Restoration Article 11 Nickel Plating
Those of you who read my wife’s guest article last month certainly might have recognized dry wit, aged to perfection. Of course, Kelli doesn’t maintain quite the zeal for the restoration hobby that I do. She does pretty well with resignation though!
But it is the journey that counts and this month the path leads us to nickel plating of front end suspension parts. When you have a question about which finish is appropriate, you can usually refer to the Originality Guide located at the http://www.jcna.com website. I was surprised in preparing for this article to find that for the Series 1 E-Type the wheel wells and suspension are not judged. As such there is no entry in the Originality Guide for the original finish on these components. Never the less, after looking at many web sites devoted to E-Types, I have gathered the impression that the key elements of the suspension were originally plated with cadmium. This has historically been an excellent plating material but due to its toxicity, it has fallen out favor. In its place, one may go with rattle can substitutions as sold by Eastwood, zinc based coatings with proprietary brighteners as sold by Caswell Plating, or nickel plating.
In a moment of great optimism, several years ago during the restoration of my Volvo PV544, I had purchased a chrome plating system from Caswell Plating (www.caswellplating.com). My wife Kelli loves to tell the story of how I mentioned that I was going to begin plating operations in the basement of house and that there might be a few unpleasant odors in the living space as a result. The ensuing tongue lashing I received resulting a multiple month deviation from my plans while a built a separate shed well away from the house from which I was authorized to conduct my chemistry experiments. One thing led to another and I never got around to performing any plating operations on the Volvo. But as I reviewed the condition of the front suspension parts on the E-Type, I knew that the time had come to learn how to plate nickel.
The Caswell kit comes with an extremely well written and detailed manual. It discusses all aspects of plating, buffing, and polishing. It even has a section on how baby shoes can be bronze plated! Much to Kelli’s relief, I found that nickel plating is very benign from a standpoint of risk to one’s health. Generally, plating involves immersing the part to be plated in a chemical bath that contains the plating solution. The part is hooked up to a low voltage, low amperage power supply such as an automotive battery charger. A sheet of nickel material is dipped into the water a short distance from the part and connected to the other lead of the power supply. When the power is turned on, the nickel material streams from the plate to the part, where it is deposited in a relatively uniform coating. It is not very exciting to watch. There are no fumes or smoke and it takes about an hour to build up a reasonable thickness coating of nickel on the part. This is of course a simplified version of events but it is entirely within the skills of anyone who can read the manual and follow directions. Have I mentioned that nickel plating is another good reason to buy a compressor and bead blast cabinet? As if you needed another excuse! But I found that getting the part to be plated operating room clean was a very important part of the process, as any surface contaminants will spoil the plating action. The bead blast process is just the ticket for getting a good clean part for plating.
After some initial technical problems I was able to produce fairly satisfactory results. The finish requirements for suspension parts are not very demanding in that a roughened bead blast surface looks very presentable. When one moves on to interior and exterior trim pieces, the process moves to the next level. I found that the terminology “triple chrome” doesn’t mean that the chrome plate is 3 layers thick. Rather it refers to the fact that the chrome plating effort involves 3 separate materials. The first layer or the “strike coat” is typically nickel, as it adheres well to the raw metal surface, akin to primer on a paint job. The next coat is usually copper plate, which is can be quickly built up to a generous thickness. The copper plate is then ground and polished to a mirror finish using sandpaper and/or a buffing wheel with buffing compounds. Once the copper is brought to a mirror finish, the final step is to apply chrome. The chrome plate is actually very thin and applies in a matter of seconds. So much of the work and cost of having pieces professionally chrome plated is represented by the buffing and polishing steps. I have found that the copper plating process is relatively benign from a health standpoint also. When the time comes for chrome plating, I may bring the parts to a mirror finish myself before I turn them over to a chrome plating company.
This month I have included a photo of all the front suspension parts which I have chrome plated to date. It makes quite an impressive pile! After I took this picture I also plated the splined hubs that the wire wheels are mounted on. The power requirements for nickel plating are directly proportional to the outside surface area of the part being plated and the hubs taxed my 6 amp battery charger to the limit. But all in all I have been quite pleased with the results.
I bought the 4 gallon kit from Caswell, which means you get 4 gallons of plating solution that is placed in a 5 gallon plastic bucket. This size was sufficient to plate the hubs (one at a time of course), the mounting uprights for the upper and lower balljoints, the A arms, and a host of small pieces. Caswell sells smaller kits that can be used to plate smaller items such as hardware and small trim pieces. It’s also quite satisfying to plate small nuts and bolts as they come out looking very sharp when done. You can even plate some of your rusty tools and make them look like new! So although the chrome plating step may not be for everyone, I would highly recommend trying your hand at the nickel and copper plating steps. Another option worth mentioning are vibratory tumblers. I understand they are quite commonly available at gun shows as used to restore firearms. I bought mine from Eastwood. It contains a plastic bowl mounted on a base. Within the base I imagine there is a small motor with an eccentrically mounted weight on its shaft. The bowl sets up nice little buzzing motion when the device is plugged in. Inside the bowl one places the media supplied with the kit. The coarse media is made of small chunks of plastic and has the consistency and shape of rock salt. You can place small rusty parts in amongst the media, turn it on, and move on to other tasks for the rest of the day. Over a 12 hour period it does a very nice job of cleaning off rust and dirt. A second “dry polishing” media is provided in the kit. As the name implies, it is much finer in texture and is used to polish or shine the parts. It does a fine job. My only concern with this process is the long term durability of the finish as to whether it will rust. It would probably be a good idea to treat parts finished by the tumbler with a coat of clear paint or some other form of anti-corrosion treatment.
Next month, we will mount some of the newly plated suspension parts on the engine frame rails.