Getting Started with Electroplating

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"Getting Started with Electroplating"
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Electroplating sounds complicated and a bit dangerous.   If you don’t believe me, just have a look at most books on the subject.   The good thing is, it doesn’t have to be either expensive or difficult for the beginner to get into basic electroplating, and as for the dangers, common sense should keep you right.

You have two options to get started in electroplating.   Either buy a complete kit with chemicals, anodes, and power supply included, or put your own kit together.   It all depends on how much money you want to spend, and what you want to electroplate.

The basic idea of electroplating is pretty simple.   You attach a piece of metal to a negative terminal and place it in a solution of metal salts.  A sacrificial piece of metal is attached to the positive terminal.    The negative metal, known as the cathode, will become coated in a thin lair of metal leached from the positive terminal, or anode, when a current is passed through it.

You now want to know how you accomplish this metal transformation if you don’t want to buy one of the kits.   After all, who want to fork out a lot of money only to find it’s not really for you.   Well first thing is to do is to find somewhere you can work which is well ventilated, as breathing in the chemicals used is not conducive to good health.

For the first time electroplater, zinc plating is a good place to start.   Get yourself a non-conductive bowl such as a glass pie dish.   Nothing too big, as the larger the container, the more solution you will need to make.   Two length of copper electrical wire, two crocodile clips, and an old phone charger giving out no more than 4.5volts, preferably a bit less, will give you the basic kit.

Zinc is easy to obtain, but if you have problems sourcing a zinc anode, buy one from a ship's chandler.   They will sell you any amount and quantity of zinc at a very reasonable price.   You will also need the chemicals to make up the zinc solution.    Fortunately, you probably won’t have to go any further than your own kitchen and bathroom to find these.

Take your glass bowl and fill it to about the half way mark with vinegar and water, using a 50/50 mixture.   A stronger vinegar mix can be used.   Leave the zinc to soak in the solution for 7+ hours, the rule being, the longer it soaks, the better. 

Once this is done, add 100g of Epsom salts to aid conductivity, some sugar, about 100g, and a squirt of washing up liquid.   The dishwashing liquid acts as a wetting agent but you can plate without it.   This is now your zinc salts solution, and you should store it in a suitable airtight container when not being used. 

You can test your electroplating technique using a copper coin.   The work piece has to be scrupulously cleaned, using washing up liquid and a toothbrush.   If the coin needs further cleaning, a bit scrubbing using toothpaste will do the job well.   Rinse the coin in distilled water and don’t touch it again with your bare hands.   You don’t want to get any oils onto the surface or the electroplating wont work.    Use latex gloves from here on to handle the work piece.

Now to get back to your glass bowl, which should now be filled with the zinc solution.   Place your zinc anode, attached to the copper wire via the crocodile clip, into your dish on one side.  Place your work piece into the bowl, after attaching the other crocodile clip and wire to it.   The end of these wires should be connected to the phone charger.   The anode is attached onto the positive terminal and the cathode (or work piece) onto the negative terminal.

Do not allow the two terminals to touch or your charger will be damaged.   Switch on the power, and your coin should now start to fizz.   This is the chemical reaction you want.   Switch off the power after 30 seconds and have a look at the coin.   It should be starting to look grey as the zinc is deposited onto the work piece.  

The time this process takes varies from under a minute to 15 minutes or so, depending on the strength of the solution and the current.   If the current is too high, the work piece will be seen to give off a black, smutty smoke.   This is where access to a variable power supply really comes into its own, but is not essential.

When you take the coin out of the solution to check it, replace the crocodile clip onto another bit of the coin before you put it back into the solution.   This will allow the metal to reach all of the coin.   Once an even coat is achieved, you can gently polish up the coin using a basic metal polish.

This basic electroplating kit is a good way of introducing you to electroplating without breaking the bank.   Copper plating can also be done using the same equipment, with nothing more than a change to the recipe, and a copper anode.

Just don’t forget, you are working with electricity and water, so careful how you mix the two.   More importantly, some really nasty gasses can be released during the plating process, so keep the room well ventilated, and don’t underestimate the dangers from these fumes.  

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