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I would advise reading this entire guide before cleaning and polishing your silver. If at some point you
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Polish Abrasion Ratings
and Polishing Silver
1. To avoid damaging your silver, clean it only when you don't feel rushed. I've restored many a candelabrum arm that was broken off in haste.
2. If you are looking for someone to clean your silver, choose an individual with experience. Ask about methods and polishes.
3. Always polish your silver on a sturdy work surface covered by a cotton towel as illustrated in this image. If the work surface is made of wood or other porous material, lay a piece of plastic under the towel.
4. Keep your polish container closed when not in use, and dont use polishes that have dried-up. NEVER use chemical dips (see section on Chemical Dips). Before using your polish, please refer to the Silver Polish Abrasion Ratings page.
5. Use untreated cotton gloves or form-fitting nitrile gloves when handling silver finger prints contribute to tarnishing.
6. Always support a teapot or coffeepot by the bottom when holding it by the handle.
7. If your silver is tarnished to an extent that it requires a commercial polish, use only polishes made specifically for silver. (See section on Cleaning Silver.)
8. Cleaning silver in a dishwasher is not advised, as the heat and harsh detergents will eventually whiten the silver, causing it to require professional refinishing. In addition, dishwashers can cause blades to explode out of hollow-handled knives. (See section on Silver & Dishwashers.)
9. Silver flatware used on a daily basis will require little or no polishing. Hand wash the pieces with a non-lemon-scented phosphate-free detergent and dry them immediately to avoid spotting.
10. Salt is extremely corrosive to silver; always empty shakers and wash them when not used on a regular basis. (See section on Salt Shaker Corrosion.)
11. When cleaning or inserting a candle into a candelabrum, support the arms from underneath to avoid distortion or possible breakage.
12. Do not cut food on a solid silver or silver-plated tray or plate. Cutting lines (and possibly linear dents) will decrease the object's value. Plus, on a plated piece, you will very easily cut through the plating, exposing the base metal.
13. If your objects contain wood, ivory, mother of pearl, felt, etc., apply two coats of Renaissance wax. Let each coat set for 15 minutes, then buff with a paper towel. This archival quality microcrystalline wax will seal these components and help prevent them from rotting and drying out.
14. IMPORTANT! When removing tarnish, always invest more time using a gentle silver polish over getting quicker results with a more abrasive silver polish. Ninety-nine percent (99%) of tarnish removed from silver I work on is accomplished with either Blitz Silver Shine Polish or Earth Friendly Silver Polish.
Below: The right side of this 15" wide sterling high chair tray was polished with Earth Friendly Silver Polish. If I had used Blitz Silver Shine Polish, the same side would look a bit glossier because of its tarnish protective ingredient. Polishing, rinsing, and drying time: 2 minutes.
If you're ever in doubt about the the abrasiveness of a silver polish, visit Silver Polish Abrasion Ratings.
15. If your silver was involved in a flood, gently shake any piece that might have hollow spaces (e.g., sockets on teapots and coffeepots that contain ivory heat insulators or wooden handles, hollow handles on some flatware, hollow rims, and candlestick cups with double walls). If you can hear water swishing within these areas, contact a qualified restorer (for referrals, ask a museum with a large silver collection or an antique silver dealer).
16. If the object has no hollow areas, rinse it well to remove any dirt or grit. When the piece feels clean to the touch, wash it with a cellulose sponge, using a non-lemon-scented phosphate-free, antibacterial detergent and warm water.
17. If rust is present on carbon steel knife blades of older pieces, or on the worn edges of knife blades coated with silver, do not use steel wool or Navel Jelly to remove it!
Silver, when properly maintained, will yield generations of enjoyment. The following cleaning instructions have been tried and proven in my silver restoration & conservation studio. They are suited for gold as well as silver. silver-plated and gold-plated items should be treated very gingerly, as too-vigorous cleaning can remove the plating and expose the base metal.
Tarnish is caused by contact with sulfur compounds, mainly hydrogen sulfide in the air. Other common culprits are wool, felt, fossil fuels, rubber bands, latex gloves, carpet padding, certain paints, and food (particularly eggs, onions, and mayonnaise). Tarnish formation is accelerated in a humid environment. Also, oily salts from fingers can cause corrosion patterns that may have to be professionally removed.
