Cleaning Brass

Dear James: I just bought an older house. It has beautiful ornate brass bathroom fixtures, but they are badly tarnished. What is the best method to restore them so that they will not tarnish again? — Barb B.

Dear Barb: Some very old solid brass plumbing fixtures are beautiful and it is difficult, if not impossible, to buy new ones that will match the ornate designs. If you do replace any, you will probably end up having to replace them all so that they match.

You can refinish your bathroom fixtures yourself and make them look like new, but it will require a lot of elbow grease and patience. With proper care and cleaning, the fixtures will remain bright and shiny for many years, but not forever. Eventually, after years of use, the finish will finally breakdown and the brass will tarnish again.

If your budget allows, having them professionally refinished will result in the best and longest-lasting surface finish. You can plan on being without the brass fixtures for about two to three weeks while they are being refinished. Many professionals use commercial clear acrylic urethane or baked-on lacquer finish materials that you cannot buy yourself.

If you cannot find a local brass refinisher to do the job for you, you can ship the fixtures to the following refinishing companies: New Life Copper & Brass, 800-894-7862; Art Brass Plating, 800-828-3186; Carlisle & Finch Co., 513-681-6080; and Crest Plating 314-961-1511.

The first step to refinishing the fixtures is to remove them from the sink. Don’t forget to turn off the water supply line valves. There is no effective way to do the job with them still attached. Once removed, take them completely apart to work on each piece separately. You should replace all the washers and seals while the fixtures are removed.

Before unscrewing the fixture valve cups to get access to the washers, turn the hot and cold handles to the opened position. If you do not do this, the difference in the thread pitch on the cups and the handles can cause the fixture to crack. Many good fixtures have been destroyed in this way.

Install a polishing wheel on one side of a standard bench grinder and a buffing wheel on the other side. Apply some polishing rouge (abrasive) on the polishing wheel and use it to break through the existing clear coating on the fixture. To get into the tight spots, use a small detail grinder with a polishing well. Sears Craftsman and Ryobi make rechargeable ones ideal for this job.

When you complete this step, the fixture will look nice at a quick glance, but it will be covered with very fine scratches. Use the buffing wheel and a finer grit buffing compound to remove these fine scratches. This is the most critical part of the job and you may have to do some tight areas by hand.

Now the brass is bright and polished and you must clean it thoroughly to remove all the rouge and even the oils from your hands. Lacquer thinner is often used by professionals for this, but is extremely flammable and a hazard to use yourself. Check at a local paint store for some cleaning solvents that are safer to use.

Do not touch the brass surface with your hands past this point. Use a bent coat hanger to handle the pieces. Use a can of compressed air, as used on computers, to blow off any rouge particles and lint. Spray the parts with several coats of clear urethane and hang them up in a still, dust-free area to dry.

Send your questions to Here’s How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit