If you are like me, you know there is nothing quite as beautiful as a well-restored Victorian home. Well crafted solid wood trims and floors, artfully designed windows, and ornate metalwork are among the many details you might find in an older home. These details are a feast for the eyes when they are in good shape, but they can also be the bane of your existence when it comes to restoring and maintaining these historic abodes.
One issue that leaves many enthusiastic DIYers frustrated is tarnished fixtures and door knobs or handles. Even more frustrating is identifying the right way to clean them without damaging them. Have no fear, your home improvement projects aren’t going to end in failure. In this article, we’re going to go over how to clean badly tarnished brass door handles or really any tarnished brass that has you stressed.
Tarnish: What Causes It and How to Identify It
What Causes Tarnish in the First Place?
So I know you are all brushed up on your grade school earth science right? No? It’s okay. Let’s dive into a little refresher. Tarnish is the result of oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical process a material undergoes when exposed to air. So, without any other factors, everything undergoes oxidization, even our bodies. While it may not seem like exposure to the air around us could change anything, over time, signs of oxidization become more apparent. People age, food spoils, and metals either rust or tarnish. Metals like brass and silver make good fixtures, door handles, and silverware because they aren’t prone to rust, but over time they are likely to tarnish.
Most solid brass is finished with a lacquer to prevent tarnishing, but eventually, that lacquer can wear down, and unlacquered brass is much more likely to tarnish than lacquered brass. While it may look unsightly, it’s actually a way for the brass to fight off further damage. That’s good news for the condition of your brass door knobs and fixtures once you get them restored, it may leave you puzzled about how to return them to their former glory.
Thinking back to that science class, I’m sure you remember another term, corrosion. It is an effect of oxidation, but it’s usually helped along by another chemical process, usually from water damage, or other agents.
Rust is a good example of corrosion. If you’ve ever lived in the south and the north, you may have noticed vehicles down south are much less likely to develop rust, while vehicles up north rust easily. It’s not just the exposure to water. Sure, snow can cake onto wheel wells and other parts of your car’s undercarriage, but it’s the deicing agents used on the roads that are the main catalyst. Where I live, it’s usually salt, but I’ve lived in other areas that use an ash mixture as well.
What you may not know is that even high-quality metals such as brass can corrode under the right conditions. In the case of brass, just water alone can cause corrosion. It’s unlikely you will run into this issue with your interior brass doorknobs, but you may encounter this problem with exterior brass door handles and door knockers.
You may be wondering how a high-quality metal such as brass could corrode. Although it resists corrosion better than other metals, it’s still an alloy. Brass is always comprised of copper and zinc, although it may contain other metals, such as aluminum, to change the alloy’s machinability and to actually help prevent corrosion.
Brass does, however, have an Achille’s heel; the high level of zinc in the alloy. Zinc is prone to a corrosive condition known as dezincification. This condition causes the zinc to corrode, but the copper may maintain its shape. Once the brass has suffered a good bit of corrosive damage, it can be brittle and prone to breaking. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with severe corrosive damage. At that point, it’s best to replace the affected brass. If the corrosion isn’t too bad, a professional may be able to restore it for you.
Is it Tarnish or Corrosion?
While some corrosion will be obvious, there are a few signs to look for when evaluating the brass you intend to restore. The following characteristics will help you tell the difference between more subtle corrosion and tarnish.
It’s tarnish if:
- It’s black, green and/or blue (may be referred to as patina)
- The discoloration forms a hardened layer
- May flake off
- Metal is otherwise intact
It’s corrosion if:
- It has spots of discoloration
- Reddish or pink spots and splotches
- Powdery green or greenish-white spots and splotches
- Blue deposits
- Green or white spots spread rapidly
- Obvious damage or eroded areas
- Breaking easily
Red or pink spots are signs of what is called safe corrosion. In most cases, the brass will be salvageable as this corrosion is minor. Any of the other listed discoloration signs is a strong indication of irreversible damage.
