Silverware can be one of the most beautiful additions to your table – and also one of the most frustrating to clean and maintain. Unlike stainless steel, silver tarnishes very quickly and easily, even with just exposure to the air, and maintaining its natural shine and sparkle can be a hefty job! In addition, continual use and insufficient daily washing means that stubborn dirt and grease may accumulate on the silverware. Wealthy families in the past, who employed a large number of servants, did not have a trouble with the daily upkeep of silver but busy modern living means that most silverware tends to go for a long time between cleaning, with the build-up of tarnish being substantial and the subsequent cleaning required quite intensive. With a few handy tips, however, cleaning silverware will be less of a tedious chore.
Why Does Silver Tarnish?
Silver molecules readily combine with molecules from certain other elements, forming a corrosion product also known as “tarnish”. This tarnish is starts off as a yellowish tinge which gradually darkens through brown and finally to a dark, iridescent purple/black. It is in fact a layer of silver sulphide on the surface and can be removed using an abrasive polish. However, it is more easily removed in the early stages and require a lot of work once it was reached the “black” stage, therefore more frequent, light cleaning are recommended over sporadic intensive sessions.
Pure silver is actually too soft to be used in everyday situations, therefore most silverware is actually an alloy of silver with a variety of other metals, such as copper, zinc and nickel. Despite this, silver can still scratch easily if great force is used so take care when cleaning.
One simple way to clean silverware involves just the contents of your pantry. Start by washing all the silverware with soap and water to remove any accumulated dirt and grease. Remember, commercial soaps often contain phosphates which can leave a brown stain on silver, so always use a mild, phosphate-free detergent. Be careful about immersing any silver pieces with wood or ivory attachments as the water can harm these materials; be careful also with any pieces that have been silverplated (rather than solid silver) because the base metal may corrode through the plating.
Next, gill a large aluminium pot or tray with boiling water and 2 tablespoons of baking soda (bicarbonate soda). If you don’t have aluminium trays, simply line whatever you have with aluminium foil). Put all your silverware into the solution and leave it for about 10 minutes. The baking soda will act on the oxidised surface of the silverware, removing the tarnish and any remaining dirt, stains and grease. If your silverware is heavily tarnished, then you may need to bring the solution to the boil and allow to simmer for a few minutes. Another thing to try is to add a teaspoon of salt into the boiling mixture and simmer for 2-3 minutes, ensuring that you have enough water in the pot to cover all the silverware.
Finally, remove the silverware and rinse thoroughly under warm, running water and then place on a clean, dry cloth to air-dry. Remember, don’t use rubber gloves when you are cleaning silver as they can emit sulphurs and undo all your good work!
After the pieces are dry, you can buff each one gently with a soft, clean cloth – especially to remove any remaining water spots. Alternatively, in some cases, you may just like to try and polish silver without washing it first, if it not very dirty. In this case, the tarnish is usually removed by the use of an abrasive. Remember, as silver is a very soft metal, it is very easy to scratch it so take care to use an appropriate abrasive. In fact, if your silverware is only slightly tarnished, a commercial polishing cloth may be all you need. A regular wipe with a polishing cloth (once the silverware is clean) also helps to maintain a shiny appearance. If you decided to use a polishing paste, beware of old or dried out products which may be harsher than you intended. Another alternative is commercial liquid silver dips and while these do not contain abrasives, they do their job using acids which can also leave pittings and etchings on the surface, if the items are left to soak for too long (similar to the bicarbonate soda solution). The chemical solution can also leak into hollows and crevices, where it may continue to corrode long after you have removed the item from the soak, so it may be a better idea overall to only swab the solution onto the silverware and to rinse thoroughly afterwards.
Regardless of which method you choose, cleaning and polishing silver always leads to the removal of some silver itself with the tarnish, especially if you use an abrasive polish. While this is negligible with just one cleaning, if you clean and polish frequently, you will eventually wear the silver away! Therefore, it is advisable not to lean and polish too often with abrasives, liquid dips or even the home-made bicarbonate soda solution. Finally, for valuable or heirloom pieces, it may be wise to consult an expert and have the silverware professionally cleaned, rather than risk damaging it yourself at home.