Introduction: High Quality (and Safe) Copper Plating

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, 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!
https://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!

Step 1: Materials

You will need a few things, all of which you can get at your local supermarket or find around the house:
Distilled White Vinegar (5% acidity or higher, grocery)
Hydrogen Peroxide (3% or higher, pharmacy)
Cameo Aluminum and Stainless Steel Cleaner (cleaning supplies)
100% Copper scoring pad (cleaning supplies)
Alligator Leads (electrical)
*6V Lantern Battery (camping)
1 pint, wide mouth mason jar (canning supplies)
Paper towels (paper supplies)
Nitrile gloves (cleaning, pharmacy, or DIY)

Note: If you plan on electroplating very large things, you will need to buy a lot of vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, copper, and larger containers. Conversely, you can cover a copper electrode in cotton batting, dip it in the electrolyte solution, and then "paint" the copper on.

You can substitute the copper scoring pads for scrap copper pipe or wire. The one (huge) benefit to using the scoring pads is that they have a very high surface area which will be useful in later steps.

*See my note in the last "step" about the 6V lantern battery. You can replace it with a 1.5V battery or a couple AA's if you'd like or it would save you some money.

Step 2: Creating Your Electrolyte 1/2

The first thing we need to do is create our electrolyte, copper acetate. This chemical solution has positive copper ions that will be attracted to our negative cathodes when we do our electroplating. Please note that copper acetate IS poisonous. Please dedicate a container to it that will never be used for food and thoroughly wash your hands after coming into contact with it.

Start off by adding equal parts of distilled vinegar and hydrogen peroxide into your mason jar (ie "half and half"). The ratio does not need to be exact, so feel free to eye the amounts. The hydrogen peroxide will cause the copper to oxidize quickly which then allows the copper to react with the acetic acid rapidly.

Heat the mixture in the microwave until it steams gently. This took about 1 minute, 45 seconds for me. You can also heat your mixture over low heat in a glass (not metal) container. Heating up the mixture will speed up the chemical reaction in the next step.

Step 3: Creating Your Electrolyte 2/2

Before continuing, wash your hands well to remove any oils form your skin. Oils will prevent our vinegar and peroxide mixture from reacting with the copper. Any contaminants on your hands may also soil the solution and give you a poor finish in the plating process.

Stretch out the copper scouring pad and break it into two pieces. We will be using one piece to dissolve into the vinegar and peroxide mixture and the other as an electrode later. The copper "scrubby" material can be quite sharp - you may want to put on a pair of gloves to do this.

Now place the copper into the warm vinegar/peroxide mixture. Screw on the lid and gently swirl the liquid and copper in the jar. As time passes, the mixture will become more and more blue. The blue color comes from the copper ion in the copper acetate. The longer you leave the copper in the mixture, the more saturated and the more blue the solution will become.

A quick tip her: You do NOT want to have an overly saturated copper acetate solution. In fact, it is far better to have a weaker solution than a stronger one. When we start electroplating, we want the copper atoms to create very thin, even layers on our object. If the copper builds up too fast, it will not adhere well and you will get "burn" spots.

Step 4: Making the Copper Electrode

Take a fourth of the copper scoring pad (half of what is left of the one you pulled apart) and create a "teardrop" shape. You want the fatter end to be very tightly packed so that it doesn't float; the electroplating process creates bubbles which can get trapped in your wire mesh. On the thinner end of your copper teardrop, take several strands and twist them into a wire that can stick up and out of your acetate solution. When we start plating, we want to avoid placing the alligator clips into the acetate solution on the anode side. Any metal on the anode side will leech into the electrolyte, contaminate it, and create a very poor end finish.

Take the first alligator lead and clip one end to your newly made copper electrode. Take the other end of the first alligator lead and connect it to the positive terminal on your battery. This is now your "anode". Place your anode into your copper acetate solution as far to one side of the jar as possible.

