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Collecting Mania: Caring For Silver & Pewter

Updated on May 29, 2010

Silver

Unlike other metals, the intrinsic value of silver has remained constant through the ages. It's easy to see why - few objects can match the splendor of a beautifully maintained article of silver, and its beauty only increases with age. Preserve that beauty by protecting silver against its top enemy, everyday mishandling:

  • Except for knives with cemented handles, sterling flatware can go in the dishwasher. You're better off, though, hand-washing and manually drying. The rubbing action enhances the patina. Use hot, sudsy water and a soft toothbrush to scrub recesses.
  • Moisture causes tarnish so dry pieces completely and polish with a clean cloth. Any speck of dirt on the cloth will scratch the silver. If the piece has a hallmark, take extra care to avoid damage since it can never be restamped.

  • Silver tarnishes faster when exposed to eggs, salad dressing, and other foods that contain sulfur. Salt can also corrode the metal, so wash silverware as quickly as possible after eating. Acids in the skin also hasten tarnish.
  • Infrequently used items can be wrapped in silver cloth or self-sealing plastic bags to create a moisture-free atmosphere. But don't use rubber bands; they can discolor silver.
  • Commercial silver cleaners contain mild abrasives which remove trace amounts of silver and, over time, can wear down an item. On silver plate, it's possible to expose the metal base. Minimize erosion by using an extremely gentle buffing motion.
  • To remove coffee and tea stains in silver sets, mix one teaspoon of borax with 2 1/2 cups of hot water. Fill the pot with the solution and let stand for two hours. Swirl mixture around pot with a soft brush. Then pour out and wash with warm soapy water. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
  • When cleaning candlestick holders and candelabras, make sure liquid is removed from any hollowed out sections after rinsing. A hairdryer is a smart idea for reaching crevices. To store a candelabra, dismantle and wrap pieces separately in acid-free tissue, plastic, or silver cloth.

Pewter

Pewter has been called the poor man's silver. That's unfair, since it's more durable and versatile than many other metals, and it carries great historical significance. Pewter plates, candlestick holders, and tankards were introduced to the New World by the first colonists.

Pewter is a composite metal, traditionally made of lead and tin. The tin content determines the grade of the pewter. Fine pewter, for instance, contains at least 92 percent tin. A pewter known as Britannia metal contains no lead at all and is safe for food.

Since it is a relatively soft metal, pewter requires some special care:

  • Feel free to serve food in pewter ware, but never cook in it since the metal has a relatively low melting point. Direct contact with flames, ovens, and microwaves could damage or destroy the piece.
  • Also keep pewter away from less extreme sources of heat, including radiators and direct sunlight.
  • Though pewter oxidizes like copper and silver, it does so gradually and evenly, requiring far less maintenance. To clean, simply soak objects in water using a mild soap. Rinse completely and dry with a soft cotton towel to preserve the surface luster. The patina will improve with age.
  • You can also try cleaning with a good commercial metal cleaner. For scratches on pieces with a satin finish, rub gently with a 0000 steel wool pad. For shiny finishes, use a soft dry chamois.

Old pewter is especially susceptible to contamination by salts, and in time, spots may begin appearing on a piece. If this occurs, see a professional. It's worth saving. This metal may have started out as a substitute for more precious silver and gold, but the craftsmanship of fine pewter has come to be appreciated and prized in its own right. 

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