The terms satin nickel and brushed nickel are often used interchangeably, in some instances along with polished nickel, but the finishes are different. A satin finish is plated, meaning that liquid nickel layers are evenly applied to a metal base before it's covered with a protective lacquer topcoat. Brushed finishes have a fine, brushed appearance that runs in one consistent direction, which naturally dulls the metal's shiny appearance.

Nickel Basics

Nickel, a silvery-white lustrous natural metal, is the fifth most common element on earth that's predominantly mined and used -- about 90 percent of the time -- to manufacture stainless and other steels and non-ferrous alloys. It has become one of the most collected and recycled materials, generally in the form of alloys, which makes it a frequent choice for sustainable design projects.

In interior design, nickel finishes were introduced as an alternative to chrome. The strength of the two metals is comparable, but nickel is better able to withstand scratches and watermarks, elements that detract from chrome, particularly for faucets and appliances. Nickel also has a slightly warmer, golden undertone compared to chrome's cooler blue hue.

Differences in Nickel Finishes

Satin nickel is not a finish; it's a plating applied to zinc or brass. While the process can differ, the plating is most often applied to the chosen base via electrolysis; the nickel is layered onto the surface. To increase its durability, a low luster lacquer is applied to the nickel plating.

Brushed nickel can also be applied as a plating, which is significantly less expensive than solid nickel. The brushed finish, created using a wire brush or similar tool, creates a soft, consistent grain in one direction. The brushing process diminishes the sheen of the nickel but is often not as dull as the lacquered satin nickel finish, in part because the light catches in the small grooves created by the brush in a different manner.

Polished nickel is neither lacquered nor brushed. Rather, as the name implies, it is polished to a shine. This more labor-intensive process comes at a cost; polished nickel finishes are typically much more expensive than brushed and satin finishes.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Most appliance, faucet and fixture manufacturers provide some type of finish warranty, provided care and maintenance instructions are carefully followed. Do not use abrasives, bleach, ammonia, alcohol, acids of any sort, or anti-bacterial soaps. Instead, use one of the following techniques:

  • Wipe clean or pat dry with a soft cloth after use
  • Use a neutral pH-balanced, clear liquid soap with water for a gentle cleaning

If more thorough cleaning is required to remove hard water spots, mix a 50-to-50 percent vinegar-and-water solution in a spray bottle. Do not soak a stain; it will ruin the finish. Apply the solution immediately; clean, rinse and wipe dry.

Which Finish Is Best?

In terms of performance, there is no significant difference; choose the item and finish you like most and enjoy.