BEFORE cleaning or polishing your silver: If your objects contain wood, ivory, mother of pearl, etc., apply two coats of Renaissance wax. Let each coat set for 15 minutes, then buff with a paper towel. This archival quality microcrystalline wax will seal these components when cleaning and help prevent them from rotting and drying out.
Gently wash and dry your silver immediately after use. While washing, do not allow silver to come into contact with a metal sink, as that can cause scratching. (Use a plastic dishpan or line the sink with a towel.) Use a non-lemon-scented phosphate-free detergent and, to avoid water spots, towel-dry using a soft cotton dish towel or Selvyt cloth. Silver that is used frequently and washed in this manner will require infrequent tarnish removal. When storing your flatware, rotate the pieces so they will wear uniformly.
Tarnish is easily removed when first noticed (usually as a yellowish tint), and will become increasingly difficult to deal with as it turns to light brown and eventually black. Occasionally washing an object with a non-lemon-scented phosphate-free detergent is preferred to waiting until tarnish forms and gets so stubborn that polishes have to be employed. (All polishes have some degree of abrasion.)
Most of us are familiar with that light brown and eventually black color that forms on silver. But you can catch tarnish in its very early stages if you hold an object against a piece of white paper (glossy paper if you have it). If tarnish has started to form, you will see a very light yellowish tint in the silver.
Try removing this light tarnish with either diluted Dawn Dishwashing Liquid, Windex Multi-Surface Vinegar, Method Glass & Surface, or Purell Original Formula hand sanitizer. If the hand sanaitizer leaves a residue, rinse it off with warm water or remove it with a moistened cotton towel, then dry immediately. Try this technique first, as it is the least abrasive of all silver cleaning methods. See the results here.
Always remove dried polish and grime from crevices and ornament on previously polished pieces before repolishing. Run warm (not hot) water over the dried polish and use a horsehair or natural white boar bristle brush (found in most hardware stores) and lightly "tap" out the polish. Shorten the bristles if you need added stifness (see below). This will lift the polish away from the object with no or minimal abrasion. Never use a dry brush when removing dry polish as it will create scratches. If there are porous elements on your piece (wood, ivory, other of pearl, etc.), wet a Q-tip and apply the water to the polish. Allow the polish to soften then lift it out by tapping with a wet brush. A wet toothpick will get into the smallest areas.
If your piece is more tarnished, use one of the commercial silver cleaners, some of which provide tarnish protection. Use the least abrasive product possible. Polishes that are meant to be washed off are less abrasive because they use a liquid to suspend the polishing ingredients.
The least abrasive of the commercial cleaners are Blitz Silver Care Polish (preferred for its combination of tarnish protection and its ease of use: apply/rinse/buff and apply/let dry/buff); Earth Friendly Silver Polish (preferred for maintaining the object's original finish & extremely mild abrasiveness); 3M's Tarni-Shield Silver Polish, or Twinkle Silver Polish. If you are thinking of using polishes other than what I just listed, please please refer to Silver Polish Abrasion Ratings.
If, after cleaning your silver (not silverplate) piece, a purplish stain remains, do not mistake this stain for tarnish! Attempting to remove it will only damage your prized piece. This is firestain, which is oxidized copper, and can be found on many pre-colonial through early twentieth century pieces. It is not generally seen on pieces that have been produced by the large American silver companies after the early 1900s, but many one-person silversmithing shops still use this technique. I will not get into the technicalities of firestain here, but the stain is usually obscured with fine silver either by silver plating the object or through a process called depletion. The firestain under this fine silver layer, which may be a few thousandths of an inch thick, may not show up until after many years of polishing. Consult with a restoration silversmith if this happens to one of your pieces.
Use the following technique if you are polishing near unwaxed or cracked components (wood, ivory, mother of pearl, felt, etc.) or with no available water:
Wooden handles & finials, ivory insulators, and felt used on the bottoms of candlesticks and compotes can become damaged when introduced to excess moisture. For objects with such components, use Blitz Silver Shine Polish. Use this polish also for hollow areas that will not dry (beaded rims, handle sockets with minute holes, etc.), or if there is no source of water. Use a large cotton ball with smallest amount of polish necessary and rotate the ball regularly to expose unused surfaces. Rub the object in a straight, back-and-forth manner so as to maintain a uniform appearance. Avoid rubbing in a circular motion. Let the polish dry and remove it with a Selvyt cloth (preferred) or cotton dish towel. Selvyt is a lint-free, untreated, 100% cotton wiping cloth which is also excellent for highlighting ornament.
