How to Clean and Polish Silver

I remember as a kid helping my mom polish our silver flatware before the holidays and feeling like I was one of Miss Haniggan’s orphans. Surprisingly, that chore made me appreciate silver even more as I got older. And over the years I’ve picked up pieces at estate sales and thrift stores, and I’ve inherited some, too.
Since I don’t live in a manor house filled with a team of butlers, the cleaning and polishing gets done by yours truly. However, if silver is stored properly and cleaned occasionally, it rarely requires polishing.Here’s how to clean and care for plated or sterling silver (whether it’s flatware, jewelry, or larger pieces) so that it can be enjoyed for generations.

Various polishes, soaps, cleaners, and waxes used for testing
These are some of the polishes, soaps, cleaners, and waxes I tested. Photo: Michael Sullivan

For cleaning and polishing

  • Nitrile gloves: Most of the pros recommend wearing nitrile gloves when you’re cleaning and polishing silver to prevent fingerprints, which can accelerate tarnish.
  • Cellulose sponges: These sponges, made from 100% plant-based fibers (not plastic), won’t scratch your silver and can be used for washing and polishing. We like Scotch Brite’s Ocelo Multi-Purpose Sponges.
  • A mild dish soap: The pros recommend using citrus-free and phosphate-free dish soaps like Dawn Dishwashing Liquid.
  • Cotton balls, pads, or swabs: These are best for applying hand sanitizer or polish to your silver to remove tarnish.
  • Hand sanitizer: Before polishing, always clean your silver with aloe-free, alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Often it will remove a significant amount of tarnish.
  • Silver polish: To avoid damaging silver, use the least abrasive polish you can get. Herman’s Simply Clean or Blitz Silver Shine Polish are the best options.
  • 100% cotton towels: For drying or buffing silver, we like the absorbent Williams-Sonoma All Purpose Pantry Towels or these inexpensive bar mops.
  • Beeswax: You can use Burt’s Bees Beeswax Lip Balm to coat vintage carbon-steel dinner-knife blades, to prevent them from rusting.
  • Paper towels: These are handy for buffing porous components (like wood handles) or vintage carbon-steel knife blades with wax (just don’t use paper towels on your silver because they will scratch it).

For storing

  • Sulphur-absorbing flannel rolls, bags, or fabric: The pros recommend using Pacific Silvercloth Flatware Rolls for flatware or Zippered Storage Bags for jewelry. If you want to display your silver, you can line the shelves of your case with Pacific Silvercloth or Kenized SilverShield cloth.
  • Silica gel or sachets of activated charcoal: To help absorb humidity in the air, place silica gel or sachets of activated charcoal in the cabinet.
  • A portable filtration unit (for display cases): If you want to display your silver in a hutch, you can place the Intercept Complete Portable Filtration Unit in the case to help inhibit tarnish.
  • Plastic containers (for storing larger pieces): We recommend the clear plastic Iris Weathertight Totes. They’re made of polypropylene, a safe plastic to use for storing your silver.
  • Clear wax (optional): The pros recommend using Crystal Clear Paste Wax for coating components like wood or ivory handles, which are susceptible to water damage.
  • Protective wax (optional): For silver jewelry or large pieces, you can apply Renaissance Wax or Meguiar’s Quik Wax (as long as they won’t come in contact with food or drink); this adds a protective layer that helps prevent tarnish.
A tarnished fork and a cleaned and polished fork on a white tablecloth.
A tarnished fork (top) and a cleaned and polished fork (bottom). Photo: Michael Sullivan

Hand-washing silver flatware after a meal could take 20 to 30 minutes, but it will go faster if you enlist a helper who can dry the silver as you wash it. A piece of silver jewelry may take only a few minutes to clean.

The time it takes to polish silver varies depending on the amount and size of the piece(s) and the severity of tarnish. Lightly tarnished pieces may take only a few minutes to polish, but a silver tea set could take an hour or more if it’s severely tarnished.

A closeup of two tarnished spoons
Photo: Michael Sullivan

Silver should never go in the dishwasher, because it can cause pitting or denting. The high heat and harsh chemicals in dishwashing detergents can also cause silver to whiten, a form of damage that requires professional refinishing. Also avoid using anything abrasive to clean it, including paper towels, rough sponges, scouring pads, or steel wool.

Before you start washing, remove any rings or jewelry that could potentially scratch your silver. Place a plastic container in the sink or line it with a dish towel, which will prevent silver from scratching if you accidentally drop it. If you want to be extra meticulous, wear nitrile gloves to protect the silver from fingerprints (skin contains tarnish-causing oils and acids).

