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How to Clean Copper and Brass Jewelry Wire
By Mary W. Bailey
In these economic times, we as artists and jewelers are faced with the shock of the price increases in precious metals. Silver and gold prices have skyrocketed and we are finding ourselves faced with rethinking just what metals we are going to be using to create with.
Both copper and brass jewelry wire are available to us in a variety of gauges and shapes. Brass gives an illusion of being gold-like with its yellowish-red color, but it is actually a blend of copper and zinc (having roughly 67% copper and 33% zinc in its makeup). Sometimes small amounts of other metals are added in the blend but the majority of brass is as stated above. Jewelry brass is usually the 230 alloy, otherwise known as rich low brass.
Please be aware that working with brass wire is harder on your hands as it will not bend and flow as easily as when compared to silver and/or gold-filled wire. So take your time and work it slowly until you get the feel of the metal.
Keeping your brass and copper items clean and shiny will take a bit more work than normal. There are a variety of ways to do so, from simple home recipes to buying commercially manufactured products. The one thing you do have to keep in mind is the difference between acidic and caustic compounds for cleaning brass. We will cover a few different ways to clean these metals.
Please note that these are just some techniques to try and before using any of them take into consideration the beads or gemstones, etc. you have used in making your jewelry piece. We are not endorsing any one way or method, merely providing you with information for your use regarding cleaning techniques that we are aware of, and none of these cleaning methods will prevent tarnish. If there is a product or method listed that we do personally use, we will note it as such.
Lemon Juice: To clean brass or copper with lemon juice, you can either use it neat (straight), or mixed with vinegar and/or baking soda.
- Mix up a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice with a couple of teaspoons of vinegar.
- Add just enough baking soda to make it become a gritty paste.
- Use this with a cloth to scrub your brass or copper items.
- Rinse with lukewarm water and dry with a clean cloth.
Ketchup or Worcestershire Sauce: Who would have thought this would work? Ketchup and Worcestershire sauce both have the ability to remove dirt well due to the acidic nature of both items.
- First try rubbing the sauce onto your item with a soft cloth.
- If this doesn’t remove the dirt very well, coat the item in sauce and leave it to sit for a minute or two.
- Rinse with lukewarm water and dry with a clean cloth.
Vinegar & Steel Wool: Noted as one of the simpler methods available for cleaning brass. Grab some vinegar, pour it on or soak your item in it for a minute or two, then just use steel wool to remove the tarnish. (Personally, I think if using this method I’d use a q-tip dipped in vinegar or a soft cloth with some vinegar on it, since most of the cleaning action comes from the acidity of the vinegar rather than from the physical scrubbing with the steel wool.)
- Use a fine grade of steel wool (If it is numbered, lower 0s are a minimum grade as opposed to a higher grade with more 0s).
- Watch your item if you do immerse it entirely into the vinegar: some items will discolor in the vinegar, and you will need to buy a commercial polish to remove the discoloration.
- Some people use apple cider vinegar, while others say red wine vinegar is better than white wine. Which works best for you will depend on your own choices.
Toothpaste: Toothpaste is a gentle abrasive. Use the opaque toothpastes rather than the clear varieties, as the opaque ones are more likely to contain the necessary, mild abrasive (while the others are more focused on killing bacteria and freshening breath).
Be aware that this method will probably not be as effective as any other method because the toothpaste is an alkaline and not acidic as the others mentioned above. Most of the results will be obtained by all the scrubbing you do with the brush.
Ready To Use Solutions:
If you are going to use a ready-to-use solution, follow the golden rule and read the label. This is for your own safety and for the preservation of your brass items.
Brasso: An old favorite that I remember well from having to clean large brass trays my mother had purchased while we were stationed in Taiwan. Follow the directions on the can. Basically you need to soak a cloth in Brasso then rub the tarnish off the brass. Wear gloves to do so and then buff with a clean soft cloth.
Nevr Dull: Yep, spelled strangely but it does clean brass. Comes with pre-soaked wadding in the can and you pull off a piece and start rubbing. Both Dale and I have used this product with good results. Be sure to wear gloves just to keep the product from drying out your skin, and use it in a well-ventilated area.
Tarn-X-Brass: Another liquid cleaner that attacks light tarnish. Be sure it says Brass as there are two types of Tarn-X. (FYI, we do not recommend using the silver version at all!!)
Easy Cleaning of both Copper and Brass: An ionic cleaner such as the Speed Brite works well on both copper and brass jewelry items and with no harm to gemstones or beads. If the piece doesn’t clean immediately with the regular clip and dip method, use a soft toothbrush under running water afterwards, to assist the process.
Be sure and properly store your finished pieces in a zip loc bag to help reduce tarnishing.