Use the following technique if you are polishing an object without porous components or components that have been sealed with Renaissance wax:
Rinse the object first to remove any pollution that may have settled on the object. These contaminants, which may be more abrasive than the polish you will be using, can actually scratch the silver if rubbed into the surface. Apply Blitz Silver Shine Polish or Earth Friendly Silver Polish. If you feel it necessary to protect your hands from moisture, use nitrile gloves which contain no ingredients that tarnish silver. Do not use latex gloves! Rub the object in a straight, back-and-forth manner so as to maintain a uniform appearance. Avoid rubbing in a circular motion. Rinse the sponge regularly, as elements in the tarnish can be very abrasive. Flattened cotton swab heads with very little silver polish applied are excellent for cleaning between fork tines.
Dried polish can be removed by patting the area with a warm wet cotton ball or a wet horsehair or natural boar bristle brush. Rinse the object with warm water, and then dry with a Selvyt cloth or cotton dish towel immediately to avoid spotting. I advise using untreated heavyweight cotton inspection gloves to avoid finger prints when cleaning and storing your freshly cleaned objects.
Use Toothpaste as a Silver Polish ©
Toothpaste should NEVER be used as a silver polish. Some toothpastes contain baking soda or other ingredients which are much too abrasive; even trace amounts can cause serious damage. Use polishes that are specifically formulated to remove tarnish from silver.
Chemical dips, such as Tarn-X, work by dissolving the tarnish on an object at an accelerated rate (see the results here). Dips are used by silver restorers when heavy black tarnish cannot be removed with liquid or paste polishes. Chemical dips are wiped over the object with a cellulose sponge or cotton ball, as submerging the piece for long periods will remove factory-applied patinas and cause pitting of the object's surface. These surface defects will act like a sponge and more readily absorb tarnish-producing gases and moisture. The object may then require professional polishing to restore the original finish.
Chemical dips are made up of an acid and a complexing agent. Acids are corrosive and will damage niello, bronze, stainless steel knife blades, and organic materials such as wood and ivory. The ingredients can also be harmful to the user, which is why silver restorers wear nitrile gloves and work in a well ventilated area. Chemical dips should never be used on objects that have sealed components, such as candlesticks and trophies with hollow feet, or teapots with hollow handles. Once the dip leaks into the cavity through small holes or imperfections in the joints, it becomes virtually impossible to wash the chemical out. For all the above reasons, this cleaning technique should only be used by qualified restorers.
This process, known as electrochemical (galvanic) reduction, uses aluminum foil or an aluminum/ aluminum alloy plate and a warm solution of sodium carbonate (washing soda). When the object comes into contact with the plate in the solution, it removes only light tarnish, not the thick, black tarnish produced by years of neglect. Pitting of the object can occur if the aluminum plate is not periodically cleaned. Another not-so-obvious problem is scratching of the object when in contact with the plate.
Objects cleaned by this method may tarnish more quickly than silver that has been polished, for the object's surface will act like a sponge and more readily absorb tarnish-producing gases and moisture. The solution can also seep into hollow areas such as coffeepot handles, unsoldered spun beads around the tops of lightweight holloware, weighted pieces with minute holes, and any porous attachments. For these reasons, this cleaning technique is not recommended.
If you can manually clean the inside of a coffeepot or teapot, use a cellulose sponge (if the pot opening is big enough) or make a swab by wrapping a sponge on the end of a wooden dowel. Moisten the sponge and apply a liberal amount of Wrights Silver Cream, then wipe away the stain and rinse the pot thoroughly with warm water. Wrights is an excellent cleaner for this task because its much less abrasive than commercial cleaners that are not meant specifically for silver. Dont use powdered abrasive cleaners, as they will impart fine scratches which will attract more dirt. Dont use steel wool (too abrasive and rust may result on the bottom), Scotch-Brite or scouring pads (too abrasive), or dips (too toxic see section on Chemical Dips). A cotton swab with a small amount of Wrights will remove stains within the spout opening. Rinse well with warm water.
