MARVIN SPOTSWOOD of Los Gatos, California, claims he can use an electroplating kit to plate anything; and he has had ample opportunity to prove it.
He has covered so many diverse items with copper, brass and silver plate that the list is almost endless.
Bugs, spiders, flowers, bottles, ceramic objects, plaster statuettes, vases, shoes, crocheted bootees, deer antlers, telephones, toys, old lanterns, light fixtures, floor lamps, table lamps, pie tins, soft drink bottles, football helmets, and even false teeth are some of the many articles he has covered in the years since he has followed his hobby of electroplating.
When he first became interested in electroplating as a hobby, Spotswood was engaged in full time door-to-door selling, soliciting orders for copper-plated baby shoes. Learning how to electroplate after hours, he built a homemade set-up in his garage, and experimented by plating his daughter’s doll dishes and other metallic and non-metallic toys.
Polly, his wife, brought him items that she had picked up at rummage sales, such as old sugar bowls and creamers, and other objects which Spotswood either restored by plating or refashioned into planters or lamps. When friends saw the many things he had plated, they brought him articles, too, and he began to realize that there was a chance that his hobby would prove profitable.
As he visited his customers’ homes while soliciting orders for baby shoes, he would mention that he was interested in plating other objects to be used as planters, lamps, and so on, and received some orders in this manner.
One of his customers had many antique silver pieces and lamps which she wanted electrified and Spotswood offered to do this, and also to replate, buff, and restore them for her. This was his first large order, and from it Spotswood got the idea of visiting antique dealers and soliciting orders to repair and restore similar pieces.
He learned the non-metallic plating first, since that is the type of plating used for baby shoes, and it has a specific formula with little variation.
He learned from his employer and found that he liked the actual plating work much better than the door-to-door selling.
He carried on his hobby of plating and making lamps and planters after working hours; then when he became proficient enough in making these objects, he began to take orders for them along with the orders for baby shoe plating.
Eventually his orders for these items grew to a volume that took up most of his time, and he became a partner in business with his employer, finally buying his partner out entirely.
THE METHOD that Spotswood advises, since he began that way himself, is to learn the hobby first, specializing perhaps in planters, then selling them from door to door and taking orders locally.
A good way to advertise is to watch for hobby displays and hobby shows, and get your items in for display. Often a local businessman, such as a hardware dealer, or furniture store owner, will be glad to give display room in his show case to the articles of a group of hobbyists, and your work, included, will become known.
Advertising in the local papers, and running a picture of either a planter or a re-plated silver coffee pot is an effective method of getting orders, particularly during the holiday season, as planters make excellent Christmas gifts. A small ivy or similar plant, costing ten or fifteen cents at the dime store, will help sell a planter.
Spotswood feels that the home hobbyist can soon learn electroplating to his immense pleasure and profit. There are good electroplating beginners’ kits, and these will start anyone making beautiful and useful lamp bases and other ornamental objects which are much in demand and which sell for a good price.
If you remember your high school chemistry, you will recall that electroplating is the process whereby a thin coating of metal is formed on an object by immersing it in an acid solution into which an electrode carrying a low voltage of electricity is introduced.
The acid solution, through the action of electrolysis, carries atoms of the copper or silver to the object to be coated which is hanging by a wire in the tank.
This coats the object with a thin or thick layer of metal depending on the length of time it is left hanging in the solution. The vats or tanks used for depositing are usually wooden, lead lined vessels, but may also be enameled iron, slate, or even glazed earthenware or glass.
Before the beginner commences plating, it will be wise to refer to an elementary chemistry book and learn a little about the handling of acids since some of the acids and compounds used are dangerous to the uninitiated. The materials used may be purchased in drug stores, hardware or paint stores, or obtained through a chemical concern.
A SIMPLE homemade set-up may be built, using a large glass aquarium, a crock or any other large, non-metallic, acid proof container. Use copper or brass rods to suspend the anodes (metal being used to plate the article), also to suspend the article which is receiving the coating. Anodes may be any sheet or plate stock or scrap.
The total surface area of the anodes should be approximately the same as the largest article to be plated.
The hooks also should be of copper or brass.
The insulators may be fiber, plastic, Bakelite or any non-conductor.
The rheostat may be obtained from an old radio set or may be any rheostat that will drop the six-volt supply source from the batteries down to one and one-half volts.
