Conservation and restoration of silver objects

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An early 20th-century painting by Fritz Stotz depicting women polishing and cleaning household silver

The conservation and restoration of silver objects is an activity dedicated to the preservation and protection of objects of historical and personal value made from silver. When applied to cultural heritage this activity is generally undertaken by a conservator-restorer.

Historically, objects made from silver were created for religious, artistic, technical, and domestic uses. The act of conservation and restoration strives to prevent and slow the deterioration of the object as well as protecting the object for future use. The prevention and removal of surface tarnish is the primary concern of conservator-restorers when dealing with silver objects.

Use of silver[edit]

Silver is a precious metal that has been mined for use as early as 4000 B.C. in Anatolia (Modern Turkey)[1] Because silver is malleable and durable it has been used for many purposes which include jewelry, tableware, ornaments, coins, musical instruments and movie film. It is often used as a plating on other metals.


All metals, apart from pure gold, will corrode naturally when exposed to certain chemicals which can be present in air.[2] High relative humidity, moisture, and air pollutants are common causes of corrosion in metals, including silver.[3] Silver is known in the chemistry world as a noble metal which means it is resistant to corrosion, but not completely. Whether silver plating or pure silver, the composite of the metal will tarnish when exposed to air and sulfur.

Tarnish is a chemical reaction on the surface of metal (copper, brass, silver, etc.) and causes a layer of corrosion. In the case of silver tarnish, the silver combines with sulfur and forms silver sulfide ( Ag2S ) which is black. The original silver surface can be restored if the layer of silver sulfide is removed.[4] On some metals, tarnish serves as a protective layer known as a patina and is typically found on copper and bronze roofing, architectural elements, statues and bells.

Collections care[edit]

Storage and handling[edit]

Proper handling, storage, and treatment can help prevent deterioration of silver objects.[3] Metals are best conserved when stored in an even and low humidity atmosphere, ideally at 40% relative humidity or lower.[5] Silver tends to corrode easily when stored in damp, moist locations such as a basement because it will accelerate tarnishing. Some storage boxes contain materials, such as wood, acidic paper, rubber, and adhesives, that can off-gas corrosive materials. Conservators wear nitrile gloves when handling silver to prevent oils, ammonia, and salts from the skin from corroding the surface.[6]

Preventing interaction with sulfur gases[edit]

Sulfur-containing gases and particulates can tarnish the surface of silver. These corrosive agents can come from air pollution, paints, textiles, bacterial by-products, and other chemically treated objects or building materials. When storing silver, museum conservators wrap silver in sulfur-free tissue paper and store in a tight sealed polyethylene bag. Activated charcoal is sometimes used to absorb sulfur by placing it in the bag but not in direct contact with the object. Likewise, Pacific Silver Cloth has also been used by museums to prevent tarnishing.[7]


Lacquering is the process of creating a hard durable finish on the surface of an object such as wood or metal. Polished silver is sometimes lacquered to protect against tarnish and to prevent over-polishing. There are different types of resins that are used such as Acryloid B-72 and Incralac. If silver pieces are being displayed in the open, such as in a house or museum exhibit case, it is difficult to prevent corrosion from air exposure. A surface coating will prevent or slow tarnishing and is a service done by professionals or conservator.[8] One of the most used coatings is Agateen.[9]

Lacquer is applied to a surface that has been cleaned with ethanol, acetone, or methyl ethyl ketone. Oils from human hands prevent the lacquer from adhering to the silver. Agateen No. 27 (cellulose nitrate) and Paraloid B-72 are the most commonly used lacquers however there is a debate which lacquer, cellulose nitrate or acrylic, is best.[10]

Historic methods of treating silver[edit]

The art of crafting objects out of silver, also known as silversmithing, has been around for centuries. With the creation of hand-made silver objects, the issue of cleaning and caring for these items was a concern. Silversmiths would give advice to clients on how to properly care for their silver. Here are examples of instructions given by silversmiths in the 17th and 18th centuries.

