Contrary to popular belief, silver does not need constant cleaning and in fact should not be cleaned more than absolutely necessary. The need to clean can be reduced by regular dusting with a soft cloth, using a brush with very soft bristles for crevices, or washing in warm soapy water, rinsing well and drying with kitchen towel. Silver should not be put in a dishwasher as the salts and detergents may harm the surface but if pieces are put in a dishwasher make sure that they do not touch other metals. Silver, in common with all metals, can be easily scratched, dented or fractured and should therefore be handled with care. When not in use or on display it will tarnish less if kept wrapped in acid-free tissue paper or un-dyed cotton or linen and kept in airtight conditions. Do not wrap in baize, felt or chamois leather as they will tarnish silver.
Tarnishing does not actually harm silver. It is caused by a number of factors including humidity and sulphurous foods such as egg yolks and brussel sprouts, therefore table silver which has been in contact with them should be washed as soon as possible. Fingerprints can leave deposits which also cause tarnishing so it is helpful to wear cotton gloves while cleaning or dusting. In order to remove tarnish, it is best to use impregnated cloths, silver foam or polish as these are the least abrasive products. It is also helpful to use a long-term variety as this will reduce the need for frequent cleaning. Silver cloths can be made at home by soaking a cloth in a mixture of whiting, methylated spirits and water. Silver dip, which can be wiped on large objects with cotton wool, should not be reused too many times as particles of silver collect in the jar and can then leave a deposit on other pieces which is hard to remove.
When cleaning silver, only use a silver polish, not a metal polish intended for copper and brass. This is particularly important when cleaning old Sheffield plate or electro-plate. Rinse after cleaning in clean water and dry with kitchen towel or a clean tea towel. A dry soft brush can be used to remove polish from crevices. Never use wire wool or an abrasive cloth to remove stains as they will scratch the surface, and polish as seldom as possible as a small amount of metal will be removed over time and any engraving or etching will become worn. This can be a particular problem for plated objects as the silver will eventually be worn away, exposing the metal core. Worn plated wares can be resilvered professionally but this can reduce the value of good antique Sheffield plate as the finish and colour may not be true to the original and the sharpness of any engraving on the piece may be dulled. Silver will corrode as a result of being in contact with salt, causing a green crystalline deposit which should be treated by a professional.
Salt cellars should always be gilt or glass lined and the salt should be removed from them immediately after use.
Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% mainly copper. However, fine silver is often used by contemporary silversmiths and this has a higher silver content of 99.9% and tarnishes less. It may not need cleaning for six months rather than six to eight weeks for sterling silver. Fine silver is softer so care should be taken when handling or cleaning. For general cleaning, use a long term silver foam very sparingly and clean intricate pieces with silver dip applied with a soft toothbrush and then rinse well with clean warm water. Modern finishes have become more varied with an increase of matt or sateen surfaces. These are created by using very fine abrasives, so the biggest danger to them is over polishing which will create a shimmer finish. If this happens, seek the advice of a specialist dealer. Silver with a delicate white egg-shell finish is made of fine silver that will hardly tarnish and should only be washed occasionally. Use ordinary washing up liquid and dry with a fine soft cloth. If this finish does get damaged, the piece should be returned to the maker for attention.
A gold object may be solid or plated, silver gilt or ormolu and it is advisable to establish which before treating it. Gold is soft and therefore a thin layer on silver can be rubbed away all too quickly. It also scratches easily so should be handled with care but it does not tarnish unless it has a high silver content as is the case with some 9 ct. gold. Light dusting or gentle washing in warm soapy water is all that is recommended in the way of cleaning.
Pewter is also easily scratched and dented. Its high lead content will lead to corrosion in acid conditions which includes oak, so it is inadvisable to store or display pewter pieces in or on oak furniture. Acids in the atmosphere can also cause the problem of powdery corrosion or warty spots which should be treated by a specialist. A heavily stained or very dull surface can be treated by gently wiping it with a cloth impregnated with linseed oil and talcum power or a mild abrasive powder such as whiting or rottenstone. This should then be removed with cotton wool moistened with methylated spirits, washed, rinsed and dried. It is a matter of debate as to whether pewter should be polished to a silvery finish, allowed to develop a dark, matt surface or given a soft gleam by regular, light buffing with a dry soft cloth.
COPPER AND BRASS
Both copper and brass naturally develop a soft patina which is an asset on antique pieces and should not be cleaned off with metal polishes. Regular buffing with a soft cloth or chamois should be enough to keep the metals clean without harming the patina. Both can tarnish however: brass to a matt greenish-brown surface while copper tarnishes to brown and corrodes to a green patina. Heavy staining can be treated with long-term copper or brass cleaners or impregnated wadding while a light tarnishing can respond to a long-term silver cloth. Another method of removing tarnish is to mix a level tablespoon of salt with a tablespoon of vinegar in half a pint of hot water and then, using extremely fine wire wool, swab brass with the solution without rubbing hard. For copper, use a rough cloth rather than wire wool. Wash in hot soapy water, rinse, dry and then apply polish. Remember that both metals scratch easily.