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Daniel W

Copper plating steel

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I've been reading a few old issue of the 'hammers blow' and through various articles I've read over two processes of copper plating steel. I've never attempted them before so I'm curious if anyone else has ever given it a try.

The first one is just as simple as brassing with with a brass brush over black hot steel. I don't have a copper brush laying around but I imagine I could use a wad of old scrap braided copper wire for this. 

The second process involved using saturated jewelers pickle that is heavy with copper.  The article stated to give the steel a dunk and it would plate with copper.  Now this one I attempted before but I made up the pickle of white vinegar hydrogen peroxide and table salt. I used electrolysis to attempt to plate the steel -  but the copper always seemed to just rub off, it never made a good bond.

 

I wonder if anyone else has tried these processes and gotten successful results.  I make a small range of flowers, and I would like to see if one of these two processes can be a quick and easy way to achieve that look of copper without the cost.  I do really like the look of hot brass brushing, and wonder if  I can get the same look.  I know - I know, just get copper plate and make my flowers from that, I just want to tinker with this a bit.

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Posted (edited)
44 minutes ago, Daniel W said:

I've been reading a few old issue of the 'hammers blow' and through various articles I've read over two processes of copper plating steel. I've never attempted them before so I'm curious if anyone else has ever given it a try.

The first one is just as simple as brassing with with a brass brush over black hot steel. I don't have a copper brush laying around but I imagine I could use a wad of old scrap braided copper wire for this. 

The second process involved using saturated jewelers pickle that is heavy with copper.  The article stated to give the steel a dunk and it would plate with copper.  Now this one I attempted before but I made up the pickle of white vinegar hydrogen peroxide and table salt. I used electrolysis to attempt to plate the steel -  but the copper always seemed to just rub off, it never made a good bond.

 

I wonder if anyone else has tried these processes and gotten successful results.  I make a small range of flowers, and I would like to see if one of these two processes can be a quick and easy way to achieve that look of copper without the cost.  I do really like the look of hot brass brushing, and wonder if  I can get the same look.  I know - I know, just get copper plate and make my flowers from that, I just want to tinker with this a bit.

If you are just going for a copper visual.....you can just drop a penny in some ferric.

I did this a while back...then decided I dent really care for it.

I think it might only work with certain steels.....could be wrong about that.

Off memory this was 1080 or 1084...its been over a year....not even certain about that.

Edit....dont think newer pennys have much copper. I used an old wheat cent.

copper.jpg

Edited by Kreg

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Yep, the copper-saturated ferric chloride is a decent way to do it.  They quit making pennies out of solid copper in 1981, (every one since is zinc with a very thin copper cladding). You can use any copper, like old wire, etc.  I don't know how it would work with that vinegar/peroxide/salt pickling solution, that doesn't seem aggressive enough.  I may try it with the saturated brass pickle I have that is vinegar/peroxide/citric acid.  That stuff, when fresh, flat out eats copper.  It's turquoise blue at the moment.  I'll have to dip some non-stainess in it and see what happens, but it is my understanding that when done with standard Sparex #2 pickle, introducing iron into a saturated solution causes everything in the jar to get flash plated, not just the iron, and maybe not even the iron.  It does an excellent job of copper-plating sterling silver, I did learn that one the hard way.  

Hot-brushing is harder than it looks.  But, if done well, it is nifty-looking and quite durable.

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One of my favorites is to get root killer (Copper II sulfate) and dissolve as much as hot water will take.  Then dip non-stainless in it.  Instant plating.  Not sure how durable it is, as I haven't put it through serious testing.  It is a thin coat, but it doesn't just wipe off by hand.  

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hmmm, I do have some ferric chloride around, before I dunk some copper in it, should I dilute it at all or leave it full power? The article read that the 'Pickle" should be turquoise in color. 

Although I like the chemical dip idea, I'd like to attempt the brushing idea as you can be selective with it.  Alan that article read that copper plating is done at a higher temp than brass, I don't know if there is a good indicator for when the steel is hot enough. Between black and the very dull reds I know it has to be done before any scaling happens.   If it looks anything like the brass brushing I'm familiar with, I like that look, it has an antique like finish that I'm looking for.

 

 

 

 

 

I like my steel to have a hint of color (flowers are colorful) and I've done a lot of heat tinting experiments that worked out, although to get a specific color in your ordinary oven, you can hit a color or miss it by a mile. I'm still trying to create and hold a reddish purple color, that so far as I've hit it, dunked it, over the next 10 mins it still oxidizes more to the blue side.

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Mine was done at 4;1. I seem to recall it taking a day or so for the penny to dissolve.

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Copper is just about the easiest metal to electroplate.

If you go to the trouble to get it to work as an electrless process, you only need to add a power supply and a piece of copper electrode to do full blow electroplating.

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On 8/1/2018 at 1:08 AM, Brian Dougherty said:

Copper is just about the easiest metal to electroplate.

What he said :D

I was a teen last time I did it, Copper sulfate solution and 9V battery.

I stopped doing it because I wanted to plate a little Bowie I'd made from mild steel, got the poles mixed up and the process ate into my "knife"

We had the Copper sulfate for the pool (I think) and my Dad taught us how to grow crystals from a saturated solution.....I took it further.....that sort of kid.

Quarter of a century ago.......plus :lol:

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Out of curiosity, how well would the copper plate work as a rust preventative? Would a plated piece patina similar to a solid copper bar, or would you still have to work about the steel showing rust with time/neglect?

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The copper layer will patina just like copper. 