If you can't adequately clean the interior manually, Put the pot in the sink with a cotton towel underneath and fill the pot with warm water. Drop in one five-minute denture cleaning tablet (about five cents each) per two cups of water. Let stand for ten minutes. If it looks like the pot may overflow because of the effervescence, pour out some liquid through the spout. When the ten minutes is up, empty the pot through the spout then rinse with warm water. You may find that the effervescing action of the tablets may just break the contact between the stain and the silver and not lift the residue. If this occurs, use a wet cellulose sponge or brush to remove the loosened residue and rinse with warm water.
Those crusty corrosion marks on and in your salt shaker can be a real annoyance. One way to avoid this problem from the very start is to empty the shaker after a dinner party and thoroughly wash it; this way the salt doesn't have time to do its damage. Heavily gold plating the interior is the only other way to preserve the finish because gold is impervious to the effects of salt. It is still wise to clean out the shaker at least twice a year and inspect the plate to make sure it has not been abraded by the salt.
There is a simple way to remove the corrosion yourself. Do this in a well-ventilated area and with nitrile gloves since you will be using ammonia. When removing corrosion from a salt shaker, pour ammonia into a container, place the shaker inside, and cover the container. Let the shaker sit for ten minutes, then remove from the container, rinse thoroughly with warm water, then inspect. If the black or green corrosion spots remain, place the shaker back in the ammonia and let stand for another ten minutes, rinse, and inspect again. If the corrosion has not dissolved after a third soaking, have the shaker professionally polished. If you successfully removed the corrosion, you'll probably notice a slight graying of the silver. If this occurs, start by using the one of the least abrasive silver polishes to bring back the shaker's luster. When restoring the finish to a piece of silver, always invest more time using a gentle silver polish over getting quicker results with a more abrasive silver polish.
Do you become frustrated when trying to remove wax from your weighted candle holders? Do you go pawing into your flatware drawer to find just the right size knife to dig out the wax? Do you run the piece under warm water, only to create a big mess? Well, here are some simple, non-invasive techniques.
Non-weighted candle holders can be put in your freezer. Upon removing them, use your fingernail (not a knife) to delicately chip off the wax. If residue remains, remove it with silver polish or 91% isopropyl alcohol on a cotton ball. (Isopropyl alcohol should always be used in a well ventilated area.)
The following procedure can be used for both weighted and non-weighted candle holders. Use your hair dryer (but not a heat gun) to warm the candle cup or other area coated with wax. Be careful not to get the object too hot. There are three reasons for this warning: (1) If the weighting material is pitch, it will melt. (2) If the piece is lacquered, the lacquer will bubble off or burn (or both). (3) You could burn yourself! Lightly touch the area with your fingertip to make sure it is not too hot; then lightly wipe off the wax with a soft paper towel or cotton ball. When cleaning out a candle cup on a candelabrum, support the cup with your hand to prevent bending the arm. If the opening is too small for your finger, gently stuff the paper towel into the cup and twist. Cotton swabs also work very well, especially on Hanukkah lamps with very small candle cups. Use as much fresh paper towel or as many cotton swabs as needed; otherwise, you will continually reapply the wax you are removing.
Use dripless candles whenever possible and remove any wax residue from candle holders after each use. Using these techniques will greatly reduce maintenance time.
You just purchased a vase with one of those labels that leaves a sticky mess! Next time, before peeling off the label, use a hair dryer to soften the adhesive. The label will probably come off cleanly, but if it leaves a sticky residue, wait for the piece to cool and try removing it with some Elmers Sticky Out, Goo Gone or 91% isopropyl alcohol on a soft paper towel or cotton ball. Elmers Sticky Out is the safest alternative, health-wise. Goo Gone and 91% isopropyl alcohol should be used in a well ventilated area with nitrile gloves. Any residue remaining after using any of the three cleaners should be removed with Windex Multi-Surface Cleaner with Vinegar. If a discolored spot remains where the adhesive had been, remove it with silver polish.
KEEP SILVER OUT OF THE DISHWASHER! It's that simple. There are four major reasons for keeping your prized sterling and silverplate out of the "chamber of doom:"
(1) Any factory-applied patina (the blackening in recessed areas) will eventually be removed.
(2) The harsh detergent, combined with the washer's high cleaning temperature, is much too abrasive for silverit will eventually turn it grey or white, with a dull, non-reflective surface.
