How to Clean and Polish Copper Homewares
Metal pieces made of brass, silver, and copper add warmth and elegance to any room. Over time, however, they're bound to lose their luster, developing a layer of tarnish. Even in optimal conditions—a cool, dry setting out of direct sunlight—tarnish can't be avoided. The reason? It's caused by the natural, unstoppable reaction between the metal object and its environment. While tarnish itself isn't harmful, it can be unsightly. Luckily, it's easy to polish away. (Though, a little patina is sometimes desirable, too.) You'll want to take extra care, however, when it comes to cleaning copper, which can be especially tricky; if you scrub too hard, you can scratch the metal and remove the finish. In order to safely and properly clean and polish this material, we've enlisted the help of Leslie Reichert, a green cleaning coach and the author of The Joy of Green Cleaning ($14.95, amazon.com), to compile tips using chemical-free products for effectively cleansing a wide array of copper products.
Before you get started, however, Reichert suggests checking to see if your copper has been sealed. If so, you will not want to clean it via the methods below. "The sealant could be an oil or a lacquer that was applied to prevent tarnishing. Cleaning the copper with a paste or even a lemon juice and salt mixture could completely remove the sealant." For items that aren't coated in a sealant, these treatments will amaze everyone who tries them and restore the natural vintage charm of even the most tarnished copper wares.
Gather your ingredients.
Be sure to have the following ingredients on hand, says Reichert, to remove and prevent tarnish and polish up copper pieces: baking soda, lemon juice, salt, vinegar, ketchup, baby oil, orange juice (as an alternative), and baking soda. You'll need the last-most ingredient on this list if you're doing a deep clean; it works well for spots that need a little extra attention, like the bottom of copper cookware. "The baking soda can be sprinkled on the area, followed by a sponge with warm water to gently go over the spot. Don't be too aggressive—you don't want to scratch the copper," says Reichert.
Acidic fruits, like lemons and oranges, remove tarnish when combined with salt.
Lemon juice and salt are useful for removing tarnish from copper in just three easy steps. First, squeeze the juice of the lemon into a bowl and sprinkle the salt into the juice. Reichert does a 75:25 ratio, with three times as much lemon as salt. Next, stir for one minute until the salt dissolves. Finally, dip a cloth into the solution and wipe the copper. "It's magic how it immediately removes the tarnish. I use this method instead of dipping the lemon in the salt to prevent scratching the copper," notes Reichert. If you don't have lemon juice, she suggests orange juice, instead, as it is also acidic.
Try vinegar or ketchup.
"If you have a large copper item and you want to clean it quickly, boil three cups of water and add a cup of vinegar and one tablespoon or more of salt," says Reichert. Next, stir the mixture until the salt is dissolved and then place the copper item in the water. "The tarnish will come right off." Though this method is the easiest, sometimes you want to apply a little elbow grease. If so, "use ketchup and spread it all around the copper. The acid in the tomatoes will remove the tarnish," notes Reichert. "After rubbing it all around the item, make sure to thoroughly rinse."
Prevention and care is key.
"Prevent the tarnishing of copper by wiping a light coat of baby or mineral oil over it right after cleaning," directs Reichert. Here's the thing: The metal must be cleaned completely before you apply the oil—but this is a step worth doing. "Copper starts to tarnish as soon as it's cleaned. The oil will seal the copper from the air and slow down the tarnishing process." As for the very best way to care for your copper cookware and collectibles? Reichert recommends lemon juice and dissolved salt method the most; this cleaning option, she says, won't remove the finish or scratch the metal. "This simple process is totally liquid and will not damage the surface," she affirms, noting that you should clean these items as frequently as you wish—or at the very least at the first sign of tarnish.