Step 5: Preparing Your Metal Object for Electroplating

In order to get a good finish, it is VERY important to prep your surfaces. If you don't prep the surface, you will have a splotchy, dark, and uneven finish with dirt marks and even finger prints....not good. You may also get poor adhesion of the plating to the base metal which would allow the plating to flake and rub off if the base metal is not clean.

To prep my surfaces, I like to use Cameo Aluminum and Stainless cleaner. It costs only a couple dollars and works wonders.

Don your nitrile gloves and grab your object. Apply a small dab of liquid dish soap, scrub, then rinse your object (gloves too). This will remove most of the grease, dirt, and grime from your object. We're not quite done though! We still need to remove oxidation or any tough-stuck gunk from our object.

Combine a small amount of Cameo with a couple drops of water to make a paste. Smear this paste and scrub your object again. Over a minute or two, the acid and abrasives in the Cameo will remove the metal oxides and hard gunk. It is VERY important that this is done well and completely. You can tell that you are done when the entire surface is an even, dull gray (for grey metals at least).

Rinse your object thoroughly and pat dry with a paper towel.

Now, attach the second alligator lead to your object. If possible, try to attach it to an inconspicuous place that is normally out of site. If you can't find a convenient place (for example, a coin doesn't have any hidden portions), you will simply need to move the clip frequently during plating.

Step 6: Electroplating

Make sure the copper ball is attached to the positive terminal of the battery and that your object is connected to the negative terminal of your battery. If this is done backwards, the electroplating will not work and you will contaminate your electrolyte.

Fully submerge your object in the electrolyte with one, smooth motion. Holding the wire, gently move your object back and forth in the solution while slowly rotating it. After a few seconds, you should notice the base metal starting to turn yellow. Rejoice! You are on the right track! Keep swirling and rotating your object to get a deeper red color and a thicker copper plate.

IMPORTANT: You must keep your object moving while it is being electroplating. Failure to do so will give you "burn spots" where the copper accumulated too quickly. While these spots can be buffed out, the copper will not have adhered well to the base metal and will flake/rub off easily.

IMPORTANT: Keep your object at least an inch or more away from your copper electrode. Again, you will get burn spots for the reasons stated in the above.

Step 7: Post Prep

Your shiny, newly copper plated object will quickly patina as it is exposed to air, water, salt, skin, and more. This oxidation can be removed from an unprotected surface with a very light polish. If you decide to polish your plated object, use gentle pressure and mild cleaners to avoid polishing off the copper layer. If you really want to get fancy, you can also do reverse electroplating to remove patina - just do a quick dip in your electrolyte with the electrode voltages swapped. If you want the red copper color without the patina, a quick spray with a decent clear coat or a proper metal polishing oil/wax can protect the surface.

The cool thing about copper plated items is that the copper plating allows you to plate it with other, trickier metals. For example, nickel doesn't like to adhere to some steels without some coaxing. So, you can apply a light copper plating before applying a nickel coat.

On another note, you can save your left over copper acetate solution for later plating uses as well. Just place the lid on the jar and seal tight. Make sure to label it "POISON - COPPER ACETATE" and store it away from the tiny hands of kids. Rinse everything that comes into contact with the solution well and store in a safe place.

Step 8: Common Questions

Can I plate [insert your metal here] with copper?
It depends. Certain metals play nice together, others do not. The ones that do not are called "dissimilar metals". In the picture, you'll find a table I borrowed from RFI. The table is designed to let you know when a galvanic reaction might occur causing corrosion. For our purposes, it also tells us which metals are compatible and which are not. The lower the magnitude of the number (aka the absolute value), the more compatible (ie similar) the metals will be. If you are trying to plate a metal that is not compatible, you may need to plate with nickel or another metal first. Aluminum, for example, should be plated with nickel before it can be plated with copper. You can find my nickel plating instructable here: https://www.instructables.com/id/High-Quality-and-safe-Nickel-Plating/

How do I plate non-conductive objects?
First, you need to make them conductive. You can do this with conductive paints, conductive glues, and even metal leaf (think gold leaf) as long as whatever you are coating your surface with is not water soluble. I haven't experimented much with this myself which means you will have to. Send me a message with your results and I'll post them here for others to reference.