Washing a silver-plated fork with warm water, a mild dish soap, and a cellulose sponge. You can cut sponges in thirds to make targeting specific areas easier. Photo: Michael Sullivan
A person watching a fork with soapy water
Gloved hands holding a silver fork under running water
Gloved hands drying a silver fork with a white cloth

Wash your silver under warm water using a cellulose sponge (which isn’t abrasive) and a mild dish soap (one that has a neutral pH and is free of phosphates), like citrus-free Dawn Dishwashing Liquid. Rinse the silver with water, and dry it thoroughly with a clean cotton towel. Never let it drip-dry.

Tarnished silver spoons and forks arranged in rows on cloth
Photo: Michael Sullivan

Tarnish, or black silver sulfide, is an inevitable aspect of owning silver, especially if you’re not using it often or storing properly. According to Jeffrey Herman, the founder of the Society of American Silversmiths, “Silver tarnishes primarily because of particulate in the air that has acid or sulfur, which deposits itself onto a piece.” Luckily, tarnish can be easily removed with polish.

Before you begin polishing your silver, lay a clean cotton towel on your work surface. As when cleaning, remove any jewelry from your hands and, if you want to be extra careful, wear nitrile gloves to protect the silver from tarnish-causing oils and acids on your skin.

A tarnished spoon and a polished spoon on white cloth
A tarnished spoon (top) and a polished spoon (bottom). Photo: Michael Sullivan

Before you reach for the polish, Herman recommends washing your silver with soap and water.

Next, use a cotton ball or cotton pad to apply aloe-free, alcohol-based hand sanitizer to the silver, rubbing it gently over the surface (70% isopropyl alcohol also works, but it can be harder to find).

Focus on cleaning one area at a time before moving on to the next, and switch to a new cotton ball or pad once it’s soiled. You may need to use cotton swabs for intricate cleaning, like in between fork tines.

Rinse the silver with warm water, and dry it immediately with a cotton towel. For lightly tarnished pieces, you may find this is all you need to do (which is preferable since it’s less abrasive than using polishes). If any tarnish remains, you’ll need to use silver polish to remove it.

Cleaning a silver-plated spoon with hand sanitizer and a cotton ball before polishing. Photo: Michael Sullivan
Gloved hands using a cotton ball to clean a silver spoon
A person using a sponge to polish a silver-plated fork

There’s a lot to say on the subject of silver polish, but the simple advice is to use the least abrasive option you can get. Herman recommends using either Herman’s Simply Clean (his own product, which he developed) or Blitz Silver Shine Polish (Blitz sells Herman’s polish on its website).

Dip a damp cellulose sponge into the polish, and gently rub it across the silver (this doesn’t require much pressure). Focus on one area at a time, and avoid removing the dark patina in the crevices of ornate patterns because it shows the detail and craftsmanship of the piece. Herman suggests holding a piece of white paper next to your silver as you go, since this makes it easier to see spots you missed.

As the sponge becomes discolored, rinse it with water and squeeze it out completely before continuing—or switch to a new sponge once it’s heavily soiled. When you’re done, rinse the silver under warm water and buff it dry with a clean cotton cloth (if your silver has components that shouldn’t get wet, like wood or ivory handles, avoid this and use the “dry” polishing method instead).

A tarnished spoon after washing it with a mild soap and warm water. Photo: Michael Sullivan
A tarnished spoon that has been washed
A tarnished spoon after it has been cleaned
A spoon after it was been polished
A closeup of the bottom of polished flatware

For larger silver pieces, like bowls or teapots, begin polishing at the outer edges and work toward the center. Herman explained, “It’s like painting the interior of a house. You paint all of the tight spaces first and then use a roller to blend everything in.” If you need a quick tutorial, watch this video of Herman cleaning silver with hand sanitizer and polish.

If your silver will come into contact with food, wash it after polishing.

The two silver polishes we recommend and the polishing methods described above are also safe to use on gold. However, if your silver piece includes other metals, such as copper or brass, you may want to consult an expert before polishing.

How to remove severe tarnish

Gloved hands rubbing the bottom of tarnished silver flatware
Applying polish with a cotton ball to badly tarnished silver flatware. Photo: Michael Sullivan

If some hard-to-remove tarnish still remains after your first pass, you can reapply the polish “dry” using a cotton ball or pad instead of a moist sponge. Then, carefully remove the polish with a moist sponge and/or buff it off with a clean cotton towel (Herman demonstrates this method in this video).

You can also use this “dry” method if your silver has any components that shouldn’t get wet, like wood or ivory handles. Alternatively, Gerri Strickler, an associate objects conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, said before polishing your silver, you can cover these areas with plastic wrap to protect them.

