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Gold plating: A golden opportunity

January 07, 2009
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Automotive gold plating has gone through dramatic swings in popularity and application style. Prior to 1990, automotive gold plating was nearly non-existent. Before the automotive gold rush in the mid-90s, this service was performed almost exclusively by removing the emblems from the vehicle and then re-installing them after the gold was applied through conventional methods.
The development of on-site automotive gold plating changed all that. In some parts of the country, a very high percentage of economy and mid-sized cars sported gold-plated emblems during this gold rush. Suppliers of equipment and chemicals were springing up everywhere, offering a bewildering choice of supposedly unique and advanced on-site automotive gold plating technology.

Since the 1990’s, the popularity of gold plating has shifted from the economy/mid-range vehicles to higher-end vehicles. The service is normally mixed with other stylizing options. Pricing and quality have also been taken to the max; the owner of a Cadillac Escalade demands that the quality of the gold plating matches the price of the vehicle.
In the October 2004 issue of Professional Carwashing and Detailing®, I outlined four of the reasons that many detail shops add aftermarket gold emblems and trim to the list of services they offer.
They are:
• High profit margin — cost of good and labor normally 15%- 20%;
• Low capital investment — usually less than $3,000;
• Low operating overhead — does not require dedicated floor space or personnel; and
• Low liability risk — even the worst mistakes would usually only result in replacing an emblem.
The 2004 article addressed the basic steps used in applying gold to an emblem or trim item. Since then, a request has been made to provide more technical details on the procedures and the results of the process. In this article, I will address those steps.

Let’s get technical
There are three general versions of automotive gold plating systems. In one type, the chrome is cleaned with an “activator” and the gold is plated directly over the existing chrome. While this process saves the step of removing the existing chrome, this “gold-on-chrome” concept suffers from a reputation of poor durability.

The two most widely accepted processes of gold plating chrome emblems without removing them from the vehicle involve three steps:
1. Remove the existing chrome from the surface to be gold plated;
2. Activate the underlying nickel surface; and
3. Plate with 24K gold.
Most long-time players in the gold plating business are of the opinion that activated nickel provides a better base for plating 24K gold than does chrome. The 3-step process allows the use of highly efficient gold solutions that can provide hardened 24K gold deposit meeting rigorous military specifications.



The systems that are designed to perform gold plating using the three-step process are divided into two categories;

The first is usually called a non-automatic system. With this type of system, the user must flip a switch to select the correct polarity to match the function. The voltage for the output must also be adjusted for each of the steps. The chrome stripping requires that the item being stripped have a positive charge relative to the solution carried on the application handle (reverse polarity). The activation and plating steps requires that the item being plated has a negative charge (forward polarity).

Some of these systems have a single application handle, in this case the user must change the application tips for each step as well as making sure the polarity and voltage are set correctly.

The second type is a fully automatic system. Multiple power supplies in the machine allow the use of a single common lead. Separate application handles hanging in the proper solution provide the correct polarity, voltage and current cut-off for each step. The handles may be color-coded and the operator simply needs to pick up the right colored handle for the step being performed.

On fully automatic machines, there is very limited need or ability to adjust the polarity, voltage or current settings.

Chrome stripping
About 80 percent of automotive emblems are made of plastic. These emblems are manufactured using a platable grade of ABS plastic. The surface is then metalized, or made conductive, and then plated with copper, then nickel and finally with chrome.

With this type of gold plating system, the chrome is electrochemically removed in the "chrome stripping" step using the yellow handle. This step has no effect on the underlying mirror bright nickel. The chrome removal process only affects the conductive surface of the emblem and will not harm most paint or factory surfaces. Virtually any item that has been chrome plated will have a bright nickel finish that readily receives the 24K gold plate.

After the chrome has been completely removed the emblem and common lead is rinsed with tap water sprayed from a pistol grip sprayer. The chrome is in the solution and is rinsed down the drain apron into the wastewater drain pan.



Nickel activation
In this step, the exposed nickel surface is electrochemically activated. The emblem is given a negative charge relative to the activator solution carried by the "woolly" sleeve on the blue handle.
The activator solution makes the nickel surface highly active and removes any oxides that could affect adhesion of the 24K gold plating. This is a quick step that only requires the technician to cover the entire surface at least once. Again, the factory paint is not affected by this step.

