Metal Finishes: Your HUGE Guide to Colors, Techniques, and More!Shawn
Whether you’re talking about kitchen faucets, a musical instrument, or the little car company logo on the front of your truck, metal finishing can be found everywhere. Metal is used in just about every industry in the world, from computers to medical equipment, from automobiles to houses. And while every type of metal has its own properties that make it better or worse for a certain project, each of them also has structural weaknesses that must be overcome. This is why metal finishing was adopted, and it’s why you need to know about the different types before making a decision about which product to purchase for your home.
But What IS Metal Finishing, Anyway?
Each type of metal finishing is done in a slightly different way, each of which produces a different outcome. The term “metal finishing” is used as a catch-all to describe the various ways a piece of metal can be coated, cleaned, polished, and otherwise improved from its raw form. These processes work to make the metal more suitable for the intended purpose, whether the improvements are structural or merely aesthetic. We’ll get into the various types of metal finishing in this article, but we should mention that electroplating is involved in most metal finishing projects. Indeed, some people use the word plating as a synonym for metal finishing. That said, there are other processes that industry experts use to create different benefits for the customer.
What Are The Benefits to Metal Finishing?
Metal finishing, depending on the process used and the type of metal undergoing the treatment, can serve many important purposes. Here are some of the most common benefits to metal finishing:
Improves chemical resistance – Chemicals in solvents, the air, and even the water can conspire to hurt certain metals over a period of time. By applying the metal finish, manufacturers can put a shield in between the invasive chemicals and the structure.
Improves the appearance – When you’re making metal products that will be hidden under the hood of a car or behind the sheetrock of the walls, you don’t need to do a lot of fancy stuff to make it look good. However, when the product is public-facing, metal finishing can raise the look of the metal by cleaning it, polishing it, and getting rid of any natural surface defects.
Strengthens the metal – In most cases, the primary reason behind metal finishing is to increase the strength of the substrate, which in turn makes the product less vulnerable to wear and corrosion over the years.
Improves conductivity – Not all metals are equal when it comes to conducting electricity. Certain pure metals are excellent conductors without any additional help. Others require a bit of help. Metal finishing processes can increase the conductivity of these less-pure metals.
Primers the surface – It can be difficult to paint certain metals without a primer in place. Metal finishing can serve as a substitute for primer, allowing paint to adhere to the surface without creating a mess.
The Most Popular Metal Finishing Processes
As we noted above, metal finishing can take many different forms. The process (or processes) used to get the job done depends on a number of factors: The type of metal involved, the product’s intended use, whether the product will be user-facing or hidden, and the industry. In many cases, two or more types of metal finishing will be used on a single product.
The most common type of metal finishing, electroplating involves sending an electrical charge through a solution filled with an electrolyte. The manufacturers will break up the electrolyte in the solution with the current; this “tells” the metal atoms to converge on the substrate of the product, essentially creating a new metal layer. Sometimes known as electrodeposition, this convoluted process may sound like something that was invented the day before yesterday, but it actually has a rich, long history that predates the Industrial Revolution. The metals used in electroplating run the gamut from copper (good for electrical conductivity and resisting heat) to gold (which is prized for its aesthetic appeal).
Similar in process to electroplating, electrocoating also uses an electrical current and a bath-like solution to achieve its goals. Unlike electroplating, however, this process does not use an electrolyte in the solution. Instead, the finishers will use electrically charged paint types – often acrylics – to create a primer that coats the substrate. This is excellent for paint adhesion, which is why e-coating is often used for products that are meant to be painted before they go on the market. Electrocoating has a number of benefits, the most immediate of which is that it is a much cheaper option than some of the other metal finishing processes.
If electrocoating and electroplating are somewhat similar in their processes (if different in their results), electropolishing is on the other side of the spectrum. In this process, the manufacturers aren’t adding metallic ions to the substrate of the component. Rather, they are stripping those metal ions away from the surface in the same sort of bath/electrical current scenario we described above. Basically, it’s electroplating in reverse, and the result is a polished, smooth metal appearance that looks clean and pure. Perfect for bathroom and kitchen fixtures, as well as any metal product that requires that smooth surface aesthetic.
If electroplating remains the gold standard in terms of metal finishing techniques, powder coating is a very close second. Some estimates say 15% of all American products have some type of powder coating applied to the surface. Even non-metals can be found with this finish; the process can be used to treat plastic components and even medium-density fiberboard products. The process involves using a resin system that includes various additives such as curatives and pigments. The ingredients of the resin system are melted, cooled, and ground into powder, which is then applied to the substrate through a process known as electrostatic spray deposition. The end result is a product that is durable, attractive, and environmentally friendly.
