DISCLAIMER: Some of the chemicals shown in this post can be dangerous if directly touched, inhaled, ingested, or otherwise mishandled. Perform any actions depicted herein at your own risk.
Well, now that we have that out of the way:
I’ve always wanted my handloads to have that high end factory ammo feel, and there’s just something about nickel cases that conveys a sense of quality compared to bare brass. In addition, nickel cases won’t corrode like their brass counterparts will after handling, providing an extra layer of protection. Electroplating allows for the disposition of a thin layer of nickel onto reloading brass, just like the high end rounds from manufacturers like Hornaydy or Federal, and is easy enough to perform with the right setup and proper safety practices.
- A DC power supply – this one is a cheap tattooing power supply from Amazon
- Distilled white vinegar
- Table salt
- A source of pure nickel
- A mason jar or other glass container
The picture below shows all of the required elements set up to form nickel acetate via electrolysis. The jar (an old Tostitos salsa container) has been filled almost completely with the distilled vinegar, with a pinch of table salt dissolved in to enhance conductivity. Although the power supply can only achieve 15V@2A continuous output, it allows the nickel to dissolve much faster than a battery of any common voltage and doesn’t need to be recharged. There is a strip of pure nickel attached to both the anode (positive lead) and cathode (negative lead). I found later on in the process that attaching multiple strips to each lead allows for more nickel to dissolve, speeding up the process; as pictured, the electrolyte (nickel acetate) took around 5 hours to create.
These little tattooing power supplies range from 1-15V at 1-2A output depending on the model you get. Similar models to the one pictured go for about $15 on Amazon right now, making it a very affordable option for repeated plating. In my case, it was the most expensive component of the project, which came in around $30 total. For small scale reloading operations making only a few rounds at a time, electroplating is fairly cheap.
Being able to control the voltage allows for high voltage and fast electrolyte formation as well as low voltage for the actual plating process (<5V), which ensures a smooth, even nickel finish.
Once the electrolyte is finished it turns a pale green color. The metal flakes in the bottom of the jar are from the edges of cathodes I left in too long, which disintegrated as I attempted to replace them with new ones.
The above picture shows the setup prepared for plating, with the anode nickel strip inserted into the prepared electrolyte. To begin, the cathode lead is attached to the case to be plated at the neck, and then lowered into the solution until the entire case is submerged. The process at 2.5V only takes about five minutes, but the case should be rotated and the cathode connector clip moved to ensure the entire case is plated evenly.
As you can see, quite a bit of nickel made its way into the solution. The cathode, on the right, was turned to swiss cheese by the electrolysis process, while the anode on the left is covered in additional nickel deposits. Because of the high voltage used during the making of the electrolyte, the deposits are large and uneven, making the necessity of low voltage during the case plating portion apparent.
The end result, when all the steps are followed correctly, is nothing short of a factory quality nickel finish. I lined up three 5.56 cases with the same headstamp: uncleaned, wet tumbled, and nickel electroplated, next to a Federal 300 WSM case which came nickel plated from the factory. Not only did the nickel finish look stunning next to the tumbled brass case, but it was every bit a quality finish as the factory nickel case.
DIY electroplating lets handloaders add a classy finishing touch to their work with a little bit of protection, too – nickel plated cases are more lubricious, harder, and more corrosion resistant than their bare brass counterparts. Although there is some extra effort involved, there’s a reason many manufacturers use nickel plated cases in their high end ammunition lines. You just can’t beat that premium feeling.