Brass has an elegance that never goes out of style, and its stunning luster is particularly popular right now. But one drawback of brass is tarnish, a dingy brown, pink, or bluish-green discoloration that comes from exposure to oxygen. Whether you're working with brass jewelry, hardware, doorknobs, home accessories, flatware, or faucets, the key to keeping this metal looking shiny and pristine is to clean and polish it regularly.
Before attempting to clean badly tarnished brass, ask yourself if the antique appearance of the item may actually contribute to its beauty. The patina is part of the charm of some vintage pieces, and cleaning it may remove some of its appeal and value. For a valuable piece, you might want to take it to a professional brass cleaner rather than risking damage.
What Type of Brass Do You Have?
Brass items come in two basic types: solid brass and brass-plated. Either material may or may not include a clear protective coating of lacquer, although this is more common on plated brass items. It's important to identify the material you're working with because the cleaning methods differ somewhat for each type.
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How to Tell if It's Real Brass
The easiest way to tell if something is made from solid brass rather than being brass plated is to use the magnet test. If the magnet sticks, it's brass-plated and consists of another metal, such as steel, with a thin brass coating. If the magnet does not stick, the object may or may not be solid brass; nonmagnetic metals, such as zinc, can also be brass-plated.
To determine if something is brass after a magnet fails to stick to the surface, you need to scratch a hidden area with something sharp. If the scratch reveals a yellow or brass-colored material, it is solid brass. If it reveals a silver or dark metal underneath, it is brass-plated.
Is the Brass Lacquered?
Lacquer is a traditional clear finish that is commonly applied to brass objects to keep them shiny and prevent tarnishing. It is not obvious to the eye because is it clear, but lacquered brass surfaces often show cracks or spots where the lacquer has flaked off. Lacquered brass can show fingerprints, smudges, and other signs that it needs a cleaning, but it typically will not develop a natural patina of tarnish.
Relatively new brass items — particularly high-quality faucets and door hardware — may have a PVD (physical vapor deposition) finish.This is special type of brass coating that creates a flawless, highly wear-resistant brass finish. If you suspect your item has a PVD finish, treat it like lacquered brass, or follow the specific cleaning instructions provided by the item's manufacturer.
Natural Brass Cleaning Methods
These homemade brass cleaners and methods are suitable for unlacquered solid brass items. Acidic substances can damage or cloud lacquer and should not be used on lacquered or PVD brass finishes.
Use a Soft Cloth
For fingerprinted, smudged brass, use a dry cloth to dust the object and remove any water stains. If necessary, you can dampen the cloth to remove stuck-on dirt, dust, or stains.
Soap and Water
Add a few tablespoons of mild dish soap to a sink or bucket filled with warm water. Soak the brass object in the soapy water and then lightly scrub it with a microfiber cloth or toothbrush to remove any stains or grimy buildup. Cleaning tarnished brass this way will require a bit of elbow grease. Once clean, remove the object, rinse it, and dry it with a clean cloth.
Lemon and Salt
Cut a lemon in half and then sprinkle a teaspoon of salt on one half. Rub the lemon on the brass, scrubbing and squeezing as you go. The acidity of the lemon juice can break down tarnish and hard water stains, while the abrasiveness of the salt can scrub away residue. Rinse the surface well and then dry it with a clean towel.
Vinegar and Salt
Pour a cup of vinegar and a cup of salt into separate bowls and then dip a clean cloth into the vinegar before dipping it into the salt. Vinegar makes a great descaler, so scrub the surface gently with your paste and then leave it a few minutes before rinsing with cold water and gently buffing it dry.
Baking Soda, Salt, and Vinegar
Mix equal parts baking soda, salt, and white vinegar in a bowl until a bubbly paste forms. Dip a microfiber cloth into the paste, apply it to your brass items, and then leave the paste alone for one hour so it can dry. Rinse away the paste using warm water and then buff the surface with a clean, soft cloth.
Flour, Salt, and Vinegar
Follow the steps for the baking soda, salt, and vinegar cleaning method above but only use flour instead of baking soda.
The acidity of tomatoes and vinegar makes ketchup an excellent brass cleaner. Spread a thin layer of ketchup onto your brass piece and let it sit for an hour. Add a drop of soap to a damp cloth and use it to wipe the surface clean. Carefully rinse the object and wipe it dry.
