Cleaning Sterling Silver
There are many ways and methods for cleaning Sterling Silver - some of these
methods are discussed in the article below and cover sterling silver in general so that includes cutlery, flatware, jewellery and many other items.
For cleaning sterling
silver jewellery the most common methods are (in order of effectiveness);
Ultrasonic cleaning - done by a jeweler
in an Ultrasonic
cleaning machine - produces a stunning brilliance and does no harm at all to the jewellery. Of
course the jeweller will charge you for this service.
Silver Cleaning Dips - most are very good producing excellent results - useful if you have a lot of
jewellery to clean
Hand Polishing using an impregnated Silver Polishing Cloth - hand polishing is generally the best
method for most jewellery if it has been looked after, i.e. had regular polishing and been kept in
out of the light in a moisture free environment - simply in a drawer rather than on top
of a vanity or on a jewellery hanger. Polishing cloths you will buy commercially are impregnated
with cleaning agents so there is no need to use any additional liquid or paste polish. Hand
polishing may not be the best method if the item is very tarnished, e.g. blackened, in which case
go back to the top of the list.
There are 'home' remedies as well, like baking soda in an aluminium foil lined container - the
reaction between the baking soda and the aluminium will apparently clean silver fairly well but the
chemical reaction produces 'rotten egg gas' so it is a less than pleasant method.
Tip: body fluids and salts from sweat and chemicals from perfumes and deodorants will cause tarnishing at an
accelerated rate so it is good practice to clean your jewellery after wearing it, the next day is good - simply
in warm soapy water to remove the contaminants then pat the items dry, give it a quick buff with your
polishing cloth then put the item(s) away in a dry dark place (like a dresser drawer). This simple routine will
keep your Sterling Silver jewellery looking dazzling all the time.
For other Sterling Silver items it may not be easy to keep them out of light and
away from moisture so some of the methods below may be best.
There are a number of methods for removing tarnish from sterling silver. The benefits and drawbacks of each
will be discussed below.
Before you take any action, take to heart the advice given to doctors: First, Do No Harm.
It is within your power to reduce a valuable antique to a worthless piece of slag. Countless
people over the centuries have destroyed works of art by rough polishing. Please don't join their number. In
fact, the word polishing should be equated with sandpapering in your mind... as something to
be avoided. Tarnish is not a foreign substance above the surface of the silver. Rather, tarnish is sulphur
which has become chemically bonded into the surface of the silver. Scouring away the silver on the surface
in order to remove the tarnish is extreme overkill. The only way to remove the sulphur without removing the
silver surface is to (gently) reverse the chemistry.
Keep in mind that there are two qualities you are trying to revive: 1) the original mirror
surface formed by the silversmith during the final stages of production, and 2) the microscopic scratches
which have naturally accumulated over that mirror surface in the course of lovingly using the piece.
Abrasion during cleaning will obliterate one or both of these qualities, and thereby most of the value of
This is the method of care adhered to by serious collectors, as it brings out the beautiful
luster of the sterling without destroying its patina. There are a variety of products available for hand
polishing, from pastes to creams. It is generally best to stay with well-known silver-care product
manufacturers, as some inferior products may cause scratching. (When in doubt, test the product in an
inconspicuous area or on a less valuable piece.) Some examples are Twinkle Silver Cream (very gentle),
Wright's Silver Cream (slightly more abrasive), and creams and pastes by the Hagerty company. These are
readily available through supermarkets, jewelry stores and silver dealers, as well as on the Internet.
The author of this paragraph infinitely favors Hagerty's foam. Not the pink spray made by the
same company, but rather the foam. Forget supermarkets. Look for it in department stores which have a
wedding gift department. You'll find it in white plastic jars about the size of a baseball. Despite being
called foam, it actually looks like chocolate pudding... and smells absolutely nothing like chocolate
pudding. Use it as you used to use fingerpaint in kindergarten: with your bare fingertips, rub the foam over
the surface of the silver. Keep running your fingertips back and forth until, usually after just a few
seconds, you begin to see the spots of tarnish fade. In cases of more stubborn tarnish, you may need to
rinse with tap water and again fingerpaint with the foam a second or third time. Don't be impatient and
reach for something scratchier to hurry up the process: that's the slippery slope towards destroying a
Some pieces should not be immersed in water. Items containing mirrors, wooden parts, fabric,
glue, etc. should be fingerpainted with as little foam as possible, then wiped with a barely damp sponge or
cloth. For particularly small areas of silver near parts that must not become wet, a Q-Tip dabbed into the
foam will usually do quite well.
