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Caring for Antique Silver

Silver is a very beautiful, but soft, metal that gradually and inexorably tarnishes. It needs to be cleaned thoughtfully and gently but as infrequently as possible because every cleaning removes minute amounts of silver. The following advice applies to Sterling and Britannia Standard Silver, Coin Silver and Old Sheffield Plate.

This article draws on the excellent advice provided by Jeffrey Herman, Herman Silver Restoration & Conservation, PO Box 72839, Providence, RI 02970, 401/461-6841, jeff@hermansilver.com, www.hermansilver.com.

This article contains some general information about care of antique silver as well as tips and solutions to common problems. Click on any topic listed below, or scroll down to read the entire article.

Tarnish

Tarnish discolors silver. You will first see a slight yellowing of the surface, which gradually turns to a blotchy brown and eventually to black. Tarnish may be unsightly, but it is not serious -- it does not damage the surface of the metal, and it can easily be cleaned.

Tarnish is caused by a reaction between the silver and chemicals in the air and in other materials. Humidity in the air hastens tarnish: other tarnishing agents include wool, felt, paper and cardboard, food (especially eggs and onions), rubber bands, latex gloves, and certain paints. The skin oils on our fingers can be added to the list. (If you are a chemist, you will recognize that a common element among these tarnish-producers is sulfur.)

Preventing Tarnish

Use

Regular use and washing is the best way to prevent tarnish. After each use, wash your silver with soap and warm water. Dry it thoroughly with a cotton cloth.

Display

Much antique silver is collected for display or for only occasional use. Here the trick is to minimize the circulation of air by using glass-fronted display cabinets. In each cabinet place a silica gel sachet to reduce humidity and/or a 3-M Anti-Tarnish Strip that absorbs tarnish-producing pollutants and gases from the air. Replace the sachet or strip every six months.

Dust silver regularly -- dust holds pollutants and damp.

Handling

Wear cotton gloves when handling silver to prevent skin oils from tarnishing it.

Storage

Wrap each piece in acid-free, archival tissue paper or a tarnish resistant cloth such as Pacific Silvercloth. Then place the wrapped piece in a sealed polythene bag. A silica gel sachet or a 3-M Anti-Tarnish Strip will always help.

The worst possible way to store silver is to wrap it in newspaper with a rubber band and keep it in a cardboard box! Newspaper and rubber bands react with silver and cause severe discoloration that may need professional treatment. Cardboard boxes (except archival ones) contain tarnishing acids.

Coating

Professionals recommend against coating silver with lacquer or wax because if any agent penetrates the coating and causes tarnish underneath, tarnish removal is harder than on an uncoated piece. But in an open display where a coating is necessary, a carefully applied coat of Renaissance wax is the only way to go. (Renaissance is a micro-crystalline wax -- don't use a furniture polish based on carnuba or bees wax. See Polishing Antique Furniture.)

Cleaning Silver

Choose your silver polish carefully. Pick one that is not abrasive and that has a long-lasting tarnish barrier. 3-M's Tarni-Shield and Twinkle Silver Polish are good and gentle, but Tarni-Shield has better tarnish prevention. Goddard's Long Shine Silver Polish and Silver Wash and Wright's Anti-Tarnish Silver Polish and Silver Cream are good for cleaning severely tarnished pieces. (Note that Wright's Silver Cream does not contain an anti-tarnish, but it is good for removing stains on steel knife blades.)

Other equipment that is helpful to have at the ready: a cellulose sponge, soft cotton cloths, cotton swabs or Q-Tips, and cotton gloves. Selvyt cloth is used by professionals.

To clean your silver:

1. Use a moist cellulose sponge to apply the polish.

2. Rinse the sponge regularly to clean off the black stain that results from removed tarnish. If you use a soft cloth or a cotton swab, turn it regularly to a clean spot, for elements in the tarnish that have been removed are abrasive and can scratch the surface. Dried polish in a crevice can be removed with a wet horsehair brush or cotton ball.

3. Rinse the polish off and dry immediately. Never leave silver wet: damp is a major cause of tarnish. A hair drier on low helps dry hard to reach spots.

Beware of any part that may hold water or react to it. These include wooden handles and finials, ivory insulators, felt on the bottoms of candlesticks, and hollow parts with small casting holes. Around these areas use Goddard's Long Shine Silver Polish, which is the only polish that is designed to be buffed off rather than rinsed off. Let the polish dry and buff it off with a Selvyt cloth or cotton cloth.

