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High Quality (and Safe) Copper Plating

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There are a few copper electroplating methods on here, but they are either dangerous, provide very low quality results, or cost an arm and a leg.  Your plated object should be a brilliant, shiny red and not blackened and your pocket book shouldn't be hit hard by chemical costs or hospital bills.  

The method I am writing about here is the copper acetate method.  Rather than buying copper acetate pre-made, we will make it ourselves.


I wanted this instructable to be as easy as possible, safe as possible, and as cheap as possible.

Copper plating has a variety of uses.  Aesthetically, it can be used to create a steampunk look on otherwise ill-fitting metals. Anodizing the object after plating can create brilliant, multicolored objects. Electrically, it creates a highly conductive surface for soldering or use in AC circuits (for the skin effect). It is also frequently used to prepare stubborn materials for other platings such as nickel and silver down the road.

If you like this instructable, but want a silvery finish instead of a copper finish, check out my nickel plating instructable!
http://www.instructables.com/id/High-Quality-and-safe-Nickel-Plating/

On another note, I LOVE your questions!  I have noticed that a few folks are asking the same questions, so I've added a "Common Questions" step/slide/section/whatchamacallit at the end of this instructable.  Take a look there to get quick answers to most of the questions you might have. If you have a new one, comment below and I'll be happy to answer it and add it to my step/slide/section/whatchamacallit :D

A quick disclaimer - copper acetate, the chemical we will be making, is poisonous. The title "High Quality (and Safe) Copper Plating" is referring more to the fact that you don't need to play with insanely powerful acids that will burn your skin or ask you to open batteries. In the concentrations we will be working with, the process is fairly safe.  However, do NOT drink the solution and be sure to wash your hands after plating and properly wipe down any surfaces that come near or into contact with your plating solution. Always supervise kids. That said, enjoy!
 
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ipfeffer3 days ago

This was a lot of fun experiment with, I certainly have the plating technique down and I'm incredibly amazed about the quality of plating it produces!

Had a hell of a good time working on this project with my Mother.

TSJWang5 months ago
Hey, I have a couple containers of old etchant that turned blue from use. Could I just use those to electroplate? This is the etchant.
Thanks, this is awesome! I'm hoping to do this with some aluminum foil so I can solder to it.
A_Steingrube (author)  TSJWang5 months ago
I wouldn't imagine that the used etchant would make a good electrolyte. The most common etchant used by hobbyists is Ferric Chloride. By using it as an etchant, you may end up contaminating your surface with iron deposits and you may end up creating a lot of chlorine gas. It doesn't hurt to try - just make sure you do this outside a few times and stand up-breeze.

As far as soldering to aluminum foil, you should try using silver solder. It usually has around 6% silver in it which allows it to adhere to just about any metal. I use it frequently when I need to solder a lead to stainless steel.
Hi,
I contacted Kinsten to ask them about the etchant I was using.
"EB-750 etchant is Sodium Persulphate, and it reacts with copper to become Copper Sulphate."

So that verifies that you can use other electrolytes.
I'm going to continue trying this so that I can make PCBs from aluminum foil.
I'm probably going to have to etch aluminum with another chemical first, then electroplate it with nickel or copper (or use silver solder).
Thank you so much for this information!
TSJWang TSJWang3 months ago

Just as a follow up...

I tried this and it failed for my purposes, but maybe it might work for someone else's purposes. Check out the documentation!

http://tsjwang.blogspot.com/2013/12/aluminum-pcb-attempt-1.html

hi, instead of etching, try using conductive pen this can ease your task unless you really want to make complex pcb.
http://www.bareconductive.com/bare-paint-pen
Thanks, subodh1368

My budget isn't that flexible, though... thanks for the input.

TSJWang TSJWang5 months ago
SOLVED
So I'm not sure if it IS copper acetate but I'm pretty sure that it serves the purpose for electroplating!
I moved a decent amount of copper from a coil of wire to some aluminum foil with 15VDC.

The only problem is is that it's not sticking. I'll clean it better next time.
A_Steingrube (author)  TSJWang5 months ago
There are other electrolytes besides copper acetate that work well. Super kudos for experimenting. To get the copper to stick to the aluminum foil might be a bit tricky. They are very dissimilar metals and don't play nicely. HOWEVER, nickel plays nicely with aluminum and copper plays nicely with nickel. SO, if you nickel plate first, you may be able to get a nice copper plating. Nickel also plays nicely with lead which will allow for easy soldering.

Take a look at this link. Any potentials above +- 0.3V will not play nicely.
Wow, thanks for the information!
I haven't taken chemistry in school yet, so I still have much to learn.
I will try coating the aluminum with nickel then coating it with copper.

