History and Modern Day Process of electroplating

Definition of alchemy: magically changing common chemical elements into rare and valuable ones

So while there is no such thing as alchemy, electroplating is possibly the next best thing.

Definition of electroplating: depositing a thin layer of one metal onto another by means of electro-deposition in an electrolytic cell.

The art and science of depositing neutral metal coatings from metal ions in solutions goes back over two centuries, slowly evolving from a laboratory research tool to a common industrial process.

The possibility of electroplating began in 1800 when Allessandro Volta invented the Voltaic Pile – more commonly known as the electric battery. Using this Pile, Luigi Brugnatelli then invented and first documented electroplating in 1805 when he performed electro-deposition of gold on silver medals. Brugnatelli’s work was rebuffed by the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, which caused him to suppress any further publication of his work.

However, he did write about electroplating in the Belgian Journal of Physics and Chemistry:

“I have lately gilt in a complete manner two large silver medals, by bringing them into communication by means of a steel wire, with a negative pole of a voltaic pile, and keeping them one after the other immersed in ammoniuret of gold newly made and well saturated”.

Forty years later – John Wright of Birmingham developed further the conductive solution for gold and silver electroplating. He discovered that potassium cyanide was a suitable and more efficient solution. He immersed items into a tank of silver held in this solution, through which an electric current was passed.

The Chemistry behind electroplating is this: the item to be plated by the metal gets the negative charge and is put into a salt solution of the metal being used to plate the object.

The metal being used to plate the item has a positive charge and is placed in the same solution. Therefore, the object to be plated is the cathode, and the metal being used to plate the item is the anode. Because of this, electroplating is an electrolytic cell since the electrons are flowing from positive to negative, where the metal to be plated is being reduced and the metal being used in the process is being oxidized.
With the electrons flowing, it is just the law of attraction. The positive ions from the salt solution and the metal being used to plate “stick” onto the object being plated since it has a negative charge. The thickness of the metal plating depends on how long you leave it in the solution, and the flow of electrons.

By 1840, this discovery was adapted and refined by Henry and George Elkington of Birmingham, England for gold and silver plating. Collaborating with their partner John Wright and using formulae developed by the latter for potassium cyanide plating baths, the Elkingtons were able to have the first viable patents for gold and silver electroplating issued on their name. From Great Britain the electroplating process for gold and silver quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe and later to the United States.

By the 1850’s electroplating methods of bright nickel, brass, tin, and zinc were commercialized and were applied for engineering and specific commercial purposes. In time, the industrial age and financial capital had expanded from Great Britain to the rest of the world. As a result, electrodeposition processes were expanding in scope and found more and more usage in the production of a variety of goods and services. While this expansion was taking place, no significant scientific discoveries were made between 1870 to 1940 until the emergence of the electronic industry – improvements made to direct current power supplies.

During the later years of the forties, rediscovery of heavy gold plating for electronic components took place.

Other developments: Gradual improvements to larger scale manufacturing processes, a better understanding of anodic and cathodic reaction principles. During 1950s, plating bath formulae improved; new and more “user friendly” plating baths based on acid formulae (rather than strongly poisonous cyanide based ones) were developed and introduced for large scale commercial use.

During 1970s, many regulatory laws have dominated the development of electroplating process mostly concerning environmental and safety and other production advances have meant that today’s plating is much more efficient;

LESS WASTE: Vastly improved waste treatment and disposal, larger capacities, more recycling.
In 2004 Astor installed a water treatment plant which has allowed both the reduction of water usage by 90% as well as improving the water quality put back into the system as each time it is treated more impurities are removed. This was Australia’s first and serves to educate the greater metal finishing community.

IMPROVED ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROLS: In addition to water recycling, modern advances in solar power have meant greater efficiencies in controlling power to heat tanks to optimal temperature.

AUTOMATION: has meant hoists and managing of heavier and larger components. Computers have allowed monitoring of temperatures, leakages, pumps and power control and of course administration management through production process.

SUBSTRATES: While plating on brass & mild steel are considered easier or more common practice, Astor have developed electroplating plating onto aluminium & stainless steel offering many benefits and opening up to increased & varied industries for wider use. Astor now electroplate roughly 30% aluminium, 40% stainless and 40% mild steel.
Electroplating in general has adapted and progressed in line with other industries to allow plating onto ABS plastics and other plastics.

