Cleaning Metal

Cleaning metal can mean different things.  Some want to remove Tarnish, which is the result of the top layer of metal being degraded by sulpher, in the environment, in a process called Oxidation. Other circumstances where very clean, grease free metal is important are:  enameling, soldering and etching, among others.  Knowing how to achieve this level of cleanliness, for the jeweler,  is a valuable bit of knowledge that will save some time and frustration. And, of course, all jewelers want to send their masterpieces off to their new homes, sparkling clean.

Rule one: Go wash your hands, thoroughly!  Get all grease, oils and dirt off of your hands.  Now, don’t touch your face until you are done.  That beautiful face of yours has many oil glands in it (remember all that acne?). 

Now, to work. Copper, Brass, Silver and Gold can all be cleaned in a similar fashion. Most jewelers have their own particular favorite way to clean jewelry, these are some of mine and some others I have encountered over the years.

These are de-greasing methods which strip the metal of all surface contaminants.

Warning: If your piece has a mirror finish, glue or any type of gemstones or wood: do not use the following 2 methods. Be sure that all materials are able to handle water and/or temperatures of 1000+ degrees. I’m not responsible for your mistakes!

Method 1:  I use this one a lot.  Make a paste  from either pumice powder (Rio Grande’s which is 320 grit) ,Bon Ami (available at grocery stores) or any non-chlorinated cleanser and water.  With your finger and in a circular motion, rub the paste over the metal.  Rinse well.  The water should “sheet” off.  If it balls up the metal still has grease on it. Sometimes I use the cleanser with a Scotch Brite Pad which I call that ” green scrubie thing”.  Dry with a soft cloth. Let’s cut out using those paper towels, if possible.

Method 2: Heat the metal to 1000 degrees – either in a kiln or with a torch, quench and then pickle the metal. Brass brush to remove residue from copper and brass or to burnish silver. Dry. (Note: if you solder or bring the metal up to annealing temperature – that works too.)

Once the metal is clean, don’t touch the surface until after soldering/gluing/enameling/etching. Hold by the sides.

To Clean finished pieces with high polish – don’t use the above methods as these techniques may alter that finish.  The traditional method for cleaning is with an Ultrasonic Cleaner.  If you don’t have one, try this:  scrub metal with very hot water, grease cutting soap and a soft tooth brush (I use Dr. Bronners Pure Castile Peppermint Liquid Soap, straight from the bottle).  If cleaning over a sink, be sure to cover with a bit of screening as loose stones my fall out. Always be aware of the limitations of any stones in your jewelry.  Some of them cannot tolerate the Ultrasonic and/or the (ammonia based) cleaners used in the soaps. Dry.

Stones and/or materials that may be damaged by harsh chemicals: anything glued in, amber, peridot, opal, wood, malachite, turqoise, pearls,  ivory, marcasite and more. This is NOT a complete list.

It is recommended that strung pearls be cleaned only in distilled water as chemicals can potentially damage the cord that they are strung on.

Why we don’t clean wood jewelry with water should be pretty clear – wood absorbs water, expands and usually warps and swells.  Don’t do it.  Use products designed for wood care. Dust, oil and keep your wooden jewelry out of sunlight.

Check your cleaning products out at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

More to come on sealing and finishing.  Need to clean the studio, put on makeup (ugh) and get ready to film a video on…..drum roll…cleaning metal!  See you soon. N

Note:  Check out my web page:  Removing Copper Flashing for instructions on how to experience the ultimate of cleaning jobs!

2 thoughts on “Cleaning Metal

  1. Hi Roxy, there are a bunch of different chemical out there. Silver Glory is an Anti-tarnish product (http://www.riogrande.com/Product/Silver-Glory-Anti-Tarnish-Protective-Solution/335031?pos=40) – not used in the ultrasonic but, might come in handy. Probably, the product for you is Aqua 2000 (http://www.riogrande.com/Product/Aqua-2000-Cleaning-Solution/339313?pos=19)- it removes tarnish, grease, buffing compounds, oxidation and flux. I’m going to try some too. Sounds perfect. You can use the same product after soldering and before soldering. I always do a final clean up with a soft toothbrush and Dawn detergent, then rinse well – as a way to remove all chemicals from the metal. Good luck and enjoy. Let me know if you have any other questions. Happy New Year! Nancy

  2. Hi Nancy, I just received an ultrasonic cleaner for Christmas – I asked for it because in my classes,we used them to clean the silver before soldering. I don’t know what to put in the ultrasonic, though, is it just water or is there a chemical also to clean before soldering? Also, what chemical do I use to clean finished pieces that have tarnished? i see your list above, but can i put my tarnished, finished pieces in the same cleaner as I use before I solder?
    Thanks