“There’s no doubt about it,” says Brett Weaver, “everybody loves chrome.” He tells us that Americans have been fascinated with glittering, gleaming objects on their cars and motorcycles ever since there have been cars and motorcycles.
You just can’t help but turn your head when a gorgeous bike rolls by that has well-chosen, brilliant chrome rims and parts all polished to perfection.
Chrome is gorgeous on a bright, sunny day, especially riding along Oceanside Boulevard, with a nice breeze blowing in off the water and not a care in the world except what’s around the next curve…
Chrome isn’t just gorgeous. It’s also functional.
A lot of things people pay little attention to are plated with chrome. Hard chrome plating is a fairly heavy coating (measured in thousandths of an inch) that’s used in industrial machinery and on engine parts, for wear resistance, oil retention, and similar purposes. You’ll see it on things like cylinder rods, rollers, piston rings, thread guides, and gun bores.
On Ted Mooney’s site, he points out that many of the shops that do hard chrome plating do no other kind. So if a shop says they do “hard chrome only,” they have no service that most consumers would be interested in.
What most consumers are interested in is decorative chrome plating, also called nickel-chrome plating, the kind on the motorcycles that Brett Weaver writes about.
In chrome plating, an electrical charge is applied to a plating bath that contains an electrolytic solution with a salt such as chromium anhydride. The electrical charge causes the chromium metal in the bath to fall out of solution and deposit onto the metallic object that’s been placed into the bath.
A customer might arrange to have wheels chrome-plated, for example, at a shop like South Bay Chrome. As Curt Lout describes it, the first thing a worker does is strip the original factory wheel of its paint by dipping it into a stripping agent, to thoroughly remove the factory finish.
The worker wire-brushes the wheel clean and rinses it and then removes any nubs or imperfections on the surface. This is a critical step because the final shiny appearance depends on a good clean foundation. The worker will plate the wheel with an initial layer of nickel.
After the nickel plating, the worker electroplates the wheel with copper. The copper will act as a filler to smooth out any pits in the metal. After rinsing, the worker will attach an anode to the polished wheel to attract the chromium to the wheel surface. He applies current to the anode before dipping the wheel in chromium. After the wheel is electroplated the worker gives it another rinse.
The wheel now has its final blue luster and shine. The chrome will act as a protective coating over the nickel to keep it from tarnishing.
If you’re going to get an item chrome plated it is crucial that you get quality work. Ted Mooney explains by way of example that a zinc coating protects steel because zinc is “anodic” to steel; that is, when steel is under attack and about to lose electrons – which translates to rust – electrons will flow from the zinc to the steel to maintain the balance of the steel and protect it. The zinc corrodes instead of allowing the steel to corrode.
Could you use a nickel anode or chromium anode instead of zinc to protect steel? Absolutely not!
Steel is “anodic” to the nickel instead of the other way around….The steel will sacrifice itself to protect the nickel and chrome. So now imagine a steel item that is plated with nickel and chrome but has porosity or pinholes in the nickel plating. The steel will rust away, sacrificing itself to protect the nickel!
Porosity in nickel-chrome plating is a disaster, says Mooney, that doesn’t just fail to protect the steel but greatly accelerates the corrosion of the steel. He calls chrome plating a “barrier layer” plating: once the barrier is breached by a pinhole, very rapid rusting is inevitable. A low quality chrome plating job is worse than no plating at all, since the plating electrochemically forces the underlying steel to rust.
The bottom line: plating that is already showing tiny signs of rusting when you buy it indicates a manufacturing defect.
If your chrome plating is peeling, this is virtually always a manufacturing defect due to insufficient adhesion of the plating to the substrate. Mooney says that exposure conditions might harm or discolor chrome but they won’t make it peel. If your parts have peeling chrome, he says you should return them and not be deterred by any nonsense about “chemicals in your garage” or how frequently you wash the wheels.
And show appreciation for your friendly neighborhood chrome plating guy. He’s working with some rather hazardous materials to create that brilliant shine on your appliances and vehicle parts. Hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, can be formed when workers perform “hot work” such as melting chromium metal or welding stainless steel. The electric charge during the chrome plating process causes the hexavalent chromium to be emitted as an aerosol.
Workers with repeated or prolonged exposure to these fumes can end up with irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs or irritation and damage to the eyes and skin. If the damage is severe, the nasal septum can be perforated. Chromium-6 is also listed as a carcinogen.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has workplace standards that employers must adhere to. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates the handling and disposal of the chemicals that chrome plating shops work with. Companies not in compliance do get fined. Or sued.
The usefulness and beauty of chrome ensures demand for it, though. There is quite a demand for chrome restoration of old vehicle parts. This is an involved process that requires stripping the chrome, stripping the nickel (and copper, if applicable), then polishing out all scratches and blemishes before beginning the electroplating process de novo. Of course, replating an old piece may cost several times what a replacement would cost. It’s all about the labor.
Some customers actually want a less finished look when they’re restoring chrome on old cars. Terry Meetz of Brillion, Wisconsin, has been in the chrome plating business for 30 years and finds that some customers want to replicate the original imperfect look on vintage cars. The quality of chrome on some old cars was actually poor when they left the factory. Meetz says that getting parts to look authentically “bad” is more work than giving them a show-quality shine. He jokes:
I would rather make it nice…It’s much easier for me to make it look nice than it is to make it look original.