The Hobby Gunsmith

December Feature-

Electroplating your gun

at home Part Two

In past issues we covered how gun parts can be plated with a protective coating of copper to prepare for plating with Nickel. This month we will do some nickel plating and plate the Colt Dragoon conversion that graced the pages of the first newsletter earlier in the year.

   The first step was to order the nickel-plating Kit from Caswell Plating.  Our kit had been already ordered so it was only necessary to set it up by mixing the pre-mixed chemicals with the distilled water and carefully cleaning the aeration kit from the copper tank before moving it to the new nickel tank.   

   Copper and nickel are plated at about the same temperature so we could use the same heater and settings from the copper tank.  Be sure to carefully clean the parts before moving them from one tank to another.  Chemical contamination must be avoided.

   The nickel-plating kit uses what I believe are stainless anodes and I had ordered an extra one for my nickel plating kit.  The electrical fields that come off the anode tend to resemble magnetic lines so it is important that there be an anode on both sides of a part in order to get enough of the electrical field to “throw” nickel evenly around the part.

   I cut a strip from the anodes and bent the strip up and over the lip of the small tank to hang the anode in the solution.  Everything was assembled just as we did with the copper plating tanks except that the nickel-plating solution is green.

   I polished the copper plating that had been applied to the parts of the Dragoon until I had a very nice and deep shine.  I though I had gotten all of the flaws out of the steel and was ready to plate with nickel.  I plugged the chambers, barrel, and cylinder arbor hole with corks and moved on to start the plating process.

    All of the tanks were heated to the correct temperature of 120 degrees for the plating solution and 140 degrees for the sodium phosphate degreaser.  The acid pickle tank was left at room temperature.  The parts were dipped in the degreaser for a few minutes and then into the pickle tank to slightly etch the surface of the copper to help the nickel attach.

   The parts were hung in the solution and the electrical current was set based on the number of square inches of surface area and a chart supplied with the kits.  The parts were lowered into the tank one at a time, the aeration pump was turned on, the electrical power was turned on, and the timer was set for one hour.

   Nickel has an interesting warning that says not to remove the part from the plating solution to examine it.  Once the part has been removed from the electrical field and chemicals, any further plating will delaminate away later resulting in a defective finish.  This means the part will remain in the solution for a specific time and removed at the end of the process without lifting it out to see if the plating is complete.

   There is a trick I used to help measure how much nickel had been plated on the parts without having to remove the part.  I suspended a piece of copper wire into the tank and connected it to the same copper pipe the parts were hung from.  I could safely pull the copper wire from the solution and measure the increase in thickness of the wire and divide the difference by two to determine the amount of nickel that has been deposited.  I don’t care if a little nickel flakes off the copper wire after we are done so I had no issues with pulling it from the solution to take measurements.

   I let each part remain in the solution for one hour, which is about how long it takes to build up the appropriate amount of nickel-plating on a part this size. 

   It can be difficult to wait that full hour before pulling the part to inspect it.  I did, however, pull my copper wire and take occasional measurements with a dial caliper to see how much nickel had been deposited so I knew it was working.

   The parts come out of the nickel solution looking dull and grey.  This is a normal condition that must be buffed out to the familiar mirror-like finish.  I like to buff the finish with a woven wheel using Tripoli buffing compound.  Tripoli provides sufficient cutting action without cutting too quickly.  It allows the person doing the buffing to approach the correct shine slowly.

   Buffing should be done with a lot of rapid motion so the buffing wheel does not cut right through the nickel and into the copper coat below.  Move the work rapidly and be sure to keep the part below the center of the wheel so if control is lost, it will launch the part away from you.  Wear safety goggles and apply buffing compound quite often as the compound does the cutting.  Think of buffing compound as abrasive material embedded in hard grease, which is what it is.

   I finished the job with red jeweler’s rouge on a soft buffing wheel to give the part a shine without removing metal.  You should see that chrome-like mirror finish appearing on the parts.  As you can see from the photographs, the nickel finish came out looking professional, but I saw some mistakes I will not repeat on the next job I do.

   Next month we will look at a new bluing chemical and we will work on cleaning up the old screws and bluing them before installing them in the gun.

Makers of fine Cartridge Conversion kits for:

  • Remington New Army

  • 1851 and 1861 Colt

  • Ruger Old Army