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How to copper plate steel handles


I am restoring an antique mahogany side board. It has pressed steel back plates with cast iron handles of unusual design and quality. The handles have had their original copper plating removed, I want to replate them. Can this be done at home in a well equipped work shop? I have had the handles plated by a local firm who have made a complete mess of them. They tell me that copper plating is too difficult for them.

This is after they were plated, first with nickel and then with copper. I was told that they were to be
lightly cleaned with polishing wadding, then lacquered. After a very light wipe the copper was gone?

Yours Hopefully Steve

Steve B [last name deleted for privacy by Editor]
- Buxton, Derbyshire, England


C'mon, Cousin Steve :-)

Experienced people who earn their living doing electroplating tell you that "copper plating is too difficult for them" but you'd like us to explain to someone with no knowledge of electroplating, in the paragraph or two appropriate to a public forum, what those professionals were unable to absorb in their lifetime of hands-on effort :-)

That isn't reasonable, but we'll try to at least explain the situation as we see it. You can't directly plate copper onto steel or cast iron except with cyanide-based chemistry. They probably didn't want to use cyanide, which you mustn't use either; that's probably why they nickel plated them first.

Why the copper rubbed right off, I really don't know though. But one possibility that they were coated with a copper-tinted lacquer rather than actually being copper plated. Another possibility is they didn't do the copper plating immediately, but let the nickel plating passivate and didn't reactive it, so it had no adhesion. The third possibility is maybe your memory is not being quite honest with you about what you did in trying to clean these parts.

Regardless of the cause of the problem, I think you need to find a better plating shop. Good luck with it!

Ted Mooney,
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha - Pine Beach, New Jersey

It looks to me like they plated copper onto bright nickel. Whilst this can be done, it is not easy to make it stick. Furthermore, if they cannot correctly plate copper onto steel, then they are not a very proficient jobbing shop! You are lucky that you have a good chemical supply house in Buxton who may be willing to help you out if you ask them kindly. Otherwise look for a good jobbing shop - if you can't find one, contact the Institute of Metal Finishing or the Metal Finishing Association, both of which are in Birmingham. I would suggest you get a good cyanide copper onto the steel base and then thicken it up with a nice bright copper. Lacquering the final surface will preserve the colour and shine. Do not try this at home, cyanides are really bad news.

trevor crichton
Trevor Crichton
R&D practical scientist
Chesham, Bucks, UK

I have a 1952 Chambers Stove works great but the copper plating has gone bad. I would like to reduce the copper plating down to the nickel finish. Is that possible? Is there a household chemical?

Jeff Chandler
homeowner remolding - Dallas, Texas
January 30, 2010

Hi, Jeff. Although there was nickel underneath the copper plating in the particular case that Steve B was talking about here, that is not customary. Odds are that there is no nickel plating underneath your copper plating. ammonia [on eBay or Amazon] is a complexer for copper, so you could try scrubbing with full strength ammonia and see if it starts removing the copper. Maybe wet sanding with the paper wetted with ammonia. Wear rubber gloves [on eBay or Amazon] and goggles [on eBay or Amazon] and make sure you have really good ventilation . . . or do it the easy way by asking a plating shop to nickel plate the parts. Good luck.


Ted Mooney,
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Striving to live Aloha - Pine Beach, New Jersey
January 30, 2010

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