When my great-grandmother passed away, she left behind a house full of beautiful antiques for her family to sift through. Gorgeous Victorian furniture, practically unused antique china, a pristine collection of crystal candlesticks, and a full set of vintage silverware and silver serving pieces. It was a collection curated from a lifetime of hard work, and each piece had been cared for meticulously.
Regardless of their pristine shine initially, tarnish is inevitable even for the most precious of sterling silverware and serving pieces. Caring for antiques of all kinds can be a tricky task, but caring for silverware without damaging its luster can be overwhelming, even for the most experienced homemaker. In this article, we’re going to learn the best way to clean tarnished silverware, serving pieces, and silver jewelry.
Tarnish: Where does it come from?
Why does Silverware become Tarnished Over Time?
Our atmosphere has become one of the most highly debated scientific issues of the millennium. People are passionate about this topic because the air we breathe directly affects the health of our body. This is why strict smoking restrictions have begun to spring up all over the United States. We understand that the air we are exposed to directly affects our health.
Much like our bodies react to the air around us, other elements react to the air around them as well. Pure silver and sterling silver both react to the atmosphere around them, which is what ultimately causes silver to tarnish.
Most commonly, silver reacts with a chemical known as sulfur. Sulfur exists in tiny microscopic particles that appear in infinite combinations. Hydrogen Sulfide and Sulfur Dioxide both occur in the air we breathe every day. The concentration of these elements is boundlessly higher in industrial, urban areas.
Silver is an extremely soft metal. Many craftsmen choose to use a variation of silver, commonly known as sterling silver, in order to make more durable products. This is achieved by mixing pure silver with a small amount of copper.
Take a moment to think about the last time you looked at a really old penny. Do you remember that dull green, almost moss-like hue? That is the result of oxidation. Oxidation is yet again the result of chemicals in the air reacting to a metal.
Therefore, sterling silver, a mixed metal of both copper and silver, is doubly subjected to chemical reactions when exposed to the elements.
Do Certain Conditions Make Tarnish Worse?
Certain conditions can cause silver to tarnish faster than others. It is important to understand these conditions and prepare for any special factors that may affect your silverware.
Humidity, for example, causes an accelerated tarnish process. Moisture in the air will significantly decrease the amount of time it takes for silver to tarnish.
Chlorine, a chemical commonly used in pools and spas to keep water clean, reacts with silver very quickly and will cause it to tarnish. Chlorine is accelerated in the air around both outdoor and indoor pools. Further, cleaning with bleach and washing clothes or towels in bleach will leave trace amounts of chlorine in the air in your home.
Acids in various forms will accelerate tarnishing effects. It is not commonly known that tissue paper contains copious amounts of acid. Avoiding wrapping silver in tissue paper is a good practice for minimizing exposure to acids.
Is it Tarnish or Something More?
There are essentially three stages that can be observed as silver tarnishes. At first, silver will have a light-yellow hue. In this early stage, silverware can likely easily be cleaned by simply washing it with soap and water. After some time, silver will become a light purple color before settling into a fully black tarnish.
Silver is a precious metal. While tarnish and corrosion are used synonymously in reference to silver, it remains true that silver does not corrode in the way other metals will. This means that while silver does tarnish, it does not rust, and the corrosion (referred to as tarnish) can, in more cases than not, be cleaned with little to no damage to the silver.
Can Tarnish be Prevented?
Tarnish can absolutely be prevented, or at the very least prolonged, with proper care and attention. See these simple tips for preventing tarnish:
- Wear silver jewelry and handle silverware often. The skin contains natural oils and secretions that can significantly delay the process which causes silver to tarnish.
- Avoid exposing silverware to household chemicals.
- Wrap silverware in a cloth or seal it in a bag and store in a dry area. Remember, humidity accelerates the process of tarnish.
- Consider using silica gel to remove extra moisture from the storage area.
- Avoid the use of tissue paper to store silverware or silver jewelry.
- Heat can speed up the tarnishing process. Avoid displaying silverware or silver serving ware in an area that may be exposed to direct sunlight.
- For extended storage, consider the use of wax or other coatings to preserve cleaned silver for longer periods of time.
Remember, you will never be able to entirely eliminate the tarnishing of silver, but by making simple adjustments to your storage areas, you could significantly delay the process.
Ways to Clean Tarnished Silver?
Chemical cleaning products are readily available in the form of silver polish paste and silver polish wipes. These products are easily found in the cleaning supplies of most grocery stores and are an effective method for cleaning tarnish from silver.
There are some major downsides to using chemical cleaners. These cleaners are rather messy, expose you to potentially harmful chemicals, and of course must be kept away from young children.
An ionic cleaner is an extremely popular method for cleaning tarnished silver, although it may be best suited for jewelry and small pieces of silverware. Ionic cleaners use a process called electrolysis. These machines employ two electrodes, one with a silver point and the other with a stainless steel point. These are attached to a battery pack and then immersed in a solution of water mixed with an electrolyte powder. Immediately, the tarnish can be seen disappearing from the silver.