You can also clean brass with toothpaste. Use a clean cloth to spread a thin layer on your brass object. Let the toothpaste dry for a few minutes and then rinse the surface clean with water and buff dry with a soft cloth.
Like many other brass cleaning products, Coca-Cola is acidic and dissolves the metal oxides responsible for tarnishing your brass. This method works best for smaller objects because they must be submerged in the soda. Pour the cola into a bowl or other container. Place the brass pieces into the cola so they are completely submerged, and leave them overnight. Rinse and dry them thoroughly in the morning, and they should be sparkling clean.
Brass Cleaning Polishes
If you don't want to go the DIY route, you can always reach for commercial products designed to clean and polish metals, such as brass. Clean the item with soap and water to remove dirt and debris before applying a polish, which typically is done by simply spraying or rubbing it on and then wiping it away. Always check the manufacturer's directions before use. Avoid using these products on lacquered brass or PVD finishes unless the directions say that the product is safe for this use.
Brasso Metal Polish
One of the oldest, most popular, and most affordable commercial brass cleaners, Brasso can restore the shine of various metals, including brass, copper, bronze, stainless steel, pewter, and aluminum.
Twinkle Brass and Copper Cleaning Kit
One of the gentlest options for both metal and skin, Twinkle Brass and Copper cleaner won't scratch your brass but will restore its luster, removing both tarnish and rust. The kit even comes with a reusable cleaning sponge.
MAAS Metal Polish
The highly reactive ingredients in MAAS Metal Polish can tackle dezincification, tarnish, and even stuck-on dirt. Even better, it works on all kinds of metal materials and leaves behind a protective coating to prevent future corrosion.
Wright’s Copper Cream
The nontoxic ingredients in this affordable copper and brass cleaner make it an excellent choice for brass utensils, pans, kitchen sinks, and anything else food may come in contact with. The highly reactive ingredients are pretty harsh on skin, though, so be sure to wear gloves while using it. Like MAAS Metal Polish, Wright's Copper Cream leaves behind a protective coating to prevent further oxidation of your brass.
Natural Cleaning Solutions
- You likely have the materials on hand
- Gentle on hands
- Usually must be left to sit for long periods
- Acidic or abrasive ingredients may damage brass plating
- Not suitable for lacquered surfaces or PVD finishes
- More effective, as they are designed specifically for metal
- Often leave behind a protective coating
- Not always food-safe
- Some chemicals may be harsh on the hands
- Can usually be applied and removed immediately
- Some products are safe for brass-plated items
How to Clean Brass-Plated Fixtures and Other Items
Acidic and abrasive ingredients in many brass cleaning solutions can damage brass-plated items, so it's best to start with the gentlest cleaning methods and work your way up. Always avoid using abrasive cleaning cloths, metal-bristle brushes, or steel wool when working with brass-plated items, as these can scratch the surface. If the plated brass is lacquered, don't use anything other than water and dish soap (see below).
1. Use Soap and Water
Your first step should be a light wash using a microfiber cloth dipped in a solution of hot water and gentle dish soap. If necessary, use a soft-bristle toothbrush to get in the crevices. Rinse the surface with warm water and dry thoroughly. This method will get rid of general dirt and oils that might have dulled your brass, but if there is heavier tarnishing, you might want to try one of the following home remedies instead or as well.
2. Use Ketchup
The slight acidity of tomatoes and vinegar in ketchup can restore the shine to brass plating. Apply a thin layer of ketchup to the brass-plated item. Leave it for about an hour before washing it off with soap, water, and a soft cloth.
3. Try Vinegar
The vinegar in ketchup works on tarnished brass, so if it fails, go straight to the source and use vinegar itself. Mix half a cup of vinegar with as much flour as necessary to make a paste, leaving out the salt used in the traditional brass cleaning method, as it can be a little abrasive. Leave on the paste for 10 minutes before wiping it off and washing with soap and water. Alternatively, you can make a paste with two parts cream of tartar powder to one part lemon juice. Rub this on the brass, let it sit for a half hour, rinse with warm water, and buff.
4. Use Brasso or Another Similar Product
Many commercial brass cleaners, such as Brasso and Wright's, are safe for use on brass-plated pieces. Buying something made to be gentle enough for these delicate items is often the best way to ensure the plating is not scratched or removed.
