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Faucet Industry Finish Processes

Lulani offers faucets made from Brass and Stainless Steel.

Faucets made from stainless steel don’t need a protective finish since the stainless-steel material itself is the finish.

Brass, a copper alloy, is one of the other most common materials used to produce faucets. Refined copper is a reactive metal in which, when left to its own devices, will try to return to its pre-refined stable state as copper oxide. Copper oxide can be viewed as a tarnished copper or verdigris, meaning “green-gray”, the actual color of copper oxide, otherwise known as a naturally occurring patina.

In order to make copper less reactive and stronger against the environment, it can be alloyed with a less reactive metal. For instance, tin can be added to make bronze, or zinc can be added to form brass. Brass tarnishes less than copper.

Native brass, which is brass found in its pure metallic form in nature, still requires a lot of care.

By giving brass a protective coating, it can help to reduce maintenance and increase the material’s durability.

The most common type of coating is a layer of a non-reactive metal that does not require regular maintenance. Chrome is one of the most common options available, but lacquer, paint, and powder coatings are also often used. These types of layers are less robust than the metal layers, but they come in colors that metals aren’t usually able to match.

Chrome is the most common finish available on faucets, especially those made from brass construction. Chrome does tarnish over time but, when doing so, it actually ends up further protecting the faucet. The tarnish forms a very thin, nearly invisible, additional coating on the metal’s surface and prevents any further tarnishing.

Finishes such as chrome and nickel are likely to look the same no matter which company sells the faucet. They are also easier when matching accessories. For instance, oil-rubbed bronze comes in many shades and varieties but may be difficult to match if purchased from different companies.

Along with being easy to match accessories against, highly polished and brushed finishes are the most popular options because they are very easy to clean and maintain. Brushed finishes, however, have the advantage of not showing water spots or minor scratches as much as polished finishes.

Bronze is also a popular faucet finish and can come in a variety of shades which can vary from a light brown to nearly black colors. How­ever, this can make it difficult to tell what type of finish you’re actually getting. Some finishes are called bronze but are non-metallic coatings. Instead, different painting methods are used and not actual metal. Basic bronze is usually a light brown color while oil-rubbed bronze is typically darker, and often a non-metallic coating.

A basic rule of thumb to help distinguish the difference between finish types is to see what keywords the manufacturer uses to describe it. For instance, if they call their bronze finish a “living finish”, it’s most likely not a metallic coating. If they offer a lifetime warranty, it’s likely still a metal substance but not necessarily actual bronze. These little differentiators can make it difficult to match all of your fixture finishes to your accessories, especially with oil-rubbed bronze.

On the other hand, copper can be applied as a finish on brass faucets because a majority of faucets are made out of copper. Since copper is a component of brass, it’s able to simultaneously work as a faucet finish material. A big advantage to using copper as a finish is that the faucet will be virtually lead-free. Alternatively, though, a disadvantage is that copper is similar to brass and will tarnish over time if it doesn’t have some kind of durable coating applied.

Lacquer has been the traditional coating option for copper fixtures. At present time, a simulated copper finish applied using PVD is replacing actual copper as a faucet finish. The simulated copper finish, made from zirconium or titanium, still looks like copper but does not tarnish and is very scratch resistant.

Living Finish:

Lulani stainless steel faucets (Brushed Stainless) are considered a living finish.

Non-living faucet finishes are engineered to look new out-of-the-box and should keep the same look. Living finishes by contrast (other than stainless steel), are designed to look old and worn out and continue to look even older and more worn with use and age. These types of finishes are favored in many vintage restorations and are often referred to as organic or architectural finishes. They are, from one perspective, the most maintenance-free of all faucet finishes since the owner is not supposed to do anything to keep the faucet from graceful aging. Age and use are intended to enhance the rustic look of the faucet. The finish is not typically covered by a warranty, since they are supposed to show wear and tear with use over time.

Powder Coating:

Powder coating is a process of applying pigmented finishes to a faucet in powdered form. The term "dry paint" is often used to describe this process, although it’s not exactly correct, but close enough.

The technique was developed nearly 80 years ago during World War II as an alternative to liquid paint since it was so slow to dry. Powder coating dries much quicker so it was favored to use on the wartime production of armaments, most of which needed to be painted.

Powder coating powder is a similar consistency to baking flour and can be sold by the pound in over 65,000 different colors which can be blended to produce a virtually unlimited rainbow of hues and tones.

It can be applied using a special, low-velocity spray gun that disperses the powder while, at the same time, giving it a positive electrical charge. The particles are drawn to the fau­cet which has a negative charge. The product, in this case a faucet, is then baked in an oven at approximately 400°F. This melts the powder and changes the structure of the coating into long, cross-linked molecular chains. These chains are what give the coating its durability, reducing the risk of scratches, chipping, abrasions, corrosion, and fading.

Powder coating can create finishes in colors that otherwise wouldn’t be possible using other finishing technologies, including just about every color in the rainbow and finishes that emulate stone and other textures.

It is, by far, the most flexible and adaptable for finish technology options and is the technique used most often to create living finishes with its varying tonality and textures. The disadvantage of this technique is that the resulting finish is not as resistant to wear and damage as the finishes produced by other technologies. Powder coating finishes are sometimes characterized as "semi-durable" since it’s not as durable as electroplated or PVD metallic finishes but allow colors and finish effects that metal finishes cannot easily duplicate. Non-metallic coatings are very tough but also brittle and are susceptible to chips if not handled carefully. It is more robust than most liquid paints, but not typically as wear-resistant as the metal or finishes applied using PVD technology. Powder coatings also have to be applied in relatively thick coats to avoid defects like orange peel – an uneven surface. The thicker the coat, though, the more likely it can obscure any fine details on the finished item.

