Bold as Brass: Cleaning Your Antique Brass Furniture Hardware
Most traditional furniture hardware is brass or brass looking, but that covers a multitude of sins. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc and is a nonferrous (no iron or steel) metal. Brass that is 70-percent copper is known as bright brass or high brass and shines up to be bright yellow. A higher copper content produces a pinker hue and is known as low brass. This is frequently seen in early 20th-century English brass hardware. No amount of polishing will make it bright brass.
You will encounter three basic types of brass hardware: solid brass, either cast or stamped; brass-plated steel; and brass-plated non-ferrous (pot metal). Before you start cleaning, you need to determine which type you have to know how vigorously you can clean it.
You should remove your brass hardware, such as these drawer pulls, before cleaning.
Remove a piece of hardware from the furniture. Drawer pulls are usually the easiest. Touch it with a magnet. If the magnet is attracted you have brass-plated steel. If the magnet is not attracted you have one of the other two types. Turn the hardware over and scratch it hard with a pocket knife or screw driver. If you see what looks like silver or pewter, its brass-plated pot metal. If all you see is more brass in the scratch, congratulations, you have solid brass. If you determined that you have one of the plated varieties, be careful cleaning it because the brass can very easily be accidentally removed from the background during the cleaning process.
Most brass furniture hardware has a clear coat on it to prevent tarnishing. The fact that the brass has tarnished means only that the clear coat has been penetrated but it may still be there. It must be removed in order to clean the brass and the brass must be removed from the furniture in order to remove the clear coat. Strip the hardware with lacquer thinner or stripper after removing from the furniture. Be sure it is rinsed clean and dry before the next step.
Using your favorite brass cleaner (my favorites are Noxon 7 Metal Polish made by Rekkit & Coleman, and Pine-Ola Copper and Brass Polish made by Howard Products), attack using a soft cloth and a soft toothbrush. Stubborn or intricate pieces often clean better after soaking in a plastic tub of cleaner for a while. While rubbing away, keep checking to make sure you have not penetrated the brass plating if dealing with non-solids. Rinse the hardware with water and a clean toothbrush to remove all traces of cleaner. At this point you may want to start over again. The results will be amazing.
If you do not like the look of new “hardware store” brass, try cleaning only the highlights of the piece, leaving some darkness in the details of the brass. This method adds dimension and depth. On the other hand, if you accidentally clean too much and the brass looks too new, you can darken it back by leaving it overnight in a plastic bowl filled with vinegar and salt. Then dry and re-clean to suit tour taste. When you are happy with the way the brass looks, dry it well with a towel and then let it air dry a couple of hours. To prevent immediate re-tarnishing, clear coat the brass with clear lacquer from a craft store. This is highly recommended, not only to prevent tarnishing but to give the brass “sparkle.”
Plating that is worn by use of has been removed by an exuberant cleaning process can be simulated by gold or brass waxes, such as “Rub ‘N Buff” and “Decorator’s Gilt,” available in craft and art supply stores. These should be sealed in with clear lacquer after they dry. Avoid gold or brass spray paints. The results are very cheap looking!
Good Luck. One final hint: Clean until your fingers hurt then clean a little bit more; the extra effort will show.
Fred Taylor is WorthPoint’s antique furniture Worthologist.
Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800.387.6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352.563.2916, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.
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