(3) Most older and some repaired hollow-handled knives are filled with pitch. This low-melting cement will expand with heat, possibly forcing open a thin solder seam, or exploding the knife blade out of the handle.
(4) Silver that touches stainless in the dishwasher can create a chemical reaction, producing black spots or pitting on the stainless and possibly requiring the silver to be professionally refinished.
Sterling, like a fine automobile, must be handled with tender loving care. You certainly wouldn't drive your Rolls Royce through a car wash, would you?
Your primary consideration should be to keep silver objects clean and free of dust and surface grime. In addition, the following guidelines will help to preserve your silvers finish while it is on display or in storage.
To minimize the formation of tarnish inside display cases, use 3M or Intercept Anti-Tarnish Strips (see section on 3M & INTERCEPT ANTI-TARNISH STRIPS) to absorb tarnish-producing gases, and silica gel (see section on SILICA GEL) to keep relative humidity low. Certain paints, oils, and fabrics within the case can accelerate the formation of tarnish. Therefore, if the case or cabinet is made of wood, the interior surface should be sealed, preferably with lacquer or water-based polyurethane. If latex paint is used, allow it to dry for at least four months. See the dramatic difference when silver is not exposed to tarnish-causing particulate here.
If a silver piece to be stored is already tarnished, even if it is heavily blackened, it need not be polished before storing: doing so will only reveal fresh sterling or fine silver electroplate to be exposed to the elements. Before storing, wrap each piece in non-buffered tissue paper (acid-free and of archival quality) or soft anti-tarnish tissue, place it in a polyethylene bag such as a Ziploc, toss in a 3M or Intercept Anti-Tarnish Strip, and seal the bag. This will provide some protection against changes in relative humidity and create a barrier against tarnish-producing gases.
Another option is to wrap the object in a sulfur-absorbing cloth such as Pacific Silvercloth or Kenized SilverShield flannel (see the independent testing of the two flannels here) before putting it in the polyethylene bag. Pacific Silvercloth is impregnated with microscopic particles of silver, and Kenized SilverShield contains zinc. Both products attract sulfur equally well, thereby preventing much of it from being absorbed by the piece being stored. Sulfur-absorbing cloth will stay effective for approximately 20 years before they become saturated. You can further protect silver pieces against tarnish by placing small containers of silica gel (to absorb moisture) and activated charcoal (to absorb pollutants) in the polyethylene bag.
Some storage materials should be avoided. Wrapping in newspaper or binding in rubber bands can cause deep discoloration that may have to be professionally polished. Plastic wrap contains tarnish-producing materials and can also adhere to the silver over time, requiring solvents to remove. Finally, non-archival cardboard boxes contain acids that aggressively tarnish silver.
Lacquering silver retards tarnish formation, but is generally not recommended because of the difficulty in obtaining an even coating. If the coating is uneven, when the object re-tarnishes, it looks worse than if no coating had been applied at all. However, in an open display where surface protection of the object is necessary, apply a micro-crystalline wax such as Renaissance wax 3. Check the Renaissance MSDS here.
& Intercept Anti-Tarnish Strips ©
3M Anti-Tarnish Strips can be used to absorb tarnish-producing gases. The strips are made from a 45-lb. paper containing activated charcoal. They guard against corrosion, tarnish, and discoloration by absorbing airborne pollutants. These strips can also be used to protect objects containing copper, brass, solder, gold, and tin. 3M strips absorb on both sides.
Intercept Anti-Tarnish Strips consist of a polymer matrix with copper bound in its structure. The effective surface area of copper available for reactions is twice the size of the polymer strip. The chemical reactions that take place with Intercept and corrosive gases permanently convert them into non-reactive compounds in the polymer and purify the enclosed environment. Intercept creates a neutralized atmosphere which protects all materials enclosed with it against corrosion and aging. Moisture that migrates through the packaging material will also be cleaned of corrosive elements. Intercept reacts with corrosive gases in less than an hour. The strips, which protect on both sides, should be placed near the objects to be protected.
