How To Clean Brass: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Choosing how to decorate a home can often mean contending with lots of options for metals and textiles: Should you go with brass, copper, silver, or plated gold? What’s the maintenance on these different materials, and how often do they require cleaning? When dealing with brass, the answer is simple: If it looks dingy, it probably is. While regular dusting prevents tarnishing, there’s no set timeline. Instead, simply keep an eye on your brass products, and they’ll tell you when it’s time for a tune-up. 

What's the Difference Between Oxidized Brass and Corroded Brass?

Typically, brass wear and tear happens for one of two reasons—oxidation or corrosion—and the differences are easy to spot. Oxidized brass (which happens as a natural result of brass reacting with oxygen in the air) usually presents with greenish or bluish hues, an effect sometimes called “patina.” The integrity of oxidized brass remains intact, and the patina can always be polished away. Corroded brass, on the other hand, is a little trickier and can be more insidious. It most often happens when brass is exposed to water, leaving pinkish or reddish spots behind and eventually weakening the metal’s integrity.

The good news is that most mild damage is repairable. Whether you’re working with fixtures, hardware, jewelry, or candlesticks, the protocol is the same, and we’ve got you covered.

Know What You're Working With

The first and most important step in any cleaning process is to actually know what you’re cleaning. Especially if you’ve moved into a space for which someone else chose the fixtures, you may not be positive about what your bathroom hardware or sconces are made of. Once you’re sure that you’re working with brass, move on to step two. 

Determine If It's Sealed or Raw

Lacquered, or sealed, brass has been coated with a thin layer of varnish to keep it looking shiny and new. It’s usually much lower maintenance and can easily be wiped down with a damp cloth. Unlacquered (or raw) brass, on the other hand, is what we’re covering here: It’s been left in its natural form, and therefore requires polishing to fight oxidization. Knowing which you’re dealing with will prevent you from accidentally using a cleaner that could strip the seal off of your brass. A good cheat: Anything super-shiny is usually lacquered and sealed. 

How To Clean Unlacquered Or Raw Brass

“Our favorite thing to use on brass is Bar Keeper’s Friend. We prefer the liquid form. It's so easy to use, and works on a wide variety of surfaces: stainless steel, brass, copper, porcelain,” says Sarah McAllister, founder of the wildly successful Instagram account @gocleanco. “It’s a great tool to have.” For a more natural route, you can lean toward lemon and baking soda to achieve similar results.

What You'll Need:

  • Bar Keeper’s Friend or the juice of ½ a lemon and 1 t of baking soda, mixed into a paste
  • 3 dry, lint-free cloths (one for buffing, one for wiping, and one for drying)
  • Access to warm water 

Step 1: Test a Spot

Sarah suggests starting by buffing a small, out-of-sight area with Bar Keeper’s Friend (or your lemon paste) to ensure it’s safe to use. Once you’ve gotten some success under your belt, buff out the whole piece.

Step 2: Buff and Rinse

Using soft, circular motions, buff your product (whether chemical or natural) into the brass and watch as it comes back to life. Within about a minute of completing the buffing step, move to a rinse—either by soaking your second cloth in warm water and wiping it down, or (if you’re able) by dunking your item directly into warm water. The most important thing here is removing all of the cleaning product before you move to drying. 

Step 3: Dry 

This may be the most important step of all. Ensure that your brass product has completely dried by using your third dry, lint-free cloth to remove any remaining moisture you see. Water is the enemy of brass, and leaving even a drop unattended will result in eventual corrosion. 

Step 4: Add a Mineral Oil 

For an added touch and a little extra TLC, you can finish polishing your brass by using mineral oil. Again, Sarah is careful to warn her clients that a piece must be “bone dry” before moving to this step. “You have to give your metals a full ten minutes, at a minimum, to dry before adding mineral oil. Allowing for the piece to fully dry prevents the oil from mixing with any water residue that may still be living on a surface from your wipe-down. Imagine that the metal is drinking up the oil – it needs that time to dry in order to drink well.” 

“Keeping every space in your home clean allows you to enjoy a little piece of joy every day,” says Sarah. Taking care of your metals (especially those that may have been sitting in a cabinet, un-used and unloved for a while) can give you a jolt of pride and peace.

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