And since you say that nickel plays nicely with lead, does that mean that a copper coating will not be necessary for my purposes?
Thanks
A_Steingrube (author)  TSJWang5 months ago
If you can get a good nickel plating, you should be able to solder to it with no problem. You will likely need to add a bit of flux (besides the rosin in rosin-core), but it should solder pretty easily.

(I still stick to using silver solder for tough metals though. It is a lot easier and more predictable than putting on a plated coating just for soldering. It is a little pricey, but a little goes a long way and there is no mess like with electroplating.)
Wow, thanks for the information!
I haven't taken chemistry in school yet, so I still have much to learn.
I will try coating the aluminum with nickel then coating it with copper.

And since you say that nickel plays nicely with lead, does that mean that a copper coating will not be necessary for my purposes?
Thanks
OLDYANKEE19565 months ago
I DID A PLATING EXPERIMENT IN SCHOOL AND TOOK 3 PLACE IN THE SCIENCE FAIR FOR OUR SCHOOL. GREAT INSTRUCTABLE ! THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES ALMOST 40 YEARS AGO.
A_Steingrube (author)  OLDYANKEE19565 months ago
This is my favorite comment so far :) I'm glad I could help bring back happy memories.
Matt2 Silver5 months ago
Love this Instructable (my brain is churning with the idea of copper plated Leatherman tools :D ) Thanks for the information and I really appreciate that you made it accessible for everyone via your materials. you have my vote ;)
silverbyte5 months ago
FOR SCIENCE!!!
do not use for food or cleaning!!! ;)
love it!
I love this too.
hambo855 months ago
Great job! I've tried several ways to DIY copper plate and this one is the best so far. Thanks!
killbox5 months ago
yeah, found the pads i bought (just said copper) had a steel core. test with a strong magnet first!
aophaug7 days ago

Hi, Just wanted to get your thoughts on bronze plating, I've read your posts thoroughly and see alloyed metals are tough to do but how about Silicon bronze it is 98% copper and the remaining 2% silicon. Do you think this would take at all to making a plating solution? Or if I try it should I look out for anything terrible happening? Thanks very much for all the great information! Adam

A_Steingrube (author)  aophaug7 days ago
Hi Adam,

1) Unfortunately, you cannot electroplate alloys. To start with, the compounds in the electrolyte would have different electropotentials which would lead to uneven distribution levels. An alloy gets its strentgh because you can have a homogeneous distribution of two or more materials - you wouldn't be able to guarantee this distribution of materials. Truth be told, electroplating is often used to purify a metal.

2) Silicon is basically glass. As a result, the you will not be able to get it to dissolve in high enough concentrations in any acid (and most won't even touch it).
cutshopguy5 months ago
This is an absolutely brilliant and VERY useful Instructable. Well done, sir. I've been looking for something like this for ages. I shall now proceed to download your nickle-plating instructable too :)
One question occures. I have a wall wart with a variable output switch capability, ranging from 3V to 12V. I presume I could just use this as my power supply?
A_Steingrube (author)  cutshopguy14 days ago

Thank you! That would be great - just make sure to place a small fuse in your circuit to keep from starting a fire.

ogandou16 days ago

Thanks for this. Would it work on a resonator guitar cover plate, which is typically made of brass and nickel-plated?

A_Steingrube (author)  ogandou15 days ago
Yes, it should work great. One thing to be aware of is that adding metal to your guitar may change the sound a little bit for acoustic-vibrational as well as electromagnetic reasons. Depending on your flavor of dobro and which cover plate you are talking about (notably if it goes over a pickup) , my guess is that the effect (if even noticeable) will be a slight darkening of your tone similar to what you might hear if you play with a set of strings a little too long and they oxidize/rust slightly. If it DOES darken your tone a tad, it is nothing that a bump to your trebel knob and a tap to your mids won't fix.

Anothing thing as well is that the copper plating will wear a little bit over time, especially as it petinas, and you will have to be a bit careful when polishing as not to take off your copper. If you don't like the look of the wear, I'd suggest doing multiple layers of copper and polishing it to a mirror finish between each "coat". You could also find a good shellac or find someone to do a lightweight nitrocellulose coating overtop which would almost eliminate the wear unless you are a rather flamboyant slide player and knock things up a lot.
You're a very knowledgeable guy! :-) Mine is all brass, single cone. No pickup though. I was concerned it'd be too big to plate (10 1/4" diameter). If I can't find the same finish as the rest of the guitar (all antique copper), or at least something nicely distressed to match, I think I'll try out your method. Thanks!
A_Steingrube (author)  ogandou14 days ago

You can do something called "brush plating" where you wrap your sacrificial electrode in cotton and then dip it into your finished electrolyte (it must be sogging wet) and then GENTLY brush on the copper with small wiping motions. A jar like I have would probably plate a wall of your house with this method. Just make sure that you do this outside so you don't drip your electrolyte all over the place.

