How to Polish Brass

Brass is back on trend in home decor. It’s different from the brass used in homes in the 1980s in several ways. Brass has been a staple of functional and decorative home items for centuries! Brass is also cross-cultural and you can find brass home decor items in homes across the globe. Learn how to keep this golden yellow metal looking it’s best!

antique architecture art brass door handle knocker

What is Brass

Brass has been around for centuries. The Bible even refers to brass! Brass is a yellow metal with an appearance like that of gold. For that reason, brass is often used in decorative home items like the door hardware in the photo above. Brass is an alloy (mixture) of two other metals which are copper and zinc. The technology for making brass has changed over time but our love for the golden metal seems to be everlasting.

Brass is more malleable than bronze or zinc. Malleable means how hard a metal is to hammer and to shape into something. Brass is relatively easy to shape and this makes is a good material for small items. Brass also has a relatively low melting point. This means that the liquid metal is relatively easy to pour into a form or cast. For these reasons, brass has been used for a long time in many manufacturing settings to make all kinds of things like household items (hinges, door knobs, keys, drawer pulls), ammunition, zippers, brass instruments (think of trumpets, trombones and huge tubas), chandeliers, and even brass beds.

Brass is Back on Trend in Home Decor

Several months ago, I was in one of my favorite consignment shop and overheard two customers standing in front of a china cabinet full of antique brass candlesticks. They lamented getting rid of all their brass from the 1980s. They commented to each other about the bright brass that was part of that decade.

Classic solid brass has been part and will be a key part of traditional decor. While trends may come and go, solid brass will be a mainstay of decorating. If you look a Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll see the brass has been in American homes since the  founding days of our country.

Today’s brass is toned down and often more traditional. Although, I have a big Councill sideboard with bright lacquered brass handles like the one pictured below. This traditional brass accent will never go out of style. Here’s an interesting book on brass decor items in traditional decor.
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Today you’ll find brass home decor items in Target, Marshalls, Home Goods, and other retailers. I’ve seen a resurgence in brass bathroom and kitchen fixtures and cabinet hardware. In fact, our home was build in the late 1980s and when we moved in there were bright brass knobs in the kitchen. I recently replaced them with a toned down brass knob. Classic!

Benefits of Brass in Home Decorating

One of the best things about brass, is that it goes with all colors and color tones. It looks amazing against deep navy or aubergine. It adds a bit of classic seriousness to spring corals and greens. You can also mix and match metals. Y’all know I love a collection. I like to have all brass candlesticks on the table top – but you can also mix and match. For the holidays I have a tablecloth with silver and gold metallic thread. Brass and silver look great paired with it. It reminds me of Dolly Parton’s song Silver and Gold.

Try Out Brass Decor by Recycling

If you’re timid to try out brass in your home decor or if you’re unsure about how to best clean brass you might want to try some low risk shopping at a local thrift store. Goodwill or Habitat Restore are great places to find inexpensive brass home decor items. You can try your hand at polishing up some thrift store treasures to practice your technique. I get a personal satisfaction bringing something that’s dull and grimy back to a high shine.

Since brass is back on trend, you can take an inexpensive but tarnished brass items from the thrift store. With a little elbow grease and some Brasso you can easily make a low-cost gift. I love finding brass cachepots and turning them into gifts others will treasure.

What type of brass do I have

There are three types of brass and how you polish or clean them depends on the type. The types are plated brass, lacquered brass, and solid or true brass.

If you have antique brass or THINK you have antique brass, you should check with an expert before you go at your brass with a bottle of polish. We’ve all seen horrible scenes on Antiques Roadshow where the value of an item was destroyed by cleaning it.

Plated Brass

For plated brass (inexpensive decorative items – often imported) the best thing to do is just use soapy water and a soft cloth. Be sure to dry plated brass throughly. Plated brass is another base metal (like steel) coated or plated with brass (and often lacquered). Plated brass is likely to rust because the steel under the brass plating is exposed to air and moisture.

Lacquered Brass

If your brass is really shiny, you may have lacquered brass. Because brass tarnishes over time, manufacturers may coat the brass with layers of a protective finish or lacquer. This keeps moisture and air from the brass surface and keeps the brass underneath the coating from tarnishing. The saxophone I played in high school band is an example of lacquered brass. All you need to do to lacquered brass is to wipe it with a dampened soft cloth.

Depending on the age of the lacquered brass, the lacquer may become damaged or wear away. In that case you may want to remove the rest of the lacquer and treat it like solid brass going forward. There are a lot of discussion forums dedicated to how to remove the lacquer from brass but I won’t go into that here. Removing or repairing lacquered brass is a big job.

Solid brass

Solid brass can benefit from a good polish. All you need to do is give the solid brass a simple wash with soapy water, dry it, and then apply the polish. Most metal polishes contain solvents and detergents to remove the tarnish, mild abrasives to polish the metal, and oils to act as a barrier between the raw metal and air. You can find polishes Brasso or Twinkle on Amazon or at the hardware store. They will coat the raw metal with a thin film of oil to help stop future tarnishing. In the video below, I use Wright’s Brass Polish.

Here’s a picture of the brass candlesticks in sort of a before and after. You can see that I intentionally didn’t clean all of the black color away from the neoclassical design elements. The darker color provides a nice contrast and helps the design pop. Try not to over clean your brass.

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We have gas logs and last year I bought a pair of antique brass andirons for the fireplace. I probably spent too much money but they look fantastic. I needed something in the fireplace because I took off a HIDEOUS brass fireplace door and screen. Our fireplace now looks much better with the classy brass andirons. Check out the photo below of a lacquered brass fire screen with the andirons behind it. I don’t think the andirons had ever been polished. They even had drips of paint on them where someone didn’t cover them while painting a room. You can add brass to your home in so many ways.

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I hope this has inspired you to reconsider brass for your home decor. It’s a traditional metal that can be freshened up in a modern mix. Find a forgotten piece at a local thrift store and work some magic with a little polish and old fashioned elbow grease!

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