TRIVETOLOGY

Collecting, cleaning, displaying, researching, and appreciating TRIVETS and related go-withs!

Caring for brass, bronze and copper trivets

Different metals require different care. In this blog post I’ll be sharing suggestions for caring for BRASS, BRONZE and COPPER-PLATED trivets.

DISCLAIMER

The following information is offered from my personal experience with no liability or responsibility on my part. Use at your own risk!

☆ Warning: The preservation of patina is always a consideration when dealing with antique metalware, but especially when metals can be polished. Weigh your options carefully before proceeding. 

PATINA

Patina is the superficial finish, acquired through age and exposure, that forms on metal, stone, wood or leather. Patina adds to the beauty of an item and generally increases its value.

Take a look at this lovely Danish brass trivet I was fortunate to acquire from the A. H. Glissman Collection Auction in 2003. It’s the same trivet pictured on p.12 of Glissman’s 1970 book “The Evolution Of The Sad-Iron”. Note the finger pointing to the date 6.4.30 for June 4, 1830 and the intertwined letters M and E are on the handle. This trivet was most likely a wedding gift.

Now notice the patina. Yes, it’s brass, but it’s 188 year old brass! I would never consider polishing a trivet this old to achieve a shiny brass finish. In order to preserve the patina I occasionally gently wipe the dust off with a soft rag.

INITIAL INSPECTION

Before cleaning begins it’s crucial to:

1. Remember brass and copper are softer metals and easily scratched.

2. Check the trivet carefully for stress cracks, often located at thinner areas of the design.

3. Check for residual old polish in the crevasses, which suggests age.

4. Determine if the brass was lacquered (see below).

5. Inspect for verdigris ~ the bright bluish-green encrustation or patina formed on brass or copper by atmospheric oxidation.

6. Realize that a dark patina can be mistaken for cast iron. Note: a magnet won’t stick to bronze, brass or copper.

7. Attempt to identify the design, maker and era. See my blog post on Understanding Rd Numbers.

BRASS: BASIC CLEANING & POLISHING

Wash the trivet well in warm soapy water. Clean until the trivet is free of dirt and grime, using a soft dental toothbrush, nylon brush or soft sponge. Dry the trivet with a cloth towel and hand buff. If you decide to polish, use a high quality brass polish and proceed slowly, stopping when the metal is at the level of brightness/shininess you desire.

There are special considerations when working with brass:

  • Brass is a softer metal and easily scratched. Treat it gently.
  • Don’t polish lacquered brass (see next section).
  • Avoid polishing simulated verdigris, as with Vintage Pal-Bell brass trivets.
  • It’s your call whether to polish the back of an antique brass trivet.
  • Oils from the human hand can hasten the return of tarnish; you may want to handle brass trivets wearing gloves.

BRASS: IS IT LACQUERED?

Antique brass was never lacquered. Indoor brass was polished regularly, while outdoor brass was allowed to form an aged patina. Since the backs of antique trivets were rarely polished, the finish there will be much darker.

In the mid-20th Century it became popular to apply a clear coating (lacquer) over brass giftware to prevent tarnishing. If a trivet has a shiny finish, that suggests it either has a coat of lacquer or has been recently polished. So how can you tell if a brass trivet has been lacquered?

  • Black spots on a polished brass surface suggest areas of lacquer breakdown.
  • Apply a small drop of brass polish to a cloth. Seeing black tarnish on the cloth after a few gentle rubs indicates the brass has not been lacquered and is safe to polish.
  • If you rub gently and get no tarnish on your cloth, then the brass was protected with a lacquer finish. Do not polish, or you may lift off the lacquer.

NEVER POLISH BRONZE!

Bronze is one metal that should never be polished. The rich, dark patina achieved with age adds to its beauty and value. Instead, give it a basic cleaning; then all you’ll need to do is periodically dust it. The following is advice from Antiques Roadshow: Polishing Your Precious Metals.

“Wash your Bronzes! A finish is usually put on bronzes by an artist or at a foundry to give the metal a darker patina or to shade the metal to accentuate its three-dimensionality. Sometimes bronze is even coated with gold. That’s why it’s best to avoid polishing bronzes. Doing so is like vigorously scrubbing the surface of a masterpiece painting. In both cases, you’re removing a layer of the piece that the artist intended to be there.”

THE PALMOLIVE FIX

Did you ever over polish a piece of metalware and now the tone is too light or off color? A commonly available household chemical that can darken brass, bronze or copper is Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid! It contains Sodium Bisulfite which will cause a chemical reaction, producing tarnish. Apply some Palmolive mixed with a scant amount of water to the metal and rub until you achieve the tone you want; then wash off. It should only take a few minutes to notice a color change. Be sure you keep rubbing so the darkening applies evenly.

COPPER-PLATED FINISHES

☆ Warning: Making your own polishing compounds can be risky. Pastes made of lemon juice or vinegar mixed with salt, flour and/or baking soda can often be too harsh, ruining the patina and leaving brass or copper with an unattractive hue.

Copper plating was popular in the 1950s & 1960s for decorative trivets. The six copper-plated cast iron trivets shown above appear on p.30 of the 1965 John Wright Catalog.

Copper plating was also applied to older cast iron trivets, like this Culter and Proctor  advertising trivet, circa late 1800s. As you can see, the plating is wearing off in places, revealing the cast iron underneath.


And always be on the lookout for antique trivets created from hand cut sheet metal, then overlaid with a sheet of copper. Gently clean this type of trivet using the basic cleaning techniques. Any exposed iron can then be treated with Glorifying Antique Furniture Polish, a citrus and beeswax polish that’s great for polishing and protecting metal. If you decide to polish the copper plating, use a high quality product specifically designed for that type of metal.

Newlyn repoussé trivet, hammered sheet copper over iron, circa 1900.

GALLERY – TRIVETS FROM MY COLLECTION

4 comments on “Caring for brass, bronze and copper trivets

  1. greytop
    April 16, 2018

    Except for a few pieces of silver, I have little experience caring for antique metals. I love your writing. I also love the beautiful pictures of pieces in your collection. The flat iron trivet is especially beautiful. What a thrill you must get when handling these precious trivets!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lynn Rosack
      April 16, 2018

      Thank you greytop. Yes, that Danish trivet is special. The serrated sides were not only decorative, but served as guards to keep an iron in place. I imagine this trivet supported a brass pressing iron ~ perhaps one with a lift gate in the rear and cast iron slug inside.

      Like

  2. Marian Beaman
    April 15, 2018

    I’ve probably done my share of damage using polish on various metals. “Never use polish on bronze,” you say. I’m sure you are right, Lynn.

    The butterfly image is made more lovely with the patina, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lynn Rosack
      April 15, 2018

      Marian, your comment reminded me to go back and share the “Palmolive Fix” for restoring color to over polished metalware! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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