Cleaning your door knobs and the rest of your doors is a great way to give your whole house a lift. These tips come from the Architectural Classics website; https://www.architecturalclassics.com/blog/how-to-clean-brass-door-knobs/
Brass was once the predominant material for creating home hardware – it was cheap, readily available, and looked just a little bit like gold, for a touch of class. It has now mostly been replaced by steel or other alloys which technology has made more prevalent, but for those of us who love the mystery, lure and romance of anything old, brass is still a big part of our lives. From rings, to ornaments, to door hardware … if you want to look after your brass items, you will need to know specifically how to clean brass. That’s where the stark impersonality of modern technology actually comes in handy – we are able to bring this handy reference guide to the convenience of your home computer!
The Gentle Option
Be aware that many bought cleaning solutions can leave your brass looking like copper. While we personally have nothing against copper, it may not be the look you were intending, so always try the gentler cleaning options first. How do you tell what is a gentle option? A little self-test is to think (only think, mind!) about how likely you would be to put the item in your mouth, in one of its forms. When you think about this, you start to realise that methods like toothpaste, onions and ketchup are a lot less harsh than straight vinegar, ammonia or Brasso!
Is It Solid Brass?
Whether your item is solid brass or only brass plated will affect how you need to clean it. Methods that employ abrasives, especially steel wool, are not suitable for items that are brass plated – the scratching will leave swirls of different colours in the metal, or could rub away the brass entirely if the item is fairly old.
To check whether your item is solid brass, first use a magnet. Magnets will stick to steel and zinc underneath a brass plating, but not to solid brass. However, your item could be brass plating on top of another non-magnetic metal – so a more definite way to tell whether it is brass plated is to do a patch test – use a sharp kitchen knife to scratch an inconspicuous part of the item. If the item is brass, the colour in the scratch should be bright yellow. If it is another colour, then it is definitely another metal, and you still need to stick with the non-abrasive options for cleaning.
The First Step
When cleaning any item, it makes sense to start at the start – the first thing you should try is using water as hot as you can stand while wearing rubber gloves, a soft or medium bristled brush, and a tiny amount of dish soap. You may be surprised with what happens, and never need to become an amateur chemist!
Acidic versus Caustic solutions
Okay, maybe you do need just a little bit of chemistry, just for safety’s sake while cleaning your brass. We should mention the difference between acidic and caustic compounds for cleaning brass. An acidic compound is one whose pH (percentage of hydrogen) is less than 7 on the pH scale, where 7 is neutral, 1 is extremely acidic, and 14 is extremely caustic. You can see where the caustic products fit in. Products at either end of the scale will burn you, just in a different (but equally painful!) way. If you are working with very acidic or very caustic compounds, always work in a well ventilated area and wear protective clothing. If you are unsure of the pH of a compound, don’t test it on your skin, your dog or your bunny rabbit’s eyes! You can get pH testing kits anywhere you buy aquariums – fish need a certain pH water to thrive.
The other thing you need to know about acid vs caustic solutions is that, while acidic compounds react with the actual tarnish on brass, caustic compounds will react with the tarnish, the grime, and the metal itself. If you leave your item soaking in a caustic compound (like ammonia), and forget about it, you could come back and find the engraving has worn away. The same may happen if you use this method every week (like some sources on the Net advise…). Conversely, most of the acidic compounds are natural, easily available, and only react with the oxidised brass, which is the tarnish on the piece’s surface. Check each method for particular safety precautions for both you and the brass.
Once your unlacquered brass has been cleaned, if you want it to stay shiny you will either need to lacquer it or keep polishing it. Left untouched, brass develops a smooth and soft patination, especially with use. Some people like this look, and some don’t … just something to be aware of. Also, if you polish your brass every single week with acidic compounds, the copper can leach out of the alloy (brass is an alloy of copper and zinc), and the blue-green verdigris can develop more quickly than usual.
