Monday, July 24, 2006

Decorating with Sterling Silver & Silver Plate

Decorating with sterling silver and silverplate wares can add beauty and elegance to a table or buffet. But what about caring for those pretty silver candlesticks, silver serving trays and silver tea sets?

Whether you inherited silver from a family member or received silver as wedding gifts long ago, those intricately decorated silver pieces were meant to be used. With regular and proper care, most silver pieces will stay beautiful for years and years.

Many people shy away from silver due to tarnish without realizing they can make an effort to avoid it. What's the most common culprit when it comes to tarnishing? Humidity.

The ideal level of humidity for storing and displaying silver, according to Caring for Collectibles by Ken Arnold, is 45% to 50%. Since you don't live in a museum, it won't always be possible to maintain a constant humidity level, but making an effort to keep silver out of unusually damp environments will certainly help cut down on tarnish.

Avoiding excessive tarnish buildup in the first place is a good idea. This makes cleaning your silver occasionally much easier. However, over polishing silver can wear down the finish, especially on silver plated pieces, so take care not to overdo it.

When cleaning tarnish, use a soft-bristled brush or clean cotton cloth to dust the item as a first step. This is important since dust can scratch the finish if not removed before cleaning.

Candle wax can be removed from a silver holder by simply running hot water over the area holding the wax. The softened wax should be easy to pry out with a finger. Never risk scratching the piece by using a knife.

Once all dust and wax are removed, wash the item by hand with warm water and a gentle dishwashing soap to remove any food and gunk, but don't soak the silver in water for any length of time.

Rinse the piece well with clean water, distilled is best, and dry immediately with a soft, lint-free cloth. A hair-dryer set on warm helps to dry hard-to-reach places.

Wearing plastic gloves rather than rubber (rubber can react adversely with the silver) lay the item on a soft towel work surface. Use a soft cotton cloth or sponge and a good non-abrasive commercial silver cleaner or polish. Arnold mentions Goddard's, Gorham's and Wright's as possibilities. Some people find foams and liquids easier to manage than pastes, but it's really a matter of personal preference.

Apply the polish in a gentle circular motion. For intricate areas, use a cotton-tipped swab to apply the cleaner. Make sure all polish is removed when you're finished, using additional cotton swabs if needed. Once the piece looks clean and shiny, stop polishing even if you're still seeing dark residue on your cloth.

Wash the piece again and dry with a lint-free cloth. Items not used for food consumption can be waxed with a thin coat of microcrystalline wax to protect against tarnishing, if desired.

After they're clean and completely dry, wrap pieces individually with acid-free, buffered tissue, or washed cotton, linen, or polyester to store. Do not use wool, felt, chamois leather or newspaper, which can cause tarnishing or even worse, remove plating. Wrapping pieces in specially made bags or silver cloths designed to deter tarnish make good storage choices as well.

If you'd like to display your silver rather than storing it, a glass-enclosed cabinet makes a good choice. Just be sure to avoid unvarnished wood shelves that can omit harmful vapors. And if you use glass shelves, make sure they're sturdy enough to hold heavier pieces.

Camphor blocks can be added to the cabinet help prevent tarnish, but don't let them actually touch the silver pieces. Special anti-tarnish papers and cloths containing activated carbon or silver salts can be placed in display cases as well. You can purchase these items from jewelers or department and specialty stores where new silver pieces are sold.

You'll want to avoid displaying or storing silver near cotton felt, wool or velvet as well. These fabrics contain sulfides that attack the metal. Direct sunlight doesn't actually cause tarnish, but it can accelerate the progression of the unattractive film, so place your silver display case away from sunny windows.

You'll also want to use white cotton gloves when handling silver if possible. The salts, oils and acids in your skin can cause corrosion. Arnold's book also mentions that fingerprints can even be etched into silver if left un-cleaned for a long period of time.