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