Select Page

Electroforming Vs. Electroplating: Key Differences Explained

by | May 18, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Core Distinctions: Electroforming fabricates entirely new metallic objects with intricate details, while electroplating enhances existing conductive objects with a thin metallic layer for improved functionality or aesthetics.
  • Material Considerations: Electroforming offers broader material flexibility, including exotic metals like titanium, while electroplating prioritizes functionality, selecting metals to enhance specific properties like corrosion resistance or conductivity.
  • Cost and Complexity Analysis: Electroforming generally entails higher costs due to custom mandrel creation and longer processing times, whereas electroplating is more cost-effective with simpler setups and faster processing, making it suitable for high-volume production.


Electroforming and electroplating, two pillars of the metal finishing industry, might seem interchangeable at first glance. Both utilize the power of electricity to manipulate metal ions, ultimately depositing a metallic layer. However, for seasoned industry professionals, the distinction between these techniques is paramount for achieving the desired outcome.

In this piece, we will discuss the fundamental disparities between electroforming and electroplating, illuminate their unique methodologies, and explore the diverse applications where each excels. 


Definition of Electroforming vs Electroplating

Both electroforming and electroplating utilize the magic of electricity to manipulate metals at a microscopic level. But while they share this core principle, the final results are distinct. Here’s a breakdown of each process:



Electroforming is a metal forming process that uses electrodeposition to produce intricate and precise metal components. It involves building up layers of metal onto a substrate, usually a conductive mold or mandrel, using an electrical current.

This method allows for the creation of complex shapes, microstructures, and high-precision parts that may be difficult or impossible to achieve through traditional manufacturing methods. 



Electroplating, conversely, is a surface finishing process that involves coating a conductive object with a thin layer of metal using electrolysis. Unlike electroforming, which builds up material to form a complete part, electroplating adds a superficial metal layer to enhance the substrate material’s appearance, corrosion resistance, or other properties.




Process Comparison: Electroforming vs Electroplating

Electroforming and electroplating are cornerstone processes within the metal finishing industry, both leveraging the principles of electrodeposition. However, a discerning understanding of their distinct functionalities is crucial for optimizing industrial applications.

This analysis explores the meticulous comparison of these techniques, highlighting the key process variations and their impact on final product characteristics.


  • Electroforming: This method necessitates the creation of a mandrel. This mold, often crafted from conductive materials like wax, plastic, or even sacrificial metals, dictates the final geometry of the electroformed object. To facilitate electroplating, the mandrel requires a conductive coating.
  • Electroplating: Existing, inherently conductive objects take center stage in this process. Rigorous pre-cleaning and surface preparation are paramount to ensure a robust bond between the base metal and the deposited layer.


Electrolyte Bath

  • Electroforming: A meticulously chosen metal salt is dissolved within a suitable electrolyte solution. The mandrel, alongside an anode (typically comprised of the same metal being deposited), is submerged in this bath.
  • Electroplating: Like electroforming, the chosen metal salt is dissolved within the electrolyte bath. The pre-cleaned object to be plated acts as the cathode, while the anode, again, is constructed from the metal being deposited



  • Electroforming: Upon activation of the electrical current, metal ions in solution are attracted to the negatively charged mandrel (cathode). Reaching the surface, they are reduced and deposited as a solid metal layer. This process continues meticulously until the desired thickness is achieved.
  • Electroplating: The application of electricity drives the metal ions within the solution towards the existing object (cathode). Here too, reduction occurs, resulting in a thin layer deposited on the surface. The plating time dictates the final thickness of the deposited metal.


Product Acquisition

  • Electroforming: Once the target thickness is attained, the true magic unfolds. The mandrel is meticulously removed, leaving behind a new, freestanding metallic object. This object boasts intricate details faithfully replicating the mandrel’s design.
  • Electroplating: No removal is necessary here! The pre-existing object remains, now enhanced with a new metallic layer that elevates its properties or appearance.


Key Distinctions

The fundamental distinction lies in the objective: electroforming constructs entirely new objects, while electroplating enhances existing ones. This core difference impacts other aspects as well:

  • Thickness: Electroforming deposits have significantly thicker layers compared to electroplating.
  • Object Type: Electroforming is versatile enough to work with non-conductive objects (thanks to the mandrel), whereas electroplating necessitates a conductive base.
  • Applications: Electroforming excels in creating intricate, high-precision components, while electroplating focuses on enhancing functionality or aesthetics.

By meticulously comprehending these process variations and their impact on final product characteristics, professionals can leverage the optimal technique to achieve their specific industrial project requirements.


Industry Applications of Electroforming and Electroplating

Electroforming and electroplating are invaluable processes with various applications in various industries.