VARIETY OF FINISHES POSSIBLE: No longer just chrome, gold and silver but over the years other metals have been added to the commercial plating. As a response to market demands a great number of variations of the basic metal finishes have been developed.

DURABILITY: Layer thickness, performance of electroplated finishes is among the attributes that have been brought under strict control. New developments in power control and racking enable greater plating speed, better ‘throwing’ power which refers to ability for chemicals to plate evenly and into recesses. These attributes increase the durability allowing electroplating (of even aluminium & mild steel) for outdoor use possible.

QUALITY CONTROL: Essential for a quality finish, Astor and all electroplaters have installed quality control procedures at each step of production to reduce waste and prevent reworking a component.

IMPROVED CHEMICALS: The majority of improvements in chemical process has come down to brighteners which are essential for the aesthetics, brightness and reflectivity of the metal deposit. This has allowed decreased time and efficiencies of plating evenly and again great control.

Modern Day electroplating process

Electroplating can be applied onto any metal substrate including aluminium, brass, mild steel, stainless steel and other alloys and plastics and this is our plating factory – typical in most ways although larger than most in Australia and we have a large polishing & lacquer shop which go hand in hand with plating for architectural finishes.


The surface/ component needs to be prepared. So unless a bare metal is supplied, first process is stripping. This can involve paint stripping, sandblasting, pickling (removal or rust in acid) other acid baths or reverse electroplating (often the case when we are asked to change the finish from an existing plated finish). If changing a finish from gold to chrome for example – gold strip (reuse gold) use the existing nickel plating underneath and plate chrome.
Other stripping could involve removal of galvanising, anodising or powdercoating all done in baths of various chemicals. Only metal we can’t strip is copper – which can only be mechanically removed by polishing.


Polishing is a mechanical process using small motors on which various linishing belts are placed. They start with a courser belt then change to finer ones over a series of about 4 or 5 depending on the base metal – stainless steel being the hardest, followed by mild steel then brass and aluminium being the softest.

The belts are then changed over for softer mops – again of varying grades depending on base metal and level of polish required. These are enhanced with polishing compounds.


As with powdercoating, anodising, there must be a way to hold the part for hanging as well as contact. We use racks wherever possible but with more and more custom work, we commonly use copper wire. This is a vital stage of process to ensure no wire marks, and there is an even current over piece particularly panels, large components and tricky shapes. All the metals have varying characteristics, levels on conductivity and need to racked accordingly. The laziest metal is chrome – although it is also the hardest finish due to the oxidized nature – as soon as it comes in contact with oxygen. Chrome like to go to the nearest point – difficult to get into corners and deep recesses. However with clever contact points, and custom anodes we can direct the flow and deposit of the metal.

Image on left shows a “cheater” – cheaters are other metal parts which can attract overplating – Allowing more power – more current – more deposit without burning or overplating.


The plating line consists of 20-40 tanks depending on finish required and substrate we are working with The first half of the plating line is made up of cleaning and pre-treatment tanks

As with painting, the preparation of the surface by chemical and/or mechanical means is vital to ensure good adhesion of the coating

It is commonly accepted and often quoted by electroplaters that one can make a poor coating perform with excellent pretreatment, but one cannot make an excellent coating perform with poor pretreatment.

Surface cleaning & prepration usually includes use of solvents, alkaline cleaners, acid cleaners, abrasive materials and rinsing

In order for a good bond surface need to be “active”. This enables molecular bonding of atoms. To make the surface active it needs to be thoroughly cleaned. This is done through a series of baths, electric cleaners, de-greasers and de-smutters and several hot and cold rinses. Aluminium and stainless steel require several additional stages in order to make them active. Acids and alkaline solutions are used in these stages dependent upon base metal and also a brief electroplating process in reverse.


So finally we come to the actual electroplating part. This is a continuation on the hoists from the pre-treatment tanks. Electrochemistry: chemical reactions caused by producing electricity that give scientifically or industrially useful end products. Electrolysis is using electricity to split up a chemical solution – which the first part of electroplating.