Wire-Sculpture Faculty member Mary Bailey is a regular contributor of patterns and articles. You can read more about Mary, a renowned scrimshaw artist, in her Faculty Profile.
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August 24, 2011 at 9:53 am
Awesome info! Thank you!
August 24, 2011 at 2:42 pm
Why not the Tarn-X for silver?
June 7, 2012 at 6:51 am
From personal experience: Dipped the Bracelet, it was good…so, I thought…a little longer will make it really good. NOT TRUE. It ATE the finish off
August 24, 2011 at 7:25 pm
I like a cream called Maas. I also like to use Renaissance Wax on the copper. I also don’t buy copper and brass from a hardware store but from a jewelry supply store and that makes a difference.
August 25, 2011 at 2:56 pm
A good question. It is out there on the market readily available for purchase, so why not use it?
Heh, I have been guilty of using it in the past myself to clean up badly tarnished silver chains and such. This was before asking my husband questions about it and then doing more research into the product.
Tarn-X is actually a chemical dipping solution. It works by dissolving the tarnish present at an accelerated rate. Chemical dips are really used when heavy black tarnish cannot be removed with either a liquid or paste polish. Chemical dips are wiped over the object since prolonged soaking will remove any factory-applied patinas and even cause pitting of the object’s surface. Once this pitting occurs, from then on that area acts like a sponge readily absorbing tarnish producing gases and moisture.
Chemical dips are made up of an acid and a complexing agent. Having said that, it is the reason why if you are using it, you need to wear rubber gloves and be in a well ventilated room and most of all be correctly trained in its use. The potential health issues with using this stuff incorrectly makes it a cleaning agent I am staying well away from. Something you find out when looking for an MSDS sheet on the stuff.
November 4, 2014 at 2:52 pm
if someone has used this is there a way to fix the damage
October 14, 2015 at 5:24 am
I use Tarn-X on a daily basis to clean my brass, copper, and nickel-silver jewelry. A one- to two-second dip is all that’s needed, followed by thorough rinsing and drying. I keep using the same batch of Tarn-X for months on end. But, as I warn my customers, do not EVER let anything “soak” in Tarn-X! One friend did, and I had to tumble-polish the necklace back to brightness. But this only worked because I don’t use any plated metal at all. Tarn-X will also remove any patinas, sometimes immediately, sometimes over time — another reason to make sure you’re dipping your jewelry very briefly.
Tarn-X is OK for jewelry which includes harder, non-porous stones like agates, but not necessarily for the softer stones.
I use Jax-Black to patina my brass and copper (it’s so-so on nickel-silver). Pieces with a patina
are slower to tarnish and can often be perked up just with a silver-polishing cloth.
I love base metals!
September 2, 2011 at 12:04 pm
Using tarnex on silver is tricky! I have seen it ruin the finish on pieces, not just jewelry, but large pieces like candle sticks etc! Knowing this, I was wary of using it for brass or copper. However… I just may give it a try on copper/brass wire I am not going to use to see how the after effects are.
Hope this helps.
December 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm
Be careful with using vinegar and lemon juices. Strong acids can actually tarnish brass and are used to achieve antique patina.
June 7, 2012 at 11:20 pm
I was going to say the same thing. I use vinegar fumes to achieve a “well-loved” tarnish on brass. Sometimes I will even get the green deposits. I have a hard time believing that vinegar will clean well, because if it is not rinsed off fully it will just accelerate tarnishing!
October 3, 2013 at 8:35 am
I make copper jewelry almost exclusively now and use white vinegar and salt to bring back the shine. I fully immerse the piece in the solution and rinse in water. Completely dry it with a soft cloth (this is important or spots will remain, then turn green). I quickly polish with a polishing cloth, sometimes I don’t even have to polish it. I sell my jewelry at farmers markets by the ocean and the humidity makes the copper tarnish faster. I take the vinegar solution with me and clean my copper pieces while people are looking at it. It makes a great conversation starter.
February 15, 2012 at 6:32 pm
This is great and very helpfuland just at the right time. I had decided to start working with copper but it doesn’t keep its shine for long.
This is excellent info.
June 7, 2012 at 5:33 am
Wonderful article ,filled great tips for cleaning brass and copper .
June 7, 2012 at 6:37 am
Thank you for the exellent information. I like it when you do the research, then I don’t have to
June 7, 2012 at 7:25 am
I have used a mixture of vinegar, water and salt but with time this mixture will dull the finish making it impossible to get it shiny again. We live in the Pacific Northwest and hold markets close to the beach all summer. This makes it almost impossible to keep pieces tarnish free. I have also used NuFinish car polish which works well but doesn’t last long out here. Of course rouge works also but unless you have a Dremel tool, you need lots of elbow grease to clean your pieces. If your pieces are lacy or herringbone style, I think perhaps protecting the piece once its clean is more important to prevent tarnish as it will be impossible to clean between the tiny wires especially if you are not fond of antiqued pieces. Some artists use ProtectaClear (I have it but have not tried it yet), other use clear acrylic sealer (works well when applied in thin coats) or Krylon (I find it heavy for jewelry). Depending on where you live, you may just have to clean you pieces from time to time but if you live near the beach or in a humid climat, you are better off protecting your pieces to avoid having unhappy customers.