Cleaning Brass: The Many Methods
So now that you’ve determined you have tarnished and not corroded brass, you may be wondering how to clean brass. Many believe brass can be difficult to clean, but it doesn’t have to be. While there are many ways to clean brass, some methods and cleaning products can actually damage the brass. We’re going to go over a few of those here.
Commercial Cleaning Products
If you are dealing with brass or other metals in a commercial industry, like a bar, you can use abrasive cleaners and other stronger methods if scratches aren’t an issue. It’s unlikely you will be dealing with tarnish in this instance. You may also use brass polish if you would like, but keep in mind you will need to determine if you have lacquered or unlacquered brass and some polishes aren’t good for all applications.
Hacks and DIYs
I’m sure you are very familiar with the fact that if you search for information online, you can find a hack or a DIY recipe for anything. Unfortunately, when it comes to cleaning brass, it’s not as simple as that. You can try these methods, and they may be effective, but depending on different factors, they can also damage your brass.
This list outlines some of the most popular DIY methods:
- Vinegar and salt
- Lemon juice and salt
- Ketchup, or tomato paste or sauce
- Other mild abrasive powders such as baking soda, flour, etc.
You may have noticed a theme in these methods. Many of the above items have mild acids in them. Most of these acids are generally considered safe. I mean, after all, many are food products we eat. However, some of them may actually cause more damage to lacquered brass by damaging the lacquer.
Polishing or Silver Cloths
When I think of how to clean badly tarnished brass door handles, one really neat way stands out to me, and that’s using polishing cloths. The reason I love them is that they’re easy to use, you don’t need to be an expert in metal restoration, and it’s not messy like other methods. It’s actually what many professional restorers use too, especially in the jewelry industry. Let’s take a look at all of the ways polishing cloths are superior to other methods:
No need to determine if the brass is lacquered or not
Unlike other methods that require you to either avoid damaging the lacquer or require the painstaking process of removing lacquer, a good polishing cloth will clean tarnish regardless of the presence of lacquer.
No chance of damage
As the above suggests, you don’t have to worry about damaging any lacquer that may be on the brass. But it gets even better; polishing cloths won’t scratch, discolor, or damage brass with water like other methods can do.
No messy cleanup
All of the other methods mentioned require applying something to the brass, like ketchup, or the vinegar and an abrasive agent. No matter what method you use, you will have to clean the item before and after using the method you choose. It’s just an all-around mess.
Easy one-step cleaning
When dealing with a lot of the DIY methods, as we discussed you have to clean brass with soap and water first. Then you have to apply whatever method you are using, let it sit, clean it off, often scrubbing or rubbing hard, then wash it with regular soap and water again. Then you have to use a soft cloth to polish it, and apply a wax or other protectant or polish to shine and protect the brass item. That’s a lot of steps! It’s definitely a hassle if you are doing a bunch of brass door handles, fixtures or other brass hardware.
It’s also easier to use a polishing cloth for silverware or other dinnerware. Besides one-step cleaning, it allows you to get into all of the grooves and crevices of any brass item, no matter how ornate.
Cleaning without Damaging
Even if you prefer to use a multi-step method, it’s still important to remember a few key things to avoid damaging your brass door handles and other fixtures and hardware. Remember to avoid using methods that involve acidic or abrasive products unless you know your brass isn’t lacquered, or if you plan to remove and restore lacquer or leave the item unlacquered. While leaving the item unlacquered may seem like a good idea to lessen cleaning issues, it also leaves your brass unprotected and more likely to tarnish, or worse, corrode.
Don’t use scrubbing tools either, unless you are removing lacquer, as these tools will damage the lacquer and probably scratch the brass as well. The biggest mistake would be to use a steel or copper scrubbing pad. These tools are very abrasive and will scratch metal surfaces, as well as many others. If you are removing lacquer you can use a very fine steel wool pad but do your research and make sure to get the right one. When in doubt, make sure to use a soft cloth, like microfiber cloths, or regular (not the scouring side) sponges.
