Thanks to its durability and rich colour, brass — an alloy of copper and zinc — has been used for centuries to make everything from kitchenware and hardware, to household objects and decor. But brass also has a downside: It tarnishes easily. And, like everything else, brass can accumulate dirt and dust over time, leaving it in need of a good cleaning.
But items that appear to be brass may actually be brass-plated, and therefore, require different types of maintenance. And in some cases, solid brass objects are lacquered, which also changes the way you can for the item. Here’s how to tell what type of brass you’re dealing with, and how to clean and polish it using stuff you probably already have in your home.
How to tell if an item is solid brass or brass-plated
Brass-plated items are typically made of steel or zinc, and then coated in a thin layer of solid brass, and lacquered. According to the experts at Brassworks Co. in Baltimore, brass plating “is exceedingly thin” and will deteriorate over time, but can be replated.
The easiest way to determine if an object is solid brass or brass-plated is to see if it’s magnetic — something you can do with a refrigerator magnet. While solid brass is not magnetic, brass-plated items (or rather, the metal used to make them) are.
How to tell if a solid brass item is lacquered
As we mentioned, almost all brass-plated objects are lacquered, but some solid brass items get that treatment as well, as a way to prevent it from tarnishing. So if your brass item isn’t magnetic and doesn’t have any tarnish, it has likely been lacquered.
Also, if you’ve determined that an object is solid brass and you spot a clear, thin, shiny coating peeling off in some areas, that’s also a sign that the piece has been lacquered. In that situation, if you want the item to last, your best (and really only) option is to get it refinished professionally.
How to clean brass-plated items and lacquered solid brass
While it’s generally safe to clean brass-plated and lacquered brass objects, you should never polish them, according to the experts at Brassworks Co. That’s because polish can damage and cloud the lacquer.
To clean this category of brass, start by wiping the item down with a soft cloth to remove any dust, dirt, and other debris. If it needs additional cleaning, use a combination of warm water and a mild soap (like Dawn dishwashing liquid), then wipe it down again with a clean, dry cloth. Never soak brass items for lengthy periods of time, or put them in the dishwasher.
How to clean solid brass items
A lot of what we think of as “cleaning” brass is really polishing it (which we’ll get to in a minute). To simply clean it — as in, removing the superficial layer of dirt, dust, and debris that has accumulated over time — use the same technique described above, involving a soft (ideally, microfiber) cloth, warm water, and mild soap.
When to avoid polishing solid brass
Assess the item after you’ve cleaned it, because that may be all it needed. In fact, before you start polishing any vintage or antique items made of solid brass, you may want to check with an antiques expert to see if that’s a wise idea.
That’s because when some people purchase an older brass piece, they want it to reflect its age — tarnish and all. So if you’re looking to sell the solid brass item, or are concerned about preserving its value, think twice before removing its patina.
How to polish solid brass
If you’ve decided to polish your brass, there are some highly effective, widely available dedicated products out there like Brasso, Wright’s Brass Polish, Twinkle Brass and Copper Cleaning Kit, Flitz Brass & Copper Tarnish Remover, and Blue Magic Metal Polish — some of which have been around for more than a century.
But if this is your first time polishing brass, you probably don’t have some sitting around under the sink or in the garage. Here are a few ways to polish brass using stuff you probably already have at home:
One store-bought product you may have on hand, however, is cleaning workhorse (and Lifehacker favourite), Barkeepers Friend. Brass is one of the many metals and surfaces this cleanser easily tackles — both in its powdered and soft liquid forms. Here are instructions from the manufacturer walking you through the cleaning and polishing process for brass.
Vinegar, salt, and flour
This is one of the most popular DIY brass polishes out there, and all the recommendations are well-earned: This stuff works. To make it, mix equal parts salt and flour, then add just enough white vinegar to make a thick paste. Rub it on using a damp cloth and some elbow grease. Then rinse the object with some warm water, and buff dry with a clean, soft cloth.
Lemon juice and baking soda
Create a paste by adding one teaspoon of baking soda to the juice of half a lemon. Use a soft cloth to apply and rub in the DIY polish. If you’re getting the results you want relatively quickly, finish polishing the piece, then rinse it with warm water, and dry it using a clean, soft cloth. But if the tarnish is particularly heavy on this piece, leave the homemade polish on for 30 minutes before rinsing and drying using the process described above.
Toothpaste is also an effective and easy-to-use brass polish. To clarify, you want the traditional plain, white toothpaste — not the gel varieties. (Bonus points if it contains baking soda.) Use a soft, damp cloth to apply a thin layer of the toothpaste onto the brass object. Let it sit a few minutes, and then give it a good rub, using either the cloth or a toothbrush with soft bristles. After that, rinse it with warm water, and use a clean cloth to thoroughly dry the piece.
Ketchup or other tomato sauces
Moisten a soft cloth, then use it to apply and rub ketchup (or tomato sauce or paste) into the brass item to remove the tarnish. If the tarnish is especially stubborn, apply a layer of ketchup to the piece and leave it on for an hour before wiping it off with a damp cloth, then buffing it dry with a clean cloth.
Similar to the ketchup method, use a soft, damp cloth to rub some Worcestershire sauce onto the brass object to polish it. Finish by wiping it off with a clean, damp cloth, then buffing it dry with a new/separate cloth.
Lemon slice and salt
If, after polishing your brass item, certain areas still have some remaining tarnish, dip a lemon slice (or rind) in some salt and rub it on. Then rinse the area with warm water, and dry with a soft cloth.
How to protect solid brass after polishing
Post-polishing, you may want to consider rubbing on a (very) thin layer of linseed oil or mineral oil. Not only will it take the shine up a notch, but most importantly, it’ll prevent (or at least slow down) tarnishing moving forward.