Story & Photos by Brian Earnest
Terry Meetz knows the question is coming. He’s heard it in some form or fashion thousands of times: “How come it’s so expensive?”
When you’re in the chrome-plating business, it just comes with the territory. Plating is one of those complicated and delicate operations that most of us don’t fully appreciate, and very few of us really understand.
So why can it take a couple hundred greenbacks just to make a headlight bezel or a bumper guard look shiny and new? Well, because it’s time consuming, labor intensive, requires a lot of specialized equipment, materials and chemicals, and has a lot of overhead costs.
And the guys that are handling the whole operation better know what they’re doing. There are plenty of ways to screw it up.
“'Defending’ is definitely the right terminology for it. People definitely think you’re not giving them the value,” Meetz laments. “’Geez, 250 bucks! You’re just going to go back there and dip it!’ But they don’t understand what all goes into it, and all the hours and experience it takes. I’ve got about 30 years of experience, and another guy has 25 years, and it goes down from there.
“There’s so much that goes into it, and we’ve been doing this a long time. My guys have all been here for a long time, they’re all car guys and motorcycle guys, and they know what stuff has got to look like when it’s done.”
Meetz has clearly ascended to the top of his profession, and he’s done it the old-fashioned way — by spending thousands of hours toiling in the family shop and slowly winning over customers one at a time around the globe. His business, Custom Plating Specialists, began 30 years ago when Terry and his father Jewel bought out a small existing plating operation that they thought would be a good companion to Jewel’s bodyshop and restoration business. Seven years ago, Terry became the sole owner of the business and CPS is still going strong at the same back roads location in rural Brillion, Wis. You’d never know one of the best custom plating shops the country was there unless you were looking for it, but Meetz doesn’t mind a little anonymity.
“I’d say probably 60 percent of my work, if not 70 percent, is stuff from all over the world,” he said. “I think for our line of work, you don’t need to be in a main street in a big town. People will find you, and because I do so much mail-order kind of stuff, it doesn’t matter much if you’re mailing it to a rural area or a big city, because they’re not going to come to your shop.”
CPS handles pretty anything that shines on a vintage car, hot rod, truck, motorcycle, boat or snowmobile. It can plate or re-plate just about any metal — steel, brass, pot metal, bronze, cast-iron — and the shop also repairs and refurbishes stainless, which does not involve plating. The company has done so well over the years, Meetz noted, that it now takes in orders from other chrome shops that it once considered competitors.”
“We knew nothing about plating when we started,” Meetz recalled. “We saw this guy — the previous owner — do plating two or three times when we went over there … But it was something that complemented us and the body shop. We learned along the way.
“I kind of always knew that there was potential here, but the problem was always getting the experience. It used to be that I looked at our competitors and thought, ‘You’re like God. Your stuff is really good!” Today, those competitors come to me with their stuff … It’s kind of flattering that they bring it to me, of all people.”
CPS doesn’t have the huge tanks and equipment it takes to handle wheels, bumpers and other big pieces. Anything beyond about 62 inches in length gets sent elsewhere. But when it comes to smaller parts, there are few shops around with a better résumé, and few around more qualified than Meetz to explain the plating process.
Sizing it up
When a piece arrives in the mail or gets delivered in person, Meetz will look it over and try to give the customer a quick estimate on cost and a delivery date. These days, he’s using e-mail to speed up the process and getting estimates done quicker and cheaper. “You can’t tell everything from a picture, but if they send me a few pictures that are decent, I can usually tell what’s going to be involved and how long it will take,” he said. “I can get pretty close, usually.”
When a part arrives for re-chroming, it is first dipped in a sulfuric acid solution to remove the old chrome layer. “Something like a bumper guard might be in the strip tank for a half an hour,” Meetz noted. From there the part is cleaned and sandblasted.
“The stuff will only sit for maybe a week before we start sanding and working on it,” Meetz added. “If it sits longer than that, then it starts to rust and we have to blast again.”
These initial steps — stripping and sandblasting — expose the piece, revealing flaws such as cracks and pitting that will need to be addressed.
Step 2: The sanding bench
The stripped and blasted parts are then sanded and repaired on the battle-worn CPS work benches. A variety of die grinders and sanders are a necessity for this step. Years of experience massaging metal parts come in very handy, too.