The actual plating component involves passing an electric current through a solution called an electrolyte. This was the ammoniuret in Brugnatelli’s work and the potassium cyanide in the Elkington’s process.

Two terminals called electrodes are dipped into the solution and connected into a circuit with either a battery or in commercial process coming from a rectifier. The process of using power supplied through a rectifier allows changes in the amps and voltage suited to varying shapes and the varying metals and chemicals.

The electrodes (part being plated) and electrolyte (solution in tank) are made from specific elements or compounds. When the electricity flows through the circuit they make, the electrolyte splits up – allowing atoms to separate in the solution.

Typical plating baths are complex mixtures to begin with, and a variety of reactions occurring at two electrodes act continuously to shift the composition during the course of the process. Unlike other coating applicators, platers need to keep a large suite of parameters within acceptable limits over a long period of time. The requisite know-how is perhaps the most critical distinction between electroplating and other metal finishing.

Copper plating happens in a copper salt, copper cyanide or copper sulphate solution (electrolyte). Gold plating tanks is filled with a gold-based electrolyte and so on.

Using Copper plating as the example, when the power is switched on (or the circuit is completed) the copper sulphate solution splits into ions (atoms with too few or too many electrons). These copper ions are positively charged. The component is racked up and hung on a copper buzz bar. This is given a negative charge which is then immersed into the positively charged solution. Hence the ions are attracted to the part and the atoms are deposited over the surface of the negatively charged object.

And so atoms from the plating metal bond effectively by joining very strongly onto the outside edges of its crystalline structure.

The component being plated has to conduct so aluminium is pre-treated with a zincate. Parts or areas which are non conductive will not plate. Parts of racks used are covered in a non conductive plastic to ensure components are not bonded to the racks and also saving on metals. Some parts such as bearing can also be covered with tape or a stop-lacquer to areas not wanting to be plated. Plastics, glass, silicons and glues can withstand the process as the tanks maximum temperature is 60degrees. Only issues is stripping process namely paint strippers.

Time it takes to plate depend on the strength of the electric current and the concentration of the electrolyte. As long as ions and electrons keep moving, current keeps flowing the plating continues. Thickness of plating are dependant upon application which leads into the Australian Standards and best practice.

Architectural electroplating is based on nickel plating system – nickel offers both durability and also reflectivity on which to plate other metals. Refer to Paper 3 for Specification.


While chrome does not oxidise, other metals do. To prevent tarnishing and oxidising, we offer a baked clear coat. Parts are unracked from plating racks, rinsed, wiped and cleaned, sometimes dried with a heat gun then reracked for lacquer oven. Astor use an automotive lacquer in varying degrees of gloss level which is wet-sprayed and baked through oven at 130 degrees. If the parts are not lacquered, copper, brass, nickel silver will all age and tarnish naturally. This is often a desired finish which can also be wiped with oil or wax for a more natural finish. Refer to Care & Maintenance for more on this and article “To lacquer or not to lacquer”

Benefits of electroplating

Definition of alchemy:
Magically changing common chemical elements into rare and valuable ones.

So while there is no such thing as alchemy, electroplating is possibly the next best thing.

Definition of electroplating:
Depositing a thin layer of one metal onto another by means of electro-deposition in an electrolytic cell.

The basic idea is to use electricity to coat a relatively mundane metal with a thin layer of another, more precious metal. Electroplating has so many real-world applications that it is invaluable to modern society. Sometimes, it is impractical or impossible to manufacture a product out of a metal with certain properties. With electroplating, however, one is able to coat the surface of an object with a rare or otherwise impractical metal in order to bestow the properties of that metal onto said object

The purpose being: value-adding in every sense;

  1. to make metals appear more valuable
  2. to protect metal increasing its durability, preventing oxidising, rust, tarnishing & corrosion
  3. to improve particular properties & performance: reflectivity, conductivity
  4. to make a metal more beautiful
  5. to match existing finishes already existing on site or finishes of imported products
  6. to match varying substrates
  7. to achieve a design concept
  8. to change existing finish of a product, fitting, fixture or metal component
  9. to give new life to older/ unattractive metal object