Chrome plating is accomplished via an electroplating process. The alloy wheel is dipped into a chemical bath with a dissolved solution of the plating material - chrome or another metal. A current is run through the wheel and the solution, producing opposite charges in the wheel and chrome particles. The chrome particles will attract to the wheel and build up on the surface, eventually creating a uniform layer.
Sounds easy? It’s actually quite a complicated procedure, with a series of steps needed to produce a high-quality finish.
- The wheel is first stripped of all paints and coatings, then polished and buffed to a completely smooth finish.
- The wheel is then dipped into a chemical bath to etch the surface for the next stages.
- Most aluminum wheels are cast, which leaves a rough surface brimming with pores and imperfections. So, the wheel is plated in a layer of copper that fills in the cavities and produces a smooth finish.
- Next, two layers of nickel plating are applied. The first layer protects the underlying metal from corrosion, pitting, etching, oxidation, and other atmospheric conditions. The second produces a highly reflective finish.
- Finally, the chrome plating is created. This layer is reasonably hard and resistant to abrasion and scratches to some extent. It’s resistant to corrosion and most environmental hazards that wheels face on a daily basis.
There’s just nothing like a triple-plated chrome finish. The shine and reflectivity cannot be matched by any other process.
However, there are a few major drawbacks.
The chemical baths used for electroplating are extremely toxic. Specifically, the chromium used for the process is highly cancerogenic, damaging the lungs, respiratory system, skin, and eyes if exposed. The process is dangerous to the workers who perform the electroplating, as well as to the environment if waste products are released without treatment.
Even if you don’t care about all that, there’s still a performance hit to having your wheels chromed. Adding several layers of metal on each wheel comes with a weight penalty - usually 1-2 lbs for the set compared to painted or clear-coated wheels. That’s a fair amount of unsprung weight and rotational mass.
Is it significant? You decide. Chrome plating is nowhere to be found on racing and performance cars. On daily drivers, you can probably save more weight by cleaning your trunk, for example.
Finally, for all its strength, chrome plating is susceptible to acids and salts like the magnesium chloride used to de-ice roads during the winter. If you live in Massachusetts, you’ll have to wash your wheels frequently to prevent corrosion, or just swap a set of winter wheels altogether.