1737 - "Clean it now and then with only warm water and soap, with a Spunge, and then wash it with clean water, and dry it very well with a soft Linnen cloth, and keep it in a dry place, for the damp will spoyle it".[11]
1679 - "...rubb the flagons and chalices from topp to the Bottome, not crosswise, but the Bason and patnes are to be rubb’d roundwise, not acrosse, and by noe means use either chalk, sand, or salt" [11]

Although dated, these instructions are very similar to current methods of cleaning and polishing of silver.

Current practices[edit]

The following sections discuss the different methods in which silver objects can be cleaned and polished. Some of the methods described below can cause damage to the surface of the silver, such as scratching or accelerated tarnishing. A conservator should be consulted if there are any questions about the methods below especially when dealing with archaeological, antique or sensitive objects.[12]

Museum conservation practices – historical objects[edit]

Water sensitive objects are masked in plastic wrap to avoid getting wet. A slurry of precipitated (pharmaceutical grade) calcium carbonate and deionized water is created and rubbed onto the silver piece with a cotton rag or cotton ball. It is recommended that the slurry be tested on the bottom or in a non-visible area of the silver for abrasiveness. If the slurry is too abrasive it will scratch the surface and increase the potential for future tarnishing. The polish is applied with a soft cloth and polished in a circular motion.[13]

Parts of a silver object from Indianapolis Museum of Art collection, in the process of being polished with calcium carbonate. An unpolished piece is on the left and a finished piece on the right.

Ethyl alcohol is sometimes added to the slurry mixture to help dry out excess water. The slurry mixture is applied throughout the piece until completely polished. Dark tarnish spots are sometimes located on the surface and may need to be polished more than once to remove. Over polishing is an issue with silver and can cause harm to the surface of the metal. After polishing, the silver object is rinsed in deionized water and dried with a cotton cloth.[12]

Once cleaned and dried the silver is wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and placed in a sealed plastic bag. A 3M anti-tarnish strip is also placed in the bag to absorb any sulfur that may be in the air. The tissue paper is used as a buffer to prevent the silver surface coming into contact with the anti-tarnish strip.[13]


Waddings are cloths that have been infused with an organic solvent. Because they contain solvents instead of water, they can be used for polishing metal objects that cannot be exposed to water. Polishing waddings will leave abrasive particles behind and the residue can be removed using a soft brush or by rubbing the surface with a soft linen cloth.[14]

Natural methods[edit]

The following sections include methods that use natural methods such as water and salt to clean the surface of silver. Some of the methods use heat which may be dangerous to silver tableware such as candlesticks or knife handles. Water trapped in crevices of silver objects can accelerate tarnishing.[15]

Single Ingredient - Toothpaste is applied with a clean cloth as a gentle abrasive with a soft bristle toothbrush and rinsed in water.[16]

Boiling Water Bath - The silver object or pieces are placed into an aluminum pot and covered with water. One tablespoon of salt and baking soda is added and boiled for three minutes. After cooling, the silver is placed into a warm soapy water mixture and cleaned with a cotton cloth and then dried with a separate cotton cloth.[16]

Soaking bath – A glass roasting pan is lined with aluminum foil with the dull side facing downwards. The silver is placed atop of the foil and a quart of boiling water is poured over the pieces with two tablespoons of baking soda. The silver soaks for five minutes and is dried with a clean cloth.[16]

Chemical dips[edit]

A popular and quick method for polishing silver is the use of chemical dips. Dips work by dissolving the tarnished surface of the silver at a highly accelerated rate. Many dips are made of acids and other agents. Acids are very corrosive and pose a danger to the silver surface as well as to the user. Dips can be harmful to objects with sealed surfaces such as candlesticks, trophies and teapots with hollow components because the chemical could leak into the hollow area and can never be removed.[17] Unlike museum quality polishing, employing a slurry of calcium carbonate and ionized water, dips are quicker and less expensive. However, dips are more abrasive to the surfaces of silver, gold, and other metals. NOTE: Jeffrey Herman confirms this method damages silver.[18]

Laser cleaning[edit]

Can be used.[19] The above process wil naturally lead to the cleaning of silver, which is passed through lasers to remove any dirt and pollutants.

