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American Boxed Games and Their Makers, 1822-1992
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Cleaning and Preserving Nautical Brass
by Bob Brooke

 

If you collect antique nautical brass, you most likely want to keep it looking its best. You can learn to restore and clean your pieces without damaging them but get it wrong and your brass pieces can rapidly lose their value.

The first thing you need to determine is whether the item you wish to clean is, indeed, brass. Though it may look like solid brass, it may in fact be brass-plated steel, zinc, or cast iron. The easiest way to check? Place a small magnet on the metal. Magnets will not stick to solid brass. So if the magnet sticks, the piece is brass-plated. Plated items can be cleaned with hot soapy water, but rubbing or polishing them too aggressively can remove the brass plating, so proceed with caution.

Cleaning Antique Nautical Brass
There are numerous ways to clean solid brass. Your approach depends on how dirty your pieces are and the amount of tarnish that has built up. If your piece is solid brass, a simple buff with a jewelerís cloth will remove most mild tarnish. But if its really dirty, begin by washing each piece with hot, soapy water and a microfiber cleaning cloth: Go over all of the surfaces thoroughly with the cleaning cloth, using a clean toothbrush to get into any crevices. Rinse with warm water and dry thoroughly.

For tougher cleaning jobs, fetch the ketchup from the cupboard. Simply rub a thin coat onto the brass, let sit for an hour or so, then rinse the piece with hot, soapy water.

An alternative natural cleaning combination is salt and lemon. Cut a lemon in half and remove the seeds. Coat the cut half of the lemon with table salt and rub it over the surface of the brass, re-coating the lemon with salt as needed. Once youíve covered the entire surface, buff to a shine with a clean, dry cloth.

Plain toothpaste, without any mouthwash or other additives, will also work well. An old, clean toothbrush will help you reach any small crevices where dirt and tarnish often collect. When applying the polish, wear cotton gloves to avoid canceling out your polishing work by leaving fingerprints. Apply the paste to your item with a clean, soft, cloth. Once the piece is covered, rinse the paste away and buff your piece with a separate cloth until it achieves a brilliant, rich shine.

Above all, avoid using highly abrasive scrubbing cloths, metal-bristled brushes, or steel wool, all of which will scratch the surface of the brass.

To prevent tarnishing, you can then apply a thin coating of linseed or mineral oil to the clean brass with a soft terry towel or a white cotton athletic sock.

Removing Lacquer from Antique Nautical Brass
Some pieces of antique nautical brass may have a protective lacquer finish. These should only be cleaned with hot, soapy water. You can remove the lacquer in several ways. First, heat up some water until you can just bear it on your hands and then pour it over the piece. If the lacquer is thin, you should be able to peel it off while itís hot. Failing that, try nail polish remover or denatured alcohol, both of which should be effective since most lacquers have an acetone or alcohol-soluble resins.

If lacquered pieces are heavily tarnished, youíll need to remove the lacquer with a paint or varnish remover. Then youíll need to clean and polish the brass using one of the above techniques. You can then choose to lacquer the piece again or leave it without.

Once you clean and polish your nautical brass, you should avoid touching it as much as possible, as the oils in your skin can hasten tarnishing. Regular cleaning and polishing with a microfiber cloth will help keep dust and dirt from accumulating and keep your brass looking lustrious.

Restoring Badly Tarnished Pieces
Restoring and cleaning antique nautical brass generally involves removing dirt and oxidation and then protecting it from further oxidation. If your brass has been neglected for years, then first soak it in undiluted household ammonia or vinegar for an hour. But donít overdo it because the caustic ammonia will attack the oxidation, dirt and grime, as well as the metal, so that any light engraving might be reduced or even lost.

Light tarnishing responds well to the ammonia in many commercial metal polishes such as Brasso. They also remove dirt. Donít hold back because you wonít damage brass by rubbing hard.

Maintaining Your Antique Nautical Brass
After you have cleaned your brass, simply leave it. Do not keep cleaning it whenever it loses its shine because you are liable to leach the copper out to the top, and that will then be oxidized to the greenish color (verdigris) of copper oxide that most pure copper items revert to when left open to the air. A light spraying with lacquer can help to protect your pieces while giving them a natural look.

If you have valuable pieces of antique nautical brass that you have collected for investment, you should not clean the brass finish. Experts consider any removal of the patina undesirableóitís the same as removing the finish of 200-year-old furniture. Removing the aged finish can greatly devalue your antique.


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