Sacristy Tips: Polishing Metalwork to Restore its Lustre

Clergy, sacristans and altar servers who work closely with the many brass liturgical items that are used within the sacred liturgy -- candlesticks, reliquaries, thuribles, boats and the like -- are only too familiar with the fact that they invariably become dull, discoloured and tarnished through use, losing their golden lustre and brilliance. Simple exposure to the elements will result in this naturally, but it is particularly an issue with objects that are handled, and especially thuribles (which are additionally subject to resin and smoke).  So what is one to do to care for these things?

Some people use a brass cleaner like "Brasso" to polish these items; a lengthy process that is often only "satisfactory" in its end results I have found -- and very frequently also results in a greenish-blue residue in the nooks and crannies of the metalwork.

Others might resign themselves to simply leaving these items with their tarnished appearance, determining that it is either not so very noticeable (it is) or deciding to eventually pursue the costly process of re-brassing the item (or even simply buying new one's).

The worst "solution" I have ever come across was the use of gold spray paint applied it to the item. Needless to say that is not a solution whatsoever and should be entirely avoided.

There is another solution which I have found more effective than any of these other options and it achieves outstanding results. It was a technique that I learnt from a friend who was in the antiques business. What is that technique? Super-fine steel wool.

Now, I must be clear about this. As with sandpaper, there are various grades of steel wool, from "normal" to "fine" and finally to "superfine". It is the latter of which I speak. Other grades may well damage the brass by leaving scratch marks. Superfine grade steel wool does not.

How To

To use this method, simply tear off a chunk of the superfine steel wool so that you can easily hold it in your hand and proceed to rub it against the metal reasonably vigorously -- similar to how you would clean pots and pans.

Depending on what you are cleaning, you may want a smaller or bigger chunk of it.  Where you are cleaning chains or the stems of things like candlesticks, I like to use a piece large enough that I can wrap the steel wool around that portion of the object to make cleaning quicker and easier. (See the thurible chains below for example.)  This is, in fact, another advantage of this method. While it would be a much more labour intensive effort to clean thurible chains with a liquid brass cleaner, with this technique it is actually incredibly quick and simple.

To show you the end result, I thought I would share an example of a boat and thurible that I had cleaned utilizing this method a few years back. To the left is thurible and boat in their original state and to the right is the result after cleaning them using super fine steel wool.  As you can see, the lustre and brilliance has been brought back out -- and no milky residue from the cleaner.

Left: Before.   Right: After. 
The process of cleaning this took approximately one hour and the total cost of cleaning would have been about one box of super-fine steel wool -- which comes in at around around $4-5 USD.  It goes without saying that if one keeps on top of this sort of cleaning, it would take even less time.

Some have asked whether this method might in any way harms the metal finish. I won't proclaim myself any expert on this question. What  I can tell you is this: having utilized this method for many years on many brass coated objects, I have never been anything but pleased with the results in either the short or the long term.

Of course, it goes without saying that it is always a prudent idea to first test out any new cleaner or cleaning method on a small, discreet spot first, before applying it to larger or more visible portions of the item being cleaned. This will allow you to ensure you do not observe any unexpected or adverse effects.

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