Powder coating is less harmful to the environment than other types of finishing processes. For instance, electroplating uses toxic chemicals that have to be disposed of carefully. Powder coating is also considerably less expensive than PVD finishes which can require a substantial investment.

Electroplating:

Electroplating is an older standard but is still used as a finish in the faucet world. This process involves immersing the faucet and the plating metal into an acid bath. By applying an electrical charge to both objects, metallic ions are drawn from the plating metal and onto the faucet. The thickness of the plating is determined by how long you allow the faucet to bathe in the acid. For instance, if the faucet is left in the solution for a longer time period (usually for several hours) or if it’s electroplated several times, the plating becomes thicker. If you want thinner plating, the faucet only needs to be immersed for a few minutes.

A disadvantage of electroplating is that it’s difficult to determine from inspection alone whether a faucet has thick or thin plating. The best way to avoid electroplating finish issues on your faucet is to work with a company that has a solid reputation. Be wary of companies with a short finish warranty (5 years or less) or you’re more likely to end up with plating problems. If the manufacturer had complete confidence in its finishes, it would offer a lifetime finish warranty like Lulani.

Electroplating processes are scalable. Large companies usually have automated plating operations while smaller manufacturers can electroplate using a hands-on process. It often requires several coats to achieve an acceptable plating finish. However, some metals can’t be plated directly onto brass material so an intermediate metal (usually nickel or zinc/nickel alloy) undercoat may be necessary to achieve an optimal result. Undercoats can also be used in higher-quality faucets to even out small imperfections in the brass before it’s given its final finish. In order to achieve a highly polished final finish, it may require a few additional undercoats.

Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD):

PVD, also called "thin film physical vapor deposition", is the latest faucet finishing technology, rapidly replacing electroplating as the finish of choice. It's still very new, though.

The PVD process involves loading a chamber with unfinished faucets, then remove all the air and add back a carefully calculated mix of nitrogen and reactive gases. Add a rod of the metal to be used for the coating (usually chromium, titanium, zirconium, etc.). Heat the rod so it dissolves into individual atoms. The atoms mix with the various reactive gases to get the color and finish effects you want and are then deposited in a very thin layer — 2 to 5 microns (.00008-.0002") — onto the faucets.

For some perspective on how thin the finish layer can be, a human hair is about 70 microns in diameter. So, it's extremely thin, barely the diameter of a single atom, but, because the coating bonds to the faucet at a molecular level, the finish is incredibly hard — Rockwell HRC-80+ and Vicker HV-2600+.

In an abrasion test, PVD finishes can be found as 10 to 20 times more scratch-resistant and durable than standard chrome electroplated finishes. There are two basic PVD processes used to apply these types of ultra-thin coatings to faucets: sputtering and arc vapor deposition (AVD). For the sputtering process, a magnetron is used to vaporize the finishing metal into a plasma that then coats the faucets. AVD does the same thing but uses a low-voltage electric arc to vaporize the metal instead of a magnetron. The lower the temperature of the AVD process, the more flexible it gets. Plastic faucet parts can also be coated using the AVD process, but would otherwise be melted using a sputtering machine.

The coating material itself must be a metal nitride, but the item that is being coated can be made of almost any material. It's possible, and not too uncommon, to deposit metal onto plastic, which is what makes inexpensive plastic faucets look more expensive than they actually are.

Since PVD doesn’t have gap-filling properties, undercoating is usually required to achieve highly polished finishes. If there are any scratches or markings on the faucet body, it will show through the finish so the faucet body must be smooth and polished before the coating is deposited. It’s not uncommon to see two to three electroplated undercoats beneath a PVD final coat since only certain metals can be used as coating material. Any metal that’s used must be tough, durable, low-reactive, and capable of forming a nice cloud of ions.

There are three metals that are commonly used to achieve a decorative coating on a faucet: titanium, zirconium, and chromium. These can be used to simulate a variety of other metals that may otherwise not be suitable for the PVD process.

A plethora of colors can be created by using varying mixtures of reactive gases during the deposition process. This includes brass and gold tones, nickel, chrome, and bronze tones that can be in a polished, satin, or matte finish. For instance, brass PVD finishes are not actually brass but a different metal, usually zirconium or titanium, used to simulate yellow metals like brass, copper, and gold. Gold is another metal that can be used but it's often too expensive to be cost-effective. Chromium can also be used to imitate silvery metals.

You can combine different types of metals with mixtures of nitrogen and reactive gases to achieve interesting finish effects like the various bronzes, antique brasses, nickels, and black. Chrome, however, is still chromium and can make the finish feel less durable than other PVD finishes, although PVD chrome is much harder than electroplated chrome.

The biggest limitation of PVD is the cost. The initial investment for the equipment is very high and the process is relatively slow compared to electroplating, so expect to pay more for a superior PVD finish over an electroplated finish.

Polishing:

A big difference in price between a quality production faucet, like Lulani, is polishing. Most faucet finishes are not exactly perfect when they are removed from their finishing process. They likely still have to be polished.

In most mid-range manufacturing facilities, the polishing is done by machining at the very end of the process. To achieve the trademark, lustrous finishes of a Lulani high-end faucet, we meticulously polish several times throughout the finishing process.

The first step of the process is to polish the native brass to a high sheen, which removes all possible blemishes. Next, an undercoat is applied, usually with zinc or nickel, and is also given careful polishing. Then, the finish is applied with one to multiple coats.

The polishing process is an art that can take a lot of time to master: too much polishing can cut through the finish and expose the undercoat; too little polishing won’t produce the desired brilliance. The time and effort to successfully develop this skill are absolutely worth it, though. The luster, depth, and overall brilliance of a high-end finish are unmatched. It’s a true sign that the faucet is an authentic, premium product.