It's that time again, friends and neighbors! Yep, it's time for me to try to educate and entertain the public in regards to cleaning silver via nonconventional methods. Last time, I experimented with that favorite of folk remedies: the potato. (To read what happened, click here.) This time, I decided to experiment with a method I had used a few times in cleaning particularly grungy silver clarinet, flute, and oboe keys during repair: TOOTHPASTE. As you may or may not know, toothpaste works on teeth because it is a mild abrasive. This abrasive is what scrubs the plaque and other junk off your teeth. I had heard from several instrument repair technicians that toothpaste was an excellent alternative to conventional silver polish. As it turns out, it's a little more complicated (as usual).
The first thing I did for this little experiment was choose a piece in my collection that needed polishing. Since the chosen piece has a lot of nooks and crannies, I devised a tool that you yourself can build at home, comprised of a coat hanger and a strip of old t-shirt. I threaded the piece of cloth through one of the openings that needed polishing, then smeared a little bit of toothpaste on the cloth (mmmmm, minty fresh!). I then tied the other end of the strip of cloth around the bottom end of the coat hanger hook in the most convoluted way possible, and proceeded to use the cloth to polish the inside bend of that particular part of the pendant. Easy-peasy!
As you can see in that last picture, the silver in that little bend is shiny again. Mission accomplished, right? Wellllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll.......
No. Not exactly. While I was photographing that last one, I thought it was kind of hard to see, so I decided to find a piece of tarnished silver that was flat so it was easier to photograph. Enter the side Bb key of a long-abandoned clarinet repair project (Hint: it's my clarinet that I sent off five or so years ago to get the keys replated from nickel to silver for science). This side Bb key was very tarnished from sitting on a bottom shelf in my repair shop, so I figured it would be the perfect candidate. I smeared some toothpaste on, and behold:
Did the toothpaste get the tarnish off? Yes. Yes it did. Did it scratch the living tar out of the finish? Yes. Yes it did. While this isn't really a problem for a beat-up old clarinet that's just going to be taken outside in the rain for marching band, if you have a semi-mirror finish on your silver jewelry (or any other silver thing you want to polish), this is a BIG problem. Those tiny, fine scratches make the light reflect differently than before, making the silver look cloudy. So, if you have silver that has a brushed finish, or something called a "butler's finish" on it, toothpaste is fine. But if you want to maintain that mirror-like reflection? Yeah.... we're gonna have to find something else.
To show you what I mean, I got two commercially available silver polishing compounds for comparison (still using my Bb side key). The first one I used is Hagerty's silver polish. It has a tarnish protectant in it and is commonly found lurking in the aisles of Bed, Bath, and Beyond and sometimes even in your local grocery store or hardware store. Here is what polishing silver with Hagerty's looks like:
What I tried to do was to buff out some of the scratches the toothpaste put in. As you can see, it helped a little bit, but the silver finish is still cloudy. (It also stinks, so if you're going to use Hagerty's, go outside and do it.)
I then remembered I had a great big can of Simichrome polish out in the garage. Simichrome is a favorite of high-end flute builders, and I used to use it wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy back when I worked on expensive flutes (like wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy back in the day, y'all. I don't mess with $20,000 flutes anymore.). Check this out!
You'll notice I changed polishing cloths. I managed to smear toothpaste all over the other one, so I didn't want to mix the Simichrome and toothpaste. I also like this softer microfiber cloth for use with Simichrome. A cloth for cleaning glasses or camera lenses works really well, just do NOT use the cloth on your glasses or camera lenses afterward!!!
You'll notice that when the polish was buffed away, there are very few scratches. This was the goal. This also explains why makers of $20k+ flutes use this stuff for their final finishing. I then decided to see if I could use the Simichrome to clean up the scratches from the toothpaste on the other side of the key.
Is it perfect? No. Is it an improvement? A little bit. To really get it back to the way it was before, I would have to bust out the machines, which I know the average person doesn't have hanging around the house. I'm going to leave it alone because I really don't care what my keys look like, and it's probably going to be another five years before I even think about reassembling my clarinet, so I'm just not going to worry about it. If it belonged to someone else, then I absolutely would get the buffer out and go to town.
At any rate, I think the lesson here is that if you want to aggressively polish your brush-finished silver, then go ahead and use toothpaste if you really want. If you want to maintain that lustrous mirror-like finish, go with Simichrome. Does it stink? Yes. Is it toxic? Uhhhh... yes. So wear gloves and use proper ventilation as you would with any household cleaning chemical. In the mean time, I'll keep looking for a nonchemical, environmentally friendly AND EFFECTIVE solution.