How much voltage/current do I need?
As little as possible. The lower the voltage and current, the better results you will get. You need a minimum of 0.5V DC to plate with copper. A C or D cell battery will give you pretty decent results. If you don't have access to lower voltages, you can put the electrolyte into a big container and move your electrodes as far away from another as you can - the increase in distance will also increase the resistance of the circuit and decrease the current.

Can I use copper chloride or another electrolyte instead of making it with vinegar and such?
Yes, you can. I just like the idea of making my own chemicals. You can get root kill (which are green crystals if I recall) at your local hardware store for relatively cheap.

Can I use other acids other than acetic acid (vinegar)?
Yes.....but be careful... This instructable was written for average Joes and Jolenes, not chemists. Other acids can be significantly more dangerous as well as release some very nasty, very toxic chemicals into the air. Unless you are an experience chemist (ie you have an actual degree, not just AP Chem in high school or Chem 111 in college), I would not recommend playing with other chemicals.

Is plating coins illegal?
The first thing I want to point out is that I'm only using coins because they are everywhere and cheap by definition. The copper and nickel content make them ideal for small experiments. This isn't a "how to plate coins" instructable, coins are simply handy and recognizable. For those of you who took high school chem lab, you probably used quarters, dimes, and pennies for a couple different classroom experiments.

As far as the legality of plating coins, to my understanding, it is legal as long as you 1) Aren't removing metal from the coins with intent to sell that metal, 2) Are not trying to pass them as something they are not (ie a copper plated dime is worth 10 cents, nothing more), and 3) Aren't defacing the coins for malicious intent. As a personal disclaimer, this is MY understanding - take it with a grain of salt. If this is incorrect, I would welcome a friendly email or message from the US Treasury or other qualified persons.

Why are you using a 6V lantern battery when you say that lower voltages are better?
-The difference in plating quality between low voltages (0.5VDC is the lowest you can go) and 6VDC is not much. BUT, the time it takes to plate using 6VDC is a lot less.
-If you want lower voltages, you can do so by moving your anode and cathode farther apart. This is because your electrolyte acts as a variable resistor and the square resistance of your anode and cathode create two more resistors of a fixed resistance. The further your anode and cathode are from each other, the greater the resistance of the electrolyte, the greater the voltage drop across the electrolyte, the lower the voltage between the cathode and the electrolyte directly touching it. Without taking an electronics class, this can be a little difficult to understand, so if you don't, you will just need to trust me.
-Good lantern batteries will last a very long time. They have many, many AA batteries in parallel which gives you more available juice and higher current if you want it.
-Lantern batteries are easy to clip alligator clips to and don't need battery holders.
-As the battery drains, its internal resistance will not raise significantly and its voltage will not drop much due to the highly parallel internal battery connections. This gives you more consistent results.

Can I plate Aluminum?
I would avoid it. Aluminum is just one of those metals that don't plate well. If you are looking for a corrosion-resistant finish, you can anodize the aluminum to create a clear oxide layer that is extremely corrosion resistant. If you are looking for a colored finish, you can get dyes that absorb into the oxide layer and stain it whatever color you want (this is actually what Apple and other companies do to make different colored iPods).

Can I use copper plating to keep steel parts from rusting?
No. Absolutely not. This is for a couple different reasons.
- Copper patinas (ie rusts) and can eventually flake off over time exposing microscopic and macroscopic holes through to your base metal. As salt, water, and oxygen reach the base metal, it will rust underneath your plating causing more plating to flake off and ....you get the idea.
- Copper will create a galvanic reaction (which is how most batteries work) with the iron in the steel when your object is placed in water. This will cause your steel parts to rust EVEN FASTER. If you want to test this, place a piece of copper in salty water with a piece of steel touching it. It will start rusting like crazy in a couple hours or faster.