Rinsing after activation is the same as rinsing after the chrome stripping step. This is a good time to inspect the nickel surface. Any remaining chrome or other defect in the nickel surface could show up in the gold plate.



Applying 24K gold
The red gold plating handle is connected to a special post-regulated power supply that delivers the precise amount of voltage required to electro-deposit the gold plating. The emblem is charged relative to the solution using the common lead. The output voltage of the gold handle is normally user controllable, but is rarely adjusted.

For most applications, the voltage is set to 5 volts. The gold should be applied using a power source that provides a very pure direct current with less than 5mv of ripple.

The actual gold is contained in the Brush Gold Solution (purple liquid or gel). Brush plating gold solutions are usually proprietary formulas that are made with a complexed gold salt, (potassium aurocyanide), hardeners, brighteners and conductive salts that include a tiny amount of nickel and cobalt. The resulting solution will apply 7-10 micro-inches per square inch per minute of plating time.

The gold is applied as a series of overlapping, concentric circles. The gold becomes opaque when the thickness reaches around 3 micro-inches (0.000003 inches). Automotive plating systems using this type of gold solution will apply 2 to 3 micro-inches per pass. An emblem is typically plated with 10-15 micro-inches.

The finished emblem is rinsed off and inspected by the technician. If applied properly the 24K gold plating that has been applied to an emblem will meet strict technical standards MIL-G-45204-C. We have never had a problem offering a lifetime warranty against "peeling, flaking or corrosion of the gold plate we apply. Although 24K gold is soft, today’s brush plating solutions produce a gold plate that is almost three times as hard as a non-hardened gold plate.



Rinsing and the drain pan
After each step of the preparation and gold plating process, the emblem being plated and the common clip are rinsed with tap water from a spray rinse bottle. It is important to have an efficient method of setting up rinse water collection. The first line of contact is generally a high quality vinyl tape that can be re-used many times and will not leave residual adhesive on the paint. The drain apron deposits the rinse water into a drain pan.

The drain pan is a collection and holding reservoir for the rinse water. An apron bar or stainless steel grounding tray holds the apron tight. Keeping the apron tight and flat prevents the rinse solution from dripping off the drain apron before it gets to the drain pan. The drain pan has two re-sealable plugs in the top to allow the liquid to drain inside and a spout on the end so the solution can be poured into a suitable storage container. When not in use, the drain pan can be sealed for storage.

The rinse water contains substances that are considered hazardous and should not be discharged into the sanitary sewer. When properly performed, the brush plating process produces a minimal amount of wastewater that can easily be disposed of utilizing the services of one of the many hazardous waste disposal companies.

The disposal company may or may not have a one time “profiling” charge to determine the hazardous components of your rinse water. We have found the cost of rinse water disposal is generally around between 8-10 percent of wholesale revenue.

Typically you can expect to spend 6-10 minutes plating an average sized emblem. This includes set-up of the drain apron and drain pan. The cost of goods for this emblem is around $2.00. The going wholesale rate for plating an emblem varies from location to location but a good national average would range from $25 to $50 each. If you consider the lower side of $30 per emblem and a 5 emblem car takes you an hour, which leaves a lot of room for overhead.

The businesses that have most successful taken advantage of the demand for aftermarket gold plating are those that have been focused on customer service and providing a high quality product. Gold plating has a high perceived value and should be marketed as a valuable addition to a vehicle.

Mobility and simplicity
Having the ability to quickly set up for each emblem is a key part of reducing the labor cost of on-site automotive gold plating. When I began on-site gold plating in the early 1990’s, it was common for systems to use a messy and confusing array of wires, bottles, beakers and buckets. It often took more time to set-up and move from emblem to emblem than it did to perform the actual plating process.

Today’s systems utilize a wheeled cart configured to hold the electronics, plating handles and solutions exactly where they are required. The solution beaker tray fits snugly up against the waste drain pan to minimize solutions dripping on the ground.

The color-coded application handles hang directly above their solution beakers. The plating technician sits on the machine directly in front of the emblem being plated. They need only to pick-up the appropriate colored handle for the step they are performing. The voltage, polarity, current cutoff and everything else is automatic.

When plating is complete, the anodes holding the solution soaked sleeves are dropped into the working beakers. The lids seal the beakers for storage or transport to keep the solution from drying out or spilling.

Terry Darger has worked in the automotive gold plating business since 1992 and currently is the general manager of Gold Plating Services. For questions email terry@goldplating.com.