The use of brass dates back to around 1400 B.C. An alloy of copper and zinc, brass is resistant to corrosion, and is also quite malleable, which lends it to being used in a wide range of applications, from armament to ornamentation. In more creative and scientific endeavors, brass has been used in astronomic instruments, the early printing press, and clock making (gears).
Today, other alloys that have similar attributes, but even greater corrosion resistance and durability are used in place of brass in many commercial applications. However, the luster and beauty of brass is more difficult to match, and so brass is still widely used in home décor and door and cabinet hardware.
If you have invested in fine brass fixtures, or have inherited them, you obviously want them to retain (or regain) their original beauty. Periodic cleaning can help to accomplish this. The first step is to determine if your piece is made of solid brass or is merely brass plated. An easy way to tell is to apply a magnet to it. A magnet will not stick to a solid brass piece but it may stick to a brass plated item depending on what material was used in the production of the piece. You have to be extra careful of cleaning brass plated items, as you may end up damaging the plating and revealing the material underneath.
If your piece is solid brass, the simplest and best option for cleaning it is plain hot soapy water, used with a microfiber cleaner cloth, and a toothbrush to get into any crevices. After cleaning, simply rinse with warm water and dry thoroughly.
There are a few other home-made solutions floating around on the internet. While we do not recommend any of these, several are reported to have resulted in some success by those who have tried it.
The first involves rubbing a thin coat of ketchup, tomato sauce or tomato paste on the brass, allowing it to sit for an hour or so, then cleaning with hot soapy water. The secret here is pH. All of these products (the ketchup, tomato sauce, or tomato paste, all have a low pH (ranging from 3.5 – 4.7), which makes them all slightly acidic. The reported risks here involve altering the color of the item to a bronze pink color.
Another method involves using lemon and salt, coating the cut side of the lemon with salt and rubbing it over the surface of the brass, and then buffing with a clean, dry cloth. Some report seeing a lighter brass color, but with some noticeable streaks.
A third method involves making a paste of salt, flour, and white vinegar (pH. 2.4), in equal parts, and applying this paste to the brass. After letting it sit for an hour, rinse with warm water and buff dry. This may help to brighten the brass a bit and should not leave any streaky marks.
Bob Vila, renowned restoration expert provides some advice as to what to be aware of when cleaning brass yourself.
- Avoid using highly abrasive scrubbing cloths, metal-bristled brushes, or steel wool; these will scratch the surface of the brass.
- To prevent tarnishing, a thin coating of linseed oil or mineral oil can be applied to clean brass with a soft terry towel.
- Many brass objects are protected with a lacquer finish and should only be cleaned with hot, soapy water. If pieces of this type are heavily tarnished, you will need to remove the lacquer with a paint or varnish remover, clean and polish the brass using one of the techniques above, then re-lacquer the piece.
- Use gloves and avoid touching your brass items as much as possible; oils in your skin can hasten tarnishing.