Cleaning Brass the Professional Way
DEAR TIM: I have been trying to clean some tarnished brass exterior light fixtures. I have purchased several different brass cleaning products and the results are ho-hum. It is a lot of work and no matter what I do I can not get a mirror like finish like the brass had when it was brand new. What is the secret? What am I doing wrong? Gayla T., Barre, VT
DEAR GAYLA: Been there, done that. I remember thinking I could completely polish and re-coat a brass door handle set in an afternoon. After rubbing and rubbing for hours, I got parts of the brass very clean, but small cracks and crevices were either full of cleaning compound, tarnish or a combination of the two. My frustration forced me to contact a professional metal polisher. It was one the best time and energy saving ideas I think I have ever had.
Converting a tarnished piece of brass to one that shines like a beacon can only be done with professional tools, equipment, solvents, polishing compounds and coatings. A vast majority of those shiny new polished brass candlesticks, door hardware, and accessories that you see at stores have all been polished and finished by automated equipment. Some of the new brass fixtures available in stores today actually have a tarnish free alloy skin. But older brass suffers once the protective clear finishes erode and the brass is exposed to air. Contaminants in the outdoor air or indoor pollutants from aerosol products can also rapidly tarnish brass. The oxidation or tarnish is actually a natural process. The brass is simply creating its own stable protective finish, albeit an unattractive one to many!
Professional metal polishers can polish, buff and colorize brass fixtures very quickly, efficiently and affordably. The first step is to remove the old protective clear finish as well as the tarnish. Removing tarnish requires that you actually remove an ultra thin layer of the brass metal. When done by hand, this first step is very hard. The clear protective finish can be very difficult to remove. Once through it, then you need to rub and rub to break the molecular metal bonds. A high speed polishing wheel that has special polishing rouge can cut through these films in seconds. This first step almost always produces fine scratches in the brass.
The buffing stage removes these scratches. Another high speed buffing wheel coated with a different polishing compound removes the scratches and creates a mirror like finish. To accomplish this by hand could take one hours while a professional can do it in less than a minute. The final step employs another high speed spinning pad that burnishes the brass and gives it the deep luster and color that is so characteristic of true polished brass. Achieving these results by hand is nearly impossible.
All of this work needs to be done wearing gloves. Perspiration and body oils on your skin can leach into the freshly polished brass. In fact, even harmful chemicals from food spices can be transmitted to the brass via perspiration. Once the brass is colorized, it is time to clean it with industrial strength lacquer thinner. This removes all contaminants and traces of the polishing rouge. Working with lacquer thinner is extremely hazardous and dangerous because it is highly flammable. Do not even think of doing this yourself.
You might think the best clear coating is clear lacquer. The metal polishers that are on the cutting edge have found that acrylic urethanes are far superior. Once a brass item has been coated with an acrylic urethane, it can remain tarnish free for many years, even when placed outdoors. This is the only clear coating I would use to protect my brass pieces.
Metal polishers can be found in most areas. Some of them offer mail order service. You simply send them a photo or series of photos and they can give you a quote to perform the work. You ship them the items and the craftsmen begin the transformation task. Once complete, the brilliant brass objects are shipped back to you in perfect condition. It is affordable and allows you to spend your time doing what you are good at.