Q:How do you "chrome" plastic? I have some plastic pieces I want to restore but I do not want silver spray paint. I want the factory chrome which is very shiny - a lot more than paint. Also, I would rather restore the original pieces than buy reproductions. - Carl A., Eden Prairie
A:The auto industry and aftermarket use at least two methods to achieve a shiny silvery finish on plastic. For interior parts, the common method is called vacuum metalizing. This is not true chrome but it can be shiny and appealing to the eye in the same way. What this process leaves on the plastic is an aluminum coating. The parts to be "chromed" are placed in a vacuum chamber in which aluminum is vaporized with electric filaments. The aluminum coats the plastic to yield a uniform shiny surface. Shops that perform this process then also coat the aluminum with a urethane clear coat as is done with modern paint jobs. As clear coat does with a paint job, the clear-over-the aluminum-coated plastic protects that shiny layer from the elements.
Shops that do this work caution that vacuum metalizing is not as durable as true chrome. Abrasive cleaners or sponges should not be used on it, nor should products containing silicone or ammonia. Over time, these chemicals can discolor the part. The shiny aluminum coat can also discolor or degrade if the clear coat protecting it gets chipped. In that event, contact the shop that did the work for help correcting the situation.
Not all plastics can withstand this process. Depending on the age, condition and composition of the part, the vacuum metalizing process can warp, crack or shrink it. Also, as with any type of coating, a satisfactory result requires a good underlying surface. Any irregularities evident in the plastic before it gets coated will show through the coating afterward. There are several companies that may be found on the Internet with search terms such as "chrome plastic" or "vacuum metalizing" that perform this service. Many have photos of their work, FAQs, and contact information. Try contacting a couple of these places, discussing the parts you have and your expectations and find out what they think they can do for you. Ask about their warranty and how long they've been in the business. A company with many years in the game is probably doing good work. I'd also ask the company if its work has been featured in any show cars, etc.
The second way to make plastic look like chrome is, in fact, to chrome-plate it. The catch is that true chrome plating is electro-plating, which requires that the part to be plated conduct electricity. Since plastic does not conduct electricity in its usual form, it needs to be modified first. The Motorbooks Publication, "How To Restore Auto Trim," refers readers to a shop in Pennsylvania called Paul's Chrome Plating. Speed Channel recently featured the shop, too. Paul's "plants" the plastic with silver to make it conductive, then plates the part with copper, and then plates the copper layer with chrome. There is a shop in Miami called Universal Electrocoating that also chromes plastic. No doubt others do too. (I have not used either of these shops. As with vacuum metalizing, talk to any shop you consider until you're satisfied it's the right shop for your parts.)
Because of the high-tech equipment involved, neither of these processes can be performed at home. For exterior components, chrome-plating the part is the durable way to go. For interior parts, vacuum metalizing should give you the look you're after.