A beginner’s guide to electroplating

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Electroplating is a process used to add a thin layer of metal to the existing surface of an object referred to as the ‘substrate’.

Why add a layer?

Firstly, doing so can enhance the substrate’s appearance, making a plastic or cheap metal substrate look more expensive or desirable.
Secondly, it can add or enhance desirable attributes such as rust resistance, electrical conductivity, corrosion resistance, wear resistance, solderability or pliability. Many of these will help to prolong the life of the substrate. It can also be used to repair items so that they last longer.

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How does electroplating work?

Electroplating uses electricity to create the coating. An electric current is passed through a special solution (electrolyte). The electrolyte consists of several carefully chosen compounds such as copper sulphate or silver cyanide.

Two terminals called electrodes are dipped into the electrolyte and connected to a circuit with the power supply (mains or battery). The electric current causes the electrolyte to split up, depositing some of the metal atoms on top of one of the electrodes and plating the metal onto the item.

The process can use a range of metals including gold, silver, zinc, cadmium, nickel, chromium, lead and platinum. The main advantages of using these metals in the electroplating process are that they add protection and also enhance appearance.

Electroless Nickel Plating

Whilst electroplating has many plus points, there are also a few negatives. This is partly why electroless nickel plating has started to become more popular. Electroless nickel plating is able to produce comparable, if not better, results without the need for an electric current. This can reduce safety risks and costs.

There are several electroless nickel plating specialists, many of whom have useful online resources such as the examples seen here: https://www.poeton.co.uk/standard-treatments/electroless-nickel-plating.

Common Applications

Electroplating is used across a wide range of industries including aerospace, automotive, and medical. Examples of items that are often electroplated include aircraft components, car and motorcycle parts (including bumper grilles), medical and dental tools and implants, solar panels, jewellery (rings, bracelets and pendants), and bolts and fasteners.

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