Comments

author
TSJWang (author)2013-11-03

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.

author
A_Steingrube (author)TSJWang2013-11-03

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.

author
TSJWang (author)A_Steingrube2013-11-03

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!

author
mitchells365 (author)TSJWang2015-11-02

Making pcbs with aluminum foil (and fiberglass and epoxy) is exactly what I wanted to do!!!! You stole my idea... :)

author
TSJWang (author)TSJWang2014-01-13

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

author
Kenom (author)TSJWang2015-03-03

you can purchase copper foil. :D

author
subodh1368 (author)TSJWang2013-11-05

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

author
TSJWang (author)subodh13682013-11-05

Thanks, subodh1368

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

author
TSJWang (author)TSJWang2013-11-03

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.

author
assassinazz (author)TSJWang2015-05-05

They said in the main instructable that aluminum won't plate well

author
A_Steingrube (author)TSJWang2013-11-03

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.

author
TSJWang (author)A_Steingrube2013-11-03

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

author
A_Steingrube (author)TSJWang2013-11-03

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.)

author
TSJWang (author)A_Steingrube2013-11-03

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

author
ipfeffer (author)2014-04-12

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.

author
OLDYANKEE1956 (author)2013-11-04

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.

author

This is my favorite comment so far :) I'm glad I could help bring back happy memories.

author
Matt2 Silver (author)2013-11-03

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 ;)

author
silverbyte (author)2013-11-01

FOR SCIENCE!!!
do not use for food or cleaning!!! ;)
love it!

author
Spokehedz (author)silverbyte2013-11-03

I love this too.

author
hambo85 (author)2013-11-03

Great job! I've tried several ways to DIY copper plate and this one is the best so far. Thanks!

author
killbox (author)2013-11-02

yeah, found the pads i bought (just said copper) had a steel core. test with a strong magnet first!

author
xchcui (author)2017-07-21

Hi.

While i was making the electrolye with the vinegar and the H2O2,

i used a plastic spoon,in the middle ofthe process,to mix the copper wires inside the solution..The electrolye become a light blue,but muddy.

Is it possible that the electrolyte become muddy because i used a plastic spoon?

author
cadsase (author)2017-07-19

Hey! I'm planning on making a ring, with an opal stone adhered with epoxy. What do you think would be better for plating the epoxy, some circuit soldering wire or metalic paint? I'll make sure to post my results

author
kdinis made it! (author)2017-07-08

Nice Instructable!
I gave it a try with a 1€ coin, after having it in for about half an hour I noticed some black spots on the coin and figured that I probably left it in for too long. I managed to remove the black spots by polishing them away with a Dremel, wich also gave it a nice surface finish, here is the end result:

IMG_20170708_221907.jpgIMG_20170708_221852.jpg
author
CRASHCAGE 1 (author)2016-09-26

Great InstructableI can get 35% hydrogen peroxide.You say 3% and up but just checking.Also the vinegar is 20% here,can the electrolyte be too strong?

I know this is 3 years old,but i hope you reply,Thank you in advance.

author
IndranilN3 (author)CRASHCAGE 12017-07-01

it will work. it will need less time in fact. remove the copper when u get blue color else concentration will increase which is not desirable.

author
MidMIch1 (author)2017-02-06

How long does the solution last? does it replenish itself during each use?

author
IndranilN3 (author)MidMIch12017-07-01

it remains same unless u contaminate it with another metal in between

author
StephanieC225 (author)2017-06-22

My liquid is turning rust colored instead of blue what am I doing wrong

author
IndranilN3 (author)StephanieC2252017-07-01

lolz. ur copper pad may be just red color stuck over steel pad, buy pure copper pad.

author
Willdow35 made it! (author)2017-05-15

hi

Can you please let me know if this method of copper plating will work on solid brass fittings. These are fittings from a cooker to give you an idea of the size.

If I go with a larger glass container can I do two/three at a time?