Other Metal Finishing Processes
In addition to the processes outlined above, various manufacturers and industries use a variety of other ways to achieve the desired effect. They include electroless plating, passivation, case hardening, abrasive blasting, and more. The technique used depends on the metal being finished, the desired look of the final product, cost concerns, and much more.
Metal Finishes: The Different Looks
For most people, the way a metal has been finished is far less important than how it will actually look when it’s in their home. Now that you have a basic overview of how manufacturers achieve various plating effects, it’s time to jump to the other side of the equation. So without further ado, let’s take a glance at the different looks and surfaces that can be achieved in conjunction with one or more of the metal finishing processes mentioned above. In most cases, the end result depends on what’s done AFTER the metal finishing process; this is what creates the “look” you see when you look at products in your local hardware store.
Unlike many of the other finishes we’ll talk about, brushed metal is designed to look like it’s more natural and…one might say, dull…than the bright, shiny kind of stainless steel finish you may be accustomed to seeing. Brushed metal has grown in popularity in recent years, owing partly to an interior design shift away from “modern, modern, modern” and the embrace of country chic styles of decoration. In this process, the metal gets polished with a belt-driven brush before being softened with the help of either a compound or an abrasive pad. While this takes away the metal’s natural reflectivity, it does not strip all of the metallic luster from the surface. Best of all, to some homeowners, will be brushed metal’s ease of maintenance.
Many in the metal industry will swear by metal polishing as the best way to highlight the beauty of a particular product before shipping it out to retailers. This aggressive process is used to create a stunning sheen to the metal surface that will leave it gleaming and anything but dull. The process removes oxidation from the metal and leaves behind a reflective surface that is protected from contamination and corrosion. While most often used in conjunction with stainless steel, metal polishing can also be used to give aluminum, brass, gold, and other metals a shiny, glossy aesthetics. The only downside? You’ll have to clean the surface often to keep it free from visible fingerprints.
Homeowners have been entranced with rustic design aesthetics for the last decade or so, and the rise of antique metal finishes is part of that trend. Whether you want to improve the look of your old antique products or you simply want the simple, tasteful style applied to your new fixtures, antique metal finishing can be your ticket to the desired result. This type of finish is excellent for cutting a middle line between the gleam of polished metal and the dull, matte look of brushed metal. The point is to make it appear as though the surface took on a certain faded appearance over many years, and the effect is quite remarkable.
Satin metal finishes sit somewhere in the spectrum between polished and brushed, though probably closer to brushed in terms of aesthetic appeal. These finishes are prized for their ability to hide fingerprints and create a smooth (but not particularly reflective) surface. The #4 satin finish, as it’s called in the industry, is one of the most popular stainless steel finishes in use today. There is somewhat more shine to these surfaces than those that have been treated with a brushed finish, but it is still “opaque” enough to appeal to those who are turned off by polished metal.
How To Choose Your Preferred Metal Finish
Choosing the right metal finish involves several different factors, the least of which will be the process the manufacturer uses to treat the metal. Most important, to the majority of homeowners, will be the color of the metal and the appearance created by the finishing technique. Here are four tips to keep in mind when choosing the right metal finish:
1 – Consider the Setting
Unless you’re redesigning your home from top to bottom and introducing an entirely new palette of colors, you’ll want to consider the setting when choosing metal finishes. Look to the paint on the walls, the color of your furniture, and other area colors when deciding which way to go. The most important thing is to make sure the color and texture of your metal finishes do not clash with the colors already in place. If you don’t have an eye for this kind of color comparison, find someone who does; it can make a huge difference in the look of your room.
2 – Mix and Match
Don’t feel as though to absolutely need to choose one metal finish over another. If you like the idea of filling your bathroom with gold fixtures and your partner prefers the look of black metal, why not try mixing the elements together? Mixed metal finishes are enormously popular in the home design industry, so don’t feel as though you’re out on a tightrope with no net below. As long as you keep some basic color wheel combinations in mind, you’ll be fine.
3 – Consider Your Lifestyle
Some metal products serve little functionality; they are there to decorate and nothing more. Others will be part of your daily use. You’ll want to take this into consideration when deciding among the gigantic assortment of colors and finishes available. For instance, if you can’t stand the sight of fingerprints, you may want to avoid kitchen fixtures made from polished metal. On the other hand, if the element in question will rarely be touched, polished metal may make sense.
4 – Get Inspiration From Professionals
If you’re having your home redesigned with the help of a contractor, ask to see samples that can help you find inspiration. Sometimes the best look is one that you would have never considered on your own. If that’s not an option, you can always visit a variety of home improvement stores to see what kind of setups they have on display. In many cases, you can see exactly how each kind of metal finish looks with a wide variety of surfaces and colors. At the end of the day, the only important factor is your own happiness, so don’t be afraid to break the rules and go with your gut!