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topic 0064

How to do copper plating

A discussion started in 1995 and continuing through 2013.
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Q. I'm an absolute beginner in electroplating. I would like to copper some iron pieces (plate, pipe); so I've turned or filed to the desired dimension and shape. I've prepared a solution of copper sulfate [affil. link to info/product on Amazon] CuSO4 (~200 g/l) and H2SO4 (~5 g/l) in water (deionized). When I've used this solution with a copper wire as anode and with 10 mA/cm2 as maximum, the result was very bad. A lot of copper has deposited on iron but rinsing it under water-tap the copper goes away. So I've reduced current density also to zero: if I put iron in the same solution the result is the same: a lot of copper badly attached on iron, and under the copper the iron was oxidized (dark color).

Further attempts (current density between 0 and 100 mA/cm2; no H2SO4 or more than 10 g/l; CuSO4 from 50 g/l to 200 g/l) have produced the same result: I've also tried various polishing by inorganic (HCl, H2SO4, NaOH) and organic (tetrachloroethylene, turpentine, Acetone [affil. link to info/product on Amazon] ) solvents. Temperature of bath has always been around 18 °C. Only if I put iron pieces in the bath for few seconds and then rinse it, I can get a very very thin copper deposit (I was not able to measure it with .01 mm caliper) that's well attached to iron, but it's so thin that it isn't useful at all.

Where am I wrong? Many thanks in advance.  

Lapo Pieri


A. Hello, Lapo. If you (or a reader) wish to demo copper plating for a school science project, we have an FAQ: How Electroplating Works, that will give you easy instructions for the project.

But sorry, your approach won't work for functional electroplating applications because copper is more "noble" than iron and will (as you saw) deposit on steel or cast iron without any current applied. This is called an "immersion deposit" and it usually has virtually no adhesion. Still, make sure that your component is absolutely clean (waterbreak-free) and that current is applied to the part before & while it goes into the plating tank ("hot entry") because that will help a little towards discouraging immersion plating.

The preplate cleaning should consist of caustic cleaning (detergent and NaOH) followed by an acid dip (HCl). But for onesy-twosy work you can scrub the part with a tampico brush and powdered Pumice [affil. link to info/product on Amazon] as an alternate to caustic cleaning, and use a diluted HCl for activation.

For functional copper plating on steel you need to either electroplate an initial layer from a nickel strike bath, or from a copper cyanide (very dangerous poison) bath before you will be able to use the copper sulfate bath; these will not immersion deposit. You probably will be best off with proprietary additives (brighteners) to get good, bright, plating.

Electroplating involves working with very hazardous chemicals, so it may not be an ideal casual hobby. If your desire is simply to get copper plating on the parts, as opposed to doing copper plating as a hobby and learning experience, plating is a jobshop industry and there should be a commercial plating shop available in your area. Good luck!

Ted Mooney, finishing.com Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E.
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey
Striving to live Aloha


A. It is not something you would let children do without supervision, and some people might not find it impressive, but I did find a way to plate coins with copper metal. If you insist on trying to plate outside of an industrial environment, at least you won't be using concentrated acids, metal salts, and etc.

I tried to find a way to do this using only nontoxic chemicals (aside from the copper itself), but I needed to use some ethylene glycol. This stuff is toxic, has a sweet taste (or so I am told), and pets and children might be tempted to taste it, so it must be handled by adults and stored in locked cabinets. On the other hand, anything containing copper is not good to drink, and there is enough salt in this solution to act as an emetic.

All of these tests should be done under adult supervision, and the learning experience is bound to be better this way. Depending on the age of the witnesses, you can cover all sorts of exciting things, from cleaning coins with toothpaste to chemical calculations of normality and concentration to electrochemical equivalents. Except for the brightening agent, all other supplies are household items. The ethylene glycol should be stored in childproof areas, and the test solution should be dumped at the end of any experiment. All containers should be labeled, even as you are using them, as a matter of normal laboratory practice.