A rouge cloth will restore that lovely luster that has been dulled by heavy tarnish and the necessary vigorous cleaning.

Yellowish and light brown tarnishes are easily removed. Once tarnish has turned black, it requires more work, so always tackle tarnish in its early stages.

Silver Dip

Beware of this very convenient, all too easy to use, product. It takes the patina off silver, and when used frequently, will damage the surface.

Use it to reach into deep crevices in chased or embossed ornament. Rinse immediately after it has done its job so as to minimize its contact with the silver. Then polish.

Silver dip is also very good for cleaning cutlery that has been used for sulfurous foods -- especially eggs, mayonnaise, onions or broccoli. Dip the cutlery into it briefly and then rinse well.

Remember that silver dip does not polish silver nor retard tarnish, so always polish after using it.

Special Problems

Tea and Coffee Stains

To clean the inside of tea or coffee pots use a sponge (wrap one on the handle of a wooden spoon if the opening is small). Moisten it, and apply a liberal amount of Wright's Silver Cream. Wipe off the stain, and rinse thoroughly in warm water.

Or fill the pot with warm water and drop in a 5-minute denture cleaning tablet (one tablet per 2 cups of water). Wait ten minutes, then empty the pot, and rinse well in warm water. Any loosened residue that remains may be cleaned off with a brush or sponge and then rinsed.

Dry well -- the hair drier will often reach where a cloth can't.

Candle Wax

There are two short cuts to cleaning wax off candlesticks, one hot and one cold.

Hot: Use a hair drier to heat the wax gently. Wipe it off with a paper towel or cotton swab.

Cold: Put the candlestick in the freezer for 20 - 30 minutes. Then use your fingernail, not a knife, to chip off the wax. DO NOT put loaded (weighted) candlesticks in the freezer.

Hallmarks

To clean dirt out of hallmarks wet the end of a wooden match stick and rub it lightly in a circular motion. For very small hallmarks, use a wet toothpick.

Stick-On Labels

A hair drier will soften stick-on labels so that they come off easily. If there is sticky residue remaining, use Goof-Off or Goo-Gone and follow up with silver polish.

Salt

Salt is the enemy of silver. The two should be kept well apart. Salt corrodes and pits silver. For this reason, all antique salt cellars are lined either with gilt (salt does not corrode gold) or with glass liners. If the gilding on your salt cellars has worn thin, and a lot of it has, have them re-gilded or fit temporary glass liners inside. Even if your salt cellars are gilded, empty the salt immediately after the dinner party.

If corrosion has started, ammonia will remove it. In a well-ventilated area, immerse the salt cellar in ammonia for ten minutes. Wear nitrile gloves. Remove and inspect. If corrosion spots remain, re-immerse for another ten minutes. If three 10-minute immersions do not cure the problem, go to a professional.

Ammonia may gray the surface slightly. Tackling this problem requires the use of an abrasive cleaner such as Bon Ami or Hagerty's Silverwash. Use as little as possible. Use Bon Ami under tricking water in the sink to reduce its abrasiveness. Dry well and use a rouge cloth to restore the luster, and then a tarnish-preventing polish.

Important "Don'ts"

DO NOT wash silver in the dishwasher. The strong detergents and high temperatures are bad for it and will destroy its patina. The hot water will also damage the pitch used in early knife and fork handles.

DO NOT wash silver in the same water as stainless steel. If they touch the contact will cause a reaction that will leave black spots on the silver.

DO NOT use toothpaste to clean awkward bits -- it works, but it is much too abrasive.

DO NOT use a polish that has dried up -- the abrasive particles will have concentrated in it and will damage the surface.

DO NOT use scouring pads or steel wool -- they are much too abrasive.

DO NOT allow undiluted dishwashing detergent to come into contact with antique silver -- it will damage the patina.

DO NOT wrap or store in newspaper, cardboard, or any paper that is not archival. Ordinary papers and cardboards contain tarnish-producing acids.

Who better to have the last word than Paul de Lamerie, the London silversmith (1713-1751): "Clean it now and then," he advised his customers, "with only warm water and soap, with a spunge, and then wash it with clean water and dry it very well with a soft linnen cloth and keep it in a dry place for the damp will spoyle it….by no means use either chalke, sand or salt."

Supplies

Glass liners are available from Steven Harper, 224 Wallace Ave No 116, Toronto, Ontario M6H 1V7 Canada; (416) 538-7030; www.sharpersilver.com.

On the Internet, a Google search of the product name will find suppliers.