If your brass has been lacquered, it needs to first be de-lacquered before you can clean it. Brass can age somewhat underneath lacquer, or it could have been lacquered when it was less than perfectly clean and shiny. Most of the methods listed here will have no effect on your brass if it has lacquer on top of it – many depend on a chemical reaction between the metal and the cleaning agent.
Of course, brass plated items can also be lacquered, so try the standard magnet and scratch tests before you try getting the lacquer off what looks like brass as well.
To Keep the Lacquer
You may want to clean lacquered items without removing the lacquer – if this is the case, don’t allow them to stay too wet, or to come into contact with very hot water. If you soak the item the lacquer will peel, and if you get the item especially hot the metal will expand at a faster rate than the lacquer, and make it either crack or peel. Use only lukewarm water, a soft cloth and soap, or and at most, a regular surface cleaning spray. If you are using a spray, spray it onto the cloth rather than the item, or better yet, spray it into the water you are using.
It is better to have unlacquered metals in areas which are very humid or steamy – for example, near stoves, in laundries with tumble driers, and in bathrooms.
To remove the lacquer, first try the gentler method (as always!) – in this case hot water. If the lacquer is only thin, it will peel away. If it is thick it should crack, and you can pull great satisfying chunks away by hand once the item is cool! If your item is solid brass, you can use a scouring pad to help scratch away remnants once the bulk of the lacquer is off.
Denatured alcohol will remove lacquer from brass, as will paint stripper. You can get denatured alcohol either from a hardware store or a pharmacy … and paint stripper should be available wherever paint is sold!
• For denatured alcohol, pour it onto a cloth and rub the item until the lacquer peels away.
• If you are using paint stripper, follow the directions on the can or bottle – especially the safety directions! The only exception to this is if they say to use a wire brush or coarse grade steel wool. No matter whether your piece is solid brass or brass plated, these materials will give you an uneven result.
• Nail polish remover will also remove lacquer from metal – use it as you would on your nails (or possibly your wife/girlfriend’s nails!). Use a cotton ball half-wetted with it and simply wipe it over the piece repeatedly.
Here comes the fun part! You’ll most likely need to do this in the kitchen, not the garage, as many of the methods for cleaning brass at home include foodstuffs.
Check the handy star-reference guide next to the title of each item for our ratings on time taken, cost, gentleness, effectiveness, and environmental impact.
If you’ve ever had a lemon tree in your backyard, or even somewhere in your neighbourhood, you will have discovered that there are only so many ways you can eat or drink lemons before these prolific trees are simply wasting their fruit! However, they are especially handy for cleaning things around the home, either when juiced or simply chopped in half.
To clean brass with lemon juice, you can either use it neat, or mixed with vinegar and/or baking soda.
• Mix up a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice and a couple of teaspoons of vinegar.
• Add enough baking soda that it becomes a gritty paste
• Use this with a cloth to scrub your brass items.
• Rinse with lukewarm water and dry with a clean cloth.
Or you can simply cut a lemon in half, sprinkle it with either salt or baking soda (enough that the juice of the lemon doesn’t dissolve it), and use this directly on your brass. Remember that this method will be slightly abrasive – don’t use if you want to keep your lacquer, and don’t overdo if your item is only brass plated.
You can either rinse with water, or simply buff the surface with a clean, dry, soft cloth.
Lemon juice, vinegar and baking soda are all especially acidic (with pHs of around 3-4), that is why they are effective cleaners, especially for alkaline dirt like soap scum or hard water deposits.
Milk and Yoghurt
Use either sour milk, natural unflavoured yoghurt, or whey to clean your brass.
• Either put the item in a pan of sour milk or whey, or coat it with yoghurt
• Leave it somewhere away from your nose for a minute or two!
• When the yoghurt is dry, or the time is up, remove the item from the dairy product (!), and wash it off with lukewarm water.
• If you want a very gentle way to scour off dirt after the item has been soaked like this, you can use a woollen cloth dipped in ashes. Or, a microfibre cleaning cloth!
• It is a good idea to either rinse the item very well and rub it dry, simply to avoid your house smelling like a dairy graveyard!
Ketchup and Worcestershire Sauce
There is not much difference in effectiveness between these two delicious cleaning products! They both have a pH of around 3-4, which is why they remove dirt wellThe one you choose to use will probably depend on which is more readily available in your house, and which one you prefer the smell of while you are using it to clean. A small note – tomato sauce is similar to ketchup, but doesn’t work as well in the cleaning stakes, as it is less acidic. This does make it gentler, though.
• First try rubbing the sauce into your item with a soft cloth.
• If this doesn’t remove the dirt very well, coat the item in sauce and leave it to sit for a minute or so.
• See how much dirt is removed when you rub the sauce off after a minute. If the item is still fairly dirty, leave it for one minute more next time, then another minute, etc. The time taken will depend on the nature of the dirt.
• If the item is especially dirty and you want to clean it evenly, leave it immersed in sauce rather than simply coated (as
gravity does its work you will end up with patches that are slightly cleaner than others).
Another method you will need to employ in the kitchen, but make sure it is well ventilated first, and then be prepared to wash your item well afterwards!
• Put a couple of inches of water in a small pan.
• Chop onions to fill the pan – make them small enough that the water will cover them when put in the pan. Don’t chop them too finely.
• Bring to a boil and then simmer the onions for two hours.
• Use a vegetable strainer (colander) to remove the onions
• Keep the water and use this with a soft cloth to polish your brass.
Brass, Copper and Bronze Cleaner
While you can make this brass (and copper and bronze) cleaner at home, with ingredients from your cupboard, it is definitely not safe for consumption. While the natural methods may smell a bit, they are definitely more child and pet friendly than this one! Therefore, if you make up this cleaner, don’t store it in empty food containers, make sure it is labelled and kept in a place that kids can’t reach.
First, gather the ingredients together:
• 1/2 c flour
• 1/2 c salt
• 1/2 c powdered detergent
• 3/4 c white vinegar
• 1/4 c lemon juice
• 1/2 c very warm water
Mix all of the dry ingredients together first. When they are well mixed, add all of the liquid ingredients. Then it is pretty much done! Pop it in a jar that won’t be mistaken for food, label it and put it with your other cleaning products.
Be aware that the salt and powdered detergent can make this cleaner an abrasive one – don’t rub too hard if you have a brass plated item, or if you want your lacquered brass to stay lacquered.
Salt and Vinegar
Great in small amounts on potatoes, but really quite potent chemicals when mixed together in pure form! That is why they are in the DIY section rather than the natural methods section.
• As for the general metal cleaner, use equal parts of salt, vinegar and flour to create a paste.
• While you are making your evil concoction (!), leave the brass soaking in hot water. If it is a large piece, give it a squirt of water and leave it on.
• Coat the piece with the paste and leave it to sit for half an hour.
• Check its condition after this time, and if you need to, leave it for another half an hour.
• To give your unlacquered brass a bit more of a polish, or remove chunky dirt, use a cloth to buff the item with the paste still on it, and the salt should act as an abrasive.
• When it is clean enough for you, rinse with water and dry off with a clean cloth.
If you don’t rinse your brass off with water after using vinegar to clean it, you can get some reddish discolouration, especially in the valleys of your piece. This will be important for many of you that are cleaning older doorknobs, which often have engraving or surface detail. If you like, you can leave this on as an artistic effect! If you prefer a solid colour throughout, use water and a toothbrush to remove all of the cleaning solution from the brass, then dry with a cloth rather than airdrying. Alternatively, you could use a hairdryer to blow your piece dry, or even a fan forced oven for small pieces. Don’t leave it in too long though! And definitely don’t put your metal objects in the microwave to dry…
If your object has discoloured already, and you want to remove it, use Brasso or another commercial brass polish to remove the discolouration.
The salt and vinegar is a good method for tarnished brass, as opposed to merely dirty brass (which would be best served by soap and water). The reason for this is that tarnish on brass is caused by oxidation of the metal (oxygen molecules in the air attach themselves to the brass molecules, creating a different compound). Oxidation tarnish is easily removed by acidic substances – like vinegar, lemon juice, etc.
Vinegar and Steel Wool
This is one of the simpler methods available. Grab some vinegar, pour it on or soak your item in it for a minute or two if size allows, then just use steel wool to remove the tarnish.
All of the precautions we have noted elsewhere apply to this method also.
• If your item is brass plated, not solid brass, using steel wool probably isn’t the best idea. You could use vinegar with a soft cloth instead, much of the cleaning action comes from the acidity of the vinegar rather than the physical scrubbing.
• Use a fine grade of steel wool (if it is numbered, 000 is the minimum, with 00000 and a bit more time being preferable).
• Watch your item if you are soaking it in vinegar – some items will discolour in the vinegar, and you will then need to buy a commercial polish to remove the discolouration!
• See the Salt and Vinegar section for tips on preventing your item from discolouring when it has been cleaned in vinegar, and also for rescue methods if it has already discoloured.
Some people use apple cider vinegar, while some report that red wine vinegar works better than white wine. Which works best fro you will depend on your particular dirt!
Toothpaste is a gentle abrasive – gentle enough to be used on brass plated items. Use the opaque toothpastes rather than the clear toothpastes – opaque ones are more likely to contain a mild abrasive, whereas clear pastes are likely to be more focused on killing bacteria and freshening breath. All noble aims, but not strictly necessary for cleaning brass!
Be aware though, that this method will probably not be as effective as many of the other methods, as toothpaste is alkaline, not acidic. The main cleaning action will come from the physical scrubbing of the particles on the brass surface. In the lemon juice, vinegar, ketchup, baking soda and salt methods, the acidity of the substance helps remove the oxidation chemically – the oxidising of the metal is what creates the tarnish effect.
Toothpaste should not discolour your metal at all, though, which is always something to watch out for with the chemical methods. It is also a handy alternative if you find you have unusual dirt (!) – not just tarnish – on your brassware.
To feel especially weird, use a toothbrush to apply it!
The mineral oil method is a good one to finish off with, using it in conjunction with one of the acidic substance methods. If you use it at the end of the cleaning process, it will give your brass piece a nice shine and a protective coating which isn’t as restrictive as lacquer. Mineral oil is also known as baby oil, when it has fragrance added. It is quite similar to petroleum jelly, which is good for wound care. You may know it as white oil or liquid paraffin in your part of the world, and it is usually safe for pieces that kids and pets are around – it is a food-grade oil, although used mostly for machinery and not as an actual ingredient!
If you need to be especially gentle with your brass, for example if the piece is very old and the plating is wearing thin, or if you want to clean your piece while preserving a brushed effect, mineral oil is a good option.
• Apply the oil to a cloth and wipe it over the brass, rubbing if necessary.
• If this doesn’t get it clean enough, use one of the other methods listed.
• Then use the mineral oil method to finish off!
Mineral oil is made from petroleum – many mechanics and tradesmen know that petrol is great for cleaning greasy hands. Despite its oiliness, the mineral oil is actually a solvent for greasy grime on your brassware, making it suitable for some types of dirt, but not necessarily for straight brass tarnish.
Yet another method that depends on a chemical reaction to help with the cleaning is using ammonia. The ammonia method is wonderful if your piece of brass is absolutely disgustingly tarnished, or covered in grime.
HOWEVER! Be aware that while acidic compounds such as vinegar, lemon juice, milk etc, attack the tarnish on the surface of the brass, without reacting to the actual metal, compounds that are caustic, or alkaline, will react with the brass itself and eat away at the metal if this becomes your favourite method of cleaning your brass. They will work over an even shorter time if you leave your brass soaking in a caustic solution. Have a look at the Be Careful section if you’d like to know more.
For smooth brass items, clean them with ammonia by:
• Mixing up a dilute solution of 1 part blueprint (80% strength) ammonia to 8 parts water, or 1 part household bleach to 2 parts water.
• Pop the piece in the solution, with rubber gloves.
• Stay with your piece to watch how it reacts.
• Use a soft bristled brush while the piece is in solution to scrub away grime.
Stop! Stop! Don’t reach for your butterfly net and specimen jar! Do you hear the collective sigh of relief from your backyard?! Bug juice is a navy term for the Kool-Aid (cordial for the other half of the world) mix they get in the service. Not actual … bug juice! In the navy this comes in paper sachets which are mixed with around 5 gallons of water to make a drinkable mix. It may not be available in your part of the world in the reported form – but you may be able to get something similar in the supermarket as a powdered sort of cordial. You then only need to do a conversion on the dilution ratio – sailors recommend using the ‘bug juice’ at about 10 times the required dilution for drinking (mix with a litre of water instead of 5 gallons). If you are using powdered cordial or Kool-Aid, simply divide the amount of water they say to add on the packet by ten.
Coca-Cola is also listed as working in a similar way to bug juice. Be aware that it is quite acidic – don’t leave items soaking in it for too long. It will also remove verdigris patination (the bright green, mouldy looking coating on some very old items), so if you want to keep your verdigris, try a more neutral method, like mineral oil.
• Mix up your solution in a cleaning bucket
• Use a cloth to apply it
• Rinse clean with fresh water, and dry with a clean cloth.
Horolene is a cleaning solution that is available readymade from clock shops, jewellers and some hardware stores. The reason that it isn’t in the readymade solutions section though, is because you can also DIY it!
Note that the solution works in a similar way to vinegar, and can leave a similar reddish tarnish on the surface of the piece, especially if you air dry it. Either wipe or scrub with a toothbrush rather than soaking, and if possible, use a hairdryer to dry rather than leaving a piece to air dry.
To make your own Horolene:
• Dissolve one teaspoon of green soap and one teaspoon of crystallised oxalic acid in around 400ml of hot water. Green soap should be available from pharmacies – it is made from vegetable oils, and used for some skin disorders. You can also buy it over the internet.
• Do this outside - Add a little blueprint or concentrated (80%) ammonia – enough that a reaction starts occurring and you notice a smell, but add it by the dribble, to start with.
• Some sources recommend soaking your piece, but first try wiping or scrubbing with a soft brush and the solution, to be safe.
• Be aware that if you leave this on too long, the ratio of copper and zinc in the alloy changes – making the piece less like brass.
• Rinse with methylated spirit rather than water for a better removal of the cleaning solution – use a cotton ball dipped in the spirit
With ready-to-use solutions, the golden rule is to read the label – both for your own safety and the preservation of your brass items. Some of you will no doubt prefer different solutions, depending on whether your brass mostly gets tarnished or dirty, and your individual cleaning style – our recommendation is to start with the cheapest option, and work your way up, as bottles or tins of brass cleaner can sometimes last decades – you don’t want to be waiting to use up the tin before trying something different!
Ah, Brasso … many people remember it with fondness and nostalgia, and some of our cleaning methods use it as a secondary method, although it is perfectly usable on its own.
Brasso works in a similar way to mineral oil, as it is around 60% hydrocarbons – the basis of all petroleum products, including plastic, incidentally! Another active ingredient in it is ammonia, which was mentioned in the DIY section, along with a cautionary note about it dissolving the actual metal. However, as you’ll hear many times, follow the directions on the label – the manufacturers know best what conditions their product should be used under.
We prefer the straight liquid to the pre-soaked wadding – more cost effective, and more control over how much product is used at once. Therefore less wastage!
Basically you need to soak a cloth in Brasso, and use it rub the tarnish off brass items. You can use it as a finishing method for other natural methods also – it helps remove the smell of sour milk or ketchup! Wear gloves while you are doing it.
This is usually used to clean hubcaps and metal hardware on cars (hence the ‘Auto-’ in the name…). It is slightly abrasive, so be careful using it on brass plated items. Just start gently!
Personally I am always a little suspicious of products that misspell basic English words! However, Nevr Dull comes highly recommended, and if you have solid brass hardware with that beautiful soft brushed look, Nevr Dull can maintain that. This is because it is abrasive – standard warnings about brass plating and repeated use. We know Nevr Dull in the pre-soaked wadding form (which Brasso is also available in), however find that to be slightly less cost-effective – you are paying for wadding where you could easily use a rag at home, and don’t have control over the amount of the product you use at once, so can end up with some wastage.
Astonish is listed as a ‘non-abrasive’ cleaner, which mostly likely means that it is an acidic product, designed to remove tarnish. Use the usual precautions about vinegar methods of cleaning and discolouration, and also the caustic precautions of not leaving an item soaking and not overusing on finely engraved pieces.
Liberon is meant to be used for heavily tarnished pieces. Use with caution – it is obviously a strong product!
Quickshine Brass Bath
The Quickshine label sounds a bit gimmicky and pseudo-scientific – but don’t let that put you off using it, the basis for their marketing-science is actually sound! They say that ‘the secret is electrolysis. The non-toxic compound sets up a minute electrical charge which immediately starts to draw the tarnish away’.
Sounds too good to be true, in a way – but the science checks out. Any sort of salt can make water conductive, and conduction, or transfer of electrons, changes the state of a metal. This method of cleaning means that the oxidised metal (the tarnish) is removed, while stable metal is not. The fact that it is designed for soaking means that you can use it on detailed pieces that have pitting or valleys that have collected a lot of tarnish and dirt, without as much scrubbing.
Horolene is also designed for soaking brass items, however, some users note that if you leave it too long, you get a reddish discolouration on the metal, like with vinegar methods. They also say that Brasso removes this without a worry – only be aware then that you are buying two products to do the job of one! Just don’t leave it in too long, and you should be fine.
• Noxon is supposed to be suitable for light tarnish
• Parks makes a two step cleaner, for heavily tarnished pieces. Word of mouth reports that these are very good products
• Tarn-X – is another liquid that attacks light tarnish, however, there are apparently two different varieties of the brand. One of these is suitable for brass and the other is not – for brass you will need Tarn-X Brass.
• Red Bear is a specialty product which is usually available where brass is sold, but not necessarily in your supermarket or hardware store.
• Wenol is a non-abrasive commercial cleaner that is suitable for light tarnish.
• Maas metal polish is another product available on the market.
As mentioned in the Be Careful section, if you have unlacquered brass in your home you will need to either keep polishing it to maintain its shine, lacquer it (which creates a certain look that isn’t necessarily to everybody’s taste), or simply enjoy its patination!
However, you can also use car wax as an intermediate option, to help keep a low-key shine, and stop tarnish reforming as quickly as it would otherwise. Apply it as directed on the bottle, and you should be able to leave your brass for several months without either reapplying or cleaning it again, for lighter ‘traffic’ brass. For heavy ‘traffic’ brass, like door handles, you may need to reapply more often, or consider a longer term option, like lacquering.
• If you have a lacquered, not natural wood door, and you repeatedly wet it, the lacquer will develop spots. Clean your door furniture by either removing it or using one of the methods that doesn’t require rinsing with fresh water, only buffing with a dry cloth, for example the lemon half with salt, the homemade brass/copper/bronze cleaning paste, the vinegar and steel wool, or a chemical solution.
• If you have obtained a genuine antique piece, or just acquired an old home with a lot of brass furniture in it already, it would be a good idea to remove the door furniture before cleaning it. Nearly all knobs, plates, knockers and escutcheons will simply unscrew from the door. Don’t use any caustic cleaners on brass screws – they will destroy the thread. By the same token, don’t use coarse grade steel wool (but you knew that anyway! )
• Removing your piece from the door also gives you a nice inconspicuous spot to do a scratch test.
• If you use mineral oil to clean your door furniture you may find that it becomes slippery … not too bad for ornaments but a bit inconvenient for a door handle!
• Some products and information recommends that you wear cotton or rubber gloves in the final stages of cleaning your brass item – this is because oils from your hands can show up in fingerprint form months later, as the tarnish develops differently around them. Obviously, if you are handling your brass all the time, because it is a door knob, knocker or escutcheon … don’t bother!