June 7, 2012 at 8:21 am
Years ago I found that if I sprinkled some Barkeepers Friend in the sink, dipped a wet toothbrush in it, and then just dabbed-NEVER BRUSHED-the toothbrush on the item, the tarnish would be gone in seconds. I then rinsed the item in cool water and dried it immediately (or spots would remain). I now use this method on copper, bronze, and brass jewelry with great results. By not brushing, the metal finish remains shiny instead of brushed. Oh, and this also gets me a clean sink more often!
June 7, 2012 at 8:37 am
I know the instructions say it’s not for these metals, but I use my ionic cleaner with Gemsparkle for copper, brass and bronze. Since I seal all the finished jewelry, I only need to polish once.
June 10, 2012 at 9:25 am
I’d love to hear which product you use to seal your finished jewelry and how you apply it. Thanks so much!
June 7, 2012 at 12:28 pm
Not only ketchup, but any tomato based product works on copper. I have years of experience with this, because I have my grandmother’s copper-bottom Revere Ware, and I make spaghetti, sloppy Joes, and lasagna often. Just place an item in the pan as it’s soaking and come back in an hour. It even works diluted with water you soak the dishes in–before you add soap.
September 17, 2014 at 1:37 pm
i also have used ketchup for years on my copper pots and pans. they can take a little steel wool if needed but the ketchup is wonderful and they come out almost Pink! i think it’s the acidity in the tomatoes and vinegar in the ketchup that makes it work but it’s really the cheapest thing to use. just rinse well.
i sometimes use clear nail polish to seal the shine on copper items. it’s a great way to seal the shine but if it’s on a spot that gets a lot of wear the nail polish needs to be reapplied after a while. this is especially great on copper rings.
August 16, 2016 at 6:53 am
I used ketchup to clean my copper wrapped Malachite stone. NEVER AGAIN will I make that mistake. The acid in the ketchup severely dulled the shine of the stone. I had to remove the stone and I’m now trying to restore the shine to the stone. Fortunately, I have the lapidary equipment and experience to bring the high polish back to the stone but, I’ll have to re-wire wrap the stone. Malachite is approximately 57% copper (hence the green color of the stone). Lesson learned, to play it safe, I’ll never use an acidic tarnish cleaner on my copper, or brass wrapped stones again!
June 7, 2012 at 1:08 pm
I really like Barkeepers Friend. I first used it to clean the stainless steel sink in my kitchen, works great.
I now use it on brass, copper wire etc. I just sprinkle a little in my palm and make a paste with water. No need to use a brush, just your fingers.
It also seems to help retard tarnish.
June 7, 2012 at 1:29 pm
I too have very good results with Bar Keeper’s Friend. Just desolve 1/4th tes in a cup of warm water about a minute. Then rince with warm water and dry. Comes out bright and shinny. If heavely tarnished leave a few minutes. Caution if you have soft stones, pearls, or mother of pearls don’t use it more than a minute, or dab it on the metal and rince with warm water. When I bought brass from someone this was the advice on cleaning brass, and found it works on gold and silver. Just don’t soak it too long. After it dryes use a soft cloth to wipe off any water spots or wipe after rincing for a nice shine.
July 10, 2012 at 6:30 pm
Just a thought, my mother used Tooth Paste on her jewelry when I was young. I have tried using that on some of my peices and it worked well. Hope this will help.
October 4, 2012 at 6:22 am
If you have alot of brass pieces to clean and shine like i do. to save your hands try using crushed /ground Walnut shells
(Harbor Freight sells it) in your rock tumbler instead. Just add quite a few pieces (even cuff bracelets etc.) into it, fill with walnut shell to cover ,tumble for an hour and check it. you will see a beasutiful shine! If its not shiny enough after one hour just let it run longer and check again in an hour or so.
