It's almost impossible to find a home without metal objects including door and cabinet hardware, eating and cooking utensils, jewelry, and decorative objects such as picture frames. Eventually, every type of metal will need to be cleaned to remove dust, grime, and, often, tarnish or oxidation.
Tarnish appears on some untreated metals when a chemical reaction occurs between the metal and a nonmetal compound, usually oxygen or sulfur dioxide. Not as corrosive as rust, a coat of tarnish seals the metal and protects the underlying layers from reactions. Aluminum, brass, copper, and silver are most susceptible to tarnish.
There are hundreds of commercial metal cleaners on the market that do a good job of keeping metal looking good, but most cleaning can be done with items you probably already have in the pantry. (Most metal items can be safely washed in warm water and a mild detergent.) We'll take a look at the best ways to clean and remove rust from different types of metal.
Before you attempt to clean any type of metal object:
- Consult the manufacturer's care instructions for the proper cleaning method.
- Test any cleaning product on an inconspicuous space to make sure that it does not harm the metal.
- Metals are not as tough as you'd expect, so always use the least abrasive cleaner possible to prevent scratching.
- Consult an expert before cleaning precious metals like jewelry or valuable antiques,
How Often to Clean Metal
There is no one rule to follow about the frequency to clean metal.
- Serving and cooking utensils, metal water bottles, and any metal item used for food should be cleaned after every use.
- Appliances like refrigerators, stoves, and washers should be cleaned at least monthly.
- Decorative metal objects should be dusted weekly and polished when needed.
- Rust should be removed as quickly as possible when it appears on metal because it will continue to spread.
Equipment / Tools
- Soft cloths
- Soft-bristled brush
- Electrostatic dusters
- Microfiber cloths
- Dishwashing liquid
- Commercial metal polishes
- Lemons or lemon juice
- Distilled white vinegar
- All-purpose flour
- Table salt
- Aluminum foil
- Baking soda
Aluminum is used to make pots and pans, window frames, and outdoor furniture. Untreated aluminum is highly susceptible to discoloration and pitting from acids. Untreated aluminum cookware will discolor in the dishwasher or when used to prepare acidic foods like tomato sauce. It is nearly impossible to restore the original finish.
However, anodized aluminum found in heavy-duty cookware has a coating that protects it from harm. It is best to hand-wash aluminum cookware with warm water and dishwashing liquid.
Aluminum window frames and outdoor furniture can be washed with mild all-purpose soap and dried well to prevent streaking. To keep the finish shiny, coat the frames with paste car wax.
Brass is a favorite for door and cabinet hardware, furniture, and decorative items like statues, bookends, and paperweights. Many modern brass items are coated with a lacquer to prevent tarnish. Eventually, the lacquer can wear away and it's time to polish or let the brass turn brown. The easiest way to clean brass is with a commercial cleaner.
Cast and Wrought Iron
Unless cast iron and wrought iron are kept well-oiled or painted, they are going to rust. Both can be washed with soap and water to remove food particles or soil but then must be treated immediately to prevent rust from forming. Cast iron cookware is seasoned with vegetable oil, and wrought iron furniture or fences must be painted or lacquered after cleaning.
Chrome is a coating applied to a base metal and is often found on furniture and bathroom fixtures. Regular cleaning with items from your pantry like baking soda and distilled white vinegar will keep it shiny and streak-free.
How you care for copper items depends on the finish you prefer. Copper develops a lovely patina that you can maintain with gentle cleaning with soap and water. However, if you like the copper to look like a bright, shiny penny, you should use acidic items from your pantry like lemons or ketchup or a commercial cleaner to create a shine.
Cleaning gold or gold-plated jewelry is simple because it does not tarnish easily. Just a quick soak in some dishwashing liquid and warm water, followed by a rinse in clean water and drying with a soft cloth, will restore its luster.
Pewter items should have a warm, low luster sheen. You can use a commercial cleaner or mix your own with distilled white vinegar, flour, and salt.
Whether you have sterling silver or silver-plated items, they will tarnish due to exposure to oxygen (oxidation). Most commercial silver polishes leave a beautiful shine without removing the patina that gives ornate silver its depth and definition. Some people swear by the aluminum foil and baking soda soak to keep silver shiny, but it can remove too much patina.
Because stainless steel is easy to clean and disinfect, it is the preferred metal in commercial kitchens for countertops and appliances. However, stainless steel can scratch, and water and food can leave streaks on some stainless steel finishes. One of the best ways to keep it streak-free is to use a microfiber cloth to carefully dry the finish after every cleaning.
Steel that is used for home furnishings or a metal roof is almost always coated to prevent rust and corrosion. Cleaning should be done with warm water and an all-purpose cleaner to help prevent scratches to the finish that could allow rust to form.