Brass or Metal Cleaning and Tarnish Removal Q&A
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Is there an easier way to clean brass light fixtures? I bought a few
commercial products but my outdoor fixtures are so badly tarnished it takes a
lot of scrubbing and they still don't come clean. Help!!
EM from Tuckerton, NJ
The reason brass fixtures don't clean easily is because the corrosion is
occurring underneath a protective film which is "supposed to" protect
the brass from corrosion. The coating obviously didn't do a great job protecting
the brass, but it sure does a good job keeping you from removing the corrosion!
Coated brass corrodes in the same way as painted iron. For a while, the
protective coating is effective. Then, over time, small cracks and pinholes will
appear in the coating... invisible to the eye but large enough to allow water
vapor to make contact with the metal and corrosion begins. The corrosion loosens
the coating causing still more corrosion... until the brass has widespread,
The only possible way to restore the brass is to remove the coating first,
then strip the corrosion away chemically and finally recoat the brass with a
clear spray lacquer sealer. The most efficient way to strip the lacquer is to
use a methylene chloride-based (MC) paint and lacquer stripper. Less efficient
are the non-methylene chloride strippers. Due to health concerns, it is unwise
to use any MC stripper indoors without strong ventilation. If you are
interested, I have an article at the site on the dangers of methylene
I didn't publish the article to be a scare-monger... especially since in some
circumstances MC is the only sensible option. I just want folks to be aware that
this is a potent chemical to be used with great care!
Before applying the stripper, disassemble the fixture as much as possible,
removing glass and any screwed-on parts. Remove the lamp socket and wiring, too.
I don't recommend using any harsh abrasives on the brass unless absolutely
necessary, since you will scratch the finish. Instead, be patient and let the
stripper do it's work. Use very fine steel wool to do the final cleaning.
Once you're satisfied that the old finish is completely removed use a
chemical (not abrasive) brass cleaner to remove all tarnish. Assuming your brass
is really brass, it should now be shiny and new-looking. If the fixture is
brass-plated, it should still look good UNLESS the corrosion has penetrated
through the plating... then you will have discolored areas that cannot be
restored. Hello, dumpster!
Spray the fixture with a few coats of clear lacquer to protect it from
further corrosion. Krylon is one popular brand. Follow the label instructions
regarding lacquer application. Be careful not to overspray, especially the first
coat. Unlike wood, metals do not absorb any of the lacquer and even slight
overspraying will produce immediate runs and drips! Apply "very light"
coats spaced by five minutes or so.
Don't be concerned about missing spots in the first few coats... after you
have applied four or five coats you should have hit everything. You can also
brush on a little of the lacquer into difficult areas by spraying some into a
clean coffee can or plastic tub till you have enough to brush on. Work fast,
because it dries quickly! Keep the brush in lacquer thinner between coats and
wipe off with a clean cloth before using.
A final note. Many companies are now offering guarantees on their brass
finishes. Baldwin, for example, offers a lifetime finish guarantee on most of
their brass products. However, since it is not transferable to a new owner its
value is somewhat diminished in my view. The fact that they any guarantee at all
shows that they have taken care to apply an adequate finish to their products...
as opposed to most of the run-of-the-mill "throw-away" brass sold by
many discounters and home stores.
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