Found this method by researching those who use guns and clean their bullets to refill and reuse. the bullets evidently have a brass shell. I tried it and it works. I’ve left mine in overnight while I slept honestly, and was amazed at the shine this method produces with dealing with any chemicals ,or solutions and my hands being over-worked>LOL! Works on copper too! But does nothing for stainless steel sadly. hope this helps someone :0)
December 27, 2012 at 11:48 am
I’ve lemon juice, toothpaste and ketchup to clean my copper pieces. In a pinch, you can also use the “hot sauce” packets from your local Mexican Food Restaurant and fast foot establishment. I used to dip pennies into the hot sauce from Taco Bell, and it came out shiney and clean every time. Now I use the same stuff for my copper jewelry. It works incredibly fast. To seal my copper, I use either Renaissance Wax or Johnsons Floor Wax on the copper items. This has to be reapplied periodically, but I find its fast and easy to do without “over coating” my jewelry products.
February 21, 2013 at 3:59 pm
I’ve tried the tomato based products, lemon based and finally Shine Brite’s Ionic Cleaner. Personally I love my ionic cleaner. It works beautifully on everything, sometimes it may take two times, but I always keep a soft toothbrush ready to clean in the close pieces, i.e. under the stones and in filigree. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. You can seal it afterwards with Renaissance Wax afterwards. I personally happen to like the natural patina that copper and brass takes on. When I begin selling I plan to put a small info sheet for the buyer to use if/when it begins to tarnish. I’m in Florida and humidity is a definite problem….I can’t do anything about that. Good luck and I thank you all for sharing your ideas.
September 10, 2013 at 9:47 am
I’ve had good luck cleaning and polishing up all metals with Bon Ami. It says “Never scratched yet” and I believe it.
February 25, 2014 at 9:21 pm
I’m just now getting into wire wrapping, I use mostly copper wire on river stones. Thank you so much for this information.
August 26, 2014 at 3:44 pm
I have been given some Vermeil wire which had been put away unsealed for a long time how do I shine it back up without removing the gold plating from the sterling silver- or is it a lost cause – I’m in the Uk also so not all the solutions and polishes are available here
December 2, 2014 at 12:58 pm
I am new to your web page and I have learned so much already, thank you. I so love working with wire and am getting better and better but need guidance and your page delivers! Please keep up the great work and advice.
January 6, 2015 at 8:53 am
This is great and very helpful and just at the right time. I had decided to start working with copper but it doesn’t keep its shine for long.
January 9, 2015 at 5:37 am
I am absolutely amazed that I can use ketchup as a cleaner! That is so interesting and I will definitely try it at home! Thanks for sharing!
March 31, 2015 at 4:20 am
I have tried the trick with the baking soda for my silver jewellery and I must say that it works more than amazing! I think that this tarnish coverage will be eliminated very well with baking soda even though we talk about copper. Thank you for the interesting post!
April 17, 2015 at 2:29 pm
I have just started doing a lot of wire working so all the tips and hints are really great. Thank you all so much. In the past I have cleaned pennies with Coke a cola. It works great for coins but I’m not sure if that would work for wire work.
May 8, 2015 at 9:12 am
I was reading the comments and noticed that most people do not like Tarn-X for silver. I use it all the time to clean my sterling silver jewelry. But what I was taught to do to protect the finish of my stones, beads and even the finish on the wire is to put Dawn dish soap all over the piece before using the Tarn-x. I also only dip a soft tooth brush in the Tarn-x then brush it over the silver wire. It works great that way. When the tarnish is removed I rinse well in water and dry with a soft cloth. Happy wrapping. Debie
June 22, 2015 at 6:14 am
I have a few copper pieces and where in live the humidity is horrible when I am at a lot of my outdoor shows. What ratios do you use for your solution?
September 24, 2015 at 6:59 am
I use a mix of baking soda and boiling water to clean all my metal pieces. First line a bowl or dish with foil, shiny side up, add a tsp of baking soda, your piece, then pour the boiling water over the top. It will bubble up a little and the tarnish will all grab onto the foil. This doesn’t hurt pearls in my experience or any other stones I’ve used. The hot water might harm plastic, I don’t use any plastic beads so I’m sure on that one. Just make sure to use tongs to handle the piece before you rinse, as it may be hot. Then I wipe dry. You don’t have to be aggressive when drying, just get the big beads of water and air dry the rest of the way. I’ve never had an issue with the tarnish returning when I leave it to air dry the rest of the way. As soda, foil and water are available almost everywhere and it’s really cheap, it may be a good alternative to other chemical cleaners. I also use a tumbler right after a piece is done, to remove any burs and harden the piece a bit. I use the tarnish cleaning just before I photograph pieces for sale on Etsy. Sometimes I will also do just before a show to make sure my work sparkles.
I don’t recommend cola for cleaning pieces that contain soft stones, as the Asia and color can be absorbed by some stones. DO NOT use any liquid with pieces that contain Amber, Amber does not like liquids and will be ruined if even a small amount of water penetrates the stone.
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January 27, 2016 at 10:31 pm
Be carefully to use these Strong acids as it can harm your gemstones and pearl earrings.