The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 1, 2002

Sunday Activity

Restore the shine on your brass

Overuse of polish can be bad for brass
Overuse of polish can be bad for brass

THIS column has already dealt with the upkeep of household items made of silver, copper and bronze. This week, we devote attention to brass. Among decorative items used in a home, brass artifacts are common---be they brass flower vases, figurines or lampshades.

To be able to take care of brass it is vital to know its characteristics and identify its enemies. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. It tends to oxidise (tarnish) quickly when exposed to moisture which is a major reason why most brass is given a clear coating of lacquer to prevent this condition. Polishes like Brasso coat the raw metal with a thin film of oil to inhibit future tarnishing. Additionally, most metal polishes contain solvents and detergents to remove the tarnish, mild abrasives to polish the metal, and oils to act as a barrier between the raw metal and air.

Ironically, often brass turns "black" due to over-use and misuse of polish. The biggest challenge to maintain most metals, including brass, is the removal and inhibition of tarnish. All substances, especially metals, oxidise when exposed to air. Once tarnish is removed, a chemical barrier should be created between the bare metal and the air to inhibit the process from re-occurring.

Cleaning ‘raw’ brass

The care of untreated brass involves two stages:

Rub alcohol: (for light soils) Apply rubbing alcohol with a scrubbing sponge. In the event of tougher scuff marks, flip over sponge and gently agitate with the grain of the metal with the scrub pad. Wipe surface thoroughly clean with a clean, soft rag. Once surface is cleaned, then go to the next step.

Polish with olive oil: Brass will look brighter and require less polishing if rubbed with a cloth moistened with olive oil after each polishing. Olive oil retards tarnish.

One of the best tools which provides just the right amount of oil onto metal is a "yellow" treated dust cloth. Wipe down brass with this cloth and then buff it dry with a soft, cotton cloth. This trace amount of oil in the cloth should not smear or discolour, especially after buffing.

Lacquering can be done at home, but all old lacquer must be removed first, and the surface completely clean (no fingerprints or cleaner on it) before spraying the lacquer on evenly in multiple thin coats. It is hard to do well. Keep decorative items dusted and clean. Wash in sudsy, lukewarm water, rinse and dry. Never use hot water on lacquered items as it loosens the lacquer; do not polish them or soak them in water.


Banish tarnish

Unlacquered brass tarnishes when exposed to air. A weekly wiping with a little liquid ammonia on a soft cloth will help keep unlacquered brass shiny. Use a homemade cleaner to remove tarnish. On antique brass, test the cleaning product to be sure of obtaining the desired effect. Some methods not only clean tarnish but also remove the mellow colouring of age that is desirable on old drawer pulls and other accessories.

Care of antiques

Wash in hot, soapy water to remove grime, wax, etc. Rinse and dry. Moisten a soft cloth with boiled linseed oil and rub on the brass surface until all the dirt and grease have been removed. Polish with a soft cloth. Very old brass items, especially if in poor condition, require special care. To polish for a soft finish: wash in hot, soapy water, rinse and dry. Wipe off excess paste and polish with a clean cloth.

To remove heavy tarnish, difficult stains and corrosion: wash in hot, soapy water or a weak ammonia and water solution and rinse. Dampen a soft cloth in hot vinegar, then dip in table salt and rub the brass, or make a paste of flour, salt and vinegar. You may need several applications. When the item is clean, wash in hot, soapy water, rinse and dry thoroughly, then polish with a cloth moistened with lemon oil. If preferred, dip a slice of fresh lemon into table salt and rub over the corroded area. Wash, rinse and dry carefully.

Rub special knick-knacks with extra-fine steel wool, but the metal must be rubbed in only one direction, do not use a circular motion. When clean, polish with a brass polish. Some commercial polishes do not require rinsing, so follow label directions.

Avoid overuse of polish

Guard against the belief that over-use of polish on metal surfaces protects them better. On the contrary, excess polish creates a smudging problem since fingerprints "dissolve" the solvency of the metal polish. Additionally, too much polish may discolour the surface. Only a trace creating a thin film should be applied. Therefore, an adequate amount of metal polish should be applied and spread out an amount on an absorbent rag. Then, let the rag dry for a minimum of 24 hours before using on metals. Apply a trace of polish with the grain of the brass with one hand while buffing it out in a rapid motion (creating friction) with the other hand. This burnishing action will harden the polish (like "spit shining" a shoe) and create a surface far more difficult to smudge or discolour. — CB

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