Suzanne Amendolara, a professor of art at Edinboro University who has been making jewelry, holloware, and sculpture for nearly 35 years, told us, “If you’re wearing silver jewelry every day, it stays pretty clean. I don’t think you need to do anything. I think where it’s really an issue is when you’re storing it for periods of time.” She recommends washing jewelry in much the same way you would flatware, with a combination of warm water and Dawn Dishwashing Liquid and gently scrubbing it with a cellulose sponge or horsehair brush. Be careful not to remove the factory patina in the crevices of ornate pieces, since it helps those details stand out. Rinse the silver with water, and dry it with a cotton towel.

Polishing silver jewelry

According to Amendolara, if you wax your silver jewelry, it’s unlikely that it will tarnish, especially if it’s stored properly. In many cases, light tarnish can be removed with a simple wash.

If you do need to polish your jewelry, you can use the same method you’d use for flatware. However, know that over time silver polishes can remove the patina of silver if it has a satin finish. In most cases, regular washing and rubbing with hand sanitizer should suffice in lieu of polish.

Never store silver loose in a drawer because it will scratch easily and tarnish quickly. Avoid wrapping it in newspaper or storing it in cardboard boxes that aren’t acid-free.

Storing silver flatware or jewelry

Silver forks placed in a flannel roll for storage
Place silver-plated forks in a sulfur-absorbing flannel roll for long-term storage. Photo: Michael Sullivan

All of the experts I spoke with said the absolute best way to store your silver is wrapped in sulfur-absorbing flannel. Herman recommends using Pacific Silvercloth, which has been embedded with silver particles to help neutralize hydrogen sulfide gases and other pollutants in the air that cause silver to tarnish. You can buy treated flannel rolls for flatware or bags for jewelry, which last for about 30 years (depending on your climate) before they need to be replaced, according to Herman. If you start to see tarnish on your silver, you know it’s time to replace the flannel.

For long-term storage, place the flannel rolls or bags in a plastic zip-top bag, like Ziploc bags. Remove as much air from the bag as possible before sealing it (but don’t use a vacuum-sealer because the pressure could potentially bend delicate pieces).

If you don’t want to invest in treated flannel, which can be quite expensive, a cheaper alternative would be to individually wrap your silver in buffered, acid-free tissue paper and store it in a zip-top bag with half an anti-tarnish strip, to help neutralize the sulfuric gases in the air. Replace the strips once a year.

Wrapping your silver in buffered, acid-free tissue paper and storing it in a polyethylene zip-top bag with half an anti-tarnish strip is a safe and cost-effective way to inhibit tarnish. Photo: Michael Sullivan

Regardless of which method you choose for wrapping your silver, you can also add silica gel to the container or drawer to help absorb humidity. Herman likes silica gel that changes color once it’s fully saturated with moisture. This silica gel is also reusable—when the gel turns clear, heat the container in the oven at 300 °F for 3 hours—and can be used indefinitely. Strickler said a sachet of activated charcoal would also help absorb moisture.

Storing large pieces

If you want to display larger holloware pieces, like bowls or teapots, in a cabinet or hutch, Herman recommends lining the shelves of the display case with either Kenized SilverShield cloth (which has been impregnated with a proprietary compound) or Pacific Silvercloth. In addition to attracting the hydrogen sulfide in the air, the cloth also provides a barrier against the display case’s shelves, which emit acids and other gases and therefore could also accelerate tarnishing. Avoid using wool, which could have sulfur in it and tarnish your silver.

For the best possible defense, Herman recommends placing Intercept’s Portable Filtration Unit in your cabinet. This battery-operated device has a copper filter that absorbs and neutralizes tarnish-causing pollutants in the air (both the filter and the batteries will need to be periodically replaced). You can also put silica gel or sachets of activated charcoal in your cabinet to help absorb humidity in the air.

If you’re storing your silver in a display case, you’ll need to dust your silver often. Strickler told us, “Dust is hygroscopic and it will hold moisture to the surface. So that will cause tarnishing and corrosion that you don’t necessarily know is happening over a long period of time.” The experts we spoke with recommend using a cotton cloth or an air bulb for dusting. Avoid using feather dusters because they can’t be cleaned, and broken feathers can scratch your silver.

If you don’t plan to display your holloware in a case, wrap it in sulfur-absorbing flannel and store it in a plastic bin with silica gel.

