At CHRISTENINGsilver, we are regularly asked the best way to look after silver. How to clean it, care for it and store it.
Cleaning silver and restoring a dull piece of tarnished metal to its former glory can be very satisfying. You end up with a gleaming piece of silver that catches the light like no other metal.
Over time, with each polish, silver develops a patina – this is the mellow finish common to all antique silver, created by the millions of microscopic scratches from the cloth that build up on the surface. Like great wines, silver improves and matures with age.
When caring for silver, your biggest enemy is tarnish.
What is Tarnish?
Tarnish is a dull film that forms on the surface of your silver. It is usually a dull grey or light brown colour, but, in really severe cases, it can be a matt black – very unattractive and difficult to shift.
Discolouration is caused by a variety of agents, the most common of which is simply … air. Silver reacts with hydrogen sulphide in the air – the higher the concentration of hydrogen sulphide and the higher the humidity, the faster the tarnish accumulates. Tarnish is not like rust, it doesn’t continue eating away at the metal, it seals the surface and eventually the tarnish layer becomes stable. The more often you clean and polish your silver, the less likely it is tarnish will build up.
There are many other substances that can mark or discolour your silver. If it is a piece of tableware, food stuffs like wine or salt can cause damage if left in contact with the piece. Salty or acidic foods should be cleaned off as soon as possible – a quick wipe now will save polishing later and avoid the corrosive effect of contact over time. Moisture and oil from finger prints and handling should be wiped off as soon as possible – it’s amazing how tenacious a thumb print on the side of a photo frame can be if you leave it for a few days. Other things to avoid include anything made of latex (don’t make the mistake of bundling up your silver cutlery and holding them together with a rubber band, the staining from the rubber/latex can be quite severe and difficult to remove). If wrapping or storing silver, avoid newspaper, wool, felt and even cling film – it’s best to wrap in acid free paper or an anti-tarnish tissue.
If your silver is tarnished or stained, here are a few thoughts about cleaning:
The best policy is to clean a little and often. If you wipe or wash your silver often you will avoid the need to use silver polishes which can be abrasive.
Detergent in warm water is good for washing off marks, but make sure the detergent is phosphate free … If you are cleaning hollow items with warm water and detergent, don’t dunk them under water, just use a damp cloth. If you dunk the silver, the tell-tale sight of bubbles rising to the surface is a sure sign that water is filling a hollow handle or a hollow stem – it will be there for years.
After washing, dry immediately with a cotton cloth to avoid the water evaporating on the surface and causing spots.
and finally …. NEVER put your silver in a dishwasher.
USING POLISHES & DIPS
If you have left your silver so long that a tarnish starts to be visible (initially a light yellow tint, later brown and then, finally, black), then you will probably need to use a polish or an impregnated cloth. Where possible we recommend using a cloth like a Goddard’s Long Term Silver Polish Cloth. These are very soft, will lift light tarnishing and offer some protection. One word of warning – a silver cloth may start out soft and non-abrasive, but be careful where you put it down or where you store it. Any bits of grit, dirt and dust they pick up will but rubbed over the surface of the silver the next time you use the cloth … sometimes to disastrous effect.
Some polishes are a lot more abrasive than others. We really don’t recommend using wadding polishes like Silvo, because the wadding and polish is so abrasive. It’s best to use a clean soft cloth or cotton along side a liquid polish like Goddards or Town Talk. Never use polishes that are drying out – the crusty surface will scratch the silver. Similarly, be careful when cleaning old silver that has dried cleaning residue on it, bits that crumble off will combine with your cloth to scratch the silver.
As far as Silver Dips are concerned, the best advice is to avoid theme where possible. Whilst initially you will get a stunning result, dips can cause pitting which encourages tarnishing later, they can leave a “milky” finish after a few uses and some are indiscriminate – that patina of shading that was so carefully added by the silversmith in his workshop can easily be eaten away by a silver dip to the detriment of the character of your silver.
SHORT CUTS & BASIC ERRORS
If you search online, you may come across what seems like a cheap, makeshift cleaning technique using aluminium foil and baking soda (some recipes suggest adding vinegar) … the simple advice is “Don’t try it”. The chemistry makes sense and the silver will appear cleaner and shinier, but you may cause pitting and scratching that will get worse the more often you use the technique and it makes the surface more prone to tarnish because of the damage to the surface.
If someone advises you to use toothpaste, they obviously don’t like silver. Toothpaste is highly abrasive – if you want to ruin your silver, use toothpaste.
You need to be pretty cautious and sparing when cleaning your silver plate. Remember the layer of silver is only a few microns thick, so aggressive cleaning can remove the plating over time exposing the base metal underneath … as before, clean a little and often.
Enjoy your silver … it will bring pleasure for many, many years.