It must carry approximately eight to ten amperes. A storage battery, instead of the four dry cells, is recommended for larger articles, and for large volume work a rectifier should be used.
A good planter for the beginner can be made from a small tinned milk pail about six inches high by four inches wide at the base, which Spotswood purchased in a local hardware store for 49 cents.
Copper plated, it makes a rustic planter of great charm, and because of its simple shape is easily handled by the beginning plater.
Any other metallic object would do as well for the first attempt. The process of plating a metal object can be covered in six steps and is variable according to the metal used for the finished coating.
Plating Metal Objects
First step: The stripping process. If the article is covered with a coat of tin or galvanized metal, as the milk pail is, the material must be removed down to the base metal by what is called a stripping. Soak the pail in a crock or glass container holding muriatic acid. The time varies according to the thickness of the coating, but it can usually be considered finished when the acid stops bubbling. This is also the first step in cleaning rust off steel. Rubber gloves should be worn when handling acids at all times.
Second step: Grinding. If the article is old and has scratches on the base metal, it must be ground and polished on a buffing wheel until it is smooth and flawless. Since the pail is new, it will not have to be ground, but should be polished, in order to assure a perfect coating.
Third step: Tri-sodium bath. Now the pail is dipped into a hot tri-sodium bath, which is prepared in a tank or container placed over a gas jet and heated to 160 degrees F. Add the tri-sodium powder to the water when it is hot, and the amount may be ascertained by feeling the water after adding. When it feels slick to the touch, enough has been used; however, no harm is done by adding too much. Rinse your hand in cold water after dipping it into the tri-sodium. Immerse the pail and when it is as hot as the solution, remove, using rubber gloves or tongs, and brush the article with a stiff brush. Do not handle with bare hands after this step.
Fourth step: The sour dip. A tank or crock containing a ten per cent solution of sulphuric acid and water is prepared. Dip pail, quickly remove, and rinse with clear, fresh water.
Fifth step: Plating. Hang the pail into the plating tank by a wire, being careful to cover all portions of the pail with the solution, and see that the wire makes a good electrical contact with the plating rod. In following either the metallic or non-metallic plating processes, care must be taken to keep the contact rods clean, in order to avoid making bad contacts. Clean the rods with steel wool and rinse well with clear water if any signs of corrosion appear.
The formula for the cyanide copper solution used for plating this planter follows, and should be mixed in the plating tank.
Copper Cyanide—three ounces to the gallon of water.
Sodium Cyanide—four and five-tenths ounces to the gallon of water.
Sodium Carbonate—two ounces to the gallon of water.
This solution is operated at a temperature of 75 to 100 degrees F. and a voltage of one and five-tenths to two volts. The anodes are of rolled annealed copper and the surface per square inch of the anodes should equal the surface per square inch of the article, to be plated.
The pail should be covered well after one or one and a half hours in this copper tank.
Sixth step: Finishing. Rinse pail in clear water, still using rubber gloves to avoid handling of cyanides. Polish article with a medium soft wire brush. This removes any oxidation which may have begun in the tank, and which looks like a pinkish coating on the plating. Keep article wet with clear water while scratch brushing. Rinse again with clear water, then dry thoroughly. Finish polishing with a loose cotton buffing wheel coated with black emery abrasive compound (black tripoli). This often completes the polish, but if the article is not as bright as you wish it, jewelers’ rouge may be applied in order to gain a very high polish. Wipe off with clean, soft cloth to remove compounds, and spray or paint with clear lacquer to preserve the high polish, for copper oxidizes swiftly.
If an antique or statuary bronze effect (dark oxidation) is desired, this may be applied before lacquering. Wipe off excess polish compounds, then dip into a solution of liver of sulphur and water, dipping in and out until the desired high-lighted effect is obtained. Do not make this solution too strong. An ounce or two ounces to a gallon of water if the liver of sulphur is in the liquid form, or a chunk the size of a dollar to a gallon of water, if you used the powder. When the desired effect is reached, rinse off with clear water to halt the color changing. Many beautiful and colorful effects, running the gamut from coppery reds to blacks, may be obtained by using this liver of sulphur dip. After thoroughly drying, buff up in spots to bring out the high lights and polish again with jewelers’ rouge, then lacquer.
