by David Grainger
President, The Guild of Automotive Restorers
Chrome. I can't think of another single component of a car's restoration that causes me anywhere near as much aggravation as the re-chroming of its trim and bumpers. The reason for this is it is the one part of the restoration in which I lose control of not only the quality of the job but the actual control of pieces of the car, many of which are amongst the most difficult of any part of the vehicle to locate in the old cars parts market.
A good chrome shop is not all that hard to find, but, a good shop will often have a six month waiting period which means that your car can sit for at least that long stalled in mid assembly. I often have fully painted and finished cars sitting in the shop month after month waiting for several small bits of chrome or trim to come back from the chrome shop. It often means that interiors can't be put in because you have to access the inner skins of the car from front to back, or panels and inner structure can't be assembled because if you do you won't be able to put the trim on. This is a problem because it literally impacts the part of the restoration when the car is at its most fragile. Everything is done, detailed and painted and at its most vulnerable as far as damage is concerned because it is still scattered and unassembled. To remedy this you must isolate the car from damage by storing all the parts safely and putting the car in a safe spot away from any other activity. If it is in your garage that is one thing, but in a busy shop it becomes a problem, especially as it can often be occurring with more than one car at a time.
There are a lot of mistakes that you can make when you are getting your chrome done, so I'll cover a few of the things that can happen and how you can guard yourself against them.
First of all you should understand the chroming process. While many of you think that there are differing degrees of chroming that is really not true unless you classify it into two qualities, plumbing pipe or car parts. With the amount of money that you will have to spend on your chrome you should not be getting back plumbing pipe. Road chrome and show chrome, as far as I am concerned, is a myth. If you are getting your chrome done it should be finished without grinder marks, dents, discoloration, chips and cracks. You wouldn't stand for any of those in your paint job and you shouldn't be happy about it in your chrome. If you do get any of those or all of those flaws, you've put plumbing pipe chrome on your car. Now a lot of you are going to say what the hell is he talking about, road and show chrome is different because one is double plate and one is triple plate. Although this sounds good it is very misleading and in fact if you go to a shop that has just double plated your chrome, you got ripped off and the job is not done properly.
There are three plating processes in the chroming of a metal part, and there is preparation just as in the painting of a car. The first step is that the old chrome has to be stripped off. This is done chemically with a batch of very aggressive chemicals which are at the pinnacle of user unfriendly. Once the part is stripped, dents, dings, cracks and other problems are fixed. This is like a body man doing the metal work on your car. Next a layer of copperplate is added. This is like a primer and a filler. The copper is used to smooth the part and eliminate tooling marks, scratches and imperfections. This is the part of the process that determines the professionalism of the shop. If the copperplate is not done properly then imperfections in the metal will show through the final chrome on your part. The copper is added and buffed until all imperfections are eliminated. After a suitable surface is achieved the part goes in for its next layer of plate. This is nickel and it is used because it will allow the chrome to adhere, something it will not do to steel or copper. After the nickel plate the final chrome plate is added and buffed to a high gloss. The quality of the job is determined both in the expertise of the copper work done to fill the imperfections, and in the expertise in the buffing. Bad copper will of course show all of the tooling marks and scratches, bad final buffing can ruin your chrome by removing edges and details that should be in the chrome work. We have all seen chrome where original details like logos, letters and emblems have been almost eradicated by the buffing. This tells you that the chrome shop had no idea about the process of restoration or didn't care. An overbuffed part is just as badly ruined and in many cases more badly damaged than one on which scratches and damage show because details lost in buffing cannot often be restored or repaired.
Now I have simplified the process somewhat, but the process basically boils down to those steps.
Parts made from pot metal or slush are even more complicated to repair and most chrome shops may not even attempt those parts and send them out. If you are taking pot metal parts to a chrome shop, ask first if they are doing the repair or sending it out to have it done.
I personally prefer a shop that does the whole thing but you may not be able to find one in your area.
Now, the steps that you can take before and after you send your chrome out.
First. You must totally disassemble your parts. If you send a door handle to the chromer in which the button and lock are still intact, either it won't get chromed or it will but it will come back as a solid fused part in which there are no moving parts. I cannot emphasize this too much. You can not leave any two parts attached to one another if you want them chromed properly.
Once you have dismantled everything, remembering that this can entail removing rivets and all kinds of things that the manufacturer never intended to be separated, you have to lay it all out and count and photograph it. Make sure that all of the parts going out are photographed and that you have an accurate count of how many are going. Lay all the parts out on the floor and photograph them en masse, making sure that every piece is going to show in the picture. You can take four overall pictures from the four compass points, then take more detailed pictures of the parts in their sub groups, like all of the grille parts together, bumper parts etc. Get your pictures back before you send the chrome and check them to make sure everything is there and shows clearly.
The reason that I want you to be so particular is that to date I have never had a chrome shop volunteer or even admit that they have lost something without a fair amount of proof being offered to them. This always bemuses me a little because of the number of parts I have had come in that have nothing what so ever to do with any job that I am doing. I make sure that they go back because I know some one is going to miss them very much. Not every one who gets a bit back that isn't theirs will do this. I know one guy who dabbled in restoration who thought it was funny when he got parts from the chrome shop that were not his and he invariably attempted to sell them at the flea market.
Another thing that can happen at the chrome shop is that the part can fall off the rack and end up in the bottom of one of the tanks. Although it will be found eventually it is doubtful that any one at the chrome shop will know whose it is unless you are standing on their doorstep screaming about your lost part when they find it.
When you get your chrome order back do not just put it on the shelf until you are ready for it. Take it, unwrap it, inspect it for flaws and count it. If you have less that you should, or more for that matter, check your pictures to find out what is up and call immediately. If you leave it for a couple of months before you discover a part missing your chances of the shop finding it are pretty slim.
Also check threads to make sure that they haven't been chromed. The chrome shop will usually mask threads and tapped holes but it is always a good idea to make absolutely sure they do this. If they don't ask them how you should do it. Just remember that chrome is very hard and brittle so you can't just re-tap or re-die a part. It has to be masked.
Finally, if you have numerous parts that fit together, fit them and make sure that they will work together. I had an Auburn in which was so over chromed that none of the grill or windshield parts even came close to fitting one another. The only solution was to send them back, have them stripped and re-chromed. This was done, but with a large amount of attitude, and believe it or not six months later the chrome started to lift. Not a chrome shop I would ever use again or recommend, despite the fact that it is supposed to be one of the better shops and is certainly more expensive than anyone else.
If you are not happy with the job that has been done, point it out and ask to have it remedied. In most cases a reputable shop will fix it but it never hurts to ask them their policies before you commit your chrome work.
Chrome is very expensive and a fifties car can cost in excess of ten thousand dollars to chrome if it is one of the ones dripping with shiny jewel like bits and pieces and huge ornate grilles. Make sure that your money is going to be well spent, and always remember that whenever possible it is going to be cheaper for you to replace a piece of chrome with a good reproduction or with N.O.S. than it is to re-chrome. For those parts that you have to do make sure that they are done properly and not lost in the tanks or adorning someone else's garage wall.
The best way to find a good shop is to go to your local cruise nights and car shows, pick the cars with the nicest chrome work and ask the owners who did the work and if it went smoothly or not. Just remember, chroming isn't always a shining experience.