Not all yellowness on a piece of silver comes from tarnish. Gold wash or vermeil was
often applied to the interior of cups and goblets and on the service end of utensils to protect against
corrosive beverages and foods. This wash is usually thin, and can be easily removed with too-abrasive or
too-vigorous cleaning. Hagerty's foam will not injure gold wash, but aggressive scrubbing with a cloth can
Keep in mind that it's not necessary or even desirable to remove every bit of tarnish from a
piece of silver. Especially when the piece has fluted or embossed surfaces, it's expected that the deep
grooves will acquire a darker hue than the raised areas. The resulting contrast is something to be left
intact. Should a particularly stubborn spot of tarnish refuse to fade after, say, half a dozen foam
fingerpaintings, it's time to leave well enough alone.
Crucially, avoid injuring any identifying mark which may be present on the piece. American
pieces will, if 92.5% silver, have the word STERLING stamped on them, usually on the underside. Older
American pieces, at 90% silver (called coin silver), may have nothing more than the maker's mark stamped on
them. European pieces, of various percentages silver, will typically have anywhere from one to half a dozen
cryptic symbols (lions, anchors, crowns, moons, faces in profile, single or double letters, etc.) hammered
into them. It is imperative that these symbols not be worn away: they are the hallmarks by which a piece's
age, origin place and maker are indicated. Lose the hallmarks and what had been a verifiable 1754 French
handworked masterpiece is now an unidentified could-have-been-mass-produced-last-week piece of junk.
If you are going to use the piece soon after applying the foam, finishing up the wash with
gentle dishwashing liquid and lots of cool water is perfectly reasonable. It is also perfectly reasonable to
eat from the piece immediately after rinsing just with water. If, however, you are going to put the piece
away, let the foam be the last thing you rinse from the piece. A trace of the foam will remain even after
you've run enough fresh water over it not to be able to see any more foam. This trace amount of foam will
slow down the piece's chemical desire to become tarnished again. Don't put a piece away wet. Gently towel it
dry (blotting rather than rubbing) and let it air for perhaps an hour before storing it away.
The remainder of this page is informative but very risky. Remember: you can play one of two
roles with this piece... you can either be its protector, or its destroyer. Silver has value, but the scrap
value of the metal is often negligible compared to the condition value. If you feel that the radical steps
described below must be taken, let it not be you who takes these steps. Instead, sell the piece as-is and
get your money out of it before (with all good intentions) you destroy 90% of its value.
For example, a deceptively easy but damaging way to shine your silver is to use tooth powder.
Just dust your fingers with a bit of tooth powder and rub over the area you want to shine. You can finish by
wiping the piece with a tissue or a piece of cotton - moist or dry. Now go back and look at the surface
you've just worked on. It'll have hundreds of visible scratches that were not there before, and its
previously warm glow will have turned dull. If you keep doing this, you'll gradually turn the piece's
original mirror finish into something resembling aluminum. This is due to the presence of grit in the
mixture. Why is this so damaging? Well, for one thing, silver metal is a lot softer than tooth enamel. Tooth
powder containing abrasives is the right tool for scouring foreign matter off of the hard surface of teeth,
but tarnish is more akin to tobacco stains. The only way to remove a stain with abrasives is to remove
surface material, resulting in a damaged surface. On the other hand, gently applied chemistry removes stains
while leaving the surface intact.
In cases of extreme tarnish and/or corrosion, it may be necessary to take the item to a jeweler
or silver repair company. There the tarnish can be removed with jeweler's rouge. This is sometimes referred
to as putting an item "on the wheel". While this method does remove tarnish, it also removes the
patina, or microscopic wear marks which give antique silver its beautiful glow, leaving in its place
the shiny look of an item fresh off the factory line. Thus, this method is avoided by serious silver
collectors in favor of hand polishing.
See and avoid. In almost every case I've encountered, people who own polishing wheels are
obsessed with overusing them... even so called professionals. Jewelers are often called upon to remove a
previous owner's initials from, say, a set of silver spoons. I have seen the results of overly enthusiastic
jewelers who removed the initials by buffing away a thumb-sized crater, thereby rendering the piece even
less valuable than it had been with someone else's initials still attractively inscribed.
