How To Clean Copper: A Step-By-Step Guide

Use these tips to keep your copper as lively as ever.

Copper pans

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With the renaissance of the maximalist, almost shabby-chic aesthetic, copper goods are everywhere: planters, sconces, bathroom and kitchen hardware (including sinks!), jewelry, goblets, and serveware. With these fashionable products comes the challenge of keeping copper items stain and tarnish-free, which is no small task. 

Much like brass, copper wear-and-tear happens due to oxidization. The oxygen in our air slowly reacts with the alloys in copper to layer on a green coating most often referred to as “patina.” One of the most famous examples of copper’s corrosion is the Statue of Liberty which, when gifted to the United States in 1885, arrived as a shining, shimmering, amber structure. Within five years, the patina had set in in earnest, and within a decade, the formerly glossy, reddish statue had transformed into the matte, soft jade color we see today. Thankfully, your products at home will be much simpler to restore than Lady Liberty. 

Noticing your copper looking a little less than lively? Walk with us as we take it one step at a time, using the advice of our amazing comrade Sarah McAllister (founder of the Instagram sensation @gocleanco) as a guide. 

Determine What You’re Dealing With 

The type of copper you’ve got will help dictate the proper course of treatment. Copper can be sealed or left raw, and it’s important to know which kind you’ve got before moving forward. Sealed, or lacquered, copper will present as much shinier than raw, or natural, copper—and it's also much easier to clean (tackle sealed copper with a warm, wet dishcloth and dish soap). If copper is tarnishing, however, that likely means the seal has been stripped, or that the item was left in its natural form intentionally. You can always have it professionally re-sealed to achieve that old luster, but accidentally using a harsh chemical cleaner on a sealed piece can strip the seal off completely.

How do you know what you’ve got? “A copper sink is usually unsealed because it’s constantly in contact with water," says Sarah. "A copper pot, on the other hand, is usually shiny and sealed.” Checking for shine is the easiest way to check for a seal.

Decide Your Method

For smaller items to be polished, you’ll need a paste. “Our favorite thing to use on brass is Bar Keeper’s Friend,” says Sarah. “We prefer the liquid form—so easy to use, and works on a wide variety of surfaces: stainless steel, brass, copper, porcelain.” If you’d prefer to keep it more natural, grab a bottle of your best ally—acid. Nearly any will do. Household items like lemon juice, vinegar, and (believe it or not) even ketchup can all do the trick in polishing copper. For larger pieces that would take a while to scrub by hand, consider dunking them into a large pot of boiling water filled with a homemade cleaning solution (more instructions to come) to ease your load. 

How To Polish Smaller or Fixed Copper Pieces

What You’ll Need: 

  • Bar Keeper’s Friend or the juice of ½ a lemon/2-3 T ketchup/2-3 T vinegar + salt for exfoliation
  • 1 sponge
  • 2 dry, lint-free cloths (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 homemade acid solution) to ensure it’s safe to use, then scrubbing the whole piece once you’ve gotten some proven success.

Step 2: Scrub And Rinse

Using circular motions, use your sponge to scrub the product (whether chemical or natural) into the copper and watch as the patina falls away. Keep at it until the copper is restored. Within about a minute of completing your scrubbing, move to a rinse—either by soaking one of your cloths in warm water and wiping the product 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 

Ensure that your copper product has dried completely by using your second dry, lint-free cloth to remove any remaining moisture you see. Water is the enemy of copper, and leaving even a drop unattended will result in eventual corrosion (and unsightly water spots). Sarah even suggests drying until the next day to apply an oil if possible. 

Step 4: Add A Mineral Oil 

For an added touch and a little extra TLC, you can finish polishing your copper 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.” The mineral oil will actually help protect the copper from oxidation by creating another layer the oxygen will have to work through to get to the copper itself. 

How To Clean Large, Free-Standing Copper Pieces

What You’ll Need: 

  • 1 large stainless steel pot 
  • Cleaning solution: 3 parts water, 1 part vinegar 
  • 1-3 T salt

Step 1: Make Your Solution And Fill Your Pot 

Sarah advises that the pot must be stainless steel, citing that this particular metal protects copper in the cleaning process. Once you’ve determined how much cleaning solution you’ll need, fill your pot (“Enough to submerge the item,” Sarah says), drop in your copper product, and bring the liquid to a boil.

Step 2: Watch Carefully

“The tarnish will start to lift right away, and that’s when you want to remove it from heat and let the item cool,” Sarah says. Over-boiling can cause copper products to slightly warp, so taking them away from a heat source and allowing them to cool once the patina has broken away is crucial in keeping them shapely.

Steps 3 And 4: Dry and Add Mineral Oil

Just as you did for smaller copper items, follow the same instructions above to completely dry and polish your piece.

Consider Storing In Cling Wrap

Among Sarah’s many pieces of wisdom, she shared this with Southern Living readers: 

If you have a copper product that isn’t displayed—servingware or seasonal copper mint julep cups—wrap them. “One of my staff had a polishing party recently, and since she doesn’t use these items regularly, she wrapped them in Saran Wrap to tuck away, out of sight, until their next use,” explains Sarah. Though it’s not particularly aesthetic, keeping metals that will oxidize sealed in cling wrap prevents oxygen from getting to the metal, thereby acting as a barrier and preserving the lustrous shine you’ve worked so hard to achieve. 

Get more enjoyment out of your pieces by caring for them often, and before you know it, you’ll be trotting out those freshly-polished copper pieces with pride.

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