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Bland to Brilliant: Wheel Plating

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Have you ever wondered how a wheel gets chrome plated? You just “dip” a dull wheel
into a big vat of chrome, and it comes out shiny and new, right? Well, not really.
On the contrary, there are vastly different chrome plating processes – a mixture of hard science and a little voodoo ®“ and each presents unique benefits and problems.
But beyond how it’s done, the more important question is: How do you, as a retailer, make sure your customers know how to care for their new wheels?
First of all, creating a traditional decorative chrome finish is a multi-step process. Chrome will not adhere to bare aluminum, so you have to build layers of metal that will adhere to each other.
Taking a look at the image of the segmented wheel above, provided by Platecorp in California (www.platecorp.com), you see: 1) The polished finish, 2) The copper finish before buffing, 3) The copper after it is buffed, 4) Several layers of nickel and, finally, 5) The chrome finish.
Another chrome plater is Luxury Wheels in Colorado (www.oeplating.com). Luxury uses a process that applies zinc, nickel strike, a layer of copper and four layers of nickel – including semi-bright, duplex and bright.
The final nickel layer is then sealed with a layer of chrome. So, what you actually see on the wheel is primarily nickel. The chrome is only a few microns thick and just prevents the nickel from tarnishing.
If you have ever seen a yellowish area on a chrome wheel – typically in a deep hole or near a sharp angle ®“ this is where the final chrome layer didn’t cover well, and the nickel is showing through. These areas are known as low current density areas. By understanding how a wheel is plated, you can also understand how this can happen.

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Part Science, Part Luck
In the basic plating process, the wheel is placed on a rack that is rubber coated except for a few contact points – where it touches the wheel. The rack is made from copper, so it conducts electricity through the wheel. A unit known as a “rectifier” draws negative current through the wheel, causing it to act like a big magnet. At the same time, anodes ®“ platinum-coated titanium rods ®“ emit a positive current that pushes dissolved metal floating in a liquid solution toward the wheel.
The wheel actually does get “dipped,” but the solution doesn’t just stick to the wheel. The combination of dissolved metals and electricity is what causes the reaction and the actual plating process to occur. Fluctuations in temperature, humidity, current or biological matter in the bath can ruin an entire row of wheels. This is where science and luck join to produce that shiny, flawless finish.
For a show-quality finish, the core wheel has to be absolutely clean and free of any paint, oils, chemicals or other materials. “We don’t use a chemical stripper to remove the paint from wheels,” says Paul Alexander, the national sales director for Luxury. ®We use a media blast, and a dozen highly skilled polishers prepare the wheel before plating begins. Some chemical stripping acids can react with the wheel and cause porosity.®
Luxury offers a core exchange program, as well. Dealers can participate in this program to increase their sales and product offerings. If your customer likes the style of wheel that came OE on his or her vehicle, there is a good chance that Luxury has the same wheel already chrome plated in stock. All you need to do is swap them out – for a fee, of course.
The exchange program is pretty straightforward. You order the chrome-plated wheels and have them delivered to your shop. The customer drops the vehicle off, and you simply swap the wheels. You then return the customer’s old wheels to Luxury, and the wheels are plated and sold to the next customer. Because they are “trading in” their old wheels, your customers enjoy a price break vs. buying all-new wheels.
A word of caution here: Before ordering wheels from any company that offers an exchange program, closely inspect your customer’s wheels. If there are rock chips or signs of curb damage, the wheel may not be exchangeable. Also, take a test drive or place each wheel on the balancer to determine if one or more may be out-of-round.

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Wheel Precare & Repair
Once the wheels are installed, inform customers of proper maintenance. The type of chrome plating done by Luxury is durable, but brake dust and road salt will attack the finish if the wheel is left unprotected. Corrosion can eat through the plating and cause the wheel itself to deteriorate. Before you install the wheel, apply a good coat of wax to the entire surface and rear where brake dust settles. This will make the wheel easier to clean in the future and prolong the finish, too.
If you have a customer who has curbed a chrome wheel, you can offer to have the wheel repaired – usually for well less than the cost of a new wheel. Gene’s Plating in California (www.genesplating.com) can handle the repair and re-plate the wheel. “We can strip, polish, repair and plate OE and aftermarket wheels,” says Tom Shepherd, customer service manager for Gene’s. ®The cost to repair and re-plate ranges from $90 to $200, depending on size,® says Shepherd. ®The maximum diameter that we can chrome plate is 24 inches.®
Compared to $800 to $1,500 for a new 24-inch wheel, $200 is a bargain. Wheel repair can be a good opportunity for you to add to your performance offerings.
Some other types of “chrome” finish have emerged over the last few years. Most important to understand about these new processes is that the resulting finishes, in a sense, are applied like paint and will react poorly to chrome polishes. One such process is being used by Enkei International (www.enkei.com). Enkei’s process, known as SBC (Special Brilliant Coating), looks like chrome, but it should be treated like paint.
It is actually a metallic paint applied like a powercoat. Customers should use only soap and water to clean the wheel. In addition, they should only clean it while it’s cool and not in direct sunlight. Also, aerosol tire inflators/sealers can destroy the finish if the material is not thoroughly cleaned off of the drop center of the wheel. This type of finish will likely become more prevalent.
I hope you have a better sense of some of the science that goes into making wheels and how to help your customers protect their investments. Keeping those customers happy, after all, is the way to repeat business. 

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