Hard Chrome Plating
Often referred to simply as chrome, is a technique of electroplating a thin layer of chromium onto a metal or plastic object. The chromed layer can be decorative, provide corrosion resistance, ease cleaning procedures, or increase surface hardness. Sometimes a less expensive imitator of chrome may be used for aesthetic purposes. (i.e. electroless nickel)
Hard chrome, also known as industrial chrome or engineered chrome, is used to reduce friction, improve durability through abrasion tolerance and wear resistance in general, minimize galling or seizing of parts, expand chemical inertness to include a broader set of conditions (especially oxidation resistance, arguably its most famous quality), and bulking material for worn parts to restore their original dimensions. It is very hard, measuring between 65 to 69 HRC. Hard chrome tends to be thicker than decorative chrome, with standard thicknesses in non-salvage applications ranging from 0.2 to 0.6 mm (200 to 600 µm), but it can be an order of magnitude thicker for extreme wear resistance requirements, in such cases 1 mm (1,000 µm) or thicker provides optimal results.
Unfortunately, such thicknesses emphasize the limitations of the process, which are overcome by plating extra thickness then grinding down and lapping to meet requirements or to improve the overall aesthetics of the “chromed” piece. Increasing plating thickness amplifies surface defects and roughness in proportional severity because hard chrome does not have a leveling effect. Pieces that are not ideally shaped in reference to electric field geometries (nearly every piece sent in for plating, except spheres and egg-shaped objects) require even thicker plating to compensate for non-uniform deposition, and much of it is wasted when grinding the piece back to desired dimensions.
Modern “engineered coatings” do not suffer such drawbacks, which often price hard chrome out due to labor costs alone. Hard chrome replacement technologies outperform hard chrome in wear resistance, corrosion resistance, and cost. Rockwell hardness 80 is not extraordinary for such materials. Using spray deposition, a uniform thickness that often requires no further polishing or machining is a standard feature of modern engineered coatings. These coatings are often composites of polymers, metals, and ceramic powders or fibers as proprietary embodiments protected by patents or as trade secrets, and thus are usually known by brand names.
Hard chromium plating is subject to different types of quality requirements depending on the application; for instance, the plating on hydraulic piston rods are tested for corrosion resistance with a salt spray test.
Formerly, most decorative items affixed to cars were referred to as “chrome,” meaning steel that had undergone several plating processes to endure the temperature changes and weather that a car is subject to outdoors. The most expensive and durable process involved plating the steel first with copper and then nickel before the chromium plating was applied.
Prior to the application of chrome in the 1920s, nickel electroplating was used. In the short production run prior to the US entry into the Second World War, the government banned plating to save chromium and automobile manufacturers painted the decorative pieces in a complementary color. In the last years of the Korean War, the US contemplated banning chrome in favor of several cheaper processes (such as plating with zinc and then coating with shiny plastic).
In 2007, a Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) was issued banning several toxic substances for use in the automotive industry in Europe, including hexavalent chromium, which is used in chrome plating. However, chrome plating is metal and contains no hexavalent chromium after it is rinsed, so chrome plating is not banned.