When undertaking a cosmetic restoration, you’re always faced with the realization that a new paint job will not look as nice as it should unless the chrome parts look like new. It’s like pouring a lovely bottle of wine into plastic kiddie cups: The occasion becomes decidedly less special. Hold those old chrome trim pieces, door handles and bumpers up against fresh paint, and you really see just how faded they are!
It’s decision time: Replace those parts or have them rechromed? An understanding of how chrome plating is done will help make that decision.
Because of the amount of work needed to refurbish old parts properly, re-chroming is often much more expensive than buying a new part. New parts are made with new metal, which requires less preparation, and batch-processing is always less expensive than dealing with individual pieces. Of course, new parts are not always available, so re-chroming is at times necessary.
Compared side-by-side, a new part will likely not have the same individual care and attention given to it as a re-chromed old part. Having an old part re-chromed by a top-quality chrome shop will sometimes result in a more beautiful finish than you’ll see with a new part. It may also be much more expensive. But does purchasing a new part provide the same satisfaction as bringing an original part back to life?
Lasting Shine Through Metallurgy
Metal parts are usually either painted or plated to prevent corrosion. Steel parts are mostly iron, and if left bare, will rust with air and moisture. It’s a chemical reaction that in British car circles is followed quickly by a series of emotional reactions: disgust, horror, anger, depression…
Fortunately, metal can be electrochemically plated with other metals such as chrome and made less susceptible to corrosion. Few finishes are as attractive as bright, mirror-smooth chrome. Attaining this look, however, can take a good amount of work.
When you hear that something is chrome, in truth there is only a thin layer of chrome—millionths of an inch thick—plating an object typically made of steel. Chrome parts are never painted (who hasn’t at one time bought a can of chrome spray paint with high hopes?), rather, they enjoy baths in three salty brines.
The plating process involves submerging the part in three separate solutions of copper, nickel and finally chromium. In each bath an electric current is used to force the metal ions onto the part. For a more detailed explanation of the science involved—but still in layman’s terms—visit howstuffworks.com and look up “electroplating.”
What about the manufacturers touting “triplechrome- plating?” This, in fact, is a misnomer for the copper, nickel and chrome plating process. Chrome gets all the marketing limelight, but in actuality, nickel provides the bright color, and ideally two layers are applied below the hard, protective chrome surface. This three-stage process, done properly, results in a finish that is bright and shiny, and very durable. If done without due care and attention, there will be blemishes, shadows and bubbles.
Just as the science isn’t simple, neither is the hands-on labor for getting the chrome finish to look perfect. Electroplated metal is uniform in thickness, and therefore any surface irregularities in the part are clearly seen in the final product.
Chrome, and to a lesser extent nickel, are hard metals and scratches cannot be buffed out once they are plated. Copper is a softer metal so buffing is possible after plating and before application of the nickel and chrome. Deeper scratches must be polished out or filled in prior to nickel plating. Preparation of the part for plating is sometimes 90 percent of the work.
If you decide to have your parts replated, be sure to use a shop that has a reputation for top-quality work. Ask to see some of their finished products before consigning your valuable pieces to them.
The work is labor intensive. Preparation of the old part will involve stripping the old chrome and nickel, then applying maybe two or more coats of copper, which must be properly buffed to remove all imperfections. Then the nickel coats must be carefully done to ensure proper coverage without shadows or bubbles. And finally the thin chrome coating makes for a beautiful finished product.
Keep It Looking New
Once you have your new or newly plated parts, how do you preserve the finish? The goal for preservation of the plating is to minimize any flaws in the plating and to keep anything that could cause oxidation out of the flaws. Something that prevents water from touching the chrome is the cure.
Does that seem over-the-top obsessive to anyone? It wouldn’t if you’ve spent entire weekends prepping parts for chrome.
All chromed surfaces should be cleaned with acetone and mineral spirits, completely dried, and then polished with a product like Simichrome, which leaves a protective film for lasting brightness.
For added protection, wipe on a coat of microcrystalline wax such as Renaissance Wax. If practical, parts to be polished should be removed and disassembled to prevent polish residues from collecting in recesses. Never use a buffing wheel or any powdered abrasive to polish brightwork. The plated surface is not as rugged as it would appear so clean it by hand with mild soap and water using a chamois or pure cotton cloth.
All this time and effort produces lasting results and nearly chemically bonds a car to its owner. You won’t be able to help noticing the sunlight leaping from the chrome, and glinting off of buildings and cars. But with this information comes a word of warning: Look too closely into that mirror finish and you may just see a reflection of your upholstery, and compared to your brightwork, it now looks a bit rough around the edges.
By Lawrie Alexander