Heavy cleaning products or solvents can damage brass as well and should only be used when stripping varnish or in professional restoration done by conservators. Using a paint or varnish stripper will definitely remove the varnish, but take precautions and do your research when choosing these products because some cleaning agents can damage the integrity of the brass alloy.
Some cleaners are just a bad idea no matter how careful you are. Muriatic acid, also known as hydrochloric acid, is one of the worst offenders. Most cleaning products that contain this acid are toilet cleaners, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for it to show up in other cleaning products. That’s why it’s always important to check the ingredients of cleaners before using them.
As weird as it sounds, the method of using ammonia is actually a contentious topic for many professionals in regards to cleaning and restoring brass. Many products used to clean and polish brass contain ammonia, but ammonia can cause discoloration and permanent damage. The following is a list of possible dezincification or otherwise corroding agents:
- Muriatic acid
- Mild acids
- Mild alkaline agents
- Destroyed, weakened, or missing varnish
- Water, some oils, and salts
Yes, that’s right, some of those DIY methods could end up causing dezincification. While it may take some time to do so, if you are dealing with antique brass, you don’t know what was used on the brass in the past. There are also issues with consistent brass composition when dealing with antique brass. Because of this, some brass alloys are more prone to corrosion and dezincification. Even if one application seems to have no effect, remember that chemical changes like erosion happen over time. So by the time you notice the damage, it’s probably too late.
How to Clean Badly Tarnished Brass Door Handles
We aren’t going to go into every single step here but I’ll outline a few basic cleaning methods, including my preferred method. We will not cover stripping varnish though, so keep in mind you will have to determine if you can use a method based on existing lacquer, or you may opt to strip the lacquer first. Before we dive in, let’s briefly cover the conditions you need to determine before getting started:
- Is your door hardware lacquered or unlacquered?
- Is your brass corroded or just tarnished?
- Is it solid brass or brass plated?
We already covered why it’s important to know whether or not your brass is lacquered if you are using cleaning methods other than a polishing cloth. We also covered how to tell if you are dealing with tarnish or corrosion. Refer to the list in the first section of this article to determine the condition of your brass. The other possible issue we haven’t covered is whether or not the brass is solid or just brass plating. This won’t matter if you are using the polishing cloth method, but other methods can actually remove the plating, so this is important to know. I wouldn’t recommend cleaning brass plating with anything other than mild soap and water, or a polishing cloth.
Cleaning and Polishing Products
This method covers basic cleaning and polishing using a commercial cleaning product, such as a brass polish.
Step 1: Precleaning
Begin by cleaning with hot soapy water and a soft cloth. If you are cleaning a brass doorknob or handle, you may remove the hardware from the door to make it easier, just make sure you can get it back on when you are done. You can use an old toothbrush with soft bristles to clean in tight areas and use wooden skewers or toothpicks to get into small crevices.
Step 2: Cleaning
You can use a combo product that cleans and polishes, or use a mildly abrasive brass cleaner and polish afterward. Apply the product according to directions, and rinse well. You may need to scrub or rub to remove tarnish. Repeat this step until you’ve removed all of the tarnish. Make sure it’s completely rinsed and dried before polishing.
Step 3: Polishing and Sealing
If you are using a separate polish, follow the instructions of the product. Make sure to use a soft cloth to buff and shine the brass. Take care to completely remove the polish, and get into every crevice. If you are dealing with unlacquered brass, you may also finish with an oil, such as mineral oil, to protect the brass. If you desire, you can also use a lacquer specifically designed for brass. Just make sure whatever sealing or polishing method you use, that the brass is completely dried and sealed so it won’t corrode. You especially want to avoid water spots.
These are pretty simple. You can use them alone or use them with traditional products if you have stubborn tarnish. Follow the same methods above. However, use the DIY mixture or item during the second step. If used with another product, make sure to use the DIY method after the traditional cleaner. You may need to let the brass sit when using some of these methods, so it can loosen up the tarnish. Just make sure to thoroughly rinse it afterward, and you can even use regular soap and water to be sure you removed it all.
My Favorite Method: The Polishing Cloth
We already went over the benefits of using a polishing cloth. It takes the guesswork out of trying to determine the issues you can face with other cleaning methods. It’s easy to use, it’s not going to cause any damage to your brass and it will actually help protect your brass in the future.
Now you can get polishing cloths just about anywhere, but I personally love the Champion Polishing Cloth by Champion Supplies. A lot of other polishing cloths come connected to a microfiber cloth. The problem is that your polishing cloth will eventually need to be replaced, whereas your final buffing cloth won’t need it. The design also makes it difficult to work with these other polishing cloths since they are attached to the buffing cloth. Finally, polishing cloths do have cleaning agents in them.
While the ones in Champion’s cloth are not toxic, you can’t be too sure with other polishing cloths, and since those other cloths lay on top of the polishing cloth, there can be some transfer of those chemical agents to the items you are polishing.
Champion products are always made right here in the USA so you know you are getting a quality product without the chance of potential hazards you might find in products produced overseas. Another feature I love about these is you can cut them into pieces to fit your needs, without worrying about lowering the quality of your polishing cloth. The best part is you don’t need to use any water. Many polishing cloths require wetting the surface of the brass you are cleaning before using the cloth. While this is minimal water contact, using Champion’s cloth means your item isn’t exposed to any water.
I really love the fact that unlike other polishing cloths, Champion’s isn’t just for polishing metals. You can also use it for wood, enameled surfaces, and so much more. Basically, anything you might need to polish, you can use this cloth. Using the cloth is easy and here’s everything you need to know to use this method to clean your brass door handles:
Step 1: Precleaning
Unlike other methods, precleaning isn’t really necessary. Simply making sure the item is free of dust is enough, but if you want you can clean the handle with hot soapy water. If you have a lot of work to do, you may want to remove the brass hardware from the door, but given the ease of this method, and its lack of messy cleanup, it isn’t necessary.
Step 2: Cleaning the tarnish
Cut the cloth if desired. Do Not Wet Cloth or Surface!! This is very important. Never wet the polishing cloth. It will not help you clean and it could damage the effectiveness of the cloth. Using the cloth in a single layer, rub the surface of the brass briskly. Continue rubbing until all tarnish is removed. The cloth will discolor, but it will not affect it’s cleaning ability. If you feel you aren’t getting enough of the tarnish off, you can use another section of the cloth that isn’t discolored.
Step 3: Final polish
After you have removed all of the tarnish, you can use a clean and dry soft cloth (not a polishing cloth) like a microfiber cloth. I always have some laying around because I get them when I buy screen protectors for my phone, and we use them for our eyeglasses as well. You are really just buffing the item until it shines so it will only take a few moments.
After cleaning your brass, make sure you don’t wash your Champion polishing cloth. It will last longer than a gallon of silver polish would, so despite looking dirty, it will continue to work perfect every time. After using, make sure to seal your cloth in an airtight container, like a gallon-size plastic food storage bag. This will keep the cloth’s polishing agents from evaporating.
Maintaining your Brass Door Handles
Once you have clean and shiny brass handles, you can actually use Champion’s polishing cloth to keep it in perfect condition. Follow the same steps for cleaning badly tarnished brass above, but instead of a single layer, take a small piece of the polishing cloth and roll it up into a ball. Buff with a dry cloth afterward as normal.
Now you know how to clean badly tarnished brass door handles. Whether you are restoring fixtures in your old Victorian home, or just looking to restore the beauty of some antique items you found, following this guide will help you solve any tarnish woes. Especially when you have such a versatile cleaning tool like the polishing cloth from Champion Supplies. I hope you liked this article because I always love sharing my tips, from my home to yours.