Story of Manufacturing

The Story of Plating
The God of Plating

Have you ever noticed that the plating color

featured on the cavity of Beres MG701 series clubs differs by grade?

The 1S is black with a hint of soft silver, the 2S is golden tone with a whitish touch, the 3S is a golden pink, and the 4S and 5S are a crisp gold hue. Honma Golf is one of the few golf club manufacturers that does the plating process in-house, and the fact that the finish is of such high quality attests to the level of perfection of our internal production system.

At Honma Golf’s Sakata Plant, there is a man known as the “god of plating.” He’s the director of the plant, and his name is Naoki Abe. He was first called in to supervise in-house plating when it first began at Sakata 22 years ago, and has been there ever since.

The fact that Honma clubs are considered “works of art” that go way beyond the ordinary golf club is entirely due to his having dedicated 35 years of his life to plating process research and development.

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Abe happened upon the coating process entirely by chance. He always enjoyed tinkering with machines, and upon graduation from an industrial high school in his home town of Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture, he found work as an engineer at a Tokyo bus company.

Sightseeing buses were wildly popular at the time, and together with his fellow engineers, who were about the same age as he was, he was fully enjoying the life in the big city that he had longed for. “There were a lot of pretty bus guides, and that was really fun,” Abe laughs.

But a few years after he left for Tokyo, Abe received a letter from his parents in Tsuruoka urging him to come home. At first he was able to hold them off for a while, but after a few years he was forced to give up.

He was wondering what on earth he would be able to do in Tsuruoka work-wise.

When he was pondering this, he suddenly got an offer form a Tokyo-based European-style dishware manufacturer that was building a plant in Tsuruoka. He asked them to let him stay in Tokyo for training until the plant began operating. He couldn’t imagine what it would entail, but he slipped right into his new line of work with perfect timing.

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Starting from Zero

It goes without saying that Honma Golf is the golf club manufacturer that revolutionized plating technology.

All Abe had at that time was a group of empty buildings on the plant site designated as the “plating process buildings.”

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He was then told to create a facility with a plating processing output capacity three times as large as the volume previously outsourced. Calculating inversely considering the capacity, the plating processing facility would require 30 long, thin, basin-like items linked together in a U shape for a total length of 20 meters. The basins were for soaking the club heads in the plating liquid, as well as for washing away impurities before and after the plating process, meaning that quite a number of them would be required for the whole process. The height of the basins was 1.4 meters.

The equipment also contained five 1.2-meter poles, each with twenty branches, in which the club heads were fastened and dipped one by one into the liquid. Together they looked like backward combs. For the plating process, they were dunked basin to basin. This meant that the ceiling of the plant had to be at least as high as the basins and the poles placed one on top of the other. In addition, there also had to be room for the motor that lifted the poles, so we wanted a total height of four meters.

The ceiling of the buildings that Abe had to work with, however, was some tens of centimeters low. Abe proceeded to lower the floor by 50 centimeters. In anticipation of the rare case that some of the plating liquid spilled from the basin, he created a solid foundation in the shape of a bowl to keep the liquid from flowing outside the building.

The equipment was then brought in, and it was time for a test run. Abe fastened a club onto the equipment, and flipped the switch to start the entire coating procedure. It would take about two hours. Abe paced around the plant, waiting and wondering, “How will it turn out?”.

The first club heads to go through the plating process at Sakata Plant had color variation.

Except for the edging, the coating hadn’t covered some of the more complex parts including the cavity. “I wonder what will happen if I make the current stronger,” Abe thought, so next he upped the electrical current running through the plating liquid, re-doing the whole process. This time the edge got burned.

Next he thought of a new idea: “Let’s move the electrodes closer together.” He moved the electrode in the basins, through which a current was running, as close as possible to the electrode with the clubs attached. Because the 5 poles holding the clubs had to come down from a height of 1.2 meters, there was some shaking and wobbling before they got to the basin.

Abe and his staffs supported these with their hands and slowly placed them in the liquid, without touching the electrode in the basin, as it came close to them. This procedure resulted in complete plating. Later, in order to keep wobbling to a minimum, Abe made the electrodes thicker, completing the process of adjusting the production equipment.

Still more work was needed to commercialize the product. The club head hosel was bent at maximum until it just about broke to test whether or not the plating would come off, and the coating snapped right off with pressure. Abe wondered if the pre-plating process was insufficient, and he put the clubs through a process of pre-plating washing. At last the plating withstood the testing.

"Mass production is within our reach!" Abe was elated with his achievement. It had been four months since his assignment to the Sakata Plant.

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Honma Makes the Shift to Gold Plating

Out of all the world’s golf club manufacturers, there are two things that only Honma can do. First, there’s the gold plating on the head ―more specifically, the technology to place gold plating on top of chrome plating, the latter being indispensable to durability. The second is the technology to mass produce the gold-plated club head.

This innovation caused a shift: where the club was previously viewed as a sports utility item, it was now a work of art, and the gold plating became an object of envy for golfers everywhere. Yet it was also a product of a process of trial and error.

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In 1984, Abe made another discovery at a different place?this time not the plating line. We had to find out how thick the chrome plating needed to be to ensure that the iron head would be sufficiently resistant to dirt and bunkers, and we did this by using a blast machine.
We tested other manufacturers’ iron heads one by one in the machine, measuring and carefully recording how many seconds it took for the plating to come off. Next we sandblasted Honma heads coated with various thicknesses of plating. That’s how we determined the “Honma standard”: after seemingly endless testing, we decided to create plating much thicker than the most durable of the competitor products.

In general, iron plating was comprised of three layers: copper, nickel, and a top coat of chrome that forms a protective film when it comes into contact with air.

In the beginning, Honma Golf also manufactured these triple-layer plated irons.

The following year, after the Plaza Accord, the yen suddenly gained in value, the government adopted a policy of low interest rates, and the unprecedented stock and real estate inflated “bubble” economy was upon us.

Our company founders, in careful observance of the trends of the time, asked Abe to make a gold-plated iron head. But there was one problem. Because chrome plating creates a protective film, it was like oil repelling water. So there was no way to put gold plating on top of it.

“It’s never going to work.”

That’s what Abe thought. It was just common sense in talking about plating. But Abe had his pride as a craftsman. He began to search for an answer, reading everything he could on the subject.

Just when he was convinced he’d thought of everything, and almost given up, he picked up a certain pamphlet. It was a bolt from the blue: brush electroplating.

The process of brush electroplating consisted of coating felt attached to a rod with the plating liquid, running a positive current through the felt, and a negative current through the coating. The felt is rubbed repeatedly to make the coating adhere.

With this procedure, the part of the head that has been coated with chrome is dissolved with acid using a brush. Then nickel plating is applied, followed by gold plating?yes, then it would be possible! But there was a problem.

The brush electroplating had to be done by hand, one by one. It took 20 minutes to do just one gold plated head. And because it had to be done so carefully and required so much concentration, production was limited to some 10-plus clubs per day. We were able to do it with a team of several people, but the demand for gold-plated clubs began to far surpass production capacity.

Abe was convinced: “We should be able to mass produce using the brush electroplating technique. There must be a way.”

And so he placed a small tub in corner of the research lab, and from here?in his limited spare time at work!―began doing mass production experiments using various kinds of acids. He altered the concentration of the acid, the ratio of ingredients, processing time―and made detailed records of all of the different combinations. He did the sandblast testing on the items that looked good on the outside, but they failed the durability test.

He made the acid strong to fully remove the chrome, but ugly marks appeared. He went on like this for several months, trying all different kinds of things and making mistake after mistake until he finally arrived at the “golden number.”?the perfect acid blend, density, and processing time.

“I’ve finally got it!,” he thought.

And that day, Abe the strong, silent type was all smiles. Our daily production capacity rose from a paltry 10-something to 2,000 clubs. The year was 1992---the golden days of the bubble period.

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The Lost Decade

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In the 1970s, Honma attracted a great many fans, mainly amongst professional golfers. In the 1980s, we followed the trends of the bubble economy, expanding our sights to include upper income groups and businessmen. Though our technology was instrumental here, aggressive marketing strategies were also a critical factor.

For our wood club, we focused on the persimmon, which we polished until it was utterly silky-smooth. For our irons, we instituted our polishing system for 1-5 star grades the year we achieved successful mass production of the gold plating process. Abe, demonstrating the craftsmanship he had developed making European-style dishware, created different styles of decorative plating by grade.

The resultant iron (the LB-280) had a higher loft than previous models to ensure the best carry, and the blade was also polished to perfection to produce maximum positive impact at setup. The result was a wildly popular product.

The combination of high performance with an artistic look for this iron meant that the five-star sold as hotly as the luxury cars of the time, and businessmen everywhere could be heard saying, “Someday I’ll get Honma clubs.” The gold-plated line was expanded, and plant operations continued full-scale day-in, day-out.

Due to the impact of the collapsed bubble economy in the early 1990s, however, the golf market began to take an unmistakable tumble over a period of just a few years.

The changing economy was especially hard on us at Honma compared to our competition due to the fact that our clubs were expensive. First, the popularity of the persimmon wood declined with the debut of stainless steel on the market. Honma made the transition from wood to steel about a year after other companies did, but by then the structure of the market had already changed. The demand for golf clubs itself dropped, and newer, less pricy brands appeared in droves.

However, we knew that since we hadn't compromised our quality or our reputation, we would, without a doubt, be able to sell our products if we could only develop pricing strategy appropriate to demand. Using the declining market to our advantage, Honma introduced a continuous stream of new models. Amidst the “lost decade” of Japan’s economy, the twin gears of Honma Golf pricing and production steadily moved toward recovery.

Demand for Honma Golf’s high-grade iron made a huge shift from the domestic to the world market. On the occasion of the launch of the LB series in 1992, the clubs sold like wildfire in neighboring Asian countries including Korea and Thailand. As demand fell at home, Honma made the shift from “Honma of Japan” to “Honma of the world.”

While this new paradigm was developing, Abe worked alone aggressively to polish his gold plating technique. What kind of plating decoration appeals to Japanese people? How about abroad? What type of design best shows off Honma’s unique two-tone plating? In a corner of the research lab at Sakata Plant, the Beres brand was slowly taking shape.

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Going for the Ultimate in Plating

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“Japanese consumers are bound to get bored of plain old gold plating.”

Trends and tastes tend to come and go very quickly in Japan, and we were convinced that sooner or later our market would tire of gold-only. Abe felt quite strongly about this, and so he decided to go ahead and try making a variety of plating colors. Because plating is fused to ionized metals, only metallic finish colors are possible with this process. We created and stored a variety of metallic-tone samples, including black and red.

In 2004, we were poised to launch the new Beres band. This was a huge shift away from the Twin Marks clubs, and as a company we were really taking our chances. We set our sights on the challenge of creating a never-before-seen kind of plating: we wanted to vary the plating tones of the 1S to the 5S. The development team at Sakata Plant began the task of surveying something that couldn’t be further removed from them: women’s fashion magazine and high-fashion brand shops!

They looked into popular colors of popular brand items, including bag decorations, belts, earrings, and rings. And what did they find? Pink, gold, black, and sliver! The craftsmen proceeded to hit the beakers, preparing some 10-plus different kinds of plating solutions appropriate to these four colors. The copper-based platinum solution produced a gorgeous pink, but like a penny it changed color over time. When we tried a topcoat to prevent the color change, we lost the much-sought-after metallic luster.

Three months passed working with the beakers. We decided to make the gold finish with the 24 carat gold, the pink with 14 carat gold, and the black and silver ones with nickel alloys. When it came to mass production, however, we had a problem with color inconsistency on the Beres cavity, which had a complicated two-piece structure and a broad surface area.

Immediately we tried sounding out the reason, altering the plating solution density, electric current, temperature, churning process, orientation of the metal parts, and so on.

Abe compared the results of the various tests. He found that the alloys other than the 24-carat gold were plagued with color inconsistency. In combining different metals for the alloyed platings, the problem came from slight discrepancies in solution concentration. The idea was to minimize these differences to the greatest extent possible.

The answer was actually quite simple.

We had to analyze the components of the solution each time we did the plating and adjust it slightly, which meant that mass production would be virtually impossible. Abe and his team compiled data whenever they did a plating, amassing vast amounts of it. To their great surprise, the more they measured, the more they found that even the slightest change in concentration would cause the dreaded color inconsistency. They proceeded to improve the plating equipment accordingly.

As a finishing touch, they etched the “B” mark onto the back of the face. This concluded the plating development process. The entire battery of techniques that Abe had amassed over half of his lifetime was now incorporated into the Beres.

Holding each of the grades of Beres clubs in your hand, take a moment to get a sense of the difference in color and beauty between them: the life blood of the Sakata craftsmen behind that gorgeous color is palpable.

(The Story of Plating/Fin)

*characters's name, title, position and other circumstances have been discribed as used to be at the time

Story of Manufacturing