DIY Nickel Plating an Old Revolver
[Original finish peeling and damaged]
I have a thing for old beat up guns in that I enjoy making them look good again and function well. I’m not willing to spend my hard earned money on collector grade guns. For me restoring an old firearm is as much fun as shooting it when it’s done. It doesn’t have to look great, just respectable in my eyes.
So I look for old guns that seem to be restorable with mostly complete parts and not terribly pitted. Many old guns still work well but look terrible. Often the ugly isn’t deep. With a little effort you can remove the old finish and end up with a good shooter. I’ve rust blued guns, painted, and now toyed with re-nickeling.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about metal prep except to say sand paper can quickly remove the ugly even on a scaled and rusty nickeled gun. Start with 400 grit wet and dry and take it down to the white. It is important to use a flat backer such as a piece of glass for the sand paper to keep edges crisp and not create waves in the flats. Revolver cylinders can be chucked up in a drill and sanded in a hurry. Hand work may be needed on flutes. I suggest sanding everything in one direction if possible. Once in the white, you can move up to finer and finer sand paper. You should go to 2000 grit. Finally, you need to polish the surface with rouge. Rouge and a Dremel felt wheel work good for me. I buff it with Never Dull to finish the metal prep. The bottom line is your nickel finish will only look as good as your finished metal. When you finish sanding and polishing the gun should already look like it is finished.
[Metal "in the white"]
Next step is cleaning the surface. I recommend using a degreaser solvent, followed by acetone, then soap and water and finally alcohol. This may not be the best way to do it, but it worked for me. You have to have nothing but metal. There can be no rust, oxidation, nothing or the plating may be spotty or flake off.
So now you are ready to move on to electroplating. I used the following tutorial on electroplating copper and nickel. https://www.instructables.com/id/High-Quality-Copper-Plating/. This link covers copper plating and has a link to nickel plating as well. https://www.instructables.com/id/High-Quality-and-safe-Nickel-Plating/. Nickel doesn’t readily plate to bare steel using these solutions so I copper plate first, buff, reclean, and then nickel plate. The beautiful part about copper plating first is that it makes it easy to see where the nickel has plated. You won’t miss any spots because the copper really sticks out. You need to go read the two tutorials for the rest of this to make sense.
[Copper and Nickel plating solutions]
The tutorial uses a bath technique to drop the parts into and that is ok, but I’ve found that my technique seems to work better and doesn’t require a big container of solution. I made my copper and nickel solutions just as the tutorial recommends, but I deposit the metal using a small piece of Magic Eraser sponge. I have been using 99.9% nickel coins and a strip of copper pipe for my donor metals. I take a small 1”x 3/4”x3/4” piece of Magic Eraser, sliced one side to insert the metal, and attach an alligator clip to the metal. The item to be plated is connected to the negative with another alligator clip. You dip the sponge into the solution, squeeze the excess out of the sponge and rub the sponge on the metal surface. It can put the plating down pretty fast. Start with copper. Work to get a perfect copper layer. A poor copper layer will make a poor nickel layer too. Once plating is done, buff the copper layer prior to moving to the nickel solution.
[Getting ready to copper plate the cylinder]
[Nickel plating electrode and wipe]
I got in a hurry and didn't get a lot of pictures of this project, but I have enough to give you a good idea of what is involved.
[Copper plating the side of the frame]
Here’s the good news. You can’t screw this up beyond repair. If you aren’t satisfied with your copper layer, sand it with 2,000 grit, clean with alcohol, and try again. I’ve even laid down a layer of nickel over my copper and if it didn’t look good, sanded lightly not taking off all of the nickel or copper, and put a new copper layer down followed with another nickel layer. Experiment with speed of the rubbing motion. I’ve found moving slowly at first gives a good base, but then rubbing fast with some pressure really smooths it out and gets good coverage.
Once you are satisfied with your nickel layer. Get your rouge and Dremel out again to polish and finish with Never Dull to get it to shine. Don’t worry if you polish or shine too much and take it down to the copper as you can just redo the nickel layer and resume polishing.
The nickel layer using this method isn’t as thick as a factory nickel product but it completely protects the steel and it won’t rust. You will have little money involved in the project, but you will have quite a bit of your time invested. For me it is recreation and I don’t mind. I now really enjoy looking at and shooting my old re-nickeled revolver.