Tarnish plagues sterling silver as well as silver plating, marring the surface of your favorite bracelet or vase and causing an unappetizing film on the silver item. Basic ammonia eliminates this discoloration and works beautifully as a silver dip or as the primary component in a homemade silver polishing paste. No matter which method you choose, always rinse the piece thoroughly with cool water after you've removed all tarnish and then buff dry it with a clean cloth. The smell of undiluted ammonia can be nauseating and potentially damaging to your health with lengthy exposure, and direct contact causes issues for those with sensitive skin.
Keep Safety in Mind
Before you start working with ammonia, open plenty of windows and turn on fans to keep your workspace well ventilated. Wear non-latex gloves, preferably nitrile, to protect your hands without hindering the cleaning process. Latex gloves can cause new tarnish on silver and make the existing tarnish difficult to remove. If you're sensitive to strong odors, a face mask makes the cleaning process more tolerable. Opt for a non-ammonia cleaning method when handling jewelry outfitted with turquoise, opals or pearls. A paste of baking soda and water works well for sterling silver, while a bit of mineral oil on a soft cloth safely polishes silver-plated jewelry.
Prep the Silver
Even the smallest amount of dust has the potential to scratch silver during polishing, so begin by washing the piece with vegetable-based or an alkaline mild dish soap and warm water. Check the label of your dish soap to make sure it doesn't contain any bleach. Chlorine causes pitting in silver, and if it mixes with the subsequent ammonia the combination produces a toxic gas. Once the piece is clean, rinse it thoroughly with cool water and dry it with a soft cotton flannel cloth.
Quick tip: Give yourself a head start on polishing by buffing any tarnish on the silver as you dry. For very mild tarnish, this may be all that's necessary to restore the silver's shine.
Polish With Ammonia
Mild tarnish dissolves when cleaned with a soft flannel cloth dipped in diluted ammonia. Straight ammonia is too harsh for most types of silver; while it does remove tarnish, it also damages the metal underneath. Combine 1/4 cup of cool water with 1 teaspoon of unscented ammonia and work in gentle buffing motions to lift the discoloration. For recessed areas, dip a soft baby toothbrush in the solution and gently scrub the tarnish.
Soak Briefly for Heavy Tarnish
For moderate to severe tarnish, soak the silver in diluted ammonia for 10 to 40 minutes prior to polishing with a soft cloth. A 1/4 cup of diluted ammonia won't completely cover many pieces, so increase the recipe to fully submerge the silver in the solution. For severe cases -- when restoring a vintage find or a piece you've had in storage for years -- add about 2 teaspoons of non-bleach alkaline dish soap to the mix. When you see the tarnish start to lighten or change colors, remove the silver from the dip and buff tarnished areas with a soft cloth.
Quick tip: Prevent heavy tarnish buildup by regularly shining silver with an untreated polishing cloth and storing items with an anti-tarnish strip nearby.
Create a Polishing Paste
By mixing ammonia with whiting powder, it creates a gently abrasive paste ideal for heavy tarnish. Dilute the ammonia as you would to create a dip or polishing liquid, and then add whiting powder until it's the consistency of toothpaste. Scoop some up with a cloth and apply it in circular motions to the silver. For a slightly more abrasive version, keep the diluted ammonia and whiting powder separate, dipping the cloth in the ammonia, and then in the powder before applying it to the silver. Both options work well for sterling silver, but they can wear down the coating on silver-plated pieces, especially if used on a regular basis.