The solution described is low in the concentration of copper, as far as plating solutions go. If all of my electrolysis converted my copper anode to copper ions, and all of it ended up in the sewer we are talking about:

e =i x r
1.5 =i x 15 ohms
i x 15 = 1.5
i = 0.1 amps

affil. link
"Electroplating Engineering Handbook"
by Larry Durney
from Abe Books
info on Amazon

affil. link
ASM Metals Handbook Vol. 5: "Surface Engineering"
from Abe Books

or see our Review

If you run the cell for 2 hours, that's 0.2 ampere hours. Looking up cupric ion, we see that we deposit/dissolve 1.19 grams of copper metal per ampere hour. So the most we could dump down the drain is 0.24 grams, not an ecological nightmare. The final concentration of the cell of 100 cc, after 1 hour of electrolysis, could reach 2.4 grams/liter (this is unlikely, as gassing is very evident, indicating that we are not operating at 100% efficiency).

tom & pooky toms signature
Tom Pullizzi
Falls Township, Pennsylvania

affil. link
"Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes: Unforgettable Experiments that Make Science Fun"
by Steve Spangler
from Abe Books
info on Amazon


Hello, Where can I buy some ethylene glycol? Where can I get chemistry equipment in general? I have been searching the net but can only find industrial sites. I don't really need 1 MT of CuSO4!

Great site by the way. Kudos!. Am I correct in assuming that the above formulae for copper plating doesn't require CuSO4?

Thanks for your help.

Eamon Captian
- New York


Thanks for the kind words, Eamon. I believe that standard automotive anti-freeze is ethylene glycol, but check the label. Yes, you are correct that Tom has described a plating process that does not require copper sulphate.

Ted Mooney, finishing.com Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E.
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey
Striving to live Aloha


Suggestions: I tried your household plating experiment and needed to make the following revisions -


The solution is now ready to use as prescribed by your directions. This formula has been tested 25+ times. Thank you very much.

John Markgraf


My ol' dad was keen to try and copper plate some leaves but couldn't get the copper to 'stick'.

I sprayed the leaves first with zinc plate (ordinary Cold Galvanizing Compound / Zinc Rich Paintaerosol can of for car bodywork) then dunked these in an ice cream tub of copper sulfate [affil. link to info/product on Amazon] with just a tiny drop of H2SO4 (from my car battery) and connected the car battery charger to a piece of copper pipe (about 8 inches) and the other side to the coated leaf. I did put a small 12 volt bulb in series with it all to limit the current but I ended up with quite a nice copper coated leaf. My old man was highly delighted.

John Rostron
- United Kingdom


I am looking for a reasonably simple process in which I can plate copper metal onto a nonconducting substrate such as Kapton or Mylar (both plastics). Electroless would be preferable, but not necessary. If anyone knows of a particular kit I could purchase that would be even better, although not necessary.

Nikolas Uhlir
- Alexandria, Virginia


FOR Nikolas


- PHENIX CITY, Alabama


Now if you're game, try this … it works beautifully. Buy K-77 Root Killer [affil. link to info/product on Amazon]. Mix one lb. to one gallon distilled water, bath temp approx. 75 degrees. Purchase a paint product from your local dealer of bright copper, metallic spray paint (not the real cheapo). Clean your substrate then spray it good. Allow one hour to dry then plate as usual. Man it comes out salmon pink.

Good luck,

Philip Camp
- Phenix City, Alabama

affil. link
by Lowenheim
from Abe Books



It may be against Federal law to use root killer in a way not in accordance with the indications for use as a root killer. Does anyone know what this stuff is, chemically?

tom pullizzi monitor
tom pullizi signature
Tom Pullizzi
Falls Township, Pennsylvania 


Proprietary products rarely tell you what they are 100%, because then everyone could copy them and claim them to be identical and all their development and marketing efforts wasted, but most root killer is essentially copper sulphate pentahydrate. Yes, there may be some contaminants that could be non-ideal for plating applications. But beware that some root killers like RootX are NOT copper sulphate.

Ted Mooney, finishing.com Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E.
finishing.com - Pine Beach, New Jersey
Striving to live Aloha

affil. link
Root Killer


The composition of K77 root Killer is > 99% Copper Sulfate. Here is the Cornell University site for the Material Safety Data Sheet: http://msds.pdc.cornell.edu/msds/msdsdod/a246/m122546.htm#Section2

Robert Sensenstein
- Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Ed. note: Thanks, Robert. Sorry readers, that domain name no longer works.

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