After inheriting and cleaning a very large collection of heirloom silver plated items, I learned that using any shortcuts such as chemicals or acidity do more damage in the long run.
The best way to clean tarnished silver
If these are silver plated pieces that you want to cherish for years to come, the only way to properly clean them is by pre-cleaning them and then polishing them with a polish specifically manufactured to reduce the amount of silver you remove during polishing while also leaving behind a protective coating.
This is the part that I used to skip (not anymore). I thought ‘why pre-clean when you’re going to be cleaning it anyway?’; let the polish do the work. If you polish your silver before cleaning off all the dust, grime and oil left by touching, a lot of your time spent polishing will be spent removing what you can have easily washed off in the first place.
Pre-cleaning your silver ensures you will have a uniform finish after polishing. It also prevents tiny particles of dust (which can be up to 100 microns in size) from etching your silver while you polish.
2. Polish Using A Product Specifically Designed For Silver Plated Items
Read the section further down this post titled How Some Products Can Damage Silver. Silver polishes have finely ground micro abrasives. If silver plate is only 15 microns thick and you use baking soda which is 75 microns in size there’s a good chance you’ll scratch all the way through to the underlying metal.
List of polishes specifically labeled for silver plated items
Specific Problems In Silver Plated Items
Black Surface Spots
Excess tarnish can build up in isolated spots on the surface of the silver due to contaminants (food, salt, etc) resulting in black discoloration. This tarnish build-up may eventually lead to pitting. These spots can usually be removed with a little elbow grease and Simichrome. Use a q-tip on the spot and avoid over-polishing the surrounding silver.
Pitting is the result of corrosion that has etched through the silver layer and into the underlying metal. Pits are usually black, bumpy and uneven. The only way to repair pitting is to buff or sand the raised, corroded area until it is smooth and level with the surface (avoid the surrounding unaffected areas of silver). Once the surface is level, the underlying metal will be visible. You can touch up the exposed metal using a wipe-on silver plating solution or have the entire piece replated.
Worn Silver Plate
If there are areas where the silver has been rubbed off or worn, your only options are to have the piece re-plated or to try a silver plate solution such as Nushine which doesn’t require electroplating.
What are silver plated items?
Silver plated items have a micro thin layer of silver thinly applied over a base metal of copper, brass or nickel alloys using chemicals and an electrical current.
How Thick Is The Silver On Silver Plated Items
Silver plated items can be plated at a thickness of anywhere between 6 microns to 100 microns. For comparison, human hair average 70 microns thickness and a grain of salt is 120 microns. Six microns is the amount used for lower quality, economical consumer brands.
The majority of household plated items are 10 to 20 microns in silver thickness. Quality pieces of silver plated items may be stamped to indicate the silver thickness.
What To Avoid Using On Silver Plated Items And Why
Silver is a soft metal that is subject to tarnish and corrosion. Tarnish is actually the exposed silver that has oxidized and changed color. When you remove the tarnish, you are unavoidably removing silver.
In the picture above, we tried 4 different products on silver plated forks. Because we know how damaging baking soda and bar keepers can be to silver, the forks were only left in the solution with those products for 5 minutes and then rinsed and polished with a dry cloth. The Tarn-x was applied quickly to the fork, then rinsed and polished. The last fork was polished with Simichrome.
How some products can damage silver
Acidity (lemon juice, vinegar, cola), abrasives (salt, bar keepers, baking soda, toothpaste, aluminum foil), and other chemicals (Tarn-x, silver dips) not only remove the outermost layer of tarnish (aka silver), these substances also create microscopic etching of the surface of the silver. These tiny micro pores in the surface will also cause the silver to tarnish faster in the future. They will also leave micro scratches that reduce overall shine.
With a few exceptions and despite what so many websites are advising, do not use lemon juice, aluminum foil, vinegar, baking soda, Tarn-x, salt, baking soda, etc on your silver. Quick or DIY solutions are usually not the best, and that definitely applies in this situation. Sure, they’ll do in a pinch for the inexpensive napkin rings you got at Target but don’t use them on heirloom pieces.
You may not notice the damage after one or two cleanings, but over time your silver plated item will become permanently damaged.
Another issue with using Tarn-x is that it does not always return silver to its steel white color. On the medium-quality silver plated flatware in the image below, Tarn-x removed the tarnish but the flatware ended up with a dull golden undertone. Using Simichrome polish returned the flatware to its silver mirror finish.
If you DO use something acidic, or abrasive, or a chemical dip…
- If you use ANY of the items listed above to remove tarnish from your silver, you will need to rinse and then re-rinse your item so that any trace of the cleaner is removed.
- Never leave any of these products on your silver for more than two minutes.
- You will also need to use a polish that provides a clear protective coating so that the micro pores and scratches caused by the cleaners are not exposed to air.
Compare the micron size of the paste you are using
- Baking soda – 75 microns
- Salt – 120 microns
- Toothpaste – up to 150 microns
- Simichrome – 8 to 10 microns
Full disclosure: I received 3 sets of silver plated flatware, each having service for 8 people. Flatware is the most time consuming when it comes to removing tarnish. So I cheat when I polish flatware. I use Tarn-x by quickly dipping a piece of flatware into a glass filled with Tarn-x, then quickly rinse it in a sudsy water bath. That’s followed with a quick light polish using Simichrome to restore the silver tone and provide a protective film to reduce future tarnish.
Silver Plating Terminology
Items can be silver plated several times to increase the thickness of silver.
Half-Plate = 3.75 Microns
Standard Plate = 7.50 Microns
Double Plate = 15.0 Microns
Triple Plate = 22.5 Microns
Quadruple Plate = 30.0 Microns
Federal Specification Plate = 33.75 Microns
Thickness By Brand
Sheffield Cutlery – 10 to 20 Microns (the factory’s estimate of 10 or 20 years of life assuming good care and average use)
Arthur Price of England – 20 to 25 Microns (called Sovereign Plate).
Elkington brands – 35 Microns
Carrs – 20 Microns
Robbe & Berking – 60 Microns
Silver Plating, An Overview