Plating is a complex task that's largely misunderstood.
After months of searching, you finally found that two-piece front bumper for your treasured 1961 Corvette. But the pieces are scuffed, dented and dull.
A good chrome shop can often make these parts look new again, though it may not be easy — or cheap. Fortunately, the Seattle area has a number of plating shops with the skill, expertise and equipment to give your old part a show-quality appearance.
Among them are Art Brass Plating in Georgetown, Queen City Plating in Mukilteo, and Show Quality Metal Finishing in SeaTac and its companion business, American Plating Inc. in Centralia.
Decorative chrome plating is a labor-intensive process that involves stripping, grinding, buffing and electroplating the part with layers of copper, nickel and chrome to give the piece a mirrorlike finish. If done correctly, you can see the reflection of a passing jetliner on a sunny day.
“The technology is actually fairly simple,” says Richard Frisch, owner of Queen City Plating, which was co-founded in downtown Seattle in 1923 by his grandfather, Robert E. Frisch.
“A lot of people have the misconception that what we do here is a piece of cake where we just dunk a part in some shiny stuff with very little effort involved. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
Die-cast, or “pot metal” parts, which were especially common in the 1940s and ’50s for hood ornaments, grilles, trunk handles and other parts, present special challenges. (The term pot metal came from the practice of taking metal scraps and melting them down in one pot to make cast products.) Over time, pits and cavities can develop in the surface of pot metal parts that are hard to repair.
“Pot metal can be a difficult material to work with,” Frisch says. “But we have researched it heavily and come up with some excellent ways of restoring it.
“We’ve developed methods for filling in craters, pits and casting marks. The whole idea is to restore the detail, not remove it.”
Darrell Wooley, a sales and account manager (as well as buffer, technician and expediter) at Art Brass Plating Inc. (founded in 1915), says an old pot metal part can be deceiving.
“Sometimes a die-cast part will look really bad, but when we strip it, we discover it’s really not that bad,” Wooley says. “On the flip side, there are times when a part looks decent, but when you strip it, it has a lot of cavities.”
Also important in the plating business is mechanical knowledge. Bumpers, for example, often need to be restored to their original shape and dimensions before plating.
“It’s important to know how things work and how things fit together, so when a customer gets his parts back, they don’t have to do a lot of modifications like grinding or drilling holes out or running a tap into something to clean the threads,” Frisch says.
Chrome, or chromium, is a metal that isn’t really useful in solid form. But it’s a lustrous plating material for steel, stainless steel, pot metal, aluminum, grass, copper or even plastic.
Electroplating is done by passing an electric current through a solution containing dissolved metal ions and the metal item to be plated.
Enormous vats are used to electroplate parts at Art Brass and Queen City, where automotive parts make up a large portion of the work. But each business also serves the aerospace, aircraft, furnishing and manufacturing industries (Queen City also specializes in the restoration of marine hardware).
Because the metals, chemicals and processes involved in electroplating can be extremely toxic, chrome shops are carefully regulated.
“A lot of people think [electroplating] has been outlawed because of EPA regulations,” Wooley says. “I hear it all the time.”
Plating shops take their wastewater treatment, hazardous waste disposal and processing very seriously.
Prices can run from $350 to $1,500 for a bumper and $350 to $2,500 for a grille.
One of the most challenging — and ultimately fulfilling — plating jobs that Queen City has done was a 1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet, which won “Best of Show” at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2009.
Frisch and his staff restored hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of decorative parts for the ultra-rare car.
But even when his shop isn’t refurbishing something like a 1937 Horch, plating work can be fraught with challenges.
“It almost happens on a daily basis,” Frisch says. “We get some pretty tricky stuff that other shops were unable to handle — or they tried and failed.”