Cleaning Lacquered Brass
Caring for lacquered brass is more about maintaining the lacquer finish than the brass. Dust the surface regularly to minimize the need for deep cleaning. If cleaning is necessary, dampen a microfiber cloth with warm water and mild dish soap, and wipe the surface clean. Then, wipe with a second cloth dampened with plain water. Finally, dry the surface with a dry cloth. To seal chips and scratches in lacquer finishes, apply a wax polish designed for brass finishes.
How to Maintain Shiny Brass
The best way to keep your brass from tarnishing and corroding is to keep it clean. Avoid touching the brass as much as possible, as the salts in your sweat can cause dezincification. Regularly dust and buff the surface of brass items with a microfiber cloth to remove dust, oils, and other buildup, keeping it looking its best without resorting to more in-depth cleaning.
For brass pots and utensils, always clean them as soon as you use them because food residue can cause them to tarnish. At the same time, avoid putting these in the dishwasher because harsh dishwasher detergents can damage brass.
Does Brass Tarnish? (Or Does It Rust?)
The appearance of brass can change over time if exposed to water or other corrosive elements. This discoloration isn't from rust but from corrosion. The only metals that form rust are those that contain iron, such as steel. Reddish-brown rust occurs when the iron is exposed to oxygen and water. Iron alloys can develop rust in less than a week when wet.
Brass may take many years to change colors, even when used outdoors. The corrosion process is slower because brass doesn't contain iron. Instead, both red brass and yellow brass are primarily composed of copper and zinc. As a result, brass doesn't rust like steel but instead goes through a process called dezincification.
When brass is exposed to water containing certain chemicals, most commonly salt, an electrochemical reaction strips away some of the zinc in the metal. Because losing some of its zinc means brass has a higher concentration of copper, dezincification turns brass pinker. Mild cases only affect the appearance, but prolonged dezincification can create structural weaknesses in brass.
For example, brass kick plates and fixtures on exterior doors may lose zinc if you live in a snowy area and use salt to de-ice walkways or if you live close to a body of salt water. You might see signs of dezincification on things people touch often (like doorknobs) because of the salts contained in sweat. How long it takes for brass to show signs of dezincification depends entirely on how much exposure your brass has and how much zinc it contains.
Aside from dezincification, brass may develop a brown or bluish-green patina, or tarnish, over time because of its high copper content. When copper is exposed to oxygen, it slowly takes on a patina and develops an aged look. Unlike dezincification, this oxidation does not harm the structural integrity of the metal and instead protects it from corrosion. While some people appreciate this aged appearance, you need to know how to clean brass correctly if you want to maintain its luster and prevent tarnishing.
How Do You Clean Badly Tarnished Brass?
The best option may be to buy an ultrasonic cleaner. Create a solution of 3/4 tablespoon of lemon oil and 1 cup of citric acid. Add 2 teaspoons of the mixture to the machine along with the recommended amount of water. Allow the device to run for 30 minutes.
What Is the Fastest Way to Clean Brass?
Ideally, brass can be cleaned with only a damp microfiber cloth and a little soap if it has stuck-on dirt or debris. If it is tarnished, though, commercial brass polishes can typically be applied and rubbed off immediately, making them faster than homemade cleaners that must sit on the surface for 10 minutes or more.
Does Vinegar Destroy Brass?
Both acids and alkalines can result in the dezincification of brass. Many commercial and homemade brass cleaning solutions contain abrasive ingredients because this can rub away a thin layer of copper left behind after the zinc has been eroded. While the acidity of vinegar can damage brass, the good news is that it would take a long time to do any real harm. If you rinse your cleaning solutions well and rarely resort to deep cleanings, your piece should not be harmed by the infrequent use of vinegar.
Does WD-40 Clean Brass?
Yes, WD-40 includes brass cleaning and polishing among the 2,000+ uses of the product. Apply it on the brass object's entire surface, let it sit for 30 minutes, and then polish the item with a clean cloth until it shines.
Does Hydrochloric Acid Clean Brass?
Hydrochloric acid is a strong and dangerous chemical. Professionals use hydrochloric acid or muriatic acid (a dilute form of hydrochloric acid) to clean severely tarnished brass, but this is a delicate process that can quickly damage the metal if not done properly. DIYers should not attempt to clean brass with hydrochloric acid.