Cleaning Your Silver
Silver, when properly maintained, will yield generations of enjoyment. The following cleaning instructions have been tried and proven in my silver restoration & conservation studio. These instructions are for those individuals who are maintaining the vast majority of antique and new silver (fine silver, coin, sterling, Britannia, and other alloys) in the world. Solid gold is generally cared for in the same way as silver. Objects that are silverplated or goldplated over precious metal or basemetal must also be cleaned with the same care as solid metals. Museum conservators generally clean silver and gold in their collections by using a calcium carbonate/denatured alcohol mixture which will not be discussed here, for most individuals would prefer not to spend hours cleaning a teapot! Also, the more technical aspects of silver care have been kept to a minimum and are more appropriate for a general audience.
Silver is tarnished by sulfur-containing materials, particularly hydrogen sulfide (H2S). The most common tarnish-causing elements are wool, felt, food (eggs, onions, mayonnaise), fossil fuels, rubber bands, latex gloves, carpet padding, and certain paints. Tarnish is accelerated in a humid environment. Oily salts from our fingers may, if not removed, show up as corrosion patterns that may have to be professionally removed.
If there is no tarnish present on your silver, use a phosphate-free detergent to clean it after use. Silver that is used, then gently washed and dried immediately, will require seldom tarnish removal. When hand- washing, do not allow your silver to come in contact with a metal sink—it will scratch.
Tarnish is easily removed when first noticed (usually a yellowish tint), and will become increasingly difficult to deal with as it turns to light brown and eventually black. Frequent light cleanings, (washing the object with a phosphate-free detergent may be all you’ll need) are preferred to waiting until the tarnish gets so stubborn that more abrasive polishes would have to be employed.
The polishes and cleaners listed here can be found in your local hardware store, department store, pharmacy, or listed distributors. 3M's Tarni-Shield™ Silver Polish and Twinkle® Silver Polish are by far the least abrasive of the commercial cleaners, and Tarni-Shield™ has a much more effective tarnish barrier than Twinkle. Goddard’s™ Long Shine Silver Polish and Silver Wash, and Wright's® Anti-Tarnish Silver Polish and Silver Cream (this product offers no tarnish protection) are all recommended in removing heavier tarnish and residue. Use Wright's® Silver Cream to remove stains on steel knife blades. If the choice is between a polish that protects better but is more abrasive, and one that does not protect as well but is far less abrasive, go with the less abrasive polish. Polishes that are meant to be washed off are less abrasive because they use a liquid to suspend the polishing ingredients.
Don’t use polishes that have dried-up; the abrasive particles are now much too concentrated and will harm your silver. Never use steel wool (too abrasive and rust may result if not fully rinsed from the interior of an abject), Scotch-Brite™ and scouring pads (too abrasive), or dips (too toxic...see Chemical Dips).
You may have noticed after cleaning your silver, that a purplish stain remained. This stain, or oxidized copper, is called firestain, and can be found on many colonial through nineteenth century pieces. It is not generally seen on pieces that have been produced by the large silver companies after the 1800s, though, many one-man silversmithing shops still use this technique. This depletion process leaves the object with a pure silver surface which is more resistant to tarnishing. The stain develops in sterling and coin silver when oxygen penetrates the outer surface of the object during brazing, oxidizing the copper content. Fine silver is left on the surface when acid chemically removes the oxidized copper, though, copper may be oxidized below the surface. These pieces will show this stain after many years of polishing.
Do not mistake this stain for tarnish! Attempting to remove it will only damage your prized piece.
Use this technique if you are polishing an object WITH porous attachments:
Wooden handles & finials, ivory insulators, felt used on the bottoms of candlesticks and compotes can become damaged when introduced to excess moisture. Also, hollow areas that will not dry (beaded rims, handle sockets with minute holes, etc.) or if there is no source of water, use Goddard’s™ Long Shine Silver Polish. Of the polishes listed above, this is the only one that is meant to be allowed to dry and buffed off. Always use 3M's Tarni-Shield™ if you can avoid introducing moisture to porous attachments or hollow areas. Use a large cotton ball with a small amount of polish and rotate the cleaning surface regularly to expose unused surfaces, for elements in the tarnish can be very abrasive. Rub the object in a straight, back-an-forth manner so to maintain a uniform appearance. Avoid rubbing in a circular motion. Let the polish dry and remove it with a Selvyt™ cloth (preferred) or cotton dish towel. Selvyt™ is a lint-free, untreated, 100% cotton wiping cloth which is also excellent for highlighting ornament. Always use the smallest amount of polish necessary.
A dry horsehair brush can be used to remove dried polish and grime from crevices and ornament on previously polished pieces before repolishing. A wet brush is preferred which will soften the bristles and aid in lifting the polish from the object's surface with minimal abrasion. When used wet, the bristles alone will not scratch the silver. A wet toothpick will get into the smallest areas.
Use this technique if you are polishing an object WITHOUT porous attachments:
If you are cleaning a piece with no porous attachments, rinse the object first to remove any pollution that may have settled on the object. These contaminants, which may be more abrasive than the polish you will be using, can actually scratch the silver if rubbed into the surface. Apply Tarni-Shield™, Twinkle®, Goddard’s™ Silver Wash, Wright's® Anti-Tarnish Silver Polish or Wright's® Silver Cream with a moist cellulose sponge. If you feel it necessary to protect your hands from moisture, use nitrile gloves which contain no ingredients to tarnish silver. Rub the object in a straight, back-an-forth manner so to maintain a uniform appearance. Avoid rubbing in a circular motion. Rinse the sponge regularly, for elements in the tarnish can be very abrasive. Flattened cotton swab heads with very little silver polish applied are excellent for cleaning between fork tines. The swab will last longer if you run it parallel within each opening.
Dried polish can be removed by patting the area with a warm, wet cotton ball or a wet horsehair brush. Rinse the object with warm water then dry with a Selvyt™ cloth or cotton dish towel immediately to avoid spotting.
Use a rouge cloth to restore the original luster to silver and gold which has been dulled by heavy tarnish. Unlike the Selvyt™ cloth which is untreated, the rouge cloth contains a polishing agent, normally rouge. I advise using untreated, heavyweight cotton inspection gloves to avoid finger prints when cleaning and storing your freshly cleaned objects. After dinner, if you prefer not to apply a tarnish protectant, wash all utensils by hand with a dishwashing detergent and warm water then dry immediately with a Selvyt™ cloth or cotton dish towel. Do not allow silver to come in contact with a metal sink, as the sink itself can scratch, especially if it’s been heavily abraded over time. And, do not allow food to remain on your flatware for extended periods; some foods contain ingredients that may cause stains, tarnish, or corrosion.
Originally published on Silver Smithing
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