To Clean or Not To Clean?


Arts & Crafts Sterling Silver Cufflinks with Hammered Centers and Laurel Bordering (LEO Design)


How much to polish antique metal is a matter of personal taste and local custom.  As a rule, antiques dealers generally believe it is better to do less—and preserve the value of something—than to over-clean (or over restore) something and destroy its value.  English antiques dealers tend to go a bit heavier on the polishing of antique metals than their American counterparts.

For me, it depends on which metal is being considered and what the metallic object is.   Copper, as long as the finish is nice and even, I will never polish.  There is nothing more beautiful than a deep, rich, dark, nut brown copper finish—again, as long as it's even.  The same is even more true of bronze.  And I treasure a dark, velvety pewter finish as well—and will almost never polish that alloy.  Alas, if a copper, bronze or pewter item is unevenly finished and splotchy (perhaps thanks to a poorly-executed previous polishing), the piece may need to be completely polished (perfectly and evenly) and allowed to patinate naturally once again.  In this case, it is smart to hang or display the piece out of reach for a couple of years—so that fingerprints will not be left on the piece.  (The oil from fingerprints will retard the oxidation in those specific places, opening the door to another uneven patination.)  Oxidized metals (like copper, bronze and pewter) look nice with a light coat of clear paste wax—buffed-up to a soft lustre.  This also slows any further oxidation from occurring.

When it comes to brass, flexibility and personal discretion are the name of the game.  Brass looks nice gleaming, though sometimes (if too bright) the piece might look new (which is not good).  Shiny brass also demands frequent upkeep.  And, as with copper or pewter, brass can also be allowed to patinate completely—developing a dark khaki finish.  This is a nice look, as long as there's an even coloration.  If a brass piece is not evenly patinated, it probably is best to shine it completely, place it out of reach, and allow it to darken naturally.  A darkened brass finish looks good with a light buffing with a clear paste wax.  When it comes to polishing brass, my general preference is to give it a light polishing once or twice a year—just enough to give it a clean, burnished look, but not make it too shiny.

Then there's silver.  Silver should always be clean—with one exception.  Silver pieces which are highly-textured (with hammering, repoussé work or other sculptural elements), often look good when they are partially polished.  By polishing the highlights, but leaving the crevices dark, this creates a high-low effect, allowing the texture of the piece to show more clearly.  To do this, one polishes without "digging-in" too much—just hitting the "proud" (protruding) elements and skipping the recessed areas.

The sterling silver cufflinks, shown above, were crafted during the Arts & Crafts movement.  A hammered central field is framed with laurel leaf border.  Click on the photo above to learn more about these handsome cufflinks.


Though our Greenwich Village store is now permanently closed, LEO Design is still alive and well!  Please visit our on-line store where we continue to sell Handsome Gifts (

We also can be found in Pittsburgh's historic "Strip District" at Mahla & Co. Antiques ( or in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania at The Antique Center of Strabane (

Or call to arrange to visit our Pittsburgh showroom (by private appointment only).  917-446-4248