This type of chemistry has always fascinated me. To see one substance transformed into another is miraculous. I recall our school chemistry teacher (very cautiously) dropping a small fragment of sodium metal into jar of chlorine gas at arms length using tongs. The explosive reaction of these two toxic elements produced harmless salt (NaCl). This isn’t alchemy, it’s science – a process which has been explained and understood. Chemical reactions occur everywhere. Batteries generate power for your mobile phone from a reaction of metal plates in an electrolyte, the combustion engine in your car harnesses the explosion of petroleum in the presence of oxygen in the air and even your body relies on a complex interplay of biochemical reactions to sustain the magical phenomenon of life.
These are examples of useful chemical reactions. There’s also detrimental or damaging chemistry we want to prevent. One example is galvanic corrosion which occurs when dissimilar metals are in contact with sea water. Another common example is rusting of mild steel or iron, such as what’s occured with my jack socket washer. In the presence of air and water the metal has oxidised to produce a red coloured oxide (rust). Ultimately the metal will corrode and crumble to dust. This was a huge problem with car bodywork up until the 1980s when manufacturers overcame the problem by galvanising (dipping in liquid zinc) or using improved painting processes to protect the metal surface.
What applies to car bodywork also applies to other ferrous (iron) components such as washers, nuts and other mounting hardware used in your guitar equipment. If not electroplated or coated properly hardware will slowly but surely corrode because of moisture in the atmosphere. Parts will become duller and even cause ugly discolouration of surrounding components and paintwork. The rate at which this happens will depend on the environment – bedroom use is much more forgiving than a hot and sweaty gig where the beer is flowing. My experiment ran for just a 24 hours and the parts were exposed to tap water. Just imagine the damage that beer or salt water would cause over years.
The chemistry of oxidation has been understood for many, many decades and remedies have been known about for almost as long. Nickel plating was developed and perfected during the 1930s so there really is no excuse for vendors of guitar parts to be selling unplated parts. Perhaps it is because we live in an age where dwindling natural resources are inflating the prices of metals. It could be a temptation for some manufacturers to skimp on quality and take short cuts with their products such as not protecting them with plating. It’s unlikely that a humble jack socket washer would be the cause a critical failure in your gear, however after a few years it certainly won’t be looking as perky as it did when it was new. Besides, it’s good engineering practice to plate these types of ferrous and brass parts. This is the level of quality we should expect, not something we should be having to perform our own quality assurance checks on.