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!