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    How to Change the Color of Metal Using Heat, Chemicals, or Electroplating

    metal working

    In contrast to the alchemists who vainly sought to turn base metal into gold, modern metalworkers perform all sorts of real transformational magic. Using heat, chemicals, and electricity, they can change the colors of many metals or make one metal look like another. Metalworkers use these techniques primarily for decorating and refurbishing small objects such as switch plates and doorknobs, or antiquing copper roof flashing or window boxes.

    You can color any metal containing iron, such as steel, with the oven heat of an ordinary kitchen range. Depending on the temperature setting, the steel changes color across a spectrum of shades ranging from pale yellow to dark blue. In addition, literally hundreds of chemicals will change the color of metal surfaces. Some of them are too toxic for amateurs to use. For example, cyanides, nitric acid, chromic acid, mercuric chloride, and lead acetate are hazardous chemicals only professionals should attempt to use. But you can safely use other techniques that are available from hobby shops, pharmacies, and chemical distributors.

    Using Chemicals to Change the Color of Metal

    There are two ways to color with chemicals. For the most uniform coating, you can dip objects into a chemical bath. However, when objects are too large to dip or move, you can coat them with a brush.

    Electroplating Metal

    Electroplating metals to color them provides a durable coating. In this process, applicable to all metals, you brush a plating solution containing positively charged metal particles across a negatively charged metal surface, which bonds the particles to itself. You can use a 12-volt car battery to charge both the metal surface and the plating solution. You can also take a carbon core from a flashlight battery and use it as a brush. Plating solutions come in an array of metals. The most common are brass, nickel, silver, and chrome — and in alloys that produce gradations of color.

    Electroplating metals to color them provides a durable coating for those interested in metal work. In this metal fabrication process, applicable to all metals including sheet metal, you brush a plating solution containing positively charged metal ions across a negatively charged metal surface, which bonds the ions to itself. You can use a 12-volt car battery to charge both the metal surface and the plating solution. You can also remove the carbon core from a flashlight battery and use it as a brush. Electroplating solutions come in an array of metals. The most common are brass plating, nickel plating, silver plating, and chrome plating, with many alloys to produce gradations of color via electroplating.

    How to Set Up an Electroplating Device

    Using a battery cable, connect the metal object you are plating to the negative terminal of a 12-volt car battery. Then make an electroplating brush by extracting the carbon core from a size D (flashlight) battery. To break open the battery, hit it with a hammer. Wipe off the core, and clip a battery cable to one end of it. Wrap sterilized cotton around the other end of the core (inset), and secure the cotton with electrical tape. Then tape the rest of the core and the clip to provide a protective handle for the brush. Finally, clip the other end of the brush cable to the positive terminal of the car battery.

    How to Electroplate the Metal

    Wearing rubber gloves, dip the electroplating brush into the plating solution for five seconds, until the cotton-wrapped tip is saturated. Touch the tip to the surface of the metal object and, with a circular motion, spread the solution over a small area for about 25 seconds. Repeat this procedure until you plate the entire surface.

    How to Prepare Metal for Chemical or Electroplating Treatment

    Whatever the coloring method, you must first clean the metal surface of any oxidation. First wash the surface with water and a dishwashing detergent. Then rinse it thoroughly and dip the metal briefly into a pickling solution of 1 part sulphuric acid to 10 parts water. Then rinse it in water. For safety during this operation, wear rubber gloves, goggles, and a rubber apron. When diluting sulphuric acid, always pour the acid slowly into the water, never the reverse. That's because heat is a side-effect of dilution, and the reaction could produce enough heat to create an explosion of steam.

    There are two alternatives that are less hazardous than cleaning with acid, but they are also less effective. You can grind away the oxidation with pumice, or you can brush on soldering flux to dissolve the oxidation. After using flux, wash away the residue with soap and water. No matter what method you use to clean the surface of the metal, you will have to test it afterward by sprinkling water on the surface. The metal is clean enough for coloring when the water does not bead.