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9/1/1999 | 9 MINUTE READ

The Art of Decorative Plating

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Whether the company is decorative chrome plating a tailpipe or gold plating a corporate jet logo, Art Brass Plating has the touch...


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When it was time to find seven-year-old Dan for dinner or a bath or to come see Grandma, you simply looked behind the shed out back. Behind the shed was a marvelously dusty world of streets and racetracks and avenues and parking lots, all crowded with small diecast cars that moved using only imagination.

A grisly accident, complete with police cars, had been carefully choreographed on one street. In another area army tanks and jeeps were mowing down grass and flattening ants. Other cars were parked in lots, and others were simply positioned on the street. One vehicle, however, was parked alone on top of the highest hill, its imaginary driver surveying the grand city. This was Dan's favorite, a blue 1948 F-1 Ford pickup truck with sideboards. There was no reason for his infatuation with this truck, but he swore that someday he would drive one on the streets and hills of Seattle.

Last year "someday" materialized. The pickup Dan purchased wasn't in bad shape, but the paint was faded and rust was eating at some of the truck body. Dan wanted to replate the decorative chromium trim, although it was still in fairly good shape. He knew he could purchase reproduction parts from Bob Drake Reproductions in Oregon, but he wanted to keep the original parts. He visited a local company that did work for Bob Drake—Art Brass Plating, Seattle, WA.

Art Brass Plating has a reputation for quality plating, particularly decorative plating of restoration car and motorcycle parts. "We know what people want in a finish on their motorcycles and cars. We even still use hexavalent chromium and cyanide. We don't feel you can get the quality finish unless you do it the `old way,'" stated Mike Merryfield, vice president and general manager. "We still use a vapor degreaser," he added.

Art Brass is an old Seattle business. Established prior to the turn of the century as a manufacturer of builder's hardware items, it created brass cast mailboxes, bank and elevator ornamental brass and bronze fixtures. Around 1915, nickel plating was added to the operation. Just prior to World War II, Art Brass focused on decorative plating and polishing rather than casting, offering cadmium, zinc and silver as well as copper, nickel, chromium, brass and bronze plating on zinc diecast, steel and brass.

In 1979, when Dean Allstrom purchased the three-man shop, copper, nickel, chromium and brass were plated in the approximately 1,200-sq-ft building. However, Mr. Allstrom didn't purchase Art Brass to complacently sit back and let it operate. He, along with Mike Merryfield and Clyde Wakelee intended to grow the business. And the three-man shop seized every opportunity it could.

Previously, Mr. Allstrom owned another finishing shop that did some plating work for wood stove manufacturers. He decided to go and talk to the potential customers, and consequently brought the work to Art Brass. "That work turned us into a much larger shop," stated Dean. "By that time, the entire building was about 40x40 ft, and we did all of the plating and polishing in there. We rented another polisher's shop at night and employed nine polishers there. We plated for three shifts a day in that little hole in the wall," Dean chuckled.

Another opportunity presented itself during a delivery Mike made to a plating customer. He overheard the customer grumbling about the paint job on some parts. Mr. Merryfield went to the owner and asked him to hire Art Brass to do the painting. It didn't concern Mike that Art Brass did not have a paint system at the time. Of course, he didn't let his potential customer know that. Mike returned with the good news, and Dean went to work.

Dean knew that the paint system from his previous shop was going on the auction block. "I went to the auction and told other potential buyers that they may as well not bid on the system because I was going to buy the system lock, stock and barrel. And I did," Dean smiled. Art Brass then rented a building, set up the paint system and in three weeks was painting product for the grumbling customer three shifts a day. Now, the customer no longer grumbles.

In the late 1980s, Art Brass started a small powder coating operation. It purchased a 10,000-sq-ft lot near one of its buildings and built an 8,500-sq-ft building. The conveyorized system features a 40-ft PED infrared cure oven, three-stage washer, dry-off oven, paint booth with Nordson manual spray guns and dust collector system.

Eventually, the company was able to purchase the lot between the plating and powder coating buildings and a third building was erected that combined the structures into one large facility.

Seizing opportunities has helped Art Brass establish an extensive customer base that includes steel and plastic auto bumper recyclers, collector car hobbyists and motorcycle enthusiasts, large truck and store fixture manufacturers, after-market motorcycle and automotive reproduction part manufacturers, sauna, hot tub and gourmet kitchen rack manufacturers.

