Make An Electroplating Marker, Because Plating Complex Objects Is Hard

If an object is conductive or has been given a conductive coating, it can be given a metal skin via electroplating. Electroplating is a simple process that is perfectly accessible to anyone in possession of vinegar, salt, a power supply, and some metal such as copper or nickel.

The process might be simple, but as with all such things there are a few gotchas. One of them is this: because electricity follows the path of least resistance, recessed areas of an object may not electroplate well (or at all) no matter how long the object is left immersed. To address this, [Brodie Fairhall] designed a 3D printed electroplating marker. The marker is essentially a more refined version of brush plating, and allows more precision and control than full immersion in an electrolyte bath.

[Brodie] created an excellent video that explains all one needs to start electroplating, and demonstrates using his marker to electroplate complex recessed shapes. Watch him coat a 3D-printed cat pendant in both copper and nickel in the video embedded below. It’s concise, well-edited, and chock full of useful tips.

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Metal 3D Printing with Your Printer

Over in Italy, [Robotfactory] has a new setup called CopperFace that they claim allows you to essentially electroplate 3D printed objects with a metal coating using copper, nickel, silver, or gold.

We’ve talked about electroplating on plastic before, but that technique required mixing graphite and acetone. The CopperFace kit uses a conductive graphite spray and claims it deposits about 1 micron of plating on the object every two minutes.

We couldn’t help but wonder if the graphite spray is just the normal stuff used for lubricant. While the CopperFace’s electroplating tech seems pretty standard (copper sulfate and copper/phosphorus electrodes), we also wondered if some of the simpler copper acetate process we’ve covered before might be workable.

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Growing Copper and Silver Crystals for Art

Usually when Hackaday covers electroplating techniques, it’s to talk about through-hole PCB plating. But did you know you can use the same method to produce beautiful copper and silver crystal structures?

[Fred and Connie Libby] are kind enough to share how they make their crystals that they sell in tiny glass vials you can wear around your neck. The process is simple as you would think; it’s just an electrolyte solution, with a current passing through it, depositing the metal in an ion-exchange. Rather then stop once the part is sufficiently covered, you let the process run amok, and soon large crystal formations begin to emerge. [Fred and Connie] share their technique very briefly, so if you’re looking for a more detailed how-to guide, you can find one here.

Although silver crystals are a bit out of our budget, we wonder how large of a copper crystal could be grown? Large enough to be displayed on a coffee table? Surely such a work of art and science could be an interesting conservation piece in any hacker’s home.

Copper Electroplating the Cheap and Safe Way

[A_Steingrube] has posted a guide to his favorite method of copper electroplating. Plating copper onto other metals is popular with the steampunk crowd, but it does have other uses. Copper plate is often used as a prep step for plating other metals, such as nickel and silver. It also (usually) increases the conductivity of the metal to be plated. [A_Steingrube] is using the copper acetate method of plating. What is somewhat novel about his method is that he chose to make his own electrolyte solution from household chemicals. The copper acetate is created by mixing distilled vinegar and household hydrogen peroxide in a 50/50 ratio. The mixture is heated and then a piece of copper scouring pad is placed in. The scouring pad is partially dissolved, providing copper ions, and turning the solution blue.

The next step is to clean the material to be plated. [A_Steingrube] uses Cameo Aluminum and Stainless cleaner for this, though we think any good degreaser will work. The actual electroplating process consists of connecting a piece of copper to the positive terminal of a 6 volt battery. Copper scouring pad is again used for its high surface area. The material to be plated is connected to the negative side of the battery. He warns to keep the solution and the material being plated in constant motion to avoid heavy “burn spots”, which can flake off after the plating process. The results speak for themselves. As with any bare copper material, the electroplated layer will quickly oxidize if not protected.

Through hole plating and milling at home

Here’s a PCB fabrication process that makes us envious. It’s pretty darn close to fab-house quality at home. [Cpirius] is using a CNC mill and through hole plating technique to produce his double-sided circuit boards.

The video embedded after the break shows one board from start to finish. It begins with the mill drilling holes through some double-sided copper clad stock. Once the millings have been cleaned off the holes are coated with a mixture of waterproof ink and carbon. This prepares them for plating by making the holes themselves conductive. The board is then run through an electroplating process based on this guide.

Possibly the most interesting part of the process starts 52 seconds into the clip. The mill uses a conductive probe to generate a height map of the entire board. This allows it to vary the routing depth for perfectly cut isolation traces. That final routing process is pictured above.

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DIY Tin Plating for Bus Bars

Copper bus bars are commonly used instead of wire for carrying high currents. [Dane] needed some bus bars for a project, but he was worried about corrosion. His solution was tin electroplating the bus bars to lower the risk of corrosion while keeping the conductivity high.

The process requires only two chemicals: hydrochloric acid and tin. The electrolyte solution is made by dissolving tin into the acid. Then the bus bar is placed in a diluted solution and a 1 A current is run through it. The result is a fine coating of tin on the copper, which will not corrode in water.

[Dane] mentions that he’d like to try the process with silver solder in the future, since it is easier to find than tin. He also wants to find a way to measure the amount of tin deposited onto the bus bars. This process could be helpful for anyone who needs some corrosion resistant high current conductors.

Check out a video of the plating process after the break.

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Through-hole electroplating in your home lab

For the few double-sided PCBs we’ve actually etched at home we simply soldered a piece of wire to either side of a via and clipped off the excess. But if you want to go the extra mile you can’t beat electroplated through holes. The setup seen above is an electroplating tank build from simple materials which [Bearmos] has been working on.

The two sets of copper structures are both used as anodes. Some copper water pipe (like you’d use for a refrigerator ice maker) was cut into short rods and soldered onto pieces of bus wire. The portion of the metal which will stick above the chemical bath was coated with a generous layer of hot glue. This will protect it from corrosion cause by the off-gassing during the plating process. The traces of the etched PCB act as the anodes, but the holes themselves must be conductive in order for the plating process to work. A water proof glue with powdered graphite mixed in is applied to all of the holes in the substrate. This technique is based on the huge electroplating guide published by Think & Tinker.