Electroforming Applications

  • Aerospace Industry:  In the aerospace industry, electroforming is commonly used to create intricate components such as lightweight and high-strength airplane parts, satellite components, and communication devices. The aerospace industry benefits from the precision and durability that electroforming offers.
  • Medical Devices: Electroforming produces medical devices such as stents, catheters, and orthopedic implants. These components require intricate designs and high levels of precision, making electroforming an ideal choice due to its ability to create complex shapes and thin walls with uniform thickness.
  • Electronics Industry: The electronics industry relies on electroforming to manufacture components like circuit boards, connectors, and antennas. Electroforming ensures high conductivity and corrosion resistance in electronic components, enhancing their performance and longevity.


Electroplating Applications

  • Automotive Industry: Electroplating is extensively used in the automotive sector to enhance the appearance and durability of automobile parts. Chrome plating, nickel plating, and other finishes protect metal surfaces from corrosion and wear while providing an attractive finish.
  • Jewelry Making: In the jewelry industry, electroplating is employed to apply thin layers of precious metals like gold and silver onto base metals. This process enhances the aesthetics of jewelry pieces, making them more affordable and appealing to consumers.
  • Metal Finishing and Surface Treatment: Electroplating finds applications in various industries for providing corrosion protection, wear resistance, and decorative finishes to metal substrates, including steel structures, pipelines, and industrial machinery.


  Metal Finishing


  • Household Items: Electroplating is also prevalent in producing household items such as faucets, doorknobs, and kitchenware. By electroplating these items with corrosion-resistant metals, their lifespan is extended, and their visual appeal is enhanced.


Electroforming vs Electroplating: Major Differences

Understanding these crucial differences is essential for selecting the optimal technique for a given application.

Core Objective:

  • Electroforming: This process excels at creating entirely new, freestanding metallic objects. It meticulously deposits metal ions layer by layer onto a mold (mandrel), resulting in a high-fidelity metallic replica.
  • Electroplating: In contrast, electroplating focuses on enhancing existing conductive objects. A thin metal layer is deposited onto the surface to improve its properties or aesthetics.


Product Characteristics:

  • Electroforming: The outcome is a new, freestanding metallic object with intricate details faithfully replicating the mandrel’s design. The achievable thickness can range from microns to millimeters.
  • Electroplating: The existing object remains unaltered, but it now boasts a thin layer (typically microns) of deposited metal on its surface.


Base Material Compatibility:

  • Electroforming: This technique offers greater versatility and can also work with non-conductive objects. However, the mandrel must be conductive for the process to function.
  • Electroplating: Electroplating necessitates a conductive base object. Electricity requires a conductive pathway through the object for successful plating.


  • Electroforming: Ideal for creating high-precision, intricate components, replicating existing objects for preservation or limited production runs, working with exotic or challenging metals, and crafting advanced filters with specific pore structures.
  • Electroplating: This process excels in corrosion protection, enhancing electrical conductivity or wear resistance of existing components, and creating decorative finishes for a desired aesthetic appeal.


Concise Differentiation:

  • Electroforming = Fabricating entirely new, high-precision metallic objects.
  • Electroplating = Enhancing existing conductive objects with a thin metallic layer for improved functionality or aesthetics.


Material Considerations: Electroforming vs Electroplating

While electroforming and electroplating utilize electrodeposition, they present distinct material considerations for achieving optimal results in professional applications.


Electroforming: A Broader Material Landscape

Electroforming offers greater flexibility in material selection. The electrolyte and deposited metal options encompass a wider range, extending beyond commonly used metals like nickel and copper. This versatility allows for incorporating exotic and specialty metals like titanium or beryllium.

However, careful consideration must be given to ensure compatibility with the chosen mandrel material and the desired final properties of the electroformed object. Factors like thermal expansion coefficients and potential interactions between the mandrel and deposited metal must be meticulously evaluated to ensure a successful and high-quality outcome.


Electroplating: Prioritizing Functionality

In electroplating, material selection prioritizes enhancing the properties of the existing conductive base material. Here, the focus is on selecting a metal that effectively addresses the specific functional need. For instance, nickel plating is often employed for its exceptional corrosion resistance, while gold plating is preferred for its superior electrical conductivity. 

Compatibility between the base material and the deposited metal is paramount for a robust and adherent bond. Understanding surface preparation techniques and potential diffusion phenomena between the two materials is crucial for the electroplated component’s long-term performance and optimal functionality.


Cost and Complexity Analysis

Industrial professionals must comprehensively understand these factors to select the most economical and efficient technique for a given application.



  1. Cost Analysis: Electroforming generally presents a higher cost proposition compared to electroplating. This can be attributed to several key factors:


  1. Mandrel Creation: The requirement for a custom-designed mandrel, often crafted from specialized materials and techniques, adds a significant cost element.
  2. Material Selection: Electroforming’s ability to work with a wider range of materials, including exotic or specialty metals, can further elevate material costs compared to the standard options typically used in electroplating.
  3. Process Duration: Electroforming, due to its focus on creating thicker deposits, typically involves longer processing times, which translates to increased labor and energy costs.


  • Complexity Assessment: Electroforming can be a more intricate process. Factors like meticulous mandrel design, selection of materials for both the mandrel and deposited metal, and precise control over deposition parameters all contribute to the overall complexity.