Plasma cleaning[edit]

Can be used.[20][21]

Polishing wheels[edit]

Polishing wheels, also known as buffing wheels or polishing mops, use a specific electric tool to physically remove tarnish from the surface rather than chemically as with the calcium carbonate slurry or commercial dips.[22]

Because silver is soft, the surface can be easily cut or scratched. The main buffing type used for silver, gold, and plated objects is Canton flannel. This flannel is made of very soft material and will not scratch the plated, lacquered, or other soft surfaces.[22]

Along with buffing wheels, particular compounds are used to help polish the material. Two main types of compounds used for silver and gold surfaces are red and blue compounds. Red, also known as jeweler's rouge, polishes without any cutting action. The blue compound is a dryer compound and is used with a grease-less wheel that also does not cut or scratch the surface.[22]

Museum conservation practices - Archaeology objects[edit]

Hellenistic silver medallion, partly gilt, Miletopoli,2nd-1st centuries BC,after conservation, Antikensammlung Berlin

Archaeological silver objects are particularly sensitive to mistakes in planning or carrying out conservation restoration. The essential problem connected with archaeological silver objects is brittleness.[23] Certain objects, such as those that are completely mineralized, nielloed, or gilt, are particularly problematic. When dealing with archaeological objects, reversible processes, such as the use of Paraloid B-72 glue, are preferred to permanent treatments.

Benzotriazole can be used as corrosion inhibitor for archaeological importance. Suitable protective coatings include Paraloid B-72 (or Paraloid B 67 - soluble in white spirit) and Renaissance Wax.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  • Selwyn, L. Metals and Corrosion: A Handbook for Conservation Professional, Ottawa 2004.
  • Catello, D. Il restauro delle opere in argento (Restoration of silver artifacts), Napoli 2008.
  • Catello,C. Argenti antichi. Tecnologia, restauro, conservazione. Rifacimenti e falsificazione,Sorrento 2000.
  • Schmidt-Ott, K. Reinigung von Silberoberflaechen, Stuttgart 1996.
  • Cronyn, J. M. The Elements of Archaeological Conservation, London 1990.