Art Brass has powder coated "Coffee of the Day" displays for Starbucks and plated store fixtures for Nordstrom's. Airshow Pacific Systems and other corporate jet manufacturers have contracted for high-end gold and nickel plating of interior pieces, such as instrument panel identification backgrounds. "We have a good balance of industries that we serve," Mike noted.

As Art Brass continued to grow, Mike and Dean planned to expand plating capacity by moving the plating tanks into a larger area of the facility, increasing tank size and improving tank layout. Planning required more time than they anticipated, but it was all done "first class." Planning started with a list of "here is what we want to do." Using that list, Dean and Mike asked employees for their input about the new plating shop. Changes, modifications and additions developed into a final plan that included swing-arm hoists and other modifications not on the original drawings.

"We hired an engineer to assess the new plating area before we started. We wanted to make sure the original concrete floor could withstand a second slab of concrete, and we wanted a guarantee that there had been no chemical migration into the soil under the concrete floor.

Once preparation and planning was complete, a sloped, concrete floor was poured and a coating applied to the floor for extra protection. New plastic tanks and fiberglass floor grating were installed. Cradles were fabricated for each tank to keep them above the floor. This allows operators to wash underneath the tanks. The water gravitates to the waste treatment area, leaving the area under the plating line clean and dry.

The plating shop does not resemble a typical plating shop. The lines do not flow linearly. Even so, rinse tanks are plumbed to counterflow, and dragout rinses are plumbed to flow back to the plating bath.

The entire project required a year and a half from start to finish. Art Brass finished the project between Christmas 1998 and New Year's 1999. During that week, maintenance pumped solutions out of the old plating tanks and into the new tanks. "Everything went perfectly, which is unbelievable," claimed Mike. "We have moved lines before, but never plated the same day. This time we did."

Figure 1 shows the plating shop layout and tank identification.

And so, Art Brass Plating has grown from a three-man shop to a 60-man shop running three shifts a day, five days a week. "We seize opportunities, display a `can do' attitude and produce quality work," stated Dean. "We accept challenges and are willing to work with customers." One example is its work with Gymboree, which makes children's toys and clothing. The company thought it needed electroless nickel plating on a certain type of display piece. Several finishing shops had already turned them down, saying they could not finish the part the way Gymboree had engineered it. Art Brass worked with them to provide a finish that was comparable in appearance to EN (semi-bright nickel) and more affordable."

"I've never heard anyone complain about the quality of the work," beamed Mike. "They may complain about the price, but it costs more to do it right. What amazes me," he continued, "is that people telephone from all over the world asking us to plate parts for them, mostly Harley Davidson and restoration parts. They see a bike we plated in a magazine, and the next thing you know we receive fenders, tanks and other pieces to finish."

"Several years ago," Dean explained, "I went to a Barret-Jackson Collector car auction in Scottsdale, AZ. As I walked into the show, I saw this fancy motorcycle all plated and painted and thought that it looked nice and walked on. When I met up with my buddy, he asked me if I had seen the motorcycle. I said yes. He asked if I had noticed that my name was all over the thing. I walked back to the Harley Davidson and looked at the nickel chromium plated decorative pieces. Art Brass Plating was stamped on all of them. The bike's owner came up to me, and I casually handed him my card. He glanced at it and did a double take. He was so excited to meet someone from Art Brass that he told me the entire story of how he restored the bike while in the service and brought it back with him to New York and ended up in Scottsdale.

"We can't do all the work that everyone would like us to do," noted Dean. "So we concentrate on customers in the Northwest. But we find our work all over the country."

Art Brass' plating can be found not only on motorcycles, 1948 Ford pickups and other restored automobiles, but also on the racks in Nordstrom's where Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger shirts are on display. Art Brass chromium, brass and copper finishes beautify Enclume cookware storage rack systems that you find in fine restaurant kitchens and home kitchens. If you stopped at Starbucks for morning coffee you may have glanced at the "Coffee of the Day" sign, the fixture and many others of which were powder coated by Art Brass. So, whether you fly in corporate jets or shop for three-year-olds at Gymboree, you have probably seen Art Brass Plating.

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