“When we start sanding all the metal, we have to grind and sand and take out all the different nicks and scratches and gouges,” Meetz said. “We do put some stuff on the belt sander, but we do a lot of small stuff so we end up with a lot of these smaller tools. We need to get in all the little corners and around all the little contours.”
Terry’s brother Tim is the resident expert on stainless parts, which have no plating. “Yeah, he does pretty much all the stainless,” Meetz said. “There’s many times I’ll ask if I can fix something. And I’ll want to say no, but I’ll take it back to Tim and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I think I can handle that.’ And he’ll bring it back out a few hours later and it will look like a brand new part.”
Dipping: Round 1
After they are stripped, blasted and sanded, metal parts are ready their first round of copper plating. They are first dipped in a “soak-clean” solution, “which is basically hot, soapy water,” according to Meetz. From there, they go through the first of several acid baths, and then go into the copper strike solution. This thin layer of copper helps the ensuing layers adhere and serves as a sort of base “primer.” The stop in the strike tank is brief — about 5 minutes —and from there the parts are re-washed and dropped into the acid copper solution, where they will soak for another two hours or so.
“This gives us a thicker layer of copper,” Meetz said. “That’s so we can sand and buff and stuff like that. The first layer is real thin. The second layer of copper is what gives us the thickness.”
The copper-plated parts are then returned to the sanding and finishing area, where any obvious holes or imperfections are fixed. “We’ll sand the copper, and if we need to, we’ll melt lead on there, or solder, and it will fill in those pits,” Meetz said. “So you put one coat of copper on, sand it smooth [and fix any pits], then you do a second layer of copper.”
Dipping: Round 2
The second-round dipping results in a part that is smooth and ready for final plating. Again, the pieces are washed and immersed in the acid copper bath — this time for about 90 minutes, rather than two hours.
Occasionally, CPS will skip the second round of copper dipping if it is trying to achieve a “less finished” look. “If it’s something that we don’t want to look perfect, or if the customer is looking for another look, then we just do one coat of copper, or even no coats of copper,” Meetz said. “It depends on what we’re trying to achieve.”
The quality of chrome on vintage cars was often poor when it left the factory, and some restorers want to replicate that flawed look, particularly on engine parts. Sometimes, getting parts to look authentically “bad” is more work than giving them a concours-quality shine. “I would rather make it nice … It’s much easier for me to make it look nice than it is to make it look original,” Meetz joked.
After a piece gets copper dipped a second time, it goes back to the sanding bench for buffing and polishing. Much of this work is handled by Terry’s son, Cody.
Dipping: Round 3 and 4
The final chrome-dipping steps are actually one of the fastest parts of the entire process. After a part gets two copper treatments, it is dipped in a nickel bath for 20 to 30 minutes. This supplies the pieces with a silver layer underneath. From there, the piece is washed again, then given a quick dip in the acid chrome tank. This brief plunge — usually less than 30 seconds — gives the piece its final blue luster.
“When it comes out of the chroming tank, a part looks all yellow, because it’s a thick yellow solution,” Meetz said. “But when it gets water-rinsed, the part is chrome.
“When it comes out of there, it’s chrome and you can touch it. It’s wet from the liquid, but as soon as I take it out of the tank, it’s touchable. It’s not like paint that’s wet. It’s metal that is plated on.”
From there, the part is inspected one last time, cleaned and wrapped for the customer.
By the time a customer has waited six to eight weeks for a parts order, he’s often plenty anxious to get his parts back. The fun part for Meetz, clearly, is when he gets to show off the shop’s handiwork in person, when a customer comes to the shop for a pick-up.
“I probably spend 30 percent of my day grinding on stuff in the back. I love to work on stuff, I love to get dirty, and taking in a hood ornament, or something like that, with a lot of details that looks like a piece of junk, and when I’m done with it, it looks like a piece of jewelry … I’ve done that a lot of times. You start out and you don’t even know what you’re going to do with it, and when I get done and I’ve brought the details back and it looks great, I almost want to keep it for myself. I’m pretty proud of that thing.
“Up front, within the office, it’s all wrapped up like Christmas presents when we are done with it. And I hand it to them and we open it up and look at it, and they are all goo-goo, ga-ga over their stuff. It’s almost like Grandma and Grandpa giving that kid a Christmas present, and I get paid for it! It’s pretty cool.”
Custom Plating Specialist
W 797 County K