Ionic cleaners are very effective and regarded as a safe practice for cleaning silver. However, they are simply not practical for large pieces of serving ware like plates or pitchers.
Home Remedy/Do It Yourself
It is not a secret that the do it yourself phenomenon is likely perpetuated by our fascination with social media platforms like Pinterest. With information readily at our fingertips, home remedies have become more popular than they have been in quite some time. It comes as no surprise that there is a litany of do-it-yourself remedies for polishing silver.
- Aluminum Foil, Baking Soda, and Vinegar – This may be the single most popular recipe for at-home silver cleaning methods mentioned among do-it-yourselfers. With only three ingredients (aside from water) the recipe is not too complicated and is regarded as extremely effective.
- Lemon and Salt Bath – This method is as simple as it sounds. Simply soak tarnished silver in a solution of water, lemon juice and salt and wait. The one major concern with this cleaning method is the acidity of lemon. Although damage may be limited, no damage would definitely be preferable.
- Toothpaste – Another popular cleaning hack for those looking for a quick at-home fix for tarnished silverware is coating the tarnished item in toothpaste. Rumor has it that tarnish will wipe away as the toothpaste is rubbed off. Not only is this a messy method, it is an extremely expensive fix. It might work in a pinch, but I would also be concerned about the long-term effects of this method on a precious metal.
- Ketchup – Much like the toothpaste method listed above, tarnish is said to wipe right off when rubbing ketchup on a tarnished piece of silver. Again, this seems like it might be an expensive, messy, and potentially damaging method.
Coca Cola- We have all seen evidence of the damage that soaking various items in Coca Cola can do. Regardless, do-it-yourself research finds it worth mentioning that Coca Cola will eat tarnish from silver pieces. It is important to note that the acidity in Coca Cola might eat away at layers of the metal during this process.
Overall, the do-it-yourself methods for cleaning silver appear to be messy and somewhat expensive options in comparison. Additionally, while these methods may be handy in a pinch, they are not friendly for the budget conscious household.
Another viable option for cleaning silver pieces is the use of a polishing cloth. Polishing cloths are reusable, affordable, mess-free and require absolutely no preparation. The simplicity of the polishing cloth is what makes it by far my favorite method for polishing silverware.
The Case for the Polishing Cloth
As mentioned in the previous section, the polishing cloth wins my award for the best way to clean tarnished silverware for more reason than one. I love the simplicity of this method. The less materials needed, the easier it is to accomplish the task at hand.
The polishing cloth is safe to use on my vintage silverware and will naturally clean tarnish without causing any damage to my valuable silverware and serving pieces.
Lastly, the polishing cloth is budget-friendly. I appreciate the ability to use a product more than once before it has to be thrown away. The polishing cloth is a product that can be used multiple times before a new one must be purchased.
The Best Way to Clean Tarnished Silverware with a Polishing Cloth
I have already mentioned all of the benefits for using a polishing cloth over any other method for cleaning tarnished silver. Since the polishing cloth wins my award for the best method for cleaning tarnished silverware, we will take a quick look at a step-by-step guide for how to clean your tarnished silver using a polishing cloth.
You can pick up a low quality polishing cloth in most major retail stores, but I strongly suggest the high performance Champion Polishing Cloth made by Champion Supplies. One of my favorite aspects about the Champion Polishing Cloth is that I know I am guaranteed a non-toxic and chemical free cleaning cloth. Further, I like to support products made in the United States and with Champion I know that they are producing quality products right here in my home country.
The other aspect that I really love about the Champion Polishing Cloth over other products is that it is not limited to polishing silver. It is versatile in that I can use it on real wood, any metal, and any enameled furniture or surface. When buying a Champion Polishing Cloth, I am not limiting myself to only polishing silverware.
This product really is simple. Read below to learn how to use it.
- Step 1: Be sure that the silverware is free of loose debris like dirt or dust.
- Step 2: Place the cloth in a single layer over the item to be cleaned. There is no need to wet the cloth. In fact, wetting the cloth will limit its effectiveness. Simply rub the cloth over the tarnish until the original color is restored. Repeat if necessary.
- Step 3: Complete a final polish of the silverware with a soft, dry cloth (for best results use a microfiber cloth) to give it a final shine.
Maintaining Cleaned Silverware
As mentioned previously, there is no way to completely eliminate tarnish from happening. However, following up with the Champion Cleaning Cloth is a safe and extremely effective method for maintaining your silverware.
You should now have a complete understanding of how to clean and maintain your silverware, silver jewelry, or silver serving pieces. If you find yourself tasked with restoring family heirlooms like I once did, you should be more prepared now than ever. Maintaining vintage silver pieces has never been easier and more manageable.