Simple Copper Plating


Introduction: Simple Copper Plating

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CAUTION: this instructable involves the dismantlement of old batteries which will expose you to hazardous substances. 
I f you must do this.. follow utmost caution, and wear protective eye gear

A simple rig for electroplating small objects.. like keys, jewelry etc..
Using easily available objects.. except for one chemical which should be available at a chemist/drugstore/hardware shop.

Brief history of when i did this-

Why don't they teach this stuff in school?

My best memory from school was when i was in class 7 or 8 in a school in Shillong(north east India). There was a chemistry assignment that had to be done. The teacher told us to do one of the handful of exercises that were in the textbook. Most of it was ridiculously inane stuff like the "graphite conducts electricity" one.. or the "make your own electric bell" one. Me and a friend decided to do something a bit more challenging..

so we picked the last one - "copper plating".

This was more of a paragraph in the chapter text than an actual exercise.. it just had a bare description of the copper plating process and the chemical reactions involved.

No wonder our teacher was skeptical about it and told us that we would probably flunk if we didn't do one of the more "reliable" exercises(the graphite one and the stupid electric bell)

Anyway dday arrived and after a really long hour during which each kid showed off their ridiculously identical and lame graphite conduction and electric bell projects it was our turn.

unfortunately we had only managed to secure one of the key ingredients(copper sulphate) that very day.. so we hadn't even tested the rig yet! but we didn't tell the teacher that. we confidently set up the rig on the floor next to her desk(i guess she was a bit concerned about the "toxicity" of the shimmering blue compound.

 i dumped a key that i wanted plated, and a volunteer from the audience(we sort of felt like magicians doing a show) gave us some small metal thing(think it was a earring or something) and we flipped the switch.

in a few minutes the metal objects turned a flakey orange-yellow... APPLAUSE!

Why don't they teach this stuff in school?

Step 1: You Need:

1) atleast 3volts(2 AA batteries) for it to work well. will work with 1.5v(1 AA battery) too, but will be really slow. Will probably work really well with more power.

2) a carbon electrode. we got ours from an old battery. its the inner black colored core.
update: from the comments. @fretted says:
its easier to open a battery with a tubing cutter the ones used for cutting copper tubing you can cut the top and bottom off and peel the oiutside skin off real easily no hammer required !
update: from the comments. @matroska says:
Do note that not every battery have a carbon rod inside. Only zinc-carbon battery do. They are usually labelled as "Heavy Duty" even though they are terrible batteries.

3) a copper electrode. we hammered a bit of copper wire till it was flat. a bit of copper tube might work too.

4) wires

5) a jar/beaker

6) water

7) copper sulphate. we ended up getting some from the chemistry lab.

Step 2: Mix the Solution

mix the copper sulphate crystals in water.. be careful not to ingest any of it, its toxic.

Step 3: Assemble and Start Plating!

step1 - connect the copper electrode to the positive side of the battery, and dip it in the copper sulphate sollution(copper sulphate crystals dissolved in water).

step2 - connect the carbon electrode to the negetive end of the battery and dip it in the sollution too.

step3 - drop the metal object you want to plate into the sollution.
edit: as pointed out by @HeWantsRevenge in the comments-  for a nice even coating, it might be a good idea to suspend the object.. with thread or wire.

thats it. 



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    Do note that not every battery have a carbon rod inside. Only zinc-carbon battery do. They are usually labelled as "Heavy Duty" even though they are terrible batteries.

    3 replies

    your right.

    thought i'd replied to you already!

    Agreed, couldn't the carbon rod (graphite) inside a pencil work just as well, or would the clay mess with the reaction?

    heh, graphite pencil cores do work.. but a lot slower.. could be the clay, but i think its the thinner diameter.. the battery core results in more surface area exposed to the solution

    If you're having trouble procuring the copper sulfate, you can make your own copper acetate by mixing hydrogen peroxide and distilled white vinegar 50/50 in a glass container, microwaving it until it's around 110 Fahrenheit and then dropping some copper objects into it. Swirl it around a bit and once it turns light blue, remove the copper pieces and you're good to go.

    **NOTE: The items you put into the vinegar/peroxide solution need to be as pure copper as possible. I recommend a copper scouring pad. Just make sure it's real copper and not copper plated. It'll ruin your acetate.

    1 reply

    this is brilliant! thank you for sharing that!!

    i used 4-5 table spoons for 400ml of water

    I'm using copper sulfate to plate with.I'm following all the prosedures for prepping the metal to be plated and for some reason the copper will not stick.Please help me.

    1 reply

    Talk to a chemistry teacher!!

    If that's not possible..

    Try distilled water.. Sometimes hard water makes the process slower

    see if bubbles are generated at the electrodes... If not then your batteries are too weak... Switch polarity..see what that does(probably a useless exercise)

    I can't think of any other advice to give you on this


    I think you'd have better success if you attached the key to the negative electrode- this Wikipedia article explains why. You can actually do without the carbon electrode completely if you just attach the negative electrode wire straight to the key or metal object.  I suspect that your experiment was doing a simple substitution reaction: iron in the key reacts with copper sulphate in solution to give iron sulphate and copper metal. 

    Still, kudos for going above the basic level your school expected and actually finding something out for yourselves.  I did a similar thing in my first year- we were meant to measure the amount of carbon dioxide given off by yeast by counting the bubbles, but my friend and I figured this would be more accurate and less boring if we captured the gas in an inverted measuring cylinder and found the actual volume.  

    The science teachers listed possible flaws with the experiment, and we gave solutions to them until they just let us do it our way to shut us up :)

    7 replies

    you talk too much.

    it's too common.

    yea...i think u goto hang whatever u wanted plated to the negative so the copper is attracted the object. at the very least...hang the said object for a good even coat

    hmm, excellent idea actually, thanks :)

    I know this is a little late in the game but it's easier to open a battery with a tubing cutter theones used for cutting copper tubing you can cut the top and bottom off and peel the oiutside skin off real easily no hammer required !

    good that helps.. will add it to the instructions.

    your suspection is totaly right... it is all about the standard potential of the elements/ions used ( ) the reaction works without electrodes and there is one similar reaction you really should try out. with this you reaction you can make 'gold' (well it's brass but looks similar) just throw a piece of zinc into the copper sulfate solution. (learned that at school when i was 14 i think)

    thanks for the feedback, truely constructive. will try it without the carbon rod and see how it goes.

    You should have the key attached to the negative electrode, not sitting in the middle. You don't need the carbon electrode, just the metal thing to be plated attached to the negative wire. I recommend alligator clips to attach to the electrodes. The copper solution can be made using your copper electrode and vinegar or lemon juice as your electrolyte liquid - after attaching the batteries, the copper ions will be pulled off the electrode and into solution. when there are enough of them, they will start to plate the key.

    You shouldn't put large amounts of copper solutions down the drain - it needs proper chemical disposal. Check with your local university's Environmental Health & Safety dept for how to do this properly. Or you can throw in a wad of steel wool to precipitate the copper back as a solid.

    Here's one I made using sharpie to stop it plating in places.

    1 reply

    you talk too much.

    it's too common.