If there are no defects that go all the way through the copper layer, the steel underneath will be protected from oxidation.  However, any nick or scratch that exposes steel will create  a place for oxidation to start, and once it starts, it will work its way under the plating lifting the copper as it goes.  (Think pitted chrome plated car trim, if you happen to have been around when such a thing existed)

The steel won't be any more prone to oxidation, so even with flaws in the copper layer, good maintenance will keep rust at bay.

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1 hour ago, Brian Dougherty said:

(Think pitted chrome plated car trim, if you happen to have been around when such a thing existed)

:o You mean back in the day of the Detroit Dinosaur, yep I remember that!! :lol: 

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Thanks Brian.  Copper plating on a knife blade is intriguing to me from an aesthetic perspective.  I think this will be fun to play around with.

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I haven't had enough time to do any trial batches of anything yet, I do however remember when I attempted the electroplating the first time, that the steel would bond really well to the copper - but not the other way around.  That's been so long ago that I can't recall how clean the steel was and a lot of other factors. 

In my opinion,  would copper plating enhance the corrosion resistance of steel?  I think yes, but over all in an outdoor setting - or very humid setting . . . maybe it would last longer but it would still break down over time.  I'm no metallurgist,  but steel seems to rust no matter what is done to it.  Especially mild steel it seems.  Its the nature of the material.  And I'm not about to make flowers out of stainless steels, I'd rather smash my thumb on the anvil with a hammer. That being said, the brass plated pieces I've made, while in my care, never showed signs of pitting.  Also over my brass plating I have a nice coat of linseed wax which I have been finding very hardy.  This darkens the tones - so if I did some heat tinting, I change over to Johnson's past wax. It looks to dry quickly and rather clearer than the good old linseed wax. 

 

 

 

 

The only method that I have been told that will completely seal the pours of ferric objects is powder coating.  Only draw back I heard of was that at the temperature of the bond, if you did this on a knife, you may end up with a softer HT. Also to get a keen edge, you would have to hone though the powder coat exposing the raw steel so its not really worth it. On things that I've heat tinted, I would lose those lighter temperature colors that I put in there on purpose. Big architectural work, works nice from what I hear.

 

Anyhow, on to copper plating - in about 2 weeks - or three . . .

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Posted (edited)

OK so I gave some things a try.  #1 forget that idea that you can simply brush the copper on hot steel. Either I'm not doing it at the right temperature or its just not right on mild steel. I heated a piece of mild to very dull red heat, scrubbed it with a mass of copper wire all the way down to piratically cool, and nothing happened.

second attempt was with saturated ferric chloride.  (just a dunk) Stainless steel, works wonderfully, perfectly a little streaky but its on there and on there good. 

Attempted the same process with mild steel, again it plates, but does not stick.  It just rubs right off, Just like when I attempted electroplating years back. So I had an idea, and to be honest I remember this anyway, but I seem to recall when I tried this before that before the copper plate, something else like chrome or nickel is plated in industrial setting.  So I brass plated the scrap metal, then gave it a dunk, and this time it stuck better.  I could still rub off the copper on the high points, but it stuck until I tried to seal it down with some paste wax.  It again rubbed right off and took the brass with it.  Strange.  

 

I don't believe with the process of electrolysis things are going to be any different, if it plates to stainless, then its something in the stainless.  And I suspect its the chromium/nickel.  I bet if I took some tool steel alloy it would also accept the copper better as it might have a touch of chromium nickel in it already.  That's going to be for another day.

Edited by Daniel W

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In industrial plating, copper is usually the base coat because it will 'stick' to anything.  Not many metals will plate to steel, but copper will.  Similarly, most things will plate on to copper, so it is very common to do a copper strike coat on steel before moving on to other materials.

The other reason copper goes down first is that you can build up a very heavy layer when compared to other metals.  This allows you plate on enough copper to polish out any small surface defects.  For example, if you are restoring classic car trim, you will polish the steel until it is pretty smooth.  Then you will plate on copper and polish the copper layer until it is like a mirror.  This may take multiple applications of copper if you have a lot of surface flaws to fix.  Once the copper is perfect, you plate on nickel.  Then you plate the chrome over the nickel.

If you are trying electroplating, and your copper just wipes off, you probably had some surface contamination, or the current was too high.  Generally speaking, the slower you build up the plating, the smoother and more structurally sound it will be.

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Just for the record; the copper wouldn’t stick to forge-scale, right?

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1 hour ago, Charles du Preez said:

Just for the record; the copper wouldn’t stick to forge-scale, right?

I've never tried it, but I would be astonished if it did.

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I played with this a little over the weekend and had some pretty good results.  I used a blade from my "Shelf of Shame" and tried out the method that was detailed in the video that C Craft posted.  I put a little bit of my daughters nail polish on the blade to see if it would act as a resist that could be removed afterwards.

20180813_175741.jpg

I ran two 5 minute cycles and it came out a lot more "coppery" than I thought it would.  The nail polish worked like a charm.  I think I'm going to try a vinyl stencil next time and see how well that holds up to the process.

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With regards to plating steel and rust prevention, mind that there are two ways to do it: plating with a more noble (cathodic) metal then steel, and a less noble (anodic) metal. A less noble metal like zinc will protect steel as a sacrificial metal. Even if the steel gets exposed, it is protected by the zinc, because the oxygen will react with the anode (positive charge).

Copper is more noble then steel, which means that copper on it's own will not corrode as fast as steel. But when copper plated steel gets exposed, then the steel will become the anode, and the reverse will happen: the steel will protect the copper by rusting away, and rusting faster then if it weren't copper plated. That's why protective plating is done with chrome, which is very hard and wear resistant, so it doesn't get damaged easily. However, chrome doesn't attach well to steel. Cheap chrome plating will flake off and rust underneath, because it's just chrome straight on top of steel. A good chrome plating has a copper base, followed by nickle, and finished with chrome. 

 

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