The term dip calls to mind television infomercials promising instant polishing of your
cherished silverware. These commercially sold silver dips are an abomination. A few work by eating away the
tarnished surface of the metal, somewhat akin to the idea of removing a tattoo with battery acid. Most dips,
however, work by turning the tarnish from its natural dark color to a cloudy white haze, somewhat akin to
the idea of trying to hide a tattoo with skin-colored magic marker ink. Either type of commercially sold dip
results in a permanently damaged piece. See and avoid.
In the broader sense of the word dip, however, it is possible to try cleaning a piece of
silver by immersing it in some sort of liquid as opposed to fingerpainting it with foam. There are several
mild chemical combinations which will gently attract some sulphur away from a piece of silver. One of the
simplest involves dissolving baking soda in warm water in a glass bowl, then inserting both the silver item
and a piece of aluminum foil. You'll know it's beginning to have some effect when you catch a whiff of eggs
rising from the water. Frankly, though, I've tried this and several other passive approaches to tarnish
removal, and I'm not particularly impressed with the results. Fingerpainting with foam does a far better job
of restoring silver, for the same reason that shampooing your hair cleans it better than merely soaking your
head in soapy water.
Serious sterling collectors avoid silver dips. One reason is that silver dip tends to brighten
areas of the design that should remain dark in order to give a relief effect. This is especially important
in pieces that have Repoussé and chasing. Another reason is the difficulty in removing the end product of
the conversion, which usually requires an abrasive cleanser... and abrading the surface is one of the most
effective ways of destroying a piece's value.
A few cautions should be noted. Sterling silver is a very soft metal that is easily damaged. Be
careful not to dent the piece by knocking it against a sink or other hard surface. Be very gentle with
sterling hinges, such as those on teapots and boxes, as these can be easily bent by mishandling. Do not use
a toothbrush or other bristled brush on sterling, as this will permanently scratch the surface.
A more effective baking soda method: Put several layers of aluminium foil (glossy side up) in a
non metallic container, add some baking soda on the foil, place your silver object on top, add more baking
soda on top of the silver piece and finally cover all of the silver piece with BOILING water. Wait five
Frequency of Polishing / Storage
Sterling that is continuously on display, such as a tea service or candelabra, will need more
frequent polishing than pieces that can be wrapped and stored. Much of this depends on the amount of sulphur
in the environment (city dwellers living near high automobile traffic, for example). Simple sealable food
storage bags, or dry cleaning bags for larger pieces, will inhibit tarnish from accumulating on stored
pieces. Make sure that the item is thoroughly dry before storing, however, as trapped water will cause
Several sources indicate that storage in plastic bags can do more harm than good, since poor
quality plastic emits gases that cause corrosion and tarnish. Make sure you use a good quality polyethylene
sealable food bag in conjunction with a silver cloth or acid free paper. This will provide good
Don't wash sterling and stainless together. If they touch, a chemical reaction may occur,
resulting in black spots on the sterling. Use a mild dishwashing liquid, and don't apply undiluted
dishwashing liquid directly to sterling. Detergents containing phosphate can turn sterling brown.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
rods with evaporated crystals,
with colorful tarnish
Tarnish is a thin layer of corrosion that forms over copper, brass, silver, aluminum, magnesium and other similar metals as their outermost layer undergoes a chemical
reaction. Tarnish does not always result from the sole effects of oxygen in the air. For example, silver
needs hydrogen sulfide to tarnish; it does not tarnish
with only oxygen. It often appears as a dull, gray or black film or coating over metal. Tarnish is a surface
phenomenon that is self-limiting, unlike rust. Only the top few layers of the metal react, and the layer
of tarnish seals and protects the underlying layers from reacting.
Tarnish actually preserves the underlying metal in outdoor use, and in this form is called
patina. The formation of patina is
necessary in applications such as copper roofing, and outdoor copper, bronze, and brass statues and
fittings. Patina is the name given to tarnish on copper based metals.
Tarnish is a product of a chemical reaction between a metal and a nonmetal compound, especially oxygen and sulfur dioxide. It is usually a metal oxide, the product of oxidation. Sometimes it is a metal sulfide. The metal
oxide sometimes reacts with water to make the hydroxide; and carbon dioxide to make the carbonate.
Prevention and removal
Using a thin coat of polish can prevent tarnish from forming over these metals.
Tarnish can be removed by using steel wool, sandpaper, emery paper, baking soda or a file to rub or polish the metal's dull surface. Fine
objects (such as silverware) may have the tarnish electrochemically reversed, or it may be
removed with a special polishing compound and a soft cloth. Gentler abrasives, like calcium carbonate, are often used by museums to
clean tarnished silver as they cannot damage or scratch the silver and will not leave unwanted