Speffeddude18 days ago

Wow! This is super helpful! And I love the extra info about what to plate and what not to, saved me a headache because I was looking to plate aluminum. Thanks!

jon3laze made it!1 month ago

My first go the quarter was taking forever to take the copper (you can see the alligator clip took better) I figure it was because I didn't clean it well enough. I didn't have cameo cleaner either, the 2nd go I used Comet cleaner for the abrasive cleaning and it seems to have worked much better. Do you re-position your alligator clips throughout to prevent the clip mark? Also can you go over proper disposal for people who do not want to keep the solution? Is it safe to dump down the sink as is or should it be neutralized first?

20140316_133941.jpg20140316_133655.jpg20140315_215015.jpg20140315_203541.jpg
A_Steingrube (author)  jon3laze1 month ago

I do move my clips around from time to time to keep that nasty black mark off of my plated object. To dispose of this, you should not pour it down the sink as copper salts are extraordinarily toxic to fish and aren't removed by waste treatment plants. I would recommend either taking it to a photo developing place (they'll often accept small amounts of "hazmat" liquids), your local landfill's hazmat disposal, plate out the copper from the solution, or letting it evaporate and saving the copper salts for a rainy day. Most places, it is illegal to pour down the drain.

Looking at your pictures, your copper source is not pure or you have mixed something with your plating solution. It should be a deep, dark, clear blue and not a milky light teal color. Your plated objects should also come out very shiny and a brilliant red color and not hazy or dull. The bubbles shouldn't stick around either.

I used the innards of some electrical wire I had. The copper wool pads at my local store were copper plated, not 100%. Thanks for the response, I'll probably go the evaporation route.
dobrivoje1 month ago

Thanks a lot. Great instructable.

I copper plated holes on my PCB. Now I have to tin copper. Is it going to be your next instructable, or must I use electroless tinning?

A_Steingrube (author)  dobrivoje1 month ago

You can use electroplating to plate through holes, but you have to paint on a graphite or silver paint first. I may do an instructable on this in the future after this semester is over.

xchcui1 month ago

Great instructable as great as the Nickel plating one.

I don't have in my area cameo cleaner and you mention that it has tiny silicone particles that do the clean job better.

Will a paste of mixing vinegar+bakind soda do the job? as the vinegar is acid and the baking soda will act as a mild abrasive substance?

A_Steingrube (author)  xchcui1 month ago
If you mix baking soda and vinegar, you will get a reaction that neutralizes the acid; this makes mixing them pointless. If you want to use an abrasive, you need to find one that is made out of a substance harder than the oxides you are trying to remove or it won't do anything. A great abrasive can be found in most toothpastes. Basically, they contain sand.
johojo1 month ago

I believe that in "Step 4: Making the Copper Electrode" you are actually making the copper pad into an anode (not cathode), since it will serve as the source of positively charged Cu+ ions that will migrate over to the negatively charged cathode.

electrodes.jpg
GG_Beta2 months ago

Awesome instructable man!

Do you know anything I can replace Cameo with? I cant find it in my country, Im from Mexico.

Thanks!

A_Steingrube (author)  GG_Beta2 months ago
Try to find a metal cleaner that doesn't have an oil or wax-based polish. I'm afraid I can't think of any other cleaners out of the top of my head... If you can find something that doesn't say "long lasting shine!" or similar (in Spanish, perhaps), it should work just fine.
arshiaIQ3 months ago
thanks alot
very nice and clean finish
1-can i store this solution?
2-can i make copper acetate without peroxide?
3-what should i do when acetate solution gets dark blue?
4-i have copper acetate how should i use it for this?
you said you love questions please answer them!
A_Steingrube (author)  arshiaIQ3 months ago
I answered most of these in my instructable :) But, here they are:
1) Yes, you can store unused solution in a sealable container. Just mark it as "POISON" so it doesn't get drank accidentally.
2) You can go without the peroxide, however, the reaction will be much slower.
3) Once your solution turns blue, it is ready to be used for electroplating. You don't want your solution to be too concentrated or else you will get poor results.
4) It is unlikely that you have pure a copper acetate powder - it doesn't have many consumer uses in its pure state (though it can be used as an anti fungal and an insecticide in rare cases). More likely, you have copper sulfate (aka Cupric Sulfate) in the form of a root killer. To use either of the two, dissolve a small amount in distiller water.
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