Photo: Pieter Estersohn
From lighting to objets, brassis the metal of the moment in the decor world. “For the last five years, unlacquered brasshas been a great seller,” says Terri Hartman, manager of Liz’s Antique Hardware in Los Angeles. We have a feeling the finish is back for the long haul, so we asked Hartman and Carl Sorenson, founder of Nanz, a New York company that produces custom-made solid-brass hardware, to share their tips and tricks for how to clean brass and polish it to a high shine. Whether you’ve picked up a vintage lamp or just replaced your cabinet pulls, here’s how to make your metal items look their best.
1. Assess the piece’s condition
First, check that the brass hasn’t been lacquered. “Chances are it hasn’t, because the point of lacquer is to prevent tarnishing,” says Hartman. “But if there’s a thin shiny coating that is coming off in places, then the piece has been lacquered and the only real option is to take it to a metal refinisher.” Once that’s been done, the object is ready to be shined.
2. Apply a high-quality polish
To remove discoloration, use a polish designed specifically for brass. Apply it according to the instructions on the bottle using a soft cloth (Sorenson prefers a knit cotton material, like that of an undershirt). While Hartman rubs in polish with very fine steel wool, she warns that you should never use any steel wool that’s thicker than grade 00, to avoid scratching the surface.
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- Brasso (Sorenson’s recommendation)
- Bar Keepers Friend
- Twinkle Brass & Copper Cleaning Kit
- Wright’s Brass Polish
- Blue Magic
3. Or go natural
Make your own brass polish with lemon and baking soda, Hartman says: “The procedure is the same, but it takes a lot more elbow grease.”
Lemon and Baking Soda Polish
- Combine the juice of half a lemon with a teaspoon of baking soda and stir until it becomes a paste.
- Apply the paste with a soft cloth.
- If the tarnish is heavy, let the piece sit with the paste on it for 30 minutes.
- Rinse and dry. Repeat if necessary.
Lemon and Salt Polish
- Slice a lemon in half and cover the cut section with a teaspoon of table salt.
- Rub the lemon on the tarnished piece, squeezing it as you go to release the juice.
- Rinse and dry.
4. Enlist an expert for certain items
For functional elements, such as locks, hinges, hardware, or lighting, Sorenson suggests seeking the help of a professional. “Wiring, mechanical complexity, and lubricating requirements generally turn these types of projects into more than simple DIY chores,” he says.
5. Let brass age gracefully
Sometimes the beauty of an antique brass object is its tarnish—in which case Sorenson recommends leaving it alone. “Oftentimes it’s best to forgo the polishing process altogether,” he says, noting that polishing antiques could significantly reduce their value. “Too often I see what would be a wonderfully patinated item significantly degraded by a bad decision to restore it to a like-new state.”