BMX Collectors and hobbyists like ourselves are all so used to the restoration process of vintage BMX but there’s not a whole lot of information out there on how to re-chrome BMX frame sets, let alone the chroming and re-chroming process.
After restoring hundreds of vintage BMX bicycles, and re-chroming dozens of frame sets and parts that could not be saved, we’re pretty confident in sharing out knowledge of this process. In the beginning, while we were still learning and had minimal knowledge, we sent our frame sets and parts to a few different local chrome shops and were disappointed for the most part. We now do ALL of our OWN prep work before sending our parts in for re-chrome at a trusted shop.
Find a Chromer who SPECIALIZES in Bicycles
Similar to painting (yes painting – not powder coating) a vintage BMX frame set, chroming should be a task performed by only a Bicycle specialist. Most chromers are used to working on auto parts like bumpers and other parts and are not specialized or have that ‘level of care’ for the intricate and fine details of bicycle frames.
There are many negative things we can say about them not being qualified, so we will just say this… get your chrome prep work done by somebody who specializes in bicycle re-chroming or else your fine details like welds, serial numbers and stampings will be polished out! This will be explained further in Step #3.
Understanding the Chroming Process
To understand the re-chroming process, you must first understand the chroming process.
When a brand new BMX frame is being built or was built back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the metal tubes are nice and smooth with a little bit shine. They do not have a mirror like finish. They do not need any ‘prep work’ since they are new materials. They are then welded together and the welds are also nice and smooth with a little bit of shine. Once the bike is welded together, it is sent to chroming.
The chroming process is as follows (We won’t get into the details of the actual process but will explain the basic idea. First the metal is dipped in nickel, and then dipped in chrome. The layers are very thin which allow you to see detail and is nice and quick during mass production of frame sets. From what we have learned, the longer they keep them dipped, the more they ‘build up’ the chrome and it gets thicker which is NOT what you want for your vintage BMX frame.
When the metal is chrome plated, it has has a nice shine to it, that same shine that we are all used to seeing in original vintage BMX chrome plating and pretty much any typical chrome plated items for everyday use. The show chrome we hear about is much different and will be explained further below.
Understanding the Re-Chroming Process
Now that we understand how a new frame set is built and chromed, we can understand how the re-chroming process works.
Re-chroming any vintage BMX frame, fork, or any other part requires the following steps:
- 1. De-chroming the original chrome
- 2. De-Nickeling the original nickel underneath the chrome
- 3. Metal Prep Work
- 4. Nickel plating
- 5. Chrome plating
Step 1 & 2: De-Chroming (Removing the Chrome & Nickel)
Take your BMX frame and parts to a chrome plating shop to get the chrome and nickel removed down to bare metal. This should be clearly indicated because simply saying “de-chrome my parts” will end in just that. They will remove the chrome, but not the nickel beneath.NOTE: It is VERY important that you indicate which parts are aluminum and which are steel. They cannot be dipped in the same tanks. We have had aluminum parts melt and get mangled because they put the aluminum parts in with the steel.
Step 3: Metal Prep Work (Includes Polishing)
Since you are re-chroming for the purpose of either removing scrapes, rusting or pitting, then we can assume that the frame must be “prepped” before it can be nickel and chrome plated. What this means is that the metal must be sanded or sand blasted to remove any rust. If there are pitting holes or scrapes, these must be filled in with brass welding. Then, the metal must be polished to a nice ‘shine’ before it can be plated. If it is not polished, any plating done to the metal will be dull and rough. The “show chrome” look is achieved when the frame is polished to a mirror-chrome-like shine before plating. This is nice for cars, but we are not a fan of it when restoring a vintage BMX to its factory glory.
This brings us back to the most important thing – hire somebody who specializes in bicycles to do the prep work because when not done properly, ANY fine details likes welds, serial numbers and stampings will be either polished out or filled in. This is the #1 complaint from clients who let a chrome shop prep their frames.NOTE: The reason why welds get “polished out” is because when welds are rusted, the rust must be removed and so they are either sanded or sand blasted. Then to get a chrome shine, they must be ‘smoothed’ out to a shine and therefore must be polished. These chrome plating shops use very powerful industrial grade buffing wheels and they are too aggressive and therefore the weld details get polished out. If you MUST sand blast the welds to remove rust, hand polish or use light buffing tools to smooth them out trying not to lose the weld details.
Step 4 & 5: Re-Chroming (Nickel & Chrome Plating over Prepped Metal)
Once your vintage BMX frame sets have been repaired, sanded, and polished, it is now ready to be sent to the chromers for nickel and chrome plating. Make sure to indicate that you want the chrome thin or like the original thickness. This is pretty standard unless you ask for thick chrome.NOTE: Some people talk about copper plating beneath the nickel/chrome plating. They feel this adds to the show chrome look (Show chrome is achieved from mirror-like polishing). What it does do is help fill in imperfections (part of the prep process) and might even give it a tint color. This is not necessary if you don’t need it. It will however make the chrome too thick and headsets, bottom brackets and anything needed to be screwed in, might not fit. Some chromers add the copper because it is easier for them during the prep stages and again, they do not have a ‘level of care’ for the job they are hired to do. So do it yourself or hire somebody who cares.
CONCLUSION: Deciding when a Frame is worth Re-Chroming or Not
After understanding the long and tedious process involved in prep work and re-chroming a vintage BMX bike, an important decision must be made before enduring this task… Determining whether or not your vintage BMX frame set should be re-chromed or not.
Because when you have an old vintage BMX, the chrome might be in various conditions and the re-chroming process, as you now know, can be VERY tedious and difficult when dealing with tight areas like between the rear tubes that connect to the seat post tube and in between gussets. Especially the weld areas because if the welds are pretty rusted, it’s going to be very difficult to remove the rust, and smooth out the welds to a shine without losing weld detail.
- Surface Rust – The chrome on the frame could have surface rust which can easily be removed, but still present underneath the chrome. There might be a bit in the tight areas as well. And for those reasons, we would say just clean it with an SOS pad and water (yes it is safe and does not scratch the chrome when done properly) and leave the chrome as is.
- Rusting & Pitting – If the chrome on the frame is pitted and rusted, then we suggest de-chroming/de-nickeling and have the bike sandblasted and painted instead.
- Scrapes & Scratches – If the chrome on the frame has scrapes and scratches, then we would suggest de-chroming/de-nickeling and having the scrapes sanded out if not too deep or brass filled and sanded. Then prep it up for re-chroming.
Our advice is simple. If the chrome is decent, leave it as is. If it has slight rust and scratches, get it re-chromed. If its extremely rusted and pitted, get it painted (not powdercoated – that topic’s for another day).
If you have any questions or need help in your restoration process, email us at contact at firstname.lastname@example.org