Plating Motorcycle Parts at Home

A Professional Kit Makes it Possible

Plating motorcycle parts at home is possible with professional kits. 

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Plating Motorcycle Parts at Home

Motorcycle parts
Phoy by John H Glimmerveen 

The surface finish on classic motorcycle components is very important, and not just from an aesthetics viewpoint. Every component on a motorcycle has a purpose, some function to perform. Ensuring the longevity of a component often comes down to how well it is protected from the environment. And although chrome plating, for example, makes the various parts look more appealing, it also protects them.

With the possible exception of aluminum only, it could be argued that every component on a motorcycle has some form of surface covering. Typically, the following surface finishes are applied to motorcycle components:

  • Paint (often has a hard clear coat to protect the paint)
  • Anodizing
  • Chrome plating
  • Nickel plating
  • Cadmium plating
  • Powder coating

For the home mechanic who may be restoring a classic motorcycle, the choice of what he or she can realistically achieve at home is limited to painting the various motorcycle parts. However, there are some kits on the market designed specifically for home use or do-it-yourself plating that will improve any classic.

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The Caswell Inc. Kit

Caswell Kit
Phoy by John H Glimmerveen 

One such kit is produced and marketed by Caswell Inc. Caswell has been selling kits since 1991 and is one of the industry's leading suppliers. I recently tested their basic 1.5 gallon Nickel plating kit on some Triumph parts.

The kit came with:

  • 2 x 2 Gal Plating Tank & Lids
  • 2 x 6" x 8" Nickel Anodes and Bandages
  • 1 x 2lb SP Degreaser (Makes 4 Gal)
  • 1 Pack Nickel Crystals with brighteners (Makes 1.5 Gal)
  • 1 x Pump Filter/Agitator
  • Plating Manual

In addition to the above, you may need a piece of copper tubing (available from a local hardware store), a suitable power transformer, and a water heater. 

With all the various chemicals and components at hand, it was time to read the instruction book or manual. At first the sheer size of this book was overwhelming, but as this was a proper test of a company's product.

If there is one point the manual and Caswell stress more than any, it's that part preparation is critical. Much like painting motorcycle parts, plating requires that the part has a good surface finish to begin with. In painting, for example, if you try to paint over rust or grease, the paint will not stick or the finish will be impaired. (As the old saying goes, "If you paint over rust, it's still rust, it's just a different color.")

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A typical free-standing cabinet type grit or sand blaster.
A typical free-standing cabinet type grit or sand blaster. John H Glimmerveen

Getting a part ready to plate typically involves taking it down to bare metal—any old plating or paint must be removed.

Removing the old surface finish can be achieved by sanding, wiring brushing, sand or grit blasting, or de-plating (as in removing the old plating by reversing the process). Circular objects, those that will fit in a lathe, can be polished by hand using a fine grade emery cloth. Irregular shaped objects are best grit blasted to bare metal and/or de-plated. However, it must be remembered that the finish after re-plating will be directly related to the bare metal finish; in other words, a grit-blasted item will have a course sandy appearance, albeit a shiny one.

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A Worked Example

Chain adjuster
John H Glimmerveen 

The chain adjuster in the photograph was in reasonable condition but needed to be re-plated.

The initial phase of the process included a thorough degreasing in a solvent tank, followed by a washing in a solution of dishwasher liquid. Next, the part was wire brushed to get between the threads on the bolt section. Finally, the part was grit blasted using a fine grit.

Putting the kit together is simply a case of adding the SP degreaser to 1.5 gallons of distilled water, and mixing the Nickel Crystals and brighteners in another 1.5 gallons of distilled water. In addition, the Nickel anodes needed a strip cut into their sides for hanging onto the side of the tank and attaching the positive clips to.

Position the Caswell kit near to a door so that the area is well ventilated during the plating process.

The first step in the process requires the part to be degreased in a heated solution of the SP degreaser.

(Note: According to Caswell, the SP Cleaner/Degreaser is "biodegradable and USDA/FSIS approved for use in cleaning around food processing equipment. Not harmful to plants, aluminum etc. and can be disposed of in sewer systems.")

The SP degreaser solution was heated to 110 degrees F. However, before placing the component in the solution, I put on a pair of rubber gloves so the part was protected from any grease on my hands. To make lifting the part easier into and out of the solution, I used a basic stainless steel basket.

After the part was degreased, it was sprayed with distilled water, and a water break test was conducted.

(Note: The water break test is a useful and simple way of checking if a component has been degreased sufficiently and basically makes use of the water's surface tension properties. If the water covers the part, it is clean; if the water beads; there is oil or dirt on the part.)

After the part was degreased, the plating tank was heated to approximately 110 degrees F. As I was waiting for the water to heat up, I set about calculating the surface area of the chain adjuster. Basic area calculations are needed for this, but Caswell does have a page on their website to do this for the mathematically challenged. Note: It must be remembered that the "total" surface area must be found with these calculations as the entire part was being plated. This calculation is necessary to find the amperage required to set the transformer to. (0.07 amps per sq. inch for Nickel plating).

The cleaned part was attached to the copper pipe with copper wire (ensuring the wire was long enough to allow the part to be fully submerged in the plating solution) then lowered into the plating tank.

To begin the plating process, the electrical contacts were added to the copper pipe (negative) and the Nickel plates (positive) and the transformer switched on. A timer was set to allow 90 minutes of plating time.

After the allotted time was completed, the electric current was turned off and the various wires disconnected. The copper bar was lifted and the part cleaned with a distilled water spray as it came out of the tank.

After wiping the part, apply a coating of wax polish to give some protection to the part before it is fitted to the bike.

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Following the Caswell recommendations enabled a part to be successfully plated at home with limited expense. The finished component came out looking new and was ready for use.

Although the total cost of the kit and parts required amounted to around $400, anyone considering doing a home-based restoration should carefully consider one of these kits, as the cost of plating is becoming ever more expensive (I was recently quoted $450 for two Triumph tank badges to be rechromed!).

For the small shop owner specializing in restorations, the kit will generate extra revenue on a regular basis and will save the customer shipping costs on all plating jobs.