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Copper plating steel in home shop

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Q. I build frames of 4" by 4" square steel tubing 20' long & 4' by 8' flat steel to mount exterior electrical services for my fish farming operation. I tried hot dipped galvanizing on a dozen but warping was a problem. I also painted some but paint acts as an electrical insulator and makes a good ground difficult.

Is copper plating a practical solution? I am working with new steel, have a sand blaster, and hot water pressure washer (sometimes erroneously called a steam machine) and am used to working with muriatic acidamazoninfo, and copper sulfate by the ton but am unwilling to expose myself or my farm to any really caustic or poisonous solutions.

If it is feasible where would I find information & equipment for a low tech copper plating facility.

Bill Kdeleted
farm - Greensboro, Alabama



A. Hi, Bill.

Copper probably isn't the ideal choice because it will tarnish and corrode and become non-conductive (you may have seen green or brown copper roofs). When you see non-corroded copper, it is because it has a lacquer (insulative) coating. Nickel plating is probably a better choice.

You may or may not know that plating jobshops are ubiquitous, and you can probably find an established shop in your area to plate this framing for you if you wish to go that way.

Electroplating as a kids' science experiment is dead easy -- third graders have done the experiments in our FAQ "How Electroplating Works". But robust, functional plating is something else. One issue is that most plating (the exception is zinc plating) is more noble than steel, so if there is any porosity or pinholes at all, the plating causes the steel base metal to rapidly corrode in an effort to sacrificially protect it. This photo shows a nickel plated bar rack designed for indoor use after one day outside =>

My advice would be to play around with electroplating if you wish, and have fun (use your copper sulphate and a tiny dash of muriatic acid as long as you already know how to safely handle them) -- but to send your real parts to a plating shop :-)

53671

Good luck and Regards,

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey

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Q. I am wanting to copper plate some steel figures for outdoor exposure. Will I have any luck by using your techniques and experimenting on a larger scale? The figures are heavy steel, about 6" tall. I have some electrical copper bus from the utility industry that I wanted to use for the anode, and a heavy booster type 12 volt battery charger amazoninfo to furnish the current. Could I use this to dissolve enough copper in the salts to adequately plate the figures? How much salts and what kind would be required for about 1 gallon of plating solution? Also, where could I find the salts? This is my first encounter with plating. I understand the process, but do not have much equipment to work with. I only want to try this for some ornamental figures -- any help would be appreciated. Would copper sulfateamazoninfo crystals dissolved in the water be of any help?

Dwain Vdeleted
hobbyist - Abilene, Texas


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A. Hi, Dwain. You are understanding the principle of our electroplating science project instructions, but you are probably not quite understanding the real-world limitations of it :-)

You can force electrons from one pole to another with a battery or rectifier (or battery charger) and in this way you can cause metal that is at one pole to dissolve into an ionized state in aqueous solution, convey those ions across the solution, and convert them back to the metallic state at the other pole -- moving metal from one pole to the other. This is very useful knowledge for students, helping them to understand the principles of chemistry and electricity and letting them see it in action -- which is why we prepared and posted the experiment. But, sorry, unfortunately this experiment doesn't put a homeowner/hobbyist too much closer to successfully electroplating copper as a functional coating on steel/iron figures :-)

'Functional' is the operative word. You can't successfully electroplate a functional coating onto steel/iron from a simple salt of copper, like copper sulphate or copper acetate (a vinegar solution) primarily because it will "immersion deposit" (remember the science class lesson where you drops nails into copper sulphate and they copper plate themselves with no electricity) and will have no adhesion. To get a functional, adherent coating you need to start over with a different plating solution (a cyanide copper plating solution) which is far too hazardous for home use, or a proprietary copper pyrophosphate solution. The student plating won't be fine grained, it won't be pore free, it won't be bright, it won't be of consistent thickness, it won't plate onto the recesses of your figurines.

Good luck and have fun, but don't do it to the figures if they are of value to you -- instead send them to a plating shop which can use the proper cyanide-based chemistry for real-world applications as opposed to science class demos. Good luck!

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey

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Q. Dear Ted

You went on a bit about what one shouldn't do, but what CAN you do if you want to copper plate steel? Understood about the immersion deposit bit, for example.

But WHICH salts of copper are okay to use? How much current?

Thanks

Prashant

Prashant Upadhyaya
- Dehra Dun, Uttaranchal, India


+++++

A. Hi, Prashant. I "went on a bit" because I was trying to to preempt your question -- but apparently it didn't work :-)

You have to switch to copper cyanide (very dangerous) or a proprietary copper pyrophosphate bath. Although a better approach might be to nickel plate first, and then copper plate. As for the amount of current, Faraday's Law tells you how many amp-hours you need for how much copper deposition. You need to use careful temperature control, uniform air agitation, and efficient continuous filtration. You need to forget using scrap copper as an anode material, and buy proper phosphorized oxygen-free anodes. You need to get electroplating power supplies with periodic reverse current capability.

