Precious Metal

Dec 3, 2009

As Dave Sheehan of Reading, Mich.-based American Gold Plating notes, Cleopatra had gold on her barge, and over the centuries the use of gold on a person’s conveyance has continued to suggest a certain level of opulence that remains true to this day.

Unlike the legendary queen of Egypt, however, the 21st-century SUV or sedan owner can add gold to the family chariot without conquering anyone to get the precious metal, or even finding skilled slaves to work it.

In fact, those who sell the equipment and supplies needed to do gold plating on automotive and household chrome say it’s so easy to learn how to create a gold package that a good instructional manual and some telephone support is all that’s necessary to get started.

And, even with today’s rising gold prices, the amount of gold actually utilized in the process is so small that pennies in supplies, combined with a short investment in time, can be transformed into big dollars for the person doing the work.

Bouncing Back

Admittedly, the interest in automotive gold packages has been down in recent years. However, there’s a feeling among suppliers that it’s a market niche that’s bouncing back.

“More people are interested in it again,” says Frank Petriello of Cleveland-based Gold Touch. “Larger businesses that were big with it continued to do well [selling gold plating] for the most part. Some of the smaller users that weren’t doing it quite as much have gone after other services that could bring in better or more consistent revenues.”

Sheehan says the cost of one of his systems is approximately $1,000. With that initial setup, he says a restyler can do approximately 40 vehicles.

“If you’re charging $250 per car, by the fourth car you’ve gotten all your money back,” he says. “The question is: how soon will you do that? But, technically, you could do four cars in a day.”

Debbie Radbell of Sunrise, Fla.-based Gold Coast Connection paints an equally attractive picture. She says that with a little practice, a skilled restyler can use about $10 worth of materials per job, and turn one around in half an hour.

“Even if you only do a job a week, that’s an extra $500-$750 in your pocket each month,” she notes.

The work involves the use of chemicals and a low-voltage electrical current that makes the chrome emblems and other chrome accessories on a vehicle able to accept the 24-karat gold without damaging the surrounding paint.

Most companies sell a three-step process that involves stripping the chrome from the emblems, activating the nickel underneath the chrome, and then depositing and bonding the gold to the prepared nickel surface.

Using a patented gold formulation, higher electrical voltage and a custom platinum anode, Gold Touch has developed a method for applying gold to the chrome itself, eliminating the need to strip it. However, the process really isn’t a single step, because it’s still necessary to clean and polish the chrome surface, then apply a cleaning agent to clear oxidation. It is a one-step process on stainless steel, however.

Petriello says that, as with any electroplating process, the job is only going to be as good as the surface preparation.

“It reflects the surface, so if you have a dull surface and apply gold to it, you get dull gold,” he says. “If you take the time to polish it up and make it mirror-like, the gold will reflect that and be dazzling.”

Handle With Care

Along with their use of an electrical current to accomplish the plating, all the manufacturers utilize acids that have to be dealt with as part of the gold-plating process.

Sheehan observes that anyone getting into the business of gold plating needs to check with local regulators to make sure they’re in compliance with the requirements of their state, county or municipality. If you choose to do the work in your shop-as opposed to offering a mobile service-good ventilation is a must, and the manufacturers also recommend wearing gloves and some sort of eye protection.

The good news is that the manufacturers show in their manuals how to handle the waste generated from the work, and all insist it isn’t going to be produced in large quantities.

“The chemicals are less than 1 percent acid,” says Gold Coast’s Radbell. “The chrome stripper and nickel activator are acids, but they’re very diluted, and there’s a catch-basin they’ll go into.”

Ultimately, the used chemicals need to be stored and disposed of much the same way waste antifreeze or motor oil are handled.

The manufacturers we spoke with are confident that those willing to invest in their equipment can quickly learn the ins and outs of gold plating without classroom time.

“Probably 98 percent to 99 percent of the people we do business with never get an in-person demonstration,” says Petriello. “We offer a toll-free 800 line for technical assistance. If somebody has a problem, they can call us and we’re generally able to talk them through it. It’s simple repetition and common sense.”

Gold Coast offers a similar setup, and Sheehan notes the company has posted nearly 200 pages of instructions on its website covering all kinds of questions related to the process.

As simple as gold plating can be, the manufacturers also contend that it has a wide appeal, both in the automotive market and beyond. If you’re a restyler who normally services dealers, it’s just one more product you can offer to that customer base.

“If you can tell them you can do gold plating, that just makes you a better asset to the dealer,” says Sheehan. “It makes you more rounded, and while you’re on that lot, the more you can do, the better it is for you.”

Radbell suggests adding a demo gold package on a new vehicle to show the dealer what you can do.

“Because it costs so little, plate a car for nothing and tell the dealer when it sells he can pay you,” she says. “Especially if it’s a dealership you’re not into already, it’s a good way to get in the door.”

Many Uses

However, gold plating certainly isn’t an accessory limited to new vehicles, says Petriello. Not only is it an item where many drivers are interested in keeping up with the neighbors, but he says a good time of year for gold plating is in the spring, when people are looking to spruce up their rides after the winter.

As with any accessory, it has to be marketed, and one of the most obvious ways to do it is to plate your own vehicle and park it in the lot. Sheehan says American Gold Plating provides its customers with a sign that says they do custom gold plating. And, he suggests having samples available.

“You want to get an assortment of emblems of different vehicles and gold-plate them,” he says. “That way, you have samples and it gets people thinking, ‘That’s what it would look like on my car.’ Exposing the public to what you have available is always a good marketing plan.”

Perhaps the most attractive part about being able to do gold plating is that its uses go well beyond cars and trucks, to motorcycles, boats and recreational vehicles, as well as household applications.

“Because 24-karat gold is an inert element somewhat similar in appearance to brass, you can use this on bathroom fixtures, and even exterior lettering and identification without the green corrosion you get with brass,” says Petriello. “You can do coins, jewelry, golf clubs and anything else you can think of. Get your name out and it’s a process you can do year-round.”

And, add both Radbell and Sheehan, once you’ve mastered the plating process, by using different materials you can also apply silver, nickel and even black chrome using the same skills and equipment.

“The biggest fear of getting into gold plating is the unknown,” concludes Sheehan. “But, the people who do it make money. Sure, there are a lot of variables, but I think any restyler would want to be able to offer this. Tell people you can gold plate and you might sell a few jobs.”