Brass is an alloy of two metals, zinc and copper, and the proportions of those two can be varied to give brass different properties. Some brasses also have small amount of a third metal such as lead, manganese or tin in their composition. Forms of brass have been used for millennia and the material was well-known to the Romans, although modern collectors of antique brass concentrate on items from the 19th and 20th centuries.
An incredibly diverse range of artefacts have been made of brass, from horse brasses to miniature teapots, and there’s always something new for the enthusiast to see. Because brass naturally tarnishes when exposed to air, keeping your brass objects in good condition does require some maintenance.
The first thing to note is that you do need to avoid over cleaning, and particularly the use of cleaning fluids that include any abrasive material. Over-enthusiastic cleaning can quite quickly damage a beautiful antique, and reduce its value considerably. Some of the most desirable brass pieces have fine engraving and delicate etching and cleaning with rough, abrasive materials can irreparably damage those features.
Some connoisseurs of antique brass do not want pieces to shine as if they were straight out of the workshop. On the contrary, a greenish or yellowish patina caused by the natural aging process is often desired. But other collectors take a different view and do want to see their brass pieces exhibiting a highly polished sheen. You’ll have to decide which camp you’re in.
Before any cleaning you should determine whether your piece is solid brass or plated. An easy way to do this is with a magnet. If the piece has an iron core, it will attract the magnet, whereas brass itself does not have magnetic properties. It’s important to know this, because if you over clean a plated piece you’ll wear away the plating down to the base metal, definitely something to be avoided.
If your brass is has dirt and grease on it, clean it with a soft toothbrush and hot, soapy water, making sure you dry it thoroughly afterwards. If you simply want to heighten the polished sheen of your brass, buff it with a specialist silver polishing cloth.
Proprietary brass polishes are available, but you should avoid using them on antique brass. As always with antiques, if you’re in any doubt about cleaning your treasured brass pieces, it’s best to consult an expert.