It is one thing for us to teach a student to electrochemically move copper from an anode to the cathode as a lesson in chemistry, electricity, and Faraday's Law, but it's an entirely different thing to apply a thick, bright, adherent, pore-free, corrosion resistant, robust, functional copper coating. It's a bit like showing students how to build clay models of automobiles for wind tunnel tests, and then people asking what tweaks they'll need to do on those "automobiles" so they can drive them on the freeway :-)

An inexpensive and ubiquitous book on the subject is the Metal Finishing Guidebook. It will introduce you to how to do "real" copper electroplating as opposed to a science experiment. Further, it has tables that do the Faraday's Law calculation for you and tell you how many ampere-hours you need to apply for a given thickness of plating. Best of luck with it, Prashant!

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey

July 8, 2009

Q. Hi Ted,
I understand from this discussion that --
a) Simple DIY electroplating is possible (copper on steel) at home
and
b) It can't be done at home on large scale but is possible at a small scale.

Here is exactly what I want to do. I have a steel water bottle (16 oz). I want to coat the inside wall of this bottle with copper. I want to leave the outside untouched.
Is it possible to do this at home, and if yes, what material do I need to buy.
If not possible at home, can someone help me find an electroplating shop in southern LA which can do this. This is a really small scale job so not sure if commercial guys would be interested in this.

Nishith Mohnot
- Torrance, California


July 30, 2009

A. Hi, Nishith. No, that is not what I was trying to say. Maybe I could put it this way:

a). Simple completely non-functional copper on steel plating for the sole purpose of science projects is possible at home, and very easy.
but
b). Functional copper plating on steel requires poisonous cyanide solutions (which are utterly inappropriate for a home) or proprietary copper pyrophosphate solutions, together with temperature control, air agitation, filtration, phosphorized anodes, proper power supplies, experience, and access to solution analysis equipment.

I am not saying it is impossible to do functional copper plating at home -- experienced and dedicated hobbyists do it (but again, they buy proprietary copper plating solutions, they don't use home brew). I am saying again that you can't "extend" our grammar school science experiment on copper plating to use it for functional plating anymore than you can "extend" a clay model of an automobile into a functional vehicle. The level of complexity is in excess of what people would suspect, and we haven't yet even talked about the requisite cleaning, acid activation, and anti-tarnish post-treatment.

How thick must your copper be? How shiny, how pore-free, how tarnish resistant? Why do you want to do this?

Please see our Jobshops Directory for plating shops in southern California if you are interested in that route. Thanks very much and best of luck!

Regards,

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey

December 24, 2009

Q. Hello,
I am wanting to start turning projectiles for reloading ammunition, and need to plate them with an exterior of soft copper. My dad said that he was once told, that to electroplate copper onto steel, you need to first plate it with nickel as a "Primer" coat. I don't think it will be much of a problem to set up two tanks figuring they would only need to be about a foot square and maybe a foot deep give or take. The copper and "Primer" metal electrodes will be a big startup cost but well worth it for how long they would last.

Question #1: Will this work, to plate the steel with a base of nickel, then outer layer of copper?

Question #2: If this type of system will work, what "Primer" metal would be best nickel, brass, etc?

Question #3: If this will work, will the "Primer" metal adhere to the steel, and then the copper to the "Primer" well enough to take being shot out of a firearm?

Question #4: Will this type of process require cyanide?

Question #5: Can copper be easily plated straight to solid brass projectiles?

Thanks,
Nick

Nick Spurgeon
- Indianapolis, Indiana


December 24, 2009

A. Hi, Nick. You dad is correct. Rather than plate the steel with a cyanide copper process, an alternative is to nickel plate the steel first, then copper plate the nickel from a copper sulphate process.

So your answers are:
#1: Yes
#2: Nickel
#3: Yes, if plated properly -- but I doubt that you could learn to do it well enough in short order and with no equipment or training
#4: No
#5: "Straight", yes but not "easily."

But showing through your question, is the belief that you just mix simple chemicals and come up with a simple, safe, reliable two-step process :-)
Rather, you'll need to buy proprietary process chemistry, not mix stuff in a sink. You'll need ten tanks (electrocleaner, acid activate, anti-tarnish, multiple rinses), not two. And you'll be at risk of cartridges jamming in the barrel or exploding from hydrogen embrittlement. Certainly anything can be done if you apply yourself hard enough, but you won't get to the point of sufficient knowledge with internet forum answers; you need to get plating books and study them and put in long hours of practice. Best of luck!

