How to Clean Silver: Caring for Antique Silver Pieces

Well-polished silver tea set Mexican Sterling Silver Six-Piece Tea and Coffee Service, Sold for $3,750 via Doyle New York (September 2019).

Considered one of the precious metals alongside gold and platinum, silver has captivated our shared global culture for centuries as a symbol of status, wealth, and artistic brilliance. With such great beauty, though, comes the challenge of keeping these luxurious objects at their peak luster. So what is the best way to clean silver? Do home remedies for cleaning silver really work? Here, we explore how to clean antique silver, silver’s most significant foes, and how to combat them effectively. 

Why Does Sterling Silver Tarnish? 

Those whose collections include antique silver are familiar with the horror of finding a piece whose beautiful luster has been obscured under a mottled brown – or even black – blanket of tarnish. The discoloration that appears on the surface of tarnished silver is not a flaw of silver itself: pure silver would never tarnish. Then again, no piece would ever be pure silver as it would be too malleable to use. All silver is technically an alloy, which means that the silver has been mixed with other metals – typically copper – to stabilize it. This is why sterling silver is stamped with the mark “.925,” which indicates that the piece meets the sterling standard of being 92.5% silver. The remaining 7.5% comprised of other metals. 

A heavily tarnished silver coffee service with near-black veneer on handle
This small percentage of other metals causes the tarnish to appear as a
chemical reaction with the elements of the environment in which the silver is stored. The two key factors that contribute to tarnish include:

  • Humidity levels: the more moisture in the air, the quicker tarnish will form
  • Chemical contact: the presence of many chemicals in your environment — from a sulfurous dish of Brussels sprouts to home products like hairspray or lotion — can also accelerate silver tarnish. 

You can try to control some of these elements, but inevitably you will need to clean your tarnished silver. At the end of the day, remember: tarnish may be unsightly, but it is not damaging to your silver, and using the appropriate cleaning techniques can help ensure that your silver will keep sparkling for years to come. 

How to Clean Tarnished Silver 

When preparing to clean your silver, always keep in mind that your main goal is to preserve the silver surface of your antique sterling silver pieces. To do so, it is important to: 

  • Use store-bought silver cleaners as sparingly as possible (or avoid them altogether) as the chemical components within can potentially be damaging to your antique pieces
  • Never use a hard bristle brush to remove surface tarnish or other materials, as you will run the risk of scratching your silver

Two hands holding a silver spoon and a white cloth
To begin cleaning tarnished silver, lay a soft cloth down on your work surface to protect your piece. It’s also best to wear a pair of cotton gloves to limit the amount of oils and other residue that your fingertips leave behind. 

Daily Upkeep

Dust your silverware with a soft cloth; use a light bristle brush or cotton bud for hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. 

Light Cleaning  

The combination of a silver cleaning cloth and a solution of warm water combined with a mild detergent should do the trick when it comes to light tarnish. After working over the entirety of your silver piece, be sure to dry it thoroughly before storing away. 

Heavy Cleaning

For silver wares that are completely covered with a black layer of tarnish, you will need to work a little harder, but home remedies for cleaning silver will still work. Using the same mild detergent solution and a silver cleaning cloth or light bristle brush, work over your piece slowly and carefully. For heavier cleanings, you can also clean your silver with a solution of baking soda, salt, vinegar, and boiling water. 

Cleaning Silver with Baking Soda 

  1. First, mix a tablespoon each of baking soda and salt; then add in one-half cup of white vinegar and a cup of boiling water (scaling the volume, of course, to meet the size of your piece). 
  2. Then, pour this solution in an aluminum foil-lined pan and then submerge your piece in this solution. 
  3. The result is an almost immediate dissolution of the tarnish thanks to an electrochemical reaction. 

Other Home Remedies for Cleaning Silver

Cleaning silver with toothpaste or even with tomato ketchup has also been shown to reduce the appearance of tarnish, however these approaches have their risks. The acidity of ketchup could result in damage to your silver, while the various compounds in fluoride toothpaste may result in unintended reactions.  

When to Consult a Specialist 

There are scenarios that exist where home remedies and simple solutions just won’t work, and when contacting a silver specialist is best to ensure the preservation of your silver. A prime example is if your silver exhibits a greenish hue, which indicates that the copper content of your silver has corroded, causing the growth of green crystalline deposits (known as verdigris). This verdigris can be removed, but it requires a chemical solution that, for most silver, should be administered by a professional conservationist. 

Two George III Style Silver Plated Dish Covers.

The same can occur if you are hoping to remedy a silver plate piece like Sheffield plate wares. If the silver plate has worn away or has been notably damaged, it can be re-plated or re-silvered, however this needs to be done by a specialist. 

Keep in mind that the more tarnish that you allow to accumulate on your silver means the more vigorously you will need to clean it. This, in turn, means a heightened risk that you may accidentally scratch or mar the surface silver in the process of heavily cleaning a piece, which is why routine maintenance that prevents extensive tarnish is always recommended.

How to Store Silver

When you want to showcase selections from your silver collection in a home display case, it is best to keep them in a controlled environment with humidity levels balanced at approximately 50%. This can be accomplished if you have a home humidistat. If you don’t, try to keep your silver away from excessively damp or moist conditions. You can also help preserve the condition of your antique silver by placing camphor blocks or anti-tarnish paper within your display case, as these will help mitigate the impact of moisture and environmental elements that might feed tarnish.

Sealing the surface of your antique silver with a lacquer layer or microcrystalline wax layer is also an option, depending on the type of piece. Lacquer layers tend to scratch easily with excessive handling, but they are superior to the wax option for preserving intricately carved details on a detailed silver piece. 

You can also help minimize the accumulation of tarnish when you tuck them away into storage. Before packing up your antique silver, you can limit tarnish on those silver pieces you are storing by first wrapping them in undyed cotton fabric or in acid-free tissue paper. 

Silver cleaning may be a labor of love, particularly when you have a number of antique silver pieces that need cleaning. Using these methods to clean antique silver may take some of the stress out of the process, and can help you showcase the full potential of your silver collection.

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