Look forward to hearing from you,I can't wait to get started.

image.jpg
author
hanlin_y (author)2017-03-19

For safety, goggles should be used too. I would say that it's safer rather than safe. I noticed that for copper sulphate, they emphasized the fact that it's readily absorbed through the skin but not for copper acetate.

author
hanlin_y (author)2017-03-17

You can use scrap wires for this. The wires can come from e waste.

author
Anthony JanY (author)2017-01-19

Guys I need help. I want to copper-plate an aluminum CPU heatsink (the stock AMD heatsink) for the purpose of improving its cooling performance. So my question is: Does this plating method work with aluminum? If not, then how should I do it? I already heard that copper doesn't plate well with aluminum and that you need to coat the aluminum with zinc first so the copper would stick. But this beats my purpose of efficient heat transfer. Zinc isn't very thermally conductive and will reduce the cooling performance. So I need a method that will produce an aluminum-to-copper contact.

author
DjordjeM (author)2016-12-22

I desperate need "small" method to cover aluminum with copper! Any help?

author
JP'sW (author)2016-11-10

Great instructable, I have been toying with trying this out but just couldn't remember enough chemistry from school.

author
YDandAss (author)2016-02-02

I've done this, but with the old trial-and-error method, using a 12V DC power supply, muriatic acid diluted with water, and copper wire. Muriatic acid (HCl or hydrochloric acid) is the wrong acid to use, by the way. Copper is not reactive in HCl (lol live and learn). I may have added vinegar when that didn't work (if memory serves - it's been a while). And it took forever. Sulphuric acid would work, but handling these acids is scary because it's DANGEROUS.

I much prefer your method. :D

author
Andrew LB (author)YDandAss2016-11-01

You need to use a vinegar that is more powerful than the standard stuff you buy at the supermarket. What you need is "strong" or "full-strength" vinegar. I believe i got some at Home Depot, but i'd recommend calling before making the drive.

Here is the reaction I got when adding adding fine copper wire (from a deconstructed 4 gauge piece power cable) to "strong" vinegar. If you do this, please... be careful.

https://youtu.be/oGv6ID7Y-Fo

author
Andrew LB (author)Andrew LB2016-11-01

Lets try that again....

" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>

author
JustinP123 (author)YDandAss2016-10-19

Nitric dissolves Copper extremely well but I would have to assume unless you are in a lab that Concentrated Nitric Acid is out of your budget for a little bit of electroplating

author
pinanna (author)2016-07-08

can I use something else instead of hydrogen peroxide? I cannot get it right now.

author
JustinP123 (author)pinanna2016-10-19

sorry if I'm too late but you don't NEED the peroxide it is just an oxidizer to speed things along. Warm the vinegar by leaving it in the sun or somewhere nice and hot but don't boil it, and the copper should dissolve a bit slower but it will, trust me

author
JustinP123 (author)2016-10-19

Don't need the H2O2 it just really speeds things up, you can get by with the vinegar alone oxidizing the copper but it's much much slower

author
nancyosborne (author)2016-10-17

do you have to re heat the solution every time you want to do more copper plating

author
bestoration (author)2016-10-11

WILL THIS METHOD WORK FOR BRASS PLATING. I need to brass plate some stainless steel nuts and bolts. will this work, substituting brass in place of the copper. I also need to plate a larger quantity. I assume I can place the nuts and bolts in a steel basket, connect the electric lead to the basket. would also need to shake the basket some during the plating, so all sides are exposed during the plating process.

author
nicamarvin (author)bestoration2016-10-15

Brass is an alloy and while electroplating brass has been achieved with commercial kits, it's rather difficult with simple instructables, but check this page, it may help you, banjohangout.org/archive/173409

author
nicamarvin (author)2016-10-14

I will be posting something really exciting soon, a way to copper plate a U.S Quarter without electricity, very simple and nice school science project.

author
GarretJ1 (author)2016-08-05

Plain not working...
Started with sand blasted metal and nothing. So I tried scrubbing with some citric crystals to clean it and copper started showing. Put it in the bath and the copper went away...

confused...

author
GarretJ1 (author)2016-07-25

What about citric acid?
It smells nice, takes up less space than vinegar (pellet form) and is just as safe. You can vary the acidity based on concentration (pellet form) and its more conductive than vinegar so salt is not needed. In theory the finished product should should leave cleaner pores in both the base metal and the plating for a more durable finish that is less susceptible to corrosion.

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