling products ) particularly if it
is to be worn, getting the right kind of protection for use and the choice of
metal really is a specialist field in itself.
FInally many plating processses ( for different metals ) involve really nasty
chemicals - copper sulphate is not too bad although toxic to marine life but
from there on it tends to get nasty - nickel salts are not great for the
environment and if you are plating in any kind of commercial situation ( you are
selling your products) you could quickly get fined if you do not deal with
disposal, guard against container failuire ( see bunding ) you could be fined by
the authorities - water treatment plants monitor spikes in heavy metals and will
quickly follow up any releases that they detect, commercial platers tend to
dread this as they then have to undertake a chemical audit.
Many amateurs get very shirty or irritated when told all of this - they feel its
the nanny state or others are dumping on their freedom to experiment but just
ask yourself what is the chance of someone buying a plating kit actually
disposing of the chemicals responsibly - what is the chance they even understand
the chemistry well enough to know how to safely handle the chemicals.
Really when you factor in the quality of the plating - its longevity, quality
and the expense you will spend getting it right it really is better to go to a
professional and focus on other areas of your work that you can do yourself.
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