METAL OBJECTS may be plated with silver, nickel, brass and even gold, by employing this same process, using a six-volt flash coating of copper first, rinsing with clear water, then a nickel solution for fifteen minutes, rinse, then a silver cyanide solution at six volts for a quick silver strike. Then the silver or finish coat tank at a half volt dip for two to four hours. The silver strike, not rinsed off before giving the article the finished solution dip, hurries the process.
The repairing of silver can bring money jingling into the hobbyist’s pocket, Spotswood has found. Plated in the above manner, with the exception that you use a silver cyanide solution instead of the copper or brass, and the anodes are of pure plating silver, these pieces are replated in natural or oxidized silver, and many beautiful antique pieces of real value may be restored. Mending the hinges, soldering leaky spouts and repairing handles, if done before plating the piece, will restore it to look like new. Sending these out to a silversmith for repair would be costly and would cut down on the profit to the electroplater. Flatware can be restored to look like new when the silver plate has been worn off by much use, as in restaurants. Large orders for silver plating jobs may often be obtained from local restaurants.
Soliciting antique dealers in your vicinity will often bring business in silver to be restored. One dealer of Spotswood’s acquaintance makes a practice of buying metal spittoons of the old saloon variety and having them brass or copper plated for planters. The lids of old metal meat platters of the covered dish type are also cut in two, fitted with a metal back, plated, and hooks are inserted to enable them to be hung upside down on the wall for planters. These unique decorative objects sell for $40 in the antique shops; Spotswood gets approximately $25 a pair for plating them. Suggestions to the dealers that their antique copper, brass and silver items will sell faster and for more money if they are polished and repaired and perhaps lacquered to prevent tarnish, will often bring orders for plating and buffing jobs.
THE PLATING of both metallic and non-metallic objects is such an absorbing hobby, Spotswood avers, that one never grows tired of it, for the objects are so different in structure and texture that working with them is intensely interesting, and almost always results in really artistic effects. He is always ready and willing to plate anything that people suggest, and he believes that the hobbyist should be willing to help his customers to develop new and unique items, if he wants to sell. One teen-ager’s mother hit upon the idea of having lamps using bases of brass coated Coca-Cola bottles for her son’s rumpus room. For these bases, electrified, Spotswood charges according to the plating material used. One housewife brought Spotswood her assortment of ordinary dime store molds to be coppered and lacquered, furnishing her with a stunning collection for a wall display over her kitchen range.
A group of telephone employees brought Spotswood an old-fashioned phone to copper plate and make into a lamp base. An ingenious switch turns the light on when the receiver is lifted from the hook, and turns it off when the receiver is replaced. This made a wonderful farewell gift to a retiring company employee, and has brought in several repeat orders, at Spotswood’s.
Consider also the lady whose pilot husband, resting in Japan from Korean combat duty, sent her by air a corsage of lovely yellow Oriental roses. A salesman who sends Spotswood jobs on commission suggested that she send the flowers in and have them fashioned into a set of pins and clips. Far from stumping Spotswood, he lived up to his motto of “I’ll plate anything” and made the flowers into a set of lovely copper jewels. Now the airman’s wife has them for cherished mementoes of her husband’s thoughtfulness.
Plating Non Metallic Objects
THE METHOD of plating fresh flowers, and incidentally any non-metallic object, is not complicated and the hobbyist may do it in his own home with the same set-up as the metal object plating tanks.
If you wish to try plating flower blossoms, the first step is to sand-dry your flowers by burying them in clean, white, dry sand and leaving them in it at room temperature for six weeks. When ready to begin plating them, shake all the sand grains carefully out of the petals, then dip the flower into a solution of four-pound shellac cut fifty per cent with alcohol. This, when dried, has stiffened and sealed the petals.
When well dried, spray with a four hundred-grit copper liner which is made by mixing two tablespoons of copper powder to twelve ounces of lacquer thinner, two tablespoons of clear lacquer and one tablespoon of acetone; shake well and use in any ordinary paint spray gun. Before spraying, place a contact wire through the flower in order to effect good contact on the flower.
Allow the spray to dry approximately twenty minutes, then hang into your plating tank which is filled with a solution of acid copper, the formula for which comes with every Organic Plating Kit , or may be found in any plater’s guide.
