A word of caution – these are a web site readers’ comments and not under any circumstances at all - an instruction - on how to do anything - whatsoever. You should only proceed with methods such as these with personal guidance from an instructor you know and trust. One account tells how this one collector does clean his pewter to a vastly improved and restored condition for himself and as such is a ‘story’ not in any sense ‘instruction’.
This web site accepts no responsibility for anyone who might try these methods at all - or under any conditions whatsoever. And further it is reccomended strongly that you do not attempt any of this without the very best of personal known guidance from someone whom you trust and will show you, step by step – and will be responsible - (try finding someone……)
Jon Burge - A Pewter Collector - CLEANING MY PEWTER
I clean the interiors of Tankards and mugs with the same standards as the exteriors which is very hard work and uneconomic; I intend them to look as though it would be appropriate to consume ale from them today.
Q1: Regarding any antique. Look at it.
How would the person who made this thing, or the person who first bought it - want it to be maintained?
Q2: You are going to live with this item for some time? How do you want this to look?
Cleaning is very hard work and it is not economical for someone to buy a piece and clean it to sell. The most common advice is to not touch it; however, the majority of the illustrations in Hornsby and even Cotterell are quite clean with few examples with thick oxides on the surface,
(But this is the condition of most items are to be found today).
If you have an item with a nice smooth surface that looks great, do nothing - as changes will be irreversible and diminish the appearance and value of the item. Unlike copper and brass, the owners of most antique pewter never polished it. That is a good thing for us, as if it had been frequently polished, the marks would be gone. The reason for this is that once polished, pewter very slowly tarnishes. I have pieces of black pewter that I cleaned 20 years ago that never needed to be cleaned (with abrasives) since; and are still bright. The darkening that happened over 200 years was so gradual that the owners will think that that is how the piece always was.
When I obtain a piece of pewter, the answer to both questions is usually "it wants cleaning". You might ask - “how did the previous owner of this let it get into such a state?".
Step 1: Soften the encrustations with alkali.
The encrustations are harder than the pewter itself and are almost impossible to remove with abrasives.
I put a tablespoon of caustic soda into a mug and fill it with hot water.
I use a nylon paint brush to wet the sides and handle.
A few hours of this will cause to encrustations to fracture and flake off. Small pieces can be completely immersed in an alkali solution in a stainless steel container.
Large chargers need to be painted over with the alkali solution repeatedly. When all of this is done, the item will look much worse than before as you have removed the unsightly oxides, but the pits made by the corrosion that made the oxides in the first case of course, remain on the surface. This is the ideal time to make a "before" photo.
Usually 24 hours is enough. Sometimes after first going over the item with abrasives, it may need a second alkali treatment.
WARNING - As a single drop of alkali in the eye can cause permanent blindness, use protective glasses and be careful. Concentrated alkali is as strong as the strongest acid.
There may be cracks or corrosions that result in very deep pits, cracks, holes right through the piece. These need to fixed by cleaning up the damage with a drill or file until only bright metal is seen, and filling with solder and filing back flat. I use silver solder (which is actually largely tin) for inexpensive pieces, or thin strips of waste Britannia metal for finer work. This step can be avoided by not buying excessively corroded pieces.
Rinse and clean repeatedly with soapy water.
Polish the item with successively finer abrasive. There is a hard choice between how much of the surface you are willing to wear off (to cut below deep pits) and how badly you are willing to damage the marks and relief on the surface.
Sand with coarsest abrasive (except for very cleanest pieces - 600 wet&dry).
When the piece is satisfactorily bright, wash with dish soap and sponge thoroughly including the piece, hands, sink, etc. to get rid of any 600 abrasive; - as if any of the 600 abrasive is left around - it will defeat the next step.
Sand with finer abrasive (1000 wet&dry) to get rid of the 600 scratches.
I have found that if in a previous sanding parallel lines are left, in the right light the parallel lines are bright, and if the sanding is done 90 degrees away, you can sand until the brightness goes away.
Rotate the piece through 90 degrees and sand again until the first sanding brightness goes away.
Clean and get rid of traces of the 1000 abrasives as in the previous step.
Finally, polish the piece with brasso and a cotton knit cloth (old white T-shirts are ideal).
Use lots of brasso, and keep at it until a reflective surface forms on the cloth which is rubbed against the piece. Finally, rub the piece with a cleaner part of the cloth to get rid of the black brasso/pewter mixture.
Point your finger at the piece and if a clear reflection results you are there. If a blurry reflection remains, you have skipped one of the steps above and have to repeat. I said it was hard work.
NOTE WELL -
Note 1) - Badly corroded pieces may require starting at 400 wet and dry followed by 600, 1000, brasso.
Extremely corroded pieces may need even coarser abrasives. It is safest to start with finer abrasives and only to resort to the coarser if this does not work.
Note 2) - I am always in a hurry to see the final result. All of the above can be done in a day or two, eager to see the final result. The commonest problems that can delay this are:
For pieces that require coarse abrasives - the skin on the pads of fingers 2 and 3 (yes your actual fingers) wears through.
Then you have to wait a few days until you proceed.
For pieces with lots of moldings etc. this requires folding the wet & dry and pushing it around with fingernails Into the narrow cracks.
The nails of thumb or fingers 1 & 2 wear into the quick - and you have to wait a few days until this grows back until you proceed. (So reckon on crook finger pads and rubbish finger nails)
I told you this was very hard work, and do not even think of trying it out if you are not prepared for it.
I went back and read Cotterell regarding cleaning, which largely matches what I do (except that he went out and collected horsetail plants as a substitute for the then-not-available graded W&D sandpapers). I was quite surprised that even he mentioned that wearing out fingers (yes - finger ends) limited just how much he could do at a time. When you wear through a finger pad or two, they get too slippery to hold the sandpaper firmly. He also mentions cramps in each and every finger prior to starting to use alkali, (something that happens to me) but I did not care to mention.)
A Collector from the USA of considerable experience warns –
A word of caution,: be wary about attacking pewter with any sort of hammer or mallet. So often I see that this results in hundreds of impossible-to remove small dents where there was once one big one. I find it preferable to reach such spots with a thumb, round-ended dowel, a wooden ball, or some custom-fitted hardwood tool and GENTLY push out the dent. Oh— and, B(y)T(he)W(ay), for many single-reed plates, you may find the curve on a wooden clothes hanger has just the right angle you need. Some restorers use forms for straightening plates, too,—but again, avoid hammers, which can really compress metal that doesn’t want to be and shouldn’t be compressed.
Please amend GENTLY” to “FIRMLY” –what I mean is don’t bang away the dent, but use strength/pressure to push it out. Also, not ALL hangers will work, but sometimes the shoulder curves are the right angle—try sawing cut off a piece. I find myself constantly on the lookout for scraps of wood, or other things that can be used to push dents out. Many years ago I learnt to raise, spin, cast, and do minor repairs to pewter, and I bought from a visiting vendor a set of wooden dowels with round ends of different diameters, which has been my single most useful investment in the realm of “cold” pewter repair (and I don’t do any other kind.) I think jewelers supply stores carry them.