How To Clean Silver–Buyer Beware

This silver chocolate pot can keep a soft patina if maintained properly.

There are many products out there on the market assuring you that their quick and easy method will not only clean your silver to its original pristine color and condition but will provide testimonials attesting to the efficaciousness of the product supplied by museums, cathedrals and “as seen on TV.” Ultimately, when done, they’ll have you convinced that your piece of silver will be whistling Dixie.

Unfortunately, these products are basically quick and easy dipping compounds or chemically-treated wadding or cloths that with prolonged use may ultimately damage your silver, whether it’s sterling or silver plate. There is a caveat to the use of these products which is, only severely tarnished (Black) silver, or silver that is corroded should be dipped, but once dipped, and thoroughly washed, should then be cleaned with a cream polish to remove any lingering tarnish or chemical residue, and will restore some of the original luster.

”Skinned” silver can’t be restored

In the past compounds, known as jewelers rouge (calcined ferrous sulphate), were liberally and almost exclusively used to clean silver. As a result most 18th and 19th century silver has a surface that is scratched and has a hard brilliant shine instead of a soft lustrous shine. This kind of silver, in collector’s parlance, is known as being “skinned,” and there is virtually no way, short of professional conservation, to regain the original patina.

Some of these cleaning compounds are still on the market and still being used. The process is to liberally apply, let dry, then rub like the dickens to remove the dried-on polish. The results with the kind of rubbing this requires is to remove, in silver plate, by degrees, the thin layer of silver applied to the base metal, and in sterling, to wear down the silver making it thinner by degrees. These products are to be avoided at all cost.

Here’s how to clean silver

Use a cream polish cleaner specially formulated for cleaning silver, never a cream cleaning compound formulated for other metals like brass and copper. I recommend Wrights Silver Cream–this company knows their stuff and has been producing an excellent products since the 19th century.

Liquid cleaners are less effective and more cost-prohibitive, because you use more of it to accomplish the same job, and it can leave a residue especially in silver filigree (ornate open work) designs that can build up and is difficult to remove.

Rinse, do not soak, the item to be cleaned in clear hot water prior to cleaning to remove dust and grime that has accumulated on the surface. Always use a soft cotton cloth when washing or drying silver-this is where the old under shirts come in handy.

Apply the silver cream to the surface with the sponge that is provided. Depending on the degree of tarnish, rinse out the sponge frequently in warm water, reapply a small amount of silver cream and continue the work on the piece until finished.

If you are cleaning filigree silver (open pierced work) use a SOFT toothbrush applied with silver cream and gently work the cream into the design, slowly dry the filigree work so that the cloth does not catch in the pierced open work and therefore damage it.

Do not over-clean silver

By that I mean, if your silver is engraved or an elaborate design is etched into the surface, allow some of the tarnish that has accumulated to remain in the design. This will actually enhance the design.

When item is thoroughly polished rinse in soapy warm water, rinse again in clear warm water, wiping with a soft cloth, then dry thoroughly. If you are drying silver boxes or items with attached lids do not hold the item by the lid as this could damage the hinge. Make sure the interior is completely dried. Once dried, if the piece is to be stored, try not to handle the item too much as the oils and acids in our skin will leave marks.

How to store your silver

Large silver pieces should be stored or displayed in airtight cabinets, as this type of storage will retard the tarnishing process. Specially designed silver storage bags can be used for larger silver pieces not on display.
When it comes to flatware, if you have a silver chest specially designed for storage this is best, otherwise use silver bags that are designed with slots to hold the individual pieces.

Regular use of silver flatware will enhance the patina and the enjoyment garnered from the use is tremendous. Avoid putting silver flatware in the dishwasher as some dishwasher detergents can actually tarnish silver.

Never soak knives that do not have solid handles. Most older or antique knives have a loaded compound like tar or plaster of Paris that holds the steel tang (metal shaft) in place, so soaking these types of knives will cause the filler compound to swell and will eventually split the silver handle.

Pay particular attention to knives with mother-of-pearl handles or ivory handles, these must be cleaned by hand. Some older or antique knives have steel blades, if not properly cleaned and dried will rust. There is an excellent product, Barkeepers Friend that is ideal for cleaning tarnished or rusted steel blades.

Get in the habit of regular silver cleaning

The truth is, most people clean their silver twice a year, whether it needs it or not. Usually this cleaning involves a holiday which is fraught with other time constraints and tension-producing situations, therefore making the silver cleaning arduous and yet one more thing that has to be done. If regularly cleaned, used and enjoyed, however, the psychology of silver cleaning can be altered.

Related Links:

Here are some links to products that will help you in the cleaning and preserving of your silver.

Wrights Silver Cream www.jawright.com
Bar Keepers Friend www.barkeepersfriend.com
Siverguard Storage Bags www.silverguard.com

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  1. Ina Stoeckli says:

    I purchased some 1847 Roger’s Brothers flatware to replace some missing pieces. Unfortunately the seller had “dipped” the pieces and the detail has lost much of its color.
    Can that be replaced?
    Ina

  2. Lucy says:

    Very nice article. I have also found after 44 years of housekeeping that Twinkle silver polish is great. Not quite as tough on silver as some of the others as it does not have an overabundance of jeweler’s rouge in it.