Leave the article in the plating tank for twelve hours at one-half volt, after which the article should be well plated. Take it out, wash in clear, running water, then dip into a solution of baking soda and water which acts as an acid neutralizer.
Wash off again with clear water, then allow to dry. This finishes the plating process, and you may either buff it to give a shiny finish, or buff and dip in liver of sulphur. If you wish to polish the article to a high finish, Spotswood recommends using a light flex-shaft for a small, fragile article such as a flower.
This process, with the exception of the preliminary drying for flowers, is used for almost all non-metallic objects. Spotswood advises the hobbyist learning electroplating to keep the article chemically clean and untouched by the hands. If this is done, the object should cover completely after twenty minutes in the tank. If it doesn’t cover within one hour, it can be finished correctly by doing the following: Remove from tank, wash well with clear water, and dry with a soft cloth. With a small camel’s hair brush, touch up the spots not plated, with a solution of the copper spray. Replace in tank and watch for a short time to make sure that the spots are covering. If they don’t cover after a few minutes, repeat the process until they do.
WHEN SPOTSWOOD’S hobby outgrew his homemade set-up in the garage, he entered into partnership with his employer in a shop in downtown Los Gatos, and subsequently took over the copper plated baby shoe business completely. He felt that he could handle the plating end of the business himself, and advertised for salesmen who would solicit orders for the baby shoe items and other plating jobs on a straight commission basis. Thus, he did not pay salaries, and the salesmen’s remuneration depended upon how many orders they turned in. Now, as a result of the increase in orders from some twenty salespersons, both men and women, from as many different California localities, Spotswood’s Copper-Plated Art Shop is becoming profitable enough to confirm his decision to turn his electroplating hobby into a full time career. The profit on baby shoes alone runs between thirty to forty per cent, and in his case, constitutes the largest volume of business, upon which he depends to pay his overhead expenses.
The hobbyist can place his items in jewelry stores, department stores, and baby and gift shops which will sell them, usually, for a commission ranging from ten per cent up. It is best to make personal contact with the sales manager of these stores, and since Spotswood prefers to do the personal contact work himself, he has taken another hobbyist couple into his shop to work with him. They are Gertrude and Fred Paul. Mr. Paul has executed some locally well-known wood carvings, among which are shrines and carved figurines. He formerly worked for Gumps in San Francisco, a store famous for exclusive furniture designs, doing both art carving and furniture designing.
Light fixtures for patios, play rooms and dens that Paul and Spotswood design themselves and then plate, are very inexpensive to make, since they combine used metal with dime store purchases, in some instances, and sell readily. A case in point is a patio light designed by Paul, utilizing a ten-cent pie tin and a new lamp chimney, both from the dime store, an old lantern glass, and a wrought iron bracket and used lamp burner. The metal parts, when assembled, were plated a rich oxidized copper and the glass parts when put into place, completed a stunning patio light. Since so much used metal material can be plated and reused in this way, the profits are understandably high. The plating of lamp bases and other articles brought in by customers pays well in profits, Spotswood says, since the customer furnishes his own item in practically all cases, and the home hobbyist with no overhead expenses can make as much as fifty to sixty percent or better on every article plated.
SOME OF the inns and clubs around Los Gatos are becoming interested in ceramic two-ounce glasses and mugs which Spotswood casts himself with plaster molds, into which have been carved the inn’s or club’s name or trademark. The mug is put into bisque with one baking, and glazed on the inside only. The outside is then plated, bringing the design out in copper. Homemakers like the larger six- to eight-ounce sizes with their own initials or family names indestructibly plated upon them, to use as beverage sets.
Spotswood feels that there is much to be desired in the guides for electroplating, and he is now working on an improved book of instruction for the hobbyist who wishes to plate both metallic and non-metallic objects. Over the time that he has been plating he has developed several formulas which are more effective than the copper liners, using, instead, silver nitrates and silver sprays. The serious plater will eventually develop solutions and processes of his own, which he will feel are more effective than the ones with which he learned.
The hobbyist who will take up the electroplating of non-metallic and metallic objects may very well find that he has branched into a full time business, with so many orders coming in he has to have help to fill them, all. And, if like Marvin Spotswood, he will “plate anything,” he’ll have an interesting as well as a lucrative hobby-business.