How to Clean Collectibles Made of Porcelain and Ceramics

China sets, vases, and pottery all need a gentle touch.

a porcelain tea set
Photo: Angela Buser Photo / Getty Images

Painted vases, vintage dinner plates, antique tea sets, dolls, and figurines—all of these coveted items provide timeless beauty. But unless your collectibles are behind glass, they are likely to accumulate dirt and grime from dust particles in the atmosphere. How you clean your pottery and porcelain collectibles depends on several factors, explains Stuart Slavid, the senior vice president of European decorative arts and silver at Skinner, Inc. "Is the item glazed or unglazed? Glazed tends to be easier to clean," he says. "You also want to consider if it's been previously restored. It will be treated differently if it's been restored." Cleaning could remove the restoration if not done the right way.

To clean your porcelain and ceramics, start with a gentle dish soap and water. Slavid advises taking off your rings and to avoid using harsh scrubbers like sponges or toothbrushes. Wash using just your hands and sudsy water. "Act as if you're washing a baby," he explains. Be careful, be gentle, and take your time.

What if that doesn't do enough to remove all of the stains or grime? Slavid says that it's possible to use a mild, slightly caustic solution like an all-purpose cleanser (but make sure it says it can be used on ceramic). "If you do this, you need to rinse it off immediately," he says. Wait the 10 seconds for the cleaner to work, but do not let it sit on the item.

Stains occur due to seepage of moisture through tiny (and, sometimes, invisible to the naked eye) cracks in the glaze often referred to as crazing, crackle, or pin holes. The penetrated moisture combined with organic matter (think: tea and coffee, oil, dust, and so on) evolves into a dark-colored bacteria present between the glazed craze lines or in the clay body under the glaze. This is most likely to occur on earthenware or stoneware type pottery due to the higher porosity level of these ceramics. These hairline cracks may also absorb the cleaning solution. Even if you rinsed it off, it may have gone into these cracks and still be active. This is why Slavid advises washing with plain dish soap and water as your first method for cleaning these collectibles.

For preventative care, it's a good idea to dust regularly with a soft microfiber cloth. If the object you are cleaning has tiny holes or crevices, use a soft, lightweight brush to clean out any dirt or dust. If any part of the porcelain or pottery appears damaged, do not attempt to clean it until it has been repaired by a professional. Otherwise, improper cleaning techniques can cause design and structural damage to the piece.

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