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Reducing brass and bronze maintenance

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What is the issue?
Bronze or brass trimming features such as bells, cleats, winch heads, mast heads, gallows legs, wheel, gauge bezels, galley hardware, fuel caps etc look sensational and never more so than on traditional vessel. However, all copper-based metals such as brass and bronze go black in the marine environment in a matter of weeks, if not days. Boats with this type of decorative trim require an enormous amount of upkeep to keep that brightwork in good condition.

Why address this?
The brasswork can get pitted over time and it gives the look of being misused and uncared for, and furthermore it can leave green oxides that stain the surrounding surfaces. But keeping it in good condition is nothing short of a formidable task by using the traditional method of hand rubbing and arduous polishing.

How to address this?
One largely labour free approach is to electroplate the brass and bronze objects with 24kt gold. So far nothing outside of hard labour, with the exception of gold plating, has been found that keeps brass and bronze sparkling.

Classic portlight electrocoated with 24K Gold
Photo: Lee Gunter
There is a small distinction to be made here between the two metals. Proper marine bronze can be left unattended and does not need to be polished. It will develop a chocolate brown patina, a green or brown film on the surface, over time that appears fully authentic. Polished bronze tends to turn it green, but it will eventually go to deep brown if it is left alone. Brass, however, turns green and stays green.

Once polished, a clear lacquer protective coating, sprayed on in very thin layers, can protect the shine for a season. You can get the items professionally lacquered and a good coating could last for several years. But, due to the natural hardening and crazing process, even the professional product will eventually break down leaving a shiny piece with black speckles all over it. This will be impossible to polish, due to the degradation of the coating.

The only way to remedy this is to remove the lacquer which is very difficult in the case of the professional coating. No solvent or stripper removes it and it comes down to sanding it off and the resulting sanding marks then have to be buffed out. A regular regime of polishing the uncoated products is much lighter work than this reclamation work.

Gold plating, however, is reliable and is not as expensive as you might think. It is certainly dramatically less than the cost of the hours of maintenance required to keep the brass or bronze based objects in good condition. The electroplating process required uses copper, nickel and then gold, and each piece is polished to a mirror finish at the end of the process.

Boom gallows and ship's bell electrocoated with 24K Gold
Photo: Lee Gunter
Once complete the plated object requires very little maintenance at all. It will not tarnish, pit or corrode and does not require lacquer. All that is required is the occasional wash with a gentle soap. Then apply a light coat of wax to keep it in top condition. With this modest amount of care, the gold plate should last many years without peeling, fading or chipping. Some electroplate vendors will guarantee a gold finish for life for an additional fee.

The only thing you need to worry about is deep scratching. Gold plating is softer than other plating metals such as chrome and unsuitable for pieces that get any wear, not to mention its cost. Objects that are likely to have a lot of chaff/rubbing or likely to clash with rigging for instance, winch drums or something like the jaws of the anchor windlass, would not be an ideal candidate for gold plating.

Most metals can be plated but in the marine environment that is often subject to galvanic corrosion, it is best to reserve plating to copper, brass and bronze. Non-conductive materials such as glass, plastic or wood cannot be coated.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur with thanks to Lee Gunter

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