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How to clean brass

Melanie Whitehouse / 22 February 2016

Over time, brass may tarnish as dirt and grease build up on the surface. Find out how to get it clean again.

Brass doorknob
Not all brass should be bright and shiny, so be careful of rubbing off the patina of antique items

Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper but it sometimes includes other metals, too. Used for centuries, it is prized for qualities such as durability, malleability and its rich finish. Over time it may tarnish, as dirt, oil and grease build up on the surface. To brighten up your brass, there are various simple cleaning treatments that utilise common household products. You can also use commercial cleaners.

Not everything that looks like brass actually is brass. The surefire way to tell is to hold a magnet near the item. If it doesn’t cling to it, then it’s brass. If it does, it may be made of iron or steel but covered with a coating of brass.

Of course, not all brass is meant to be bright and shiny, and you can significantly reduce the worth of antique items by rubbing off the patina, which may indicate its age and value.

Read our tips for selling at auction

Simple cleaning for modern brass

Contemporary pieces of brass are usually lacquered with a clear finish to prevent oxidation (discolouration) and may look quite yellow. 

Cleaning is simple: dust, then dip a soft cotton cloth into a mixture of mild washing-up liquid and lukewarm water. Wring out the cloth so it’s only slightly damp, and gently wipe the brass surface clean. Remove any remaining soap with the cloth, then dry the brass thoroughly.

Alternative treatments for old brass

For a natural cleaner, vinegar, salt and flour can be combined to make a paste to clean tarnished brass. Dissolve a teaspoon of salt into a half cup of vinegar and add flour until the mixture becomes a paste. Rub gently into the brass, leave for about 10 minutes, then rinse with warm water and buff dry.

Alternatively, cover your brass with ketchup, let it sit on the brass surface for approximately 10 minutes, then wipe off with a clean, damp cloth. Dry thoroughly.

You could also use plain yogurt - the lactic acid it contains works to break down and dissolve tarnish. Cover your brass in yogurt, allow the yogurt to dry, then rinse off with water, and dry with a clean cloth.

To clean the brass with vinegar, cover the brass with white vinegar (pour or spray the vinegar over the brass surface), then sprinkle salt over the vinegar. Dampen a cloth with vinegar and gently wipe down the brass. Dry with a clean cloth.

Lemon juice is also an option. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon into a small bowl. Add enough table salt or baking soda to form a paste. Apply gently with a soft cloth, using a soft toothbrush to reach detailed areas, then wash off and dry.

Read our tips for making your home more eco-friendly

Prevent tarnish

Once you’re finished cleaning your brass piece, protect it from tarnishing by applying a lacquered finish with a small paintbrush. 

Only apply a thin layer – you don’t want drip marks or streaks – and allow to dry thoroughly before touching. Use a clean cloth to shine it up. Lacquer can be removed at a later stage with hot water or varnish remover.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.