Dinner-knife blades are not made of sterling silver because the metal is too soft to use for cutting (except for certain smaller pieces like butter spreaders or sugar tongs). Most blades today are made of stainless steel and don’t require polishing (though the silver polishes we recommend won’t harm the steel and will actually remove fingerprints).

If you own dinner knives that were made before 1924, they’re likely made of carbon steel, which can rust. To prevent that, Herman recommends applying a light layer of Burt’s Bees Beeswax Lip Balm to the carbon steel (after washing and drying) and rubbing it off with a paper towel until there is no residue left behind. If the carbon-steel blades are badly corroded, you can always have them replaced with new stainless steel blades.

A gloved hand holding a worn silver spoon
The back of a worn plated-silver spoon with the base metal showing through. Photo: Michael Sullivan

What looks like discoloration may actually be the base metal beneath the plated silver starting to show. This damage requires professional re-plating (you can find a reputable conservator for repairing silver in your area on the American Institute for Conservation website). Don’t eat with such pieces or wear worn plated jewelry until it’s re-plated, since certain base metals are toxic or could turn your skin green (which is harmless unless you have a serious allergy).

Don’t try to repair scratches or buff them out yourself; to avoid causing further damage, have them repaired by a professional. Refer to Herman’s website for specific cleaning issues, such as removing coffee or tea stains, candle wax, or salt encrustation from silver, or contact him directly.

If you have heirloom sterling silver pieces from the pre-Colonial era through the 19th century, you may see slightly blotchy purple areas after polishing, known as firestain. Do not attempt to remove it because you can damage the silver and diminish its value.

A close up of silver cream next to a piece of flatware
Photo: Michael Sullivan

All silver polishes are abrasive to some degree, even if they claim to be “non-abrasive” on the label, so it’s important to seek out the gentlest polishes to extend the life of your silver. Herman recommends using either Herman’s Simply Clean (his own product, which he developed) or Blitz Silver Shine Polish; he’s both of these to polish nearly all of the silver he cleans, including museum pieces. Herman’s Simply Clean is made using the highest laboratory-grade calcium carbonate, which Strickler told us is one of the usual go-tos for conservators. Both products are non-toxic and safe to use on silver jewelry or silver pieces that will come in contact with food, such as flatware or servingware (however, you should still rinse the silver after polishing).

If the other two options aren’t available, Herman also recommends using Scotchgard 3M Tarni-Shield Silver Polish and Twinkle Silver Polish (just be sure to use a cellulose sponge instead of the foam applicator that it comes with). I tested all four brands, and they all worked well. The Scotchgard 3M polish had an unpleasant smell, but it was effective.

Keep your silver away from chemical dips, such as Tarn-X, which will strip it and turn it a whitish-gray (I learned this the hard way). Chemical dips will also take off the patina found in the crevices of ornate jewelry or flatware patterns, which you don’t want to remove.

Two silver spoons on white cloth
A plated silver spoon cleaned with a mild polish that has a bright luster (top); a dull, grayish-white silver spoon cleaned using Tarn-X (bottom). Photo: Michael Sullivan

All of the experts I spoke with strongly advised against using products not specifically intended for polishing silver, such as toothpaste, ketchup, and baking soda, or using the aluminum foil technique, because these can permanently etch or dull silver. Many of these so-called “quick cleaning techniques,” which you might see in YouTube demos, can damage your silver, even if it’s not immediately apparent. For more information, refer to Herman’s extensive list of cleaners and polishes.

To add an extra layer of tarnish defense to silver, you can lightly coat pieces with Meguiar’s Quik Wax (as long as they won’t come in contact with food or drink—though the exterior of a teapot or pitcher would be safe to wax). Spray or rub the wax onto the silver, and buff it off with a dry cotton cloth until it looks dry and free of streaks. According to Herman, this will help keep your silver shiny for up to a year, as long as you dust it regularly.

To remove old wax from silver, apply aloe-free, alcohol-based hand sanitizer (70% isopropyl alcohol also works) to the silver with cotton balls or pads. Wash and dry the piece thoroughly before applying a fresh coat of wax.

Gloved hands holding a piece of flatware at its wood handle
This is a wood handle after it’s been waxed and buffed. Photo: Michael Sullivan

If your silver has wood or ivory elements, you can wax those to protect them too, but with a different wax. Herman recommends Crystal Clear Paste Wax. In a well-ventilated space, apply a small, thin layer of wax and rub it all over with a cotton towel, being careful to avoid the silver. After a few minutes, buff the wax with a cotton or paper towel until it feels hard to the touch. Repeat with one or two more coats and allow the wax to cure for 24 hours before using or storing the item.

 

 

 

Source:https://www.nytimes.com/

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