If you own any high end silver dishware, ornaments, or collectible coins, chances are the material you actually possess is sterling silver. It’s important to recognize this distinction, as the best method for cleaning silver with a finish isn’t necessarily the best way to preserve and restore sterling silver items.
In terms of its composition, sterling silver is an alloy made from two different metals, 92.5 percent silver and, in most instances, 7.5 percent copper, though it is possible to substitute other metals. If you’re unfamiliar with metallurgy, don’t worry. This blending of lesser metals is not done to devalue your items, but rather to preserve them. It’s a necessity because pure silver alone is soft and not sturdy enough to actually construct anything as durable or functional as luxury dinnerware. However, the mixed nature of sterling can be a double-edged sword when it comes to trying to keep your silver untarnished.
Silver on its own is unlikely to tarnish, as the metal is not that reactive to oxygen (a key factor in tarnish). Chemically, the biggest threat to pure silver is oxygen sulfur buildup or silver sulfide. It’s actually the same copper that allows sterling silver to be so versatile and useful to us that puts your sterling silver possessions at risk from both sulfur and tarnish, as copper is highly sensitive to oxygen.
Once you’ve determined whether the item you’re trying to clean or restore is tarnished sterling silver, as opposed to pure silver or something made of silver plate, you can choose the best method.
Mix up a paste of baking soda and water, and apply it to the item. Hand rub it, rinse away the paste, and dry it.
This an effective method for combating silver sulfide as well as tarnish. For tarnish specifically on your silverware, don’t bother with the paste.
Just sprinkle baking soda on a damp cloth and again, by hand, gently rub it until the tarnish comes off.
NOTE: Sterling silver should always be hand rubbed as opposed to treated with harsher polishes and polishing tools. Hand rubbing cultivates a unique patina in the silver that is highly sought after, and aggressive polishing destroys this patina.
To clean off tarnish, coat the silver with toothpaste, then run it under warm water, work it into a foam with your hands, and rinse it off. For stubborn stains or intricate grooves, use an old soft-bristled toothbrush to gently scrub.
This method is pure chemistry, with little elbow grease involved. For pieces made of sterling silver or silver-plated items, this method can be ideal.
To begin, place a sheet of aluminum foil in the bottom of a pan and add 2-3 inches of water. Next, drop in 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 teaspoon salt, and bring the mixture to a boil. Add your silver pieces, making sure the water covers the items completely as they boil for 2-3 minutes.
This method is useful because it cleans the small designs and crevices of silver pieces.
WARNING: Silver with deeply "carved" patterns that are enhanced by an oxide or French gray finish are not appropriate for electrolytic cleaning and should be hand polished with a high quality silver cream or polish.
Things to Avoid
Silver, and the metals it is sometimes blended with, have enemies. For example, rubber corrodes silver. It can become so deeply etched that only a silversmith can repair the damage. Avoid using storage cabinets or chests with rubber seals, rubber floor coverings, rubber bands, etc.
Other enemies of silver include table salt, olives, salad dressing, eggs, vinegar, and fruit juices. Do not serve these items using silver or silver-plated items.
Although flowers and fruit look lovely in silver containers, the acid produced as they decay can etch the containers and cause serious damage. When using silver containers, use plastic or glass liners.
Conventional dishwashers can also be a problem. Certain silverware can survive the dishwasher relatively unscathed, but sterling silver may come out of the washer with dark spotting. This is caused by reactions between its copper content and the water. Plus, as stated above, the best way to develop silver’s patina and keep it is hand rubbing.