How to Clean Brass and Keep it Shiny

Use these simple pantry ingredients that remove tarnish from your home’s brass accents then make it shine like new.

How to clean brass like this planter holding a small Christmas cactus in bloom

The warm gleam of brass objects adds a lovely look to your home. Over time, though, brass begins to look dull as tarnish develops. Some people like that look but, if you don’t, you just need to head to your kitchen to grab a few things that will remove tarnish from brass and get it clean.

Why Brass Tarnishes

The tarnish on brass is a surface reaction to oxygen exposure. So, an easy way to remove tarnish is by using household ingredients that dissolve that bond. Use whatever of these methods is most convenient.

But first, before you begin, make sure what you’re working with actually solid brass. All you need to check is a refrigerator magnet. Magnets don’t stick to brass. If the magnet falls off, it’s some other kind of metal with brass plating and you’ll want to clean it using the method appropriate for that metal. (Here’s how to get tarnish off of silver.)

How to Clean Brass

Once you sure the item is truly brass, wash it in warm, soapy water. Use an old toothbrush and some toothpaste (not the whitening kind) to clean any grimy areas. Then rinse, pat it dry, and spot treat any remaining tarnish with one of the homemade brass cleaners below.

1. Tomato Ketchup (or Sauce)

Tomatoes are mildly acidic. Tomato ketchup contains vinegar, which is also acidic. You can put these acids to work to get rid of tarnish on brass. Just slather the item with ketchup, wait an hour, and then rinse with warm water and pat dry. Tomato juice or sauce can work, too, but they don’t have the vinegar that ketchup does, so they won’t work as dramatically.

2. Lemon and Salt

Like the tomatoes in the homemade brass cleaner above, lemons are also acidic. To get rid of tarnish on brass door kickplates or other things you can’t remove, reach for a lemon and some table salt. Slice the lemon in half and dip the cut side into the salt. Use the salty end to clean the tarnish, but take care not to scrub too hard. Brass is a softer metal, and you don’t want to scratch the surface.

Dip the lemon back into the salt as needed and squeeze as necessary to get more lemon juice. To remove stubborn tarnish, leave the mixture in place for 10 minutes. Finish by wiping the item with a clean, damp cloth and buff dry. (Don’t throw away the other half. Here are more surprising ways to use lemons.)

3. Vinegar + Flour + Salt

To remove heavy tarnish on brass, you need a mixture that can stay in place while it works. For this homemade brass tarnish remover, grab some white vinegar, flour, and salt. Stir together equal parts of each until you’ve made a damp paste that’s not runny. Use a soft cloth to apply this to your tarnished brass and let it sit for 30 minutes. Grab a fresh, damp cloth and wipe away the paste, then rinse the item and buff it dry.

How to Keep Brass Shiny

Regular cleaning removes dust and grime from brass and leaves a mellow gleam. If you like your brass shiny, you’ll want to polish and maybe refinish it, too. For unlacquered brass, you only need to rub on a light layer of oil. Linseed or mineral oil both work well to prevent tarnishing. WD-40 can work, too. Pour or spray a small amount on a soft, dry cloth and wipe an even, light coat onto the brass items.

Refinishing Lacquered Brass

Lacquered brass accents require occasional refinishing. Tarnish, surface flakes or bubbles are all signs the lacquer is failing. Fortunately, it’s not hard to get that old, peeling coating off of brass.

First, dunk it in pure acetone for a few minutes. Then rub it with a 000 steel wool pad to get rid of every bit of lacquer. Wash it well and pat it dry.

Next, seal it. If you want to apply a high gloss shine, use a polyurethane spray lacquer that you can easily remove and reapply as needed. Or, if you prefer a subtle gleam and less upkeep, rub on linseed oil or a commercial brass polish to protect it from oxidation.

Don’t Ignore the Tarnish

No matter the finish, clean your brass when it begins to look grimy. Don’t delay in removing tarnish from brass or refinishing lacquered brass objects, though. If neglected for too long, you may wind up with tarnish that homemade ingredients can’t remove. Then you’ll need to take your brass to a professional metal cleaner and be prepared for that expense.

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