  • Wanhill, R.J.H., 2000, Brittle archaeological silver. Identification, restoration and conservation, Materialen, 16, 30– 5; also NLR Technical Publication NLR.
  • Wanhill, R.J.H., Steijaert, J.P.H.M., Leenheer, R., and Koens, J.F.W., 1998, Damage assessment and preservation of an Egyptian silver vase (300-200 BC), Archaeometry, 40, 123–137.
  • Ravich, I.G., 1993, Annealing of brittle archaeological silver: microstructural and technological study, in 10th Triennial Meeting of the International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation, Preprints of the Seminar: August 22/27, 1993, II, 792–795, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
  • Niemeyer, B., 1997, Early 20th-century restorations and modern conservation treatments on archaeological silver objects, Metal 95, Proceedings of the International Conference on Metals Conservation (eds. I.D. MacLeod, S.L. Pennec and L. Robbiola), 190–195, James & James (Science Publishers) Ltd, London, U.K.
  • Bennett, A., 1994, Technical examination and conservation, Chapter 2 in The Sevso Treasure Part One, Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series
  • Costa, V. The deterioration of silver alloys and some aspects of their conservation. Reviews in Conservation. The Internacional Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. N° 2. 2001. Number Twelve.
  • Sease, Catherine; Selwyn, Lyndsies; Zubiate, Susana; Bowers, David F.; Atkins, David R. Problems with coated silver: whisker formation and possible filiform corrosion. Studies in Conservation n° 42. 1997.
  • Jett,P.R., Two Examples of the Treatment of Ancient Silver, Current Problems in the Conservation of Metal Antiquities, International Symposium on the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Tokyo National Research Institute of Cultural Properties, Japan 1993
  • Daniels, V. D., and S.Ward. 1982. A rapid test for the detection of substances which will tarnish silver. Studies in Conservation27:58–60.
  • Duncan, S.1986b. Protection of silver against sulfide tarnishing. Conservation Research Report V9, The British Museum, London.
  • Duncan, S.1987. Evaluation of four different hydrogen sulfide scavengers. Conservation Research Report V30, The British Museum, London.
  • Franey, T. P., G. W.Kammlott, and T. E.Graedel. 1985. The corrosion of silver by atmospheric sulfurous gases. Corrosion Science25, 2:133–143.
  • Bradley, S. M.1989. Hydrogen sulfide scavengers for the prevention of silver tarnishing. In Environmental monitoring and control, Dundee: SSCR and the Museums Association. 6567.
  • Hallett, K., D.Thickett, D.McPhail, and R.Chater. 2003. Application of SIMS to silver tarnish at the British Museum. Applied Surface Science 2003-2004: 789–792.
  • Lee, L. R.1996. Investigation of materials to prevent the tarnishing of silver. Conservation Research Report 1996/1, The British Museum, London.
  • Thickett, D., and M.Hockey. 2003. The effects of conservation treatments on the subsequent tarnishing of silver. In Conservation science 2002, eds. J.Townsend, K.Eremin, and A.Adriaens. London: Archetype Publications Ltd.155–161.
  • Wilthew, P.1981. The effect of cleaning treatments on the long term tarnishing of silver. Conservation Research report III 13, The British Museum, London.
  • Vanessa Cheel, Peter Northover, Chris Salter, Donna Stevens, Geoff Grime, Brian Jones, izlaganje na konferenciji METAL 2010.,Charleston 2010.,Conference preoceedings
  • Ellen van Bork, Sara Creange, Ineke Joosten.2010.Blisters in fire gildings on silver...,Metal 2010. The Effects of Fingerprints on Silver Conference proceedings,Charleston 2010.
  • G Marchand, R Chevallier, E Guilminot, L Rossetti, S Lemoine, M Vieau :Study of the conservation treatment applied to the archaeological horn silver artefacts, METAL 2013,Edinburgh 2013.,Conference Proceedings
  • J Contreras-Vargas, J L Ruvalcaba-Sil, F J Rodríguez-Gómez :Effects of the cleaning of silver with acidified thiourea solutions,METAL 2013,Edinburgh 2013.,Conference Proceedings
  • Geraldine Marchand, Elodie Guilminot, Stéphane Lemoine, Loretta Rossetti, Michelle Vieau, Nicolas Stephant Degradation of archaeological horn silver artefacts in burials,Heritage Science 2014, 2:5
  • T. Palomar, M. Oujja, I. Llorente, B. Ramírez Barat, M.V. Cañamares, E. Cano, M. Castillejo, Evaluation of laser cleaning for the restoration of tarnished silver artifacts”. Applied Surface Science, 387 (2016) 118–127.
  • T. Palomar, B. Ramírez Barat, E. García, E. Cano, ”A comparative study of cleaning methods for tarnished silver”Journal of Cultural Heritage, 17 (2016) 20–26.
  • E. Brown Vying for Control: Using Acidified Thiourea Gel to Remove Tarnish from Gilt Silver and Gold, METAL 2016, New Delhi 2017., Conference Proceedings
  • G. Aubert, J. Saunders, S. Golfomitsou Silver Cleaning: Comparative Study of Three Commercial Polishers and Their Use on Islamic Historical Metalwork, METAL 2016, New Delhi 2017., Conference Proceedings


External links[edit]

Silver conservation video files[edit]


  1. ^ "10 History of Silver". The Silver Institute. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  2. ^ Roberge, Pierre. "Gold Corrosion". Corrosion Doctors. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  3. ^ a b Erhardt, David; Charles S. Tumosa and Marion F. Mecklenburg (2007). "Applying science to the question of museum climate". Museum Microclimates. National Museum of Denmark: 11–18.
  4. ^ "At Home Experiment: Put a Shine on it". SciFