Friday, May 31, 2013

How To Clean Brass with Natural Products

Cleaning Stained Vintage Brass - A Tutorial

Hollywood Regency Floor Standing Solid Brass Candlestick Holders

While cleaning a vintage item is never in question, whether to polish or not to polish brass, copper and silver is for many vintage sellers.   In general, patina is highly sought after, removing patina from vintage and antiques devalues the item.  Given the choice, I always opt for patina, in my shop I opt for a jeweler's cloth to clean and lightly polish most vintage jewelry.  However, with metal home decor and kitchenware the line is blurred.

Patina is one thing, stains are another.
I was faced with this exact situation recently with these three extra large floor standing brass candle holders.

The tallest candlestick stands 26 3/8 inches , the medium candlestick 21 1/2 inches and the smallest 18 inches tall without candles. These mid century solid brass Hollywood Regency style vintage candle holders were meant to be elegant and beautiful - to make a visual statement.  To have a presence in a room.

Taking this into consideration, I decided to polish.

All three had staining similar to the one pictured here on the left.  Who knows what from or how deep the reactive stain reached, committing to them was a risk.

I knew I could use a commercial brass cleaner and 0000 fine steel wool, available in the grocery and hardware stores.  Very expensive and who wants that in their kitchen sink and going down the drain?  As many of you know, last year I moved from Orlando, Florida to the mountains of Blue Ridge, Georgia.  Moving to a more natural location has heightened my senses to be even more ecologically minded in the way I live. Our cabin, on septic, is located right across the road from the Taccoa River, so I wanted to be ecologically responsible in my choice of treatment.

I found several web and blog sites recommending this or that all natural treatment.  What was lacking was examples of how well the suggested treatment worked as well as before and after photographs.  Several of which didn't work, or didn't work well enough to deal with the staining on my brass candle holders.  I'll talk more about that later.  Let me share what did work the best first and what you'll need to get started.  Relax it's all natural and probably in your kitchen pantry right now!

Things You'll Need

  • Spoon - I used a stainless steel spoon, a wooden spoon would work also.
  • Flour - I used regular unbleached all purpose flour.
  • Kosher Salt
  • Vinegar 5% to 6% acidity - I used cider vinegar but you could use white vinegar.
  • Bowl - I used a plastic mushroom container which I wash and keep for projects like this.
  • Cotton Swab - To apply the paste directly on the stain.
  • Sponge - to apply the paste for over all treatment.
  • Olive Oil - to protect the metal from the air after it has been cleaned and polished.

Prep Work

If your candle holders break down into smaller pieces - take them apart one at a time and wash with warm soapy water and dry with a soft cloth or kitchen towel.  This will remove any oils,dust and surface dirt allowing the mixture to reach the metal more efficiently and uniformly.

Many older pieces of brass have been lacquered.  It's important to know if your piece has been lacquered you will have to use more traditional treatments to remove the lacquer prior to polishing.  This treatment will not remove lacquer.  For pieces which are lacquered you can use a traditional brass cleaner with 0000 fine steel wool, being careful not to rub in a circular motion or apply so much pressure as to deeply scratch the surface of the metal.  Fine marks can be buffed out with a lamb's wool buffer attached to a drill.

Step One

Mix the paste.  I wasn't and didn't exactly measure the ingredients and I made them in batches; treating and cleaning over a couple of days without issue.  I did attempt to stay somewhat consistent and used a heaping 1/4 cup of flour, kosher salt and vinegar per batch.  I doubled this when applying the overall treatment.  You can adjust for too much vinegar if your paste is too thin by adding equal parts of flour and salt until the mixture is thick enough not to run.

Staining prior to treatment.

Step Two - Stain Treatment

I applied the paste to the stained areas and allowed it to work for 10 minutes or so for each treatment.

First application of paste on stains.

Darn those stubborn stains - many will require more than
one treatment.  This is after the first treatment.

Many stains will require additional treatments.  Mind required four or five.  Leaving the paste on longer than 10 minutes didn't impact how effective the application was.  Because this is such a frugal and inexpensive project costing pennies reapplication isn't a cost concern.  I'd also like to note that if you look at the back left section of the candlestick you can see the color difference even with the paste on.  Gone is the sickly green tarnish, and a rosy hue is revealed.  This isn't possible with commercial brass cleaners which will give you more of a golden hue.

I did try rubbing the paste into the stain with a terry wash cloth with some success in the tough areas.  Having said that, friction creates heat.  And the terry will expose a fresh surface for allowing more contact between paste and stain.  I tried warming the paste in the microwave and it improved the process slightly but not significantly; or to a degree as to make heating a requirement for success.  Repeated application was the most successful strategy.

Step Three - Overall Treatment

Once you have removed the stains you will need to treat the overall piece.  I used a kitchen sponge to apply the paste over all the surface.  It's as simple as it sounds, apply wait 10 minutes, rinse and dry.  Reapply as needed.

The piece below has been spot treated and treated overall.  You will note the uneven finish.  I did one more overall treatment then smoothed out the unevenness with a jeweler's cloth.

After spot treating and one overall treatment.

This is what the finish looks like when unevenness
is smoothed out with a jeweler's cloth.  Note not all of
the patina has been removed.

Before and after in the bright sun light.  Inside you
see a rich warm glow from the brass.
Again, I'd like to note the desired effect, for me, was not to make them look "as new" but to clean, remove the stains and polish without removing all the natural patina and age marks.  To that end this process was a total success!  I certainly appreciate the cost difference making this a frugal project.  Time wise I think I would have spent more active time using traditional methods.  I loved the fact that I didn't have caustic materials or the unpleasant fumes in the kitchen.  Clean up was easy and I didn't have to think twice about my food touching contaminated surfaces of the counter top.  I didn't have to worry about what was going into the septic tank.

Step Four - Sealing

Once you've cleaned and polished your brass it is time to create a barrier between the metal and the elements which cause tarnish.  If you are looking to build patina, don't seal but do dust regularly and try not to touch the metal with your bare hands.

Lightly oil the brass to reduce the metals exposure to the air and tarnish causing elements.  A light coating with olive oil will naturally do the trick or if you want a longer lasting product you can use boiled linseed oil, a drying oil , which has long been used to protect metal and wood used and stored out of doors.  If using boiled linseed oil, use some type of glove while applying and allow it to dry overnight.  As always with metals try not to touch the metal with your bare hands.

Should you want a more permanent finish lacquering will create a semi-permanent layer.  You can purchase lacquer in spray cans if you want to do it your self.  There are disadvantages to lacquering.  Should you get tarnish you must remove the lacquer to treat; a project in itself.  Lacquering also hurts resell value in some circumstances.

What Didn't Work

Salt and vinegar alone.  Either heated or cold.
Vinegar with  baking soda.  Either heated or cold.

These are the two other methods I tried prior to using the homemade flour salt and vinegar paste.  They did remove the slightest amount of tarnish and would probably work as maintenance treatments, however, for built up tarnish and staining the homemade all natural paste worked the best.

The brass candlestick holders will be available for purchase in my Etsy shop TheInspiredTrader on Saturday June 1, 2013.  I will post a link when the listing is up.

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I hope this is helpful to you in finding a natural ecological solution for your brass cleaning and DIY projects!