Regards,

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey

Electroplating Engineering Handbook


March 23, 2011

Q. I heard that steel and iron can be copper electroplated with something called "Copper strike" or a thin nickel plating.
My question is what is Copper strike and where can I purchase the "proprietary solutions"?

Thank you

Mario Tabernig
- Huntington Beach, California

March , 2011

A. Hi, Mario.

"Strike" in this context means a thin initial layer of plating.

Yes, it is possible to plate onto steel by starting with a thin coating of nickel plating or a thin coating from a cyanide copper solution or a proprietary copper pyrophosphate solution, and then finishing up with a heavy coating from an acid copper plating solution.

Adv.
Two suppliers of these copper plating solutions are finishing.com's supporting advertisers EPI and Zinex.

Regards,

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey


February 24, 2013appended

Q. Talking about the zinc penny blanks that are then coated in copper: Can I zinc plate steel and then copper plate that with electrolysis? I.e., vinegar/salt solution and use zinc anode for the first step to plate the steel then swap it for a copper anode for the copper plating?

My problem is I have been trying to copper plate steel with electrolysis but it just isn't adhering to the steel. I can literally see all the copper forming but it just sits on the surface and knocks off. I want to have some adhesion so if any ideas on the best way to do this (with household products) would be great! Thanks!

Josh Warb
- Vancouver, Canada


February 24, 2013

A. Hi Josh. An intermediate layer of zinc will only make the problem worse. If you will read this page to which we have appended your inquiry, you'll have a better understanding of the problem. Make sure the steel that you are trying to plate is utterly clean and free of oxide by scrubbing with pumice powder, then make sure the current is on before you start immersing it, and maybe consider a very dilute solution as a strike, then a more concentrated one for the bulk of the plating ... and that will be the best you can do from a copper sulphate solution. Good luck.

Regards,

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey

Powdered pumice


February 25, 2013

Q. Thanks so much. So after reading this it seems zinc isn't the way to go but Nickel plating as a strike/underplating sort of coat then copper will work fine.

Can I nickel plate with a vinegar/salt solution and nickel as an anode or do I need to have nickel sulphate? What does nickel sulphate do that vinegar/salt doesn't or do they do the same thing and allow ion transfer (guessing that's what they do).


Thanks for you help!

Josh Warb
- Vancouver, Canada


February 25, 2013

A. Hi Josh. Try both as a learning experience and let us know what happens.

But no, it won't "work fine". I have tried both by explanation and by example to convey that an elementary school experiment with safe household ingredients, which is intended to demonstrate the electrochemical principle of how plating works, simply cannot be extrapolated into robust industrial quality plating that will offer thickness, brightness, freedom from porosity, and proper adhesion.

If you want robust plating you either have to send the components to a plating shop or you need to buy the proprietary plating solutions with their trade secret addition agents, and the filters, heaters, regulated power supplies, air agitation systems, hull cell test equipment, lab equipment, and other equipment associated with industrial quality plating. Then you have to really study. There are books devoted exclusively to nickel plating, books devoted exclusively to plating equipment, books devoted exclusively to troubleshooting plating problems like limited adhesion.

I'm just trying to be realistic, not discouraging. If you want to learn, by all means try all this stuff; but if you actually need copper plating, send it to a plating shop. You can't build an FAA certified aircraft from Lego blocks and you just can't do robust copper plating on steel in a kitchen using household supplies. But you can certainly enjoy the experiments and learn from them!

Regards,

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey

February 25, 2013

Q. I guess what I really want to know is what is the easiest way I can with available home ingredients plate copper over steel. I was also just thinking brass -- can I brass plate steel and then copper plate that? Nickel seems like it is hard to get hold of. I want to be able to get hold of the ingredients easily -- seems like copper plating may just be too hard to acquire for steel.

Thanks again.

Josh Warb
- vancouver, canada



Electroplating Steel with Copper Sulphate and Cerium Oxide

February 23, 2014appended

Q. I have made a bath of copper sulfate with cerium oxide using 0.4 amp. current for 10 mins. but did not find good coating on M.S. Can anyone tell me and help me to solve this?

fahad jabbar
- karachi,sindh,pakistan
  ^- Privately contact this inquirer -^


February 2014

A. Hi Fahad. We appended your inquiry to a thread which hopefully explains why you are having a problem with this. Can we start with a few questions in return?

- Have you previously done successful electroplating so that you understand the issues of cleaning to a waterbreak-free surface and properly acid activating, or is electroplating new to you?
- Is this "copper sulphate" that you mention just plain copper sulphate or is it a properly formulated proprietary bright acid copper plating bath?
- Is there a reason you can't start / didn't start with a nickel strike or cyanide copper strike?
- What are you trying to do?

Thanks and good luck.

Regards,

pic of Ted Mooney Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
finishing.com
Pine Beach, New Jersey
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