William Shakespeare once wrote, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. We cannot improve on Billy the Bard's quotation, but we have to ask To polish or not to polish, that is the question.
This is perhaps one of the most controversial and sensitive areas associated with antiques. Some specialists will say to polish whilst others will say not to polish, so there is little wonder that confusion exists.
Patina is often incorrectly defined and dirt and oxidation are not patina. In the case of copper, the lovely green surface is composed of copper carbonate and known as verdigris and incorrectly referred to as patina, is not only eating away at the copper it can also cause nausea and vomiting if eaten.
We have set out several metal polishing myths and whether or not to polish antiques. These can be seen in our Metal Polishing Myths
Polishing is one thing, over polishing is something quite different. This can be seen in our How Not To Polish An Item
Now that we know it is not a cardinal sin to correctly polish antiques, we need to examine what we do when we polish a metal surface.
To explain this we need the help of a little technology.
From the above diagrams, it can be seen that the smoother the surface the more light is reflected and hence the surface appears shinier. Conversely, the rougher the surface the less light is reflected and hence the surface appears duller (less shiny).
Scratched Metal Texture Scratched Shiny Silver Surface
To achieve a perfectly flat surface is virtually impossible and hideously expensive so we have to try to trend towards the ideal. So how do we trend towards the ideal?
Flattening the peaks through polishing we get more light being reflected and less light being diffused. The wax filling the troughs has a similar effect as flattening the peaks, thus causing more light to be reflected and less light to be diffused.
Museum quality environmentally friendly products are available using the latest technology that reduces the need to re-polish and thus makes ownership of copper, brass, gold and silver pieces more friendly and less time-consuming.
We believe that the popularity of stainless steel is due to a large extent on the one main principle that it is easier to keep in good condition and requires little or no polishing. Now that copper, brass and silver are as easy to keep clean and shiny as stainless steel, we may see a revival in the use of these metals.
The most important thing about preserving antiques and precious metals is handling or at least the avoidance of it. Sweat is very acidic, so every time a metal piece is handled, unless some kind of preventative steps is taken, such as gloves, acid is transferred from the hand to the piece. Preserving waxes are removed and protective ions are disrupted allowing the acids to begin the action we call oxidation.
Now that the correct polish is being used and handling is kept to a minimum, the next problem is caused by incorrect handling when polishing. We know that stress causes problems with the human body and needs to be avoided and so also with antiques.
General common sense will avoid many of the commonly seen problems. Always support the piece being polished. Do not rest it against a hard surface – typically the kitchen worktop. Instead, place several layers of old cloth on top of the worktop to cushion the piece. The worktop could scratch or deform the piece, or the item could scratch the worktop.
Do not hold a piece by the handle or leg when polishing. The additional force will weaken the joints or could distort the body at the attachment points. Always support lids that are hinged to prevent the hinges from being overstressed. An overstressed hinge will result in the lid fitting incorrectly.
Do not polish delicate decoration, filigree and similar with a cloth. The cloth can become attached to the decoration and cause it to be pulled, distorted or broken. Instead, use a soft brush or cotton buds soaked with the polish and gently stroke the surface. Similarly when removing the polish use a clean brush or cotton buds and gently stroke the surface until clean and shiny.
Always polish with a gentle overlapping circular motion. This will ensure a smoother surface than one always polished with a parallel motion. Grass lawns are also mowed in different directions to get a better surface – if it is good enough for mother nature, it is surely good enough for us.
Choose your polishing cloths with care. If the cloth is too coarse it can scratch the surface of soft metals such as gold and silver as well as the paintwork on the car.
Always finish with a good quality microfibre cloth and buff to a shine.
Remember to have your sunglasses ready because you will need them.
Happy and successful polishing