How to clean silver – an expert guide
Find out how to clean silver at home, according to the experts, and restore your tarnished silverware to a beautiful shine
Knowing how to clean silver that has become tarnished and dull is an important skill to have up your sleeve if you want to impress dinner guests with a beautifully shining table setting and sparkling silver cutlery, or keep cherished heirloom pieces looking pristine.
No matter how well you look after your silverware, it will naturally tarnish over time as a chemical reaction from air and light exposure. While we would all love to have a butler such as Downton Abbey's Mr Carson to polish up our silverware, in the absence of a servant or two, we have asked the experts for their advice on how to clean silver at home.
Cleaning silver is far less messy than you might think, and it is very satisfying to restore its shine. Plus, the more you use your silverware, the less you have to clean it, and you can get much more enjoyment from it, too. So use these cleaning tips and roll up your sleeves and get polishing.
How to clean silver
The first thing to remember when considering how to clean silver is 'easy does it'. Polishing is abrasive, so no matter how delicate you are, it's best to keep cleaning to a minimum.
'The damage caused by over-zealous cleaning of silverware and ‘old-fashioned’ highly abrasive compounds, can really take their toll,' says antiques expert Lisa Lloyd, owner of Hand of Glory Antiques.
There are many proprietary silver cleaners available on the market and these can range from highly reactive liquid chemical silver dips to soft polishing cloths. With so many products available to buy it can get confusing, but if you keep to a few simple guidelines on how to clean silver it will help you look after your silver at home.
Silver cleaners to use
'It is important to only use the level of silver cleaner required,' explains Vivienne Bryan of Bryan Douglas Antique Silver, 'starting at the most gentle and go on from there as needed.'
Silver cleaning products in order of the most gentle to more abrasive are:
- Silver cleaning gloves or mitts
- Silver cleaning foam
- Silver liquid cleaner
- Silver wadding
If you're a fan of natural cleaning products, we've also included a home remedy for cleaning silver below, using items you can easily find in the pantry.
Sterling silver, solid silver or silver plate?
Before you start cleaning silver, 'it is important to know whether your silver is sterling silver, plated or solid silver,' explains Vivienne. The answer will impact on how to clean silver.
- Sterling silver is 92.5 per cent silver with 7.5 per cent other metals and will usually have a sterling mark.
- Silver plate is where a thin layer of silver is bonded – through a process known as electroplating – to another base metal, such as copper or brass. Silver plate can be prone to the silver flaking off or turning green.
- Solid silver will usually have a hallmark indicating the purity of the silver.
'Silver plate, especially more modern pieces, will need much more careful and gentle cleaning, whereas sterling silver or other types of solid silver can have more robust cleaning materials,' explains Vivienne. 'If you are in any doubt, then just contact a silver dealer.'
How to polish silver
Use silver cleaning gloves or mitts to wipe over your silverware regularly then it will only need further cleaning to remove individual marks that might occur. 'This also keeps the silver patina glowing,' advises Vivienne.
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How do you polish tarnished silver?
For sterling or solid silverware that is only slightly tarnished, clean it using silver foam cleaners or liquid silver polish.
'Silver foam cleaners are nice and gentle, and good for more decorative silver since they do not leave a residue that can build up,' advises Vivienne
If using a silver liquid cleaner for cleaning silver, give the bottle a good shake before using, then 'apply the cleaner with a sponge or cloth, wash off any residue – only on pieces that don't contain any other materials – dry and brush out the detail. Finish with a duster,' advises Henry Willis, a dealer of antique silver.
'The liquid cleaners we prefer do not have a strong color, like the red found on a lot of silver liquid cleaners in the US which can stay and become embedded in decorative silver fine detail work,' adds Vivienne, who recommends Town Talk, Goddards and Silvo – all easily available in the US and UK.
Always remember to replace the lids of tins and bottles of silver cleaner as they will dry out otherwise.
How to clean heavily tarnished sterling or solid silver
If the silverware is heavily tarnished and black, it is necessary to use a polish that is slightly abrasive to cut through the surface.
'For plain pieces with flat surfaces, a liquid silver polish is better – and surprisingly less abrasive than wadding. The surface polish can be removed with a yellow duster, and the details can be brushed out with a silver brush,' advises Henry Willis.