Each 3M and Intercept 2"x7" strip will protect an area up to 424 cubic inches, the approximate size of a flatware chest. Protection time depends on the nature and permeability of the storage container and on the pollution level of the surrounding atmosphere. The following guidelines apply to an average atmosphere: loosely sealed container (e.g., cardboard box, china cabinet, or flatware chest): 6 months; moderately sealed container (e.g., lightweight polyethylene bag): 12 months; and tightly sealed container (e.g., low-permeability polyethylene bag): up to 24 months. The strips should be replaced in a timely fashion because once they are fully saturated with pollutants, the strips will become inactive.
Warning! Though camphor has been used as a tarnish absorber for many years, it is considered a poisonous substance.*
Silica Gel (Humidity Control) ©
Since World War II, silica gel has been the drying agent of choice by government and industry. It is safe to use with even the most sensitive materials, including food and medicineits what is contained in those tiny packets enclosed in pill bottles and shoe boxes to prevent moisture. It prevents tarnish- and corrosion-causing condensation within enclosed areas, such as flatware drawers and china cabinets. Such areas should be made as vapor-proof as possible.
Despite its name, silica gel is not a gel, but is in the form of chemically inert man-made granules containing thousands of tiny crevices that drink up excess humidity from the air by surface adsorption. A good choice of product is a canister containing silica gel that turns from blue to pink when saturated with moisture. Reactivate the gel by drying the canister in a conventional oven. The reactivation process can be repeated indefinitely for a lifetime of protection. (Read directions thoroughly; silica gel dust should not be inhaled.)
Do you own flatware containing carbon steel components (blades and fork tines)? This is how you can keep those components from rusting: After dinner, hand wash the knives in warm water, then dry immediately. Apply a very thin layer of Burt's Bees Lip Balm and wipe with a paper towel until there is no residue left behind. This will keep the blades from rusting. Since this product is non-toxic, you won't have to wash them prior to use.
A large part of the information in the sections on Chemical Dips, Electrochemical (Galvanic) Reduction, and Silver Display & Storage was obtained from articles supplied by the Canadian Conservation Institute, Department of Canadian Heritage, 1030 Innes Rd., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A OM5, 613/998-3721; Fax: 613/998-4721. Jeffrey Herman supplied additional information on these topics.
"Silver-Care and Tarnish Removal," CCI Notes No. 9/7 (Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, 1993). This article is not technical and is intended for the general public.
"Historical Silver: Storage, Display and Tarnish Removal" by Lyndsie S. Selwyn, Journal of the International Institute for ConservationCanadian Group, volume 15, 1990, pp. 12-22.
"Evaluation of SilverCleaning Products" by Lyndsie S. Selwyn and Charles G. Costain, Journal of the International Institute for ConservationCanadian Group, volume 16, 1991, pp. 3-16.
3M Tarni-Shield Silver Polish
Blitz Silver Shine Polish
Goddard's Long Shine Silver Polish
Twinkle® Silver Polish
Weiman Silver Polish
Hagertys Silversmiths' Wash
Wright's® Silver Cream
Heavyweight Cotton Inspection Gloves (Natural Jersey)
Gallaway Safety and Supply / Web
The Contenti Company
/ Web site
Nitrile Gloves (Heavyweight and Disposable)
Safety Source Northeast / Web
Marsha Whitney (3M) / Web
Intercept Silver & Jewelry
Care Co. / Web
Hydrosorbent Dehumidifiers / Web
Non-Buffered Tissue Paper
University Products / Web
Judd Paper Co. / Web
Cutlery Specialties / Web
Russell Pool Fine Woodworking,
Inc. / Web site
Mass-Produced Flatware Chests
AmericanBox / Web
Reed & Barton / Web
Jewelry & Silverware Safes
Casoro Jewelry Safes / Web
Custom Drawer Liners, Relining, Flatware Displays
Lloyds of Lancaster County / Web
Flannel Holloware & Flatware Bags, and Yardage
Kinley Covers (Kenized Cloth) / Web
SilverGuard (Pacific Silvercloth)
/ Web site
Lacquer Stripper (thick consistancy & safer to use)
The video below is an example of how I polished a Paul Revere beaker using Earth Friendly Silver Polish, cotton balls, and the occasional Q-tip. The white translucent panel in front provided contrast, making tarnish easier to identify and completely remove. The total polishing time was 30 minutes because of the long-neglected surface. Removing tarnish that would have formed on these pieces over a period of six months may have only taken only two minutes.
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