Nickel Free Plating: Making it WorkAn example of nickel free plated jewellery

Fourth in a series

by Dan Schafer

The obvious problem was we were not producing bright beautiful gold plated jewelry when we tried to plate it to the new "Nickel free" standard. And the obvious source of the problem was somewhere in our process or our chemicals. But last issue we hinted that a deeper root of the problem, or at least of my inability to solve the problem, lay in a moral issue, pride. Strangely, a person can follow all the directions and yet miss the heart of a thing if he has a lingering need to prove that his own tower of logic is the conclusive analysis.

Outlining the Difficulties

At that point, the state of my logic said, "We are going to need some pretty sophisticated solution to solve this." That was based on what I knew about the nature of our product and my experience of the difficulty of bright copper plating, the basic alternative to bright nickel in the nickel free process. In previous issues I have outlined what the difficulty was. With bright copper we could get the front of our items bright but not the backs, or then if I plated long enough to get the backs bright the fronts had become rough and anything but bright.

One time Norman, the plating expert who gave a lot of his valuable time to helping me, said, "Bright copper is easy." He didn't dare say it too often, because he knew the difficulty I was having. It was meant to encourage me, but I couldn't accept it as part of my logical data, because it didn't fit my experience. Perhaps for people who didn't have an obstinate type of item to plate it was easy, but I could hardly conceive even of that.

I tried sophisticated solutions. I designed special racks that shielded the front sides from too much electrical current and therefore allowed me to give a heavy dose of current to the backs. In principle it should have worked, but when I went to the next stage which was a silver strike, thirty percent of my items had silver metal flaking off. Now I know that that was because of poor electrical contact, but at the time it only frustrated my effort to solve the problem. I tried plating two racks together with the fronts of the items on one rack facing the fronts of the items on the other, attempting in that way to shield the sensitive narrow wires on the front from too much current. It was working better, but I still had some problems.

The Basic Problems

But really, when the answers are pretty obvious, one can only stumble around so long and miss them. There were probably two basic things we were doing wrong. One was our solution. First, perhaps the additives were not ideally suited to our type of jewellery. But secondly, and more importantly,in all our attempts to fix the solution's problems,imaginary and real, we had given it more problems. Probably someone more experienced could have rescued it. But we neither had the experience or the leisure to do that. So we just took it out and mixed up a new solution.

The other thing we were doing wrong was using a rectifier whose control was not precise enough. We came upon that by accident (if there is such a thing). Shortly after we changed the copper solution the largest rectifier in our plating room, a 500 amp for the nickel, started giving us trouble, and our supplier was very uncooperative in helping us fix it. Therefore we had to do a shuffle of rectifiers which required us to take the second largest, a 200 amp, which was our bright copper rectifier and move it up to replace the 500 amp. The shuffle then gave us a smaller but more precise rectifier for the bright copper. It worked fine, but at the time I mainly thought of it as helping solve the problem of our broken 500 amp rectifier.

A Lesson Learned

However, gradually, especially after Norman supplied us with a new additive system for the solution, we found the bright copper was working beautifully without our hardly realizing what we had done to make it work. But with careful systematic control of all the variables we knew, it plated things I never imagined it would be able to plate. I am embarrassed when I think how long it took to solve the problems, but in the course of it I learned a lot about plating, I made a good friend, and, most important, I learned something about humility.

Of course having solved a problem once is not a guarantee that similar difficulties will not come up again. In fact, difficulties seem to come up quite often, and in future issues you will hear that there were more lessons to be learned.

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