We are frequently asked for advice about proper maintenance of silver collections. Here are a few simple guidelines. Feel free to contact us for more detailed information.
Regular Silver Polishing
Silver tarnishes when it reacts with sulfur in the air, forming a thin layer of silver sulfide. This layer is easily removed even through handling. In fact, regular use will tend to keep your silver clean. Items that are not used may have to be cleaned two or three times a year, but much depends on local conditions.
For regular polishing we recommend Goddard’s, Wright’s, or Hagerty’s Silver Foam. All come with a sponge. Wet the sponge, create a lather, and wash the object. Don’t slap on a big pink wad of polish – it will get into the nooks and crannies and stay there, turning into an ugly, hard, white paste.
Don’t overpolish. Silver shouldn’t look like chrome.
Silver dip is a liquid chemical cleaner best used only by professionals. If your silver is so black it needs to be dipped, you should take it to a professional conservator.
We use silver cleaning mitts occasionally, mostly to remove finger prints.
Other Cleaning Techniques
Don’t. You can ruin your silver.
Gold is inert and doesn’t tarnish, so silver objects covered with a thin coating of gold, called “silver-gilt” or “vermeille”, theoretically shouldn’t tarnish. However, even a new layer of gilding is somewhat porous, and most old gilding has thinned over the years. Mild soap and water should do it, if not, just use regular silver polish as described above.
Cleaning Items with Wood and Ivory
Densely grained fruit wood is a common material for handles and finials because the tight grain resists water damage. However, water trapped in a handle socket will eventually cause the wood to deteriorate; for this reason, many handles have been replaced over the years. Try not to get the wood wet during polishing. (A little bit is ok.)
Removing Candle Wax
Wax is easily melted off under hot water or with a hair dryer using paper towels to remove the softened wax. Do not use this technique on candlesticks that are filled because the heat will cause the filler to expand and split the silver.
Forks and spoons are made of solid silver and can be put in the dishwasher from time to time. If you use the dishwasher, put it on a “delicate” or “china” cycle, use a rinse agent to stop spotting. It also helps to remove the silver immediately after the last rinse cycle and dry by hand.
Knives are a separate issue because they have two parts – a steel blade and a hollow handle. Modern knives with stainless steel blades can go in the dishwasher. Antique knives were made with carbon steel blades which will rust if they are not kept dry. The blades should be cleaned with a mild abrasive; and some people use a light coating of mineral oil to prevent rusting.
Antique silver knife handles are filled with pitch (which is like Plaster of Paris) to hold the blade in place. No antique knife should ever be put in the dishwasher because the heat causes the pitch to expand and split the handle.
Salt is corrosive to silver and will eventually cause black spots and pitting if left undisturbed. Salt cellars often have gilt interiors or glass liners to prevent this problem. It’s best to empty your salt cellars into a glass dish if you aren’t using them for a while.
Keeping it Clean While On Display
For a collector, a cabinet with a glass door can reduce air flow and slow down the tarnishing process immensely. We only clean things about once a year here at the shop, because the cases keep the air off.
In general we stay away from lacquering, but it is another way to keep silver clean while on display, and it is often used by museums. Lacquering can only be used on display pieces – not on pieces used for dining – because it is rather delicate and deteriorates with contact to water. It also tends to break down over time, with dark lines appearing where the air has penetrated, and so will need to be redone every decade or so. Lacquering must be done professionally. Be advised, the lacquer coating dulls the lovely shine of a piece of silver.
The word “patina” refers to the soft, velvety appearance of the surface of an older piece of silver. It develops over time and consists of a web of tiny nicks, scratches and bumps that result from normal use. These small surface imperfections create the appealing look of old silver, so again: don’t overpolish.
Silver is best stored in flannel bags made specifically for that purpose. Tissue should only be used if it is acid free. Once wrapped, silver can be placed in a zip-lock bag to eliminate air flow and tarnishing. These are made of polyethylene plastic which is safe for silver.
Pacific silver-cloth is excellent for storage or for lining drawers and cupboards. It is impregnated with minute silver particles that absorb sulfur and so reduce tarnishing. However it does loose its efficacy over time and must be replaced.
RUBBER AND CERTAIN PLASTICS (such as PVC) ARE TERRIBLE FOR SILVER. Never wrap silver (or other metals) with rubber bands or plastic wrap. These materials attack the surface, first leaving black discoloration and then deeply etched lines. Newspaper and cardboard boxes should also be avoided for long term storage because they contain acids.
Heat will not usually damage silver: many items are designed with oil burners that can, and should, be used. However, items that are “loaded” – i.e. filled with pitch for weight – will split if heated. Old Sheffield Plate does not take heat well.
Liners made of deep blue glass were popular during the Georgian period for mustard pots and pierced salt cellars. Unfortunately, we do not know of anyone who makes replacements here in the US. They do make them in England, so if you give us a call we can usually help.
Silver-Plate and Old Sheffield Plate
These should be cleaned in the same way as sterling silver. Some base metal will inevitably show through over time. This is called “bleeding” and is normal. Only consider having items re-plated if a lot of base metal shows.
The Care of Silver by Jeffrey Herman, 2000. See his website. A helpful discussion along with a full list of resources.
“How to Care for Silver” on the Canadian Conservation Institute website.