'I recommend using silver wadding for ornate pieces, using a soft bristle toothbrush and bamboo kebab stick – usually with a bit of wadding on the end – to get into the detail,' Henry continues.
Remember, though, that anything highly abrasive will cause myriad tiny scratches that will ruin the surface of the silverware.
'Silver wadding cleaner can be heavier, but you do not need to rub hard, a very light touch on some of the blackest of silver can give you that joy of seeing the lovely silver color returning as you gently wipe it over,' says Vivienne. Then buff it to a shine with a soft cloth.
How to clean silver plate
Silver plate needs careful and gentle cleaning.
Careful use of silver wadding, silver foam cleaner or silver liquid cleaner is fine unless the piece has been replated. 'If in doubt, it is best to stick with liquid silver polish and a soft duster, as before,' explains Henry Willis.
Old Sheffield plate should only be cleaned with liquid polish, as abrasives will eventually damage the surface.
What is the best home remedy to clean silver?
While we are big fans of natural cleaning methods, it is important to add a note of caution as the use of old fashioned remedies is not necessarily the best for cleaning vintage or antique silver.
'Although old fashioned remedies for how to clean silver can work, not many old remedies are gentle on antique silver. For example if you clean silver with baking soda this can be bad for the patina of silver,' says Vivienne Bryan.
The methods below can be used for newer silverware, but should be used cautiously on vintage or antique silverware.
How to clean silver with baking soda
Cleaning with baking soda plus cleaning with vinegar is a clever and eco-friendly method for silver and it can have surprisingly effective results on heavy tarnish and Clean My Space's Melissa Maker swears by it.
All you need is baking soda, white vinegar, salt, boiling water, aluminum foil and a plastic bowl.
- Line the plastic bowl with aluminum foil, shiny side up.
- Add enough boiling water to cover the silverware
- Add two tablespoons of baking soda and 1 tablespoon of salt per liter of water/ 1 cup per gallon
- Add 1/2 cup of white vinegar - prepare for it to fizz
- Mix everything together until it has dissolved in the water
- Place the silver items in the bowl
- Leave for a few minutes while the tarnish lifts
- Flip them over if necessary
- Lift the silverware out using tongs
- When the silverware is cool enough to handle, rub off the remaining tarnish using a soft polishing cloth
This cleaning tarnished silver technique is a good way to clean silver cutlery. 'However this is a harsh method and I wouldn't recommend it for good antique silver,' counsels antiques expert Lisa Lloyd.
Expert tips on cleaning silver
- 'Silver dip is useful for cleaning the tines of silver forks, but always wash them thoroughly as it doesn't taste nice!' advises Henry Willis.
- 'Once silver is clean, it should only need a quick wipe with a duster to keep it that way. I tend not to wash my dusters, as the residual silver polish contained in them can make them more effective than a newly laundered one,' Henry adds.
- 'The best cleaning cloth with silver is a soft cloth like a cotton duster or the fine microfibre cloth,' advises Vivienne Bryan, who disagrees with Henry, and recommends to to wash or rinse the cloth so no rough particles are on them when in use.
- 'Never use elastic bands around your silver cutlery or plastic bags for storage as both will increase the rate of tarnishing significantly,' says Vivienne.
- 'Do not put silver or silver plate in the dishwasher. The chemicals will not only damage it, but contact with stainless steel causes a chemical reaction, too, and is highly detrimental,' says Lisa Lloyd.
- 'Salt is the number one enemy of silver so take measures never to leave salt in or on silverware,' Lisa adds.
- 'Finally, never leave your silverware immersed in water in the washing up bowl overnight. You may have had a few drinks after a dinner party, but you'll pay the price in the morning.'
Rachel is senior content editor, and writes and commissions gardening content for homesandgardens.com, Homes & Gardens magazine, and its sister titles Period Living Magazine and Country Homes & Interiors. She has written for lifestyle magazines for many years, with a particular focus on gardening, historic houses and arts and crafts, but started out her journalism career in BBC radio, where she enjoyed reporting on and writing programme scripts for all manner of stories. Rachel then moved into regional lifestyle magazines, where the topics she wrote about, and people she interviewed, were as varied and eclectic as they were on radio. Always harboring a passion for homes and gardens, she jumped at the opportunity to work on The English Home and The English Garden magazines for a number of years, before joining the Period Living team, then the wider Homes & Gardens team, specializing in gardens.
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