Chrome plating is also known as electroplating, chrome dipping or chroming, but there is only one process for applying chrome to metal, and that is electroplating. Nothing else looks quite as bright and shiny as true chrome plating, but it is a difficult and expensive process to do. The EPA heavily regulates the application of chrome, making the process even more expensive because it requires permits and inspections. For some purposes, there are more practical alternatives to the expensive process of chrome plating.
Two Types of Chrome Plating
There are two types of chrome plating: decorative chromium plating and hard chromium plating. Decorative plating is used in making jewelry, home appliances, tools, hardware and automotive trim. The thickness of decorative chrome plating is measured in millionths of an inch. Hard chromium plating is thicker and is used for functional items such as the working parts of an automotive engine. The thickness is measured in thousands of an inch.
Downsides to DIY Chrome Projects
Chrome plating is a very labor intensive project, and the EPA heavily regulates the use and disposal of chromium. It is usually better for the layperson to take chrome work to an experienced chrome shop. The process of chroming metal includes polishing and buffing the surface, acid dipping, zincating (if the metal is aluminum), copper plating, buffing the copper, acid dipping a second time, plating more copper, adding two to three layers of nickel plating and adding the chromium. The piece must be washed between each step.
Chrome plating cannot be done on plastic or metal that has been damaged and repaired. Only solid metal able to withstand the buffing and acid dipping can be chrome plated.
According to the EPA, exposure to chromium can damage the respiratory system and digestive system, leading to cancer and other serious illness or disease. Even extremely low levels of chromium (1 part per million) can be detected in the human body or the environment.
Alternatives to Chrome Plating
For some automotive applications, Chrome FX is an alternative to chrome plating. This machine is used to provide a chrome finish to plastic parts or parts that are too damaged for the normal chrome plating process. The machines are expensive, about $8,000 as of July 2011, but not as expensive as a chrome plating shop. Some shops that own a Chrome FX machine offer their services to DIY automotive restorers. This is an alternative to decorative chrome plating, such as door handles, but does not work for functional parts, such as engine parts.
Nickel plating is sometimes used as an alternative to chrome plating. It is less expensive and labor intensive than chrome plating and there are fewer environmental regulations and concerns.
For many DIY projects, a metallic chrome paint is sufficient. Chrome paint is applied by spray or airbrush. There are many projects suitable for chrome paint.
Chrome Paint for DIY
Chrome paint is disappointing for most automotive applications, and does not hold up as well as decorative chrome plating for door handles or bumpers. But diecast model builders use chrome paint on their models with good results. Model builders can spray paint chrome onto the diecast model or use an airbrush to apply it.
Chrome and metallic paints are applied much like other spray paints. You can buy these paints in spray cans or as airbrush paints. Chrome can be sprayed or airbrushed onto decorative items, such as vases. Chrome paint is also suitable for light switch plates, picture frames, lamps and other decorative household items.
Chrome paint is suitable for painting most plastic, glass and metal surfaces. Read the product label to determine suitable surfaces for spraying with chrome paint.
When painting with chrome or other metallic paints, smooth the surface as much as possible because all of the imperfections are made more visible with metallic paint. Clean the surface to be painted thoroughly, removing dirt, dust and oily or sticky substances. Use chrome paint in a well ventilated area and follow the manufacturer's instructions.
Chrome and metallic paints combined with rhinestones of different colors make a striking display on home decor items and clothing, such as T-shirts.
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