How to Care for Brass Items

Once in the golden days of maritime exploration, brass was a common material for metal fittings, bells and other parts of boats. Later in the 20th century, yacht designers drew inspirations from this luxury material. Today, many high-end yachts have brass items – and owners that don’t know how to treat them. In this article, I try to outline the basics of brass care.

Be it a bell, a nice fitting or a navigational device – brass was once a common material with all sorts of maritime applications. Today, it has become the metal-equivalent to teak: a luxury material that is durable, decorative and that often adds to the nostalgic touch of a yacht. However, brass is also a material that requires special care.

Brass is a composite metal or “alloy” of copper and zinc. Much like most other metals and alloys, brass oxidizes if it is exposed to air. This is because the metal surface binds to oxygen, a process that makes the brass device tarnish, fade and become unattractive. This process is accelerated by the acidity of rain, other air pollution and the exposure to UV light – to name only a few factors. In short: the life-span of brass depends partly on environmental conditions.

Many of these cannot be influenced – however, you can take some simple measures to protect your brass items of deterioration. All protective measures include an initial cleaning of the item, followed be the application of a polish that should “seal” the surface and keep oxygen away. Let’s start with the cleaning.

Cleaning of Brass

There are several “professional” solutions available that promise good cleaning results without damaging the surface of the brass item. Aside of these, there are several “granny tips” for detergents. Start with warm, soapy water for fairly clean items.

If you want to remove weak stains or lacquer, wash the item with isopropyl solutions, a rubbing alcohol. Alternatively, you can try to mix some hot water with baking soda and apply this solution to the item. Stronger stains and hardened lacquer layers can be attacked with abrasion creams, stronger cleaning solutions, higher concentrated isopropyl solutions or – I kid you not – tomato ketchup.

Ketchup contains acid and makes a great solvent for treating the surface of heavily stained brass items. The same applies to salt-water with lemon juice or toothpaste. Whatever “detergent” you choose, apply it carefully with a sponge or soft cotton rag. Let it soak for a few minutes, then rinse it off properly. Repeat the treatment as often as necessary to make the metal surface nice and shiny. For emergencies, consider using very fine steel wool.

Caution: I mentioned some pretty rough methods. If you are working on an antique object or the brass is already heavily deteriorated, it is always worth to double-check the best treatment with an expert. Look for experts in antique shops. Once your item is clean, let it dry properly and move on to step two.

Polishing of Brass Objects

The polish should seal the cleaned brass object and protect it from the aggressive oxygen. Again you will have to choose an appropriate polish from a variety of products. Generally speaking, there are oil-based ones and lacquers. Oil-based ones are often applied too thickly, which means that the coat of polish is vulnerable. This can cause discoloration and the failure of the “sealing” properties of the polish.

Common polishes are often based on linseed oil. There are many commercial brass polishes available, too, and some specialize on specific purposes. For example, for outdoor applications. Check with boat owners from your local areas which products are the best for your climate. For a simple alternative, use oil-based, transparent shoe-polish or olive oil.

To polish brass, soak a sponge or piece of cotton cloth in oil or the polish. Let it dry for several hours or overnight. Then, apply the polish with circular, rubbing movements. Make sure to remove excess polish. If you chose a commercial polish, follow the instructions.

If you chose to apply lacquer instead of polish, make sure to remove all grease on the brass surface – including fingerprints, as the lacquer won’t stay attached otherwise. Get lacquers specifically manufactured for brass or metal surfaces. The advantage of lacquer is, that is protects the brass more efficiently. Especially antique brass objects or items that should get an antique patina should not be lacquered, though.

Repeat the polishing once every few weeks. Once again, the necessity to repeat the treatment will depend on environmental conditions. Therefore, you should have a chat with boat owners from your local area and ask for advice on the matter.

Further Reading

Back to "boats"

General Maintenance: Interiors

Wooden Parts: Teak Care

Wikipedia on Brass

General Advice on Brass Care