The Hobby Gunsmith

November Feature-

Electroplating your gun

at home Part One

In past issues we have covered how to use an original rust bluing and boiling water to blue a gun at home.  The thought of a Nickel plated 45 is appealing and we chose to learn about how gun parts can be plated with a protective coating of Nickel.

   Our first thought was to not attempt something as complex as electroplating in the home shop, but after taking a look at the Caswell Plating web site, it appeared this company has the right products for the Hobby Gunsmith to take on this process in the home shop.  It turns out I was right.

   I ordered the Nickel plating kit, but were intimidated by the thick book that arrived at my doorstep along with a plastic tub and several clear plastic bags of chemicals.  I started reading the book and found out how little I knew.

   Although Nickel plating has been with us for over a hundred years, it was originally used as a coating directly over steel to prevent corrosion.  Nickel can be applied directly to the steel to produce a protective coating, but Nickel plating methods can be much more extensive when done in a way to produce a show quality finish.

   Electroplating is a simple process of dipping a part into an electrolyte solution saturated with dissolved nickel, and using an electrical current to move the nickel from the solution to the part being plated. 

   This is the very simplified description of the process and this article will help the reader either to prepare for doing his own plating, or will allow the Hobby Gunsmith to understand the process enough to appreciate the cost of having a gun plated.

   Nickel plating may be applied directly to the steel, which makes it critically important to prepare the steel properly so it is smooth and shiny enough that it does not appear to need plating.  Only when the steel is as smooth as glass will the plating have a clean appearance.  This is because any flaw will show though the nickel.

   One of the tricks for getting the smooth and uniform nickel plating job is to use a coat of copper over the steel much like primer and filler is used to produce a smooth finish on wood.  The copper fills the scratches and can be buffed to a gleaming shine before plating the finish coat of Nickel over the copper.

   I will be using copper to fill some of the imperfections in the steel and doing several coats of copper until the preparation work is finished.  This turned out to take longer than I had planned, because the parts I am refinishing were older and damaged by rust and hard use.

   The manual is somewhat intimidating, but covers all of the products in the Caswell line so only a small portion of the very informative book is needed for plating a firearm.

   The first step in getting ready to do your own plating is to locate a good power supply.  I was fortunate enough to have been given a variable voltage and amperage direct current power supply that is capable of doing copper and nickel plating.  If you must use a battery charger or other power supply, the Caswell book tells how to adjust the output through a variety of methods.

   I found the Caswell book to be an excellent source of information for tools and techniques for metal preparation such as sanding and buffing.  Caswell sells these products on their E-commerce web site and it was quick and easy to order the components I needed.


   It will be necessary to purchase two more clean plastic buckets, Muriatic acid, distilled water, some copper wire, a crock pot, a small air compressor to agitate the chemicals, and a few hardware parts before you are ready to mix chemicals. 

The kit comes with an aquarium heater for maintaining the proper chemical temperature, but we must supply a thermometer for calibrating the temperature.

   I calibrated the temperature setting of the heater by filling a plastic bucket with water and using a cooking thermometer to monitor the water temperature.  I adjusted the temperature setting on the heater until it held the appropriate 120 degrees needed for most plating. 

   I purchased an inexpensive cooking crock-pot for about fifteen dollars at a local store .  The crock-pot is used to hold the Sodium Phosphate degreaser at the appropriate temperature.  I used the thermometer and water to determine which setting is the optimum one for the SP degreasing bath. 

   Mix up the Muriatic acid with distilled water to create an acid pickling solution to remove any surface rust from the parts.  There are types of pickling solutions listed in the book, but I only created the weakest as I do not have major rust problems on our parts.

While at the hardware store, it is a good idea to pick up a few PVC pipe fittings to make an air agitation system to go in the bottom of the plating solution.  The PVC pipe can be made into a grid with holes on the bottom of the pipes to release generous amounts of air into the solutions.

   It is important to agitate the solution with air.  Tiny bubbles will form on the surface of the part being plated and those bubbles prevent the chemicals from coming in contact with part being plated.  This will result in pits in the plating and needs to be avoided.

   After reading the instructions for plating, I decided to purchase the flash copper kit to provide the equivalent of a primer coat for our nickel plate.  The flash copper kit also came with concentrated chemicals for both the copper plating and a special pickling solution for preparing lead or pot metal for plating.

   After reading the book, making all of the parts needed to complete the setup, and then mixing the chemicals, it was time to start plating.  I started by heating all of the solutions to the correct temperature as specified in the book.  This can take a couple of hours on a cold day.

   It's a good idea to take an old piece of copper pipe that will span the top of the tank.  This pipe can be used to connect the negative side of the power supply and the parts are hung from the pipe with a copper wire to have connectivity while the part is in the plating solution.  The positive side of the power supply is attached to the copper anode plates as shown in the photo.

   I then took an old cartridge casing and used copper wire to hang the part in the pickling solution for a few minutes to remove surface corrosion and then into the hot sodium phosphate.  I rinsed the part in hot water and suspended the part in the copper plating solution near one of the anodes.  I turned the power on to the anodes and the air agitation compressor before sitting and waiting about fifteen minutes.

   After waiting the appropriate time, I removed a copper plated cartridge from the solution after turning off the electricity to the compressor and the anodes.  I buffed the copper plating on the cartridge to a mirror shine.

   The cartridge then went into the Nickel plating solution and came out perfectly plated with Nickel. 

   After a couple of minutes of quick buffing with a course compound on the buffing wheel, the cartridge is nice and shiny for a simple piece of test metal that was not buffed or prepared for plating.

   With everything worked out and ready to go, I prepared the metal on some gun frames, placed them into the acid pickle, and then into the hot sodium phosphate for degreasing. 

   After a few minutes in the hot sodium phosphate, lowered a gun part into the copper plating tank, turned on the electricity, turned on the air flow to the tank to provide agitation, set the voltage to five volts and the amperage to .5 amps, and let it run for a half hour.

   What came out of the solution was a part with a fine coat of copper that revealed all of the minor flaws in the part.  This told me I had not done enough preparation so I started removing copper with a fine emery cloth to expose bare metal, but to leave copper in the scratches as a filler.

   The photo above shows the Dragoon project after the frame was plated and sanded down to leave copper in the scratch.  The next photo shows the same gun on the right side.  The right side has been prepared for a fresh copper plating followed by buffing and then the nickel plate.

  The Dragoon frame above is the same one used in last month's article on metal finishing, but with the addition of a new recess for the extractor housing.

  Drop in next month and I will cover the addition of the Caswell Plating nickel plate that will finish the nickel plating of the frame.

Makers of fine Cartridge Conversion kits for:

  • Remington New Army

  • 1851 and 1861 Colt

  • Ruger Old Army