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Martha's Tips for Gleaming, Tarnish-Free Metal

Copper, brass, and silver pieces add warmth and elegance to any room. Over time, tarnish is inevitable—but it’s easy to polish away. Follow a few simple tips to keep these metals looking their most lustrous.

Photography by: José Picayo
When it’s time to polish metal pieces, cover your work area, and line sinks with old towels to prevent scratches and dents.

Tips and Techniques

Tarnish can’t be avoided: It’s caused by the reaction between a metal object and its environment. Sunlight, moisture, heat, fireplace smoke, and certain foods are all common culprits. But tarnish itself isn’t harmful, so polish only to maintain the gleam that you like.

Photography by: José Picayo

Golden Rules of Polishing

1. Be gentle. Polishing wears off small amounts of metal each time, a crucial consideration for plated pieces—you can eventually rub right through the plating. Don’t polish away patina: If you work hard to remove the tarnish from every crevice in a silverware pattern, for example, you’re reducing the contrasts of dark and light that show off that pattern.


2. Use a good-quality product formulated for the specific metal (“all-purpose” polishes can be too harsh). Chemical dips are generally too strong and should be avoided.


3. Look for a previous polishing pattern—often up-and-down on cutlery and circular on pots or other large pieces—and follow it.


4. Use soft cotton cloths to polish; old T-shirts work well. Reserve a different cloth for each metal so you don’t mix products.


5. Don’t be afraid to enjoy your metal treasures. Using silverware, for example, means that it’s getting washed more often, which helps keep tarnish at bay.

Photography by: José Picayo

Start by hand-washing items with mild soap. This removes dust and dirt and may remove some tarnish, too. Dry each item carefully.

Photography by: José Picayo

Follow the package instructions for each polish. After polishing, rewash pieces that you use for cooking or serving food. Decorative or display items can just be buffed.

Photography by: José Picayo

Getting Into the Nooks
A soft toothbrush is great for polishing patterns and hard-to-reach spots.

Metal by Metal

Special considerations for each material.

Avoid using silver with sulfurous food (such as eggs), as well as prolonged contact with salt. Hand-wash your silverware rather than putting it in the dishwasher. When silver isn’t in use, you can slow tarnish by storing it in protective cloth.
Pacific Silvercloth, from $23 a yd.,

Outdoor decorations made of copper are often left to develop a green patina. (Think of the Statue of Liberty.) Cookware and other items are usually polished. My favorite copper polish is from Eve Stone Antiques ($40, It works beautifully and leaves a protective coating on the metal so it will tarnish less quickly.

This alloy of copper and zinc tarnishes easily, which is why many pieces are coated in clear lacquer. The problem is that this lacquer can chip and the metal can begin tarnishing beneath the coating, which then needs to be removed. So, like many collectors, I prefer unlacquered brass, and polish it when necessary.


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