Brass is used throughout our homes in both solid metal form and in plating to add style and protect other metals from corrosion. It can be found in furniture, plumbing fixtures, door knobs and hinges, lighting fixtures and a variety of decorative accents.
To take care of your brass items you must first determine if the item is solid brass or plated with brass. A solid brass item can be handled much harsher with buffing compounds and even steel wool to restore a bright finish. Plated items must be cared for in a much softer fashion by using non-abrasive polishes because the layer of brass on the surface of the item may only be a few human hair widths thick.
Antique brass finishes or new products that exhibit an aged brass appearance are also very different. A piece of solid brass that has aged over many years will have a natural patina while new items that pretend to be old may have been forced to look this way through a mixture of chemical baths or even paints and varnishes.
Before you begin your restoration of any brass item you must inspect the piece and determine how you want it to look when you complete your task and if it is even possible to restore the finish.
Exterior lighting that has a brass plate finish over stamped sheet metal / steel are almost impossible to restore if the steel beneath the brass has started to rust through the top finish. If the item is inexpensive you may be able to extend its life by removing the rust with steel wool and a high number grit sandpaper 800 grit or above and then painting the fixture a solid color.
Unfortunately you will probably find that most available metallic paints that are gold or brass will not provide a natural metal finish. The areas of the piece which you paint will not match the other parts of the item that are not painted. However if you have a few hours to kill and feel it is worth the attempt you may want to paint the whole item if it will not be viewed by others close up.
Paints that are used to age a bright brass item to make it appear aged may be worth a try but it is important to make many tests before you work on the piece you are restoring.
Remember that once you get the item looking as you want it you will need to apply a clear finish of polyurethane to protect your work. Use at least 2 medium coats.
Restoring Brass To A Bright Finish
If you are restoring a solid brass item to a fully bright non-aged appearance then the process that you will use is the same method that the manufacture used to prepare the item for sale.
Although brass is a solid metal and not as soft as gold or lead a Brass surface is still rather soft when compared to steel. For this reason you should take care while working to inspect your piece and work slowly so you do not remove any sharp edge details from the item.
Most brass items that are intended for handling or exterior settings where the elements may corrode the metal are protected by a varnish or polyurethane coating. Before you can attempt to restore the whole piece you will need to remove this protective covering.
Acetone or other mild chemical solvents are normally a better solution then harsher lye or chemical based strippers. If you have a boat repair / products store in your area you may ask what chemicals they suggest and use on brass items they need to strip.
If you can remove the coating with a mixture of acetone and a fine steel wool “00” or “000” grade or even a green scrubby pad you will reduce the work of removing scratches later.
Depending on the finish that you want a fine steel wool followed up with a series of compound polishes applied with an electric buffer should restore the finish to a fine bright brass finish that looks mirror bright and shows no sign of corrosion or scratches.
You must now protect your work by cleaning any oils or polish from the surface then applying a clear polyurethane finish. Many light coats are better then a single heavy coat but if the amount you apply is too thin you may have an orange peal buildup. Just make sure that when you are painting the full surface gets a coat and looks glossy before it drys.
Refinishing Brass to an Antique Finish
Unfortunately creating an antique brass finish is really an artistic value and not something you can get out of a can.
Many artisans that antique brass will use a variety of different paints and finishes to provide a transparent but natural metallic feel.
Black enamel spray paint that is applied in a very light layer, allowed to dry and then scrubbed off of the high parts but allowed to remain in detail crevases can give the appearance that the item has seen many years of use.
You may need to apply and reapply your antiquing technique many times but if you are restoring an item with many parts or maybe a full home of door knobs or brass pulls for your kitchen then you should work all the items at the same time.
Inspect all of the items and if you need to write down the method you used so you can apply it to other pieces.
Lamp Black, candle suit and Chinese lacquers are also items that can be used for coloring brass.
Taking time to care for your metal surfaces before they deteriorate and need refinishing is the best way to maintain a look that you want.
If the item will require more work then it is worth then replace it however worth is really up to the owner. However if the item is a knob or fixture that can easily be replaced value your time over the item and replace it before you decide to waste a weekend and also disable your sink or toilet.
Refinishing to a bright look brass is always easier then to an antiqued finish but you must restore your pieces to the style that they require and not just for ease of cleaning.
If you are working on an actual antique or very special item seek professional advice before you work on the surface. You may end up damaging the piece or you may lower its value.