  • Cost Analysis: Electroplating is generally considered the more cost-effective option due to several advantages:


  1. Simplified Setup: Eliminating the mandrel requirement translates to a simpler initial setup, potentially reducing material and labor costs.
  2. Material Availability: Electroplating often utilizes more common and readily available metals, lowering material costs.
  3. Faster Processing: Thinner deposits and less complex geometries typically translate to shorter processing times, reducing labor and energy costs associated with the electroplating process.
  • Complexity Assessment: Electroplating is generally considered less complex compared to electroforming. The process focuses on applying a thin layer to an existing object, requiring less intricate setup and control measures.


Strategic Selection for Optimal Value

The decision between electroforming and electroplating hinges on several key considerations:

  • Project Requirements: When high-precision, intricate components are paramount, the higher cost and complexity of electroforming may be a justifiable investment.
  • Material Selection: Despite the cost implications, electroforming might be the only viable option if the desired final product necessitates utilizing exotic or specialty metals.
  • Production Volume: For high-volume production runs, electroplating’s faster processing times and potentially lower material costs can offer significant economic advantages.


Finding the Right Balance

Industrial professionals can make informed decisions by carefully weighing the cost and complexity factors against the desired outcome and project requirements. In some cases, a synergistic approach combining both techniques might even be the most effective solution. Electroforming can be used to create a master mandrel, which can be employed for a more cost-effective electroplating process for high-volume production runs.


Final Thoughts

The comparison between electroforming and electroplating reveals significant differences in purpose, process, applications, and cost-complexity dynamics. 

Electroforming excels in creating thick, detailed metal parts for industries like microelectronics and aerospace, albeit at a higher cost and complexity. Conversely, electroplating provides thin metal coatings for various applications at a lower cost and complexity, making it suitable for mass production. The decision between the two depends on specific requirements and budget considerations.

As the world’s largest independent aerospace product finishing company, Valence Surface Technologies stands out as the trusted partner in aerospace surface finishing. Focusing on providing a completely integrated solution for companies in the aviation, defense, and space industries, Valence offers unparalleled expertise and quality in electroplating processes.

Contact us today and take your aerospace manufacturing to new heights!

Read also:


Frequently Asked Questions


How does the thickness of the deposited metal differ between electroforming and electroplating?

Electroforming typically results in a thicker metal deposit compared to electroplating. This is because electroforming creates entire parts by depositing metal onto a mandrel, which is later removed. In contrast, electroplating mainly adds a thin metal layer to an existing surface for corrosion resistance or aesthetic improvement.


Is electroforming environmentally friendly compared to electroplating?

Due to the chemicals used in the metal deposition process, both processes can have environmental impacts. However, the environmental friendliness of either process depends largely on how waste materials are managed and the measures taken to minimize toxic emissions. Advances in both fields are continually reducing these environmental impacts.


Can electroplated parts be further processed using electroforming techniques?

Yes, electroplated parts can be further processed using electroforming techniques. For example, an initial layer of metal can be applied through electroplating to prepare a surface before adding additional metal thickness through electroforming.


What factors influence the choice between electroforming and electroplating for a particular application?

The choice between electroforming and electroplating depends on several factors including the desired thickness of the metal deposit, the complexity and precision of the part, production volume needs, and the specific properties required of the finished piece, such as strength or conductivity.


Are there specific safety precautions to be taken during electroforming and electroplating?

Yes, safety precautions must be taken to protect workers from the hazardous chemicals used in both processes. Proper ventilation, protective equipment, and adherence to safety protocols are essential to minimize exposure to harmful substances.


What types of metals can be used for electroforming and electroplating?

Various metals, including nickel, copper, gold, silver, zinc, and chromium, can be used for electroforming and electroplating. The choice of metal depends on the application’s specific requirements, such as conductivity, corrosion resistance, or aesthetic appeal.


Can electroforming and electroplating be combined to achieve specific properties?

Yes, electroforming and electroplating can be combined in a single manufacturing process to achieve parts with specific properties. For instance, a part could be electroplated with one metal for enhanced conductivity and electroformed with another for increased structural strength.


Are there any alternative techniques to electroforming and electroplating?

Alternative techniques include chemical vapor deposition (CVD), physical vapor deposition (PVD), and powder coating. Each has its own advantages and is chosen based on the specific application’s requirements.


What quality control measures are employed during electroforming and electroplating?

Quality control measures include monitoring the chemical composition and temperature of the plating baths, conducting regular inspections of the deposited layers for thickness, uniformity, and adherence, and testing for desired mechanical and electrical properties.


Can electroformed parts be recycled or reused?

In many cases, electroformed parts can be recycled or reused. Metal parts can often be melted down and reformed into new products. However, the feasibility of recycling or reusing electroformed parts depends on the specific metals used and the complexity of the part’s design.

Our expertise and processes make doing business easy.