- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Bob Nichols’ title is manager for Metro Plating & Polishing Inc., but he dabbles in almost every task — from polishing cutlery to replating car parts — at the Kensington business in the West Howard Antiques District.

He has been in the metal polishing and plating business for nearly 20 years. Seven of those years have been with Metro Plating, which is owned and run by Stephen Polsky in an area well known for its antique dealers.

Mr. Nichols, who works with five other employees at Metro Plating, says he grew up learning the business from his father, who ran a metal shop in Oahu, Hawaii.

“It’s such an old-school job that there aren’t places that will teach what you need to know,” says the Laurel resident, who earns about $20 an hour.

Even though he works around steaming vats of hazardous chemicals and always has dirt on his hands, Mr. Nichols says he loves his job.

“I just couldn’t get away from it, I liked it too much,” he says.

Mr. Nichols, who normally works night shifts at Metro Plating, is busy taking care of orders on a recent weekday morning.

“In the wintertime, we are slammed with orders, but things die down a bit in the summer,” he says.

In addition to a steady stream of jewelry, clock and silverware jobs, the shop gets more requests in the winter to clean and repair motorcycle, car and boat parts, he says.

Although Mr. Nichols generally focuses on cleaning and plating steel pieces, he pitches in to handle all types of metal coming into the shop.

After drying about a dozen chrome door plates, Mr. Nichols turns his attention to an antique silver lamp. A customer has requested a triple-plated brass finish for the lamp.

Mr. Nichols takes the base of the lamp and hangs it up with several brass wires attached to copper hooks. Once the base is secured on the hooks, he takes it into a room at the back of the shop that has 10 tanks filled with various liquids.

The lamp first goes into a vat filled with soapy water for a few minutes.

“I’m washing dishes every day,” Mr. Nichols jokes as he scrubs the piece with a brush.

Preparation is vital in getting the metal to shine consistently once it is covered with brass, he says.

“If it’s not prepped right, you have to go back and redo the job before you can plate it,” he says, rinsing the piece in two water tanks before placing it into a tank filled with a diluted hydrochloric acid.

The acid mixture is used to extract any leftover impurities from the silver base piece.

“It’s funny because some customers want to do the cleaning themselves, but what you make of the metal is what you do before you plate it. Plating really covers nothing,” he says.

After sitting in the acid for about 10 minutes, the lamp is rinsed and placed into another tank full of a cyanide-copper mixture. The chemicals will help give the piece a better-looking finish, Mr. Nichols says.

Then the piece is dipped for 30 minutes into a tank full of an acid-copper mixture. After that, the lamp is dipped in molten nickle for 45 minutes. At last, the piece goes into a tank full of bubbling liquid brass for 10 minutes to acquire its final finish.

Mr. Nichols will later give the lamp a coat of lacquer to prevent it from tarnishing.

The process is nonstop moving between the tanks and then checking the metal for imperfections.

“We wear out a path along here,” Mr. Nichols says.

On an average day, Mr. Nichols completes about four or five orders at the shop. He usually works from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. — to avoid traffic, he says.

The shop operates almost round-the-clock on orders and has rows of shelves filled with heirlooms, cutlery and other collectibles. The shop’s order backlog averages three or four weeks, Mr. Nichols says.

Mr. Nichols says employees at the shop need to know how to repair all types of metals and must have a good knowledge of chemistry to deal with the acid mixes and solvents without causing accidents.

State inspectors visit the shop regularly to make sure the chemicals and metals are processed and disposed of properly, Mr. Nichols says.

One more thing — metal workers mustn’t be afraid to get dirty.

“I went through eight guys in the past year when we were looking for extra help. They either didn’t want to get dirty or the machines scared them,” he says, wiping sweat and grime from his forehead.

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