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Keep brass, silver, pewter and steel pretty

  • Story Highlights
  • Use non-waxy polishes to buff your stainless steel
  • Rubbing alcohol will get grime off of your pewter
  • Forget the old wives -- lemon and salt are not good for copper
  • Never place silver flatware in the dishwasher
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Real Simple

(Real Simple) -- Here are some easy remedies for those tarnished brass candlesticks, silver flatware, and more.

How to polish stainless steel

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Help your metals retain luster by using the right products to clean and polish them.

What to use: Wright's Stainless Steel Polish ($2.75).

What to know: Stainless steel is aptly named -- it rarely has to be polished. And it's the only metal that can go in the dishwasher, as long as the entire piece is stainless. Do not put a sterling-handled knife with a stainless blade in the dishwasher.

Useful tips: Waxy polishes can leave a film on stainless steel, so use a nonwaxy polish, like Wright's, or Palmolive or a similar phosphate-free dish soap. Do not finish a teapot with a waxy protectant. Heat will melt it, and you'll have rank-tasting, gummy tea.

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How to polish brass

What to use: Wright's Brass Cream ($2.75).

What to know: Much old brass is lacquered and must be stripped before polishing. Lacquer can be identified by feeling a chipped edge or by noticing uneven discoloration where the lacquer has chipped and the brass has oxidized. If you are unsure, take your piece to a professional.

Useful tips: Don't heed most folklore about treating brass. Never strip it with ketchup (it may work, but not as well as nail-polish remover will). Never finish it with olive oil (it is sticky and will attract dust and moisture). And never use ammonia or steel wool (both are too harsh).

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How to polish pewter

What to use: Rubbing alcohol to remove grime; Renaissance Wax ($12) to coat. If polish is desired, try Hagerty's Pewter Wash ($6).

What to know: Pewter is normally not polished, simply because the tarnished, aged look is preferred. It's a very thin metal, so it should be treated gingerly. Keep it out of the oven, even if you're just keeping your Thanksgiving turkey warm, because it could melt.

Useful tips: Avoid serving acidic foods and beverages -- such as lemons, tomatoes, orange juice, hollandaise sauce, and wine -- in pewter pieces, because they will eat away the metal.

How to polish copper

What to use: Wright's Copper Cream ($2.75) or Goddard's Brass & Copper Polish ($5).

What to know: Some sources say to clean copper with lemon and salt, but it's best to stay away from these materials. The acidity of the lemon and the abrasiveness of the salt can ruin copper's finish. Use a commercial copper polish instead.

Useful tips: Tarnish is difficult to remove when it has settled in hard-to-reach spots, such as the seam where a handle attaches to a pot. Paste polishes are likely to cake in those areas. To clean, use a Q-tip or a horse-hair brush. To remove caked-on paste, use rubbing alcohol.

How to polish silver

What to use: Hagerty's Silversmith Spray Polish ($13) or Hagerty's Silver Foam ($5).

What to know: Sterling and silver plate should be treated in the same, gentle way. If your piece doesn't clean easily, take it to a professional. And never put silver flatware in the dishwasher. The extreme heat can warp it, and bumping against other metals can leave marks.

Useful tips: Store silver in acid-free tissue paper or unbleached cotton muslin (found at fabric stores) inside a Ziploc bag. Avoid serving eggs or mayonnaise on silver; the sulfur in them tarnishes it.

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Polishing basics

  • Rinse pieces under warm water and lightly wash with a nonabrasive liquid detergent, such as Ivory. Do not soak. Dry thoroughly with a soft cotton towel. If the piece has a nonmetal component, like a wooden handle, cover it with plastic wrap.
  • Wear gloves, preferably cotton. Rubber kitchen gloves are fine, but wash them first, because they may contain sulfur, a tarnishing agent. Surgical gloves are often weak, and oils and polishes can break them down.
  • Before you plunge in, test a small area of the object to make sure the polish gives the shine you want.
  • Polish with a nonlinty fabric, like a clean, old white T-shirt. Use enough fabric so no removed tarnish is ever rubbed back onto the metal's surface.
  • After each step, rinse the metal thoroughly with warm water and liquid detergent.
  • Dust regularly with a natural-bristle brush, such as one made of horsehair.
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