If you have any methods you want me to test, I'm all ears! Send me an e-mail or leave it in the comments! If you enjoyed this blog, and want to stay in the loop, sign up for my newsletter! Thanks for reading, and I'll catch up with you later!
I'm sure a lot of you know I have a few loose screws. I mean, have you SEEN my studio? I keep finding them everywhere, especially after that one time I was attempting to clean and, ahem, knocked a full box of clarinet replacement screws all over the floor. They're teeny-tiny and they bounce like hyperactive kangaroos when they hit the floor. Needless to say, I've got lots of screws for lots of different instruments in boxes and bags and nooks and crannies and even Altoid tins marked "miscellaneous". What does this have to do with jewelry, you say? Well, I'm so glad you asked!
Ever since I started making musical instrument jewelry, I've been asked about saxophones. The problem with saxophones is that they are surprisingly repairable. I remember when I had just been transferred to the main headquarters repair shop of a music store chain I used to work for, and a young lady brought in her tenor saxophone that her extremely apologetic boyfriend had backed over with his old station wagon. Since this was way beyond my skill level to do anything about, I told her to wait while I went to find Alex. Alex was a venerable magician of a saxophone repair tech, and was well-known to all the jazz musicians from Dallas to Chicago to New Orleans. He also did some work for the guys who toured with Santana (yes, THAT Santana). Well, after I went into the "cave" (as everyone called the back room where Alex and his brother Henry and their assistant George worked, which was a maze of shelves, boxes of unidentified parts, weird smells, flickering fluorescent overhead lights, and questionable ventilation), Alex emerged, blinking benevolently at the young lady as she opened the case to reveal a very flat Buescher tenor. Alex took one look and said "Okay, but I'll need a deposit for this one." She agreed, and paid it, then left the instrument. It took Alex four months to get it back into shape, but fix it he did, and all the technicians (and even some of the floor sales reps) stood admiring his work when he finished. It was as if it had never been run over! And as long as people are willing and able to pay for that kind of repair, it makes it hard to find suitable donors for jewelry making.
After the umpteenth request about saxophone jewelry, and still no leads, I sat at my desk last week and pondered what to do. Lo and behold! Upon my repair desk I spied a stray saxophone screw! The kind that holds the keys onto the body. Yes, it was small, but it was something. I decided to use it as the center of a water lily, and also to use it's function as a screw to attach the flower head to the lily pad. I had never attempted to do something like that before, so I thought it would be a fun challenge.
The first thing I did was make several paper templates in different sizes and glued them to the pieces of copper I wanted to use. After cutting each individual piece out, I soldered them together, then center drilled them to fit the saxophone screw shaft. Alas, I did not manage to take pictures of the soldering process because I can't solder and take pictures at the same time, and I was excited that what I was making was actually turning out to look like a water lily. After I got the water lily flower head done, I made a lily pad out of some thicker gauge copper, then drilled a hole where I wanted the lily pad to line up with the flower head when I put the screw in. After that, I put the two parts together and tapped the threads in the holes.
After this step, I decided I didn't like the saxophone screw I was using, and went in search of a key guard screw instead. For those of you who have never heard of such a thing, a key guard is this piece of metal on a saxophone that protects the key from getting hung up on the player's clothes. A key guard screw is a tiny screw that holds the key guard onto the saxophone. I do not know what you will do with this information other than wow your friends and family at dinner parties or during trivia night.
I retapped the threads for the new screw, then decided "hey, wouldn't it be fun to add some color! So I did. I used a technique that involves wax-based colored pencils and a substance called gessoe. If you want a somewhat incomplete picture tutorial on the subject, you can check out my Facebook album here: www.facebook.com/pg/hkarlssonjewelrydesign/photos/?tab=album&album_id=2806824019395032
Well, OF COURSE, because I'm a big DIVA, I decided I didn't like the color on the flower part, and decided instead to clean it off. This was easier said than done. I tried scraping, and that didn't work much at all. I tried to burn it off, but that just made a dark, sticky mess. I ended up having to soak the flower in water with a denture cleaner tab thrown in. After about twenty minutes, it was good to go! In fact, it worked so well, it cleaned off the discoloration from the flame I used to burn the paint!
Once I got everything situated, I got the sax key guard screw and threaded it in the screw hole, and voila! A water lily and lily pad pendant! The coloration on the flower head is actually from me attempting to "paint" the copper with the flame of my torch. I was marginally successful, because I was going for a deep purple, but it kept heating the metal too hot and it would go from gold to black very quickly. I decided to leave well enough alone after the third attempt. I have since discovered that if I bake a piece of copper in the oven at 300 degrees for 30 minutes, it turns a beautiful shade of pink, so if I make another one, I think I'll do that instead.
So there you have it! What do you think? Should I make more things like this? I have some bassoon screws, too! Let me know in the comments!