Brassed Off – A Cautionary Tale

I’ve been polishing things for over thirty five years. In fact, I’ve always been rather proud of my abilities to bring tired-looking artefacts back to life, especially without damaging them, although I must confess that I’ve made the odd mistake. I am, in essence, a competent restorer that knows his limitations. These days, my workshop is a highly organised typically Virgoan arrangement of polishing wheels, bench grinders and neatly lined up containers of acids, acetone, oils and waxes, not forgetting Coca-Cola. So, it was with some frustration that I was recently apprised of an old recipe for cleaning brass that made me feel like the last thirty-odd years had been spent largely in vain or at least, without the knowledge of a solution that could have saved me enormous amounts of elbow grease in pursuit of making my copper alloy objects gleam. 

I suspect you are still wondering about the Coca-Cola? Well, I’m sure that this will be familiar to some of you; Coca-Cola’s corrosive capabilities make it quite a good immersive method for cleaning copper and other metals - something I discovered in my youth. In fact, I can highly recommend it for cleaning up old pennies. However, Coca-Cola was positively pushed into the shade by the recent suggestion that I mix a gallon of malt vinegar with a container of cheap salt and immerse my filthy brass into that. Quite frankly, I was astounded. I’ve previously tried the lemon juice, the yoghurt and tomato ketchup suggestions that abound on the internet - many of which seem to be just partially effective - but within just a couple of minutes the brass lamp in question and subject of the experiment, was completely transformed and merely required a quick buff with a small amount of Brasso. Why, I thought, did I not know this before? My initial reaction was that it was a conspiracy devised by the manufacturers of metal polish to stop them going out of business - in reality I was simply not in ‘the know’. 

Yet, I must hazard a few warnings. Cleaning old brass is a horrible job. In fact, cleaning most old things is a horrible job and that’s precisely why the popularity of owning such objects went out of fashion at about the same time that servants were no longer there to do such jobs! I remember, with some nostalgia, helping my Nan to polish the fireside brassware but how many of us want to be bothered these days? Not only is it hard work, we have little use for many of the objects concerned; the brass or copper warming pans that so commonly graced the walls of ye olde-worlde pubs are now classed as one of the most unsaleable items in the world of antiques. Boxes of heavily tarnished brassware abound at auction and unless something special lurks within, such as a rare 17th century bell metal candlestick, they can often be purchased for relatively small change. 

My advice? Given that I have seen many a good object on my Roadshow table ruined by over- zealous cleaning or the application of totally inappropriate products, I would always counsel caution. Beautifully patinated bronzes stripped of their colour with proprietary oven cleaner will be massively devalued; they might be shiny but it’s a common cautionary tale. Conversely, such stories are sometimes compounded by the inefficacy of many commercial products - such as paint stripper – which these days seem, due to environmental concerns, largely ineffectual – cue the sandpaper! So next time you take it upon yourself to ‘restore’ something old, take care, take advice and remember, that with the right credentials, the professionals can still buy the products that do the best job! 

Marc is a consultant for Tennants Auctioneers of Leyburn and is based at: 

Oakham (Heart of England) Office,Mill House, South Street,. Oakham, Rutland LE15 6BG 

Tel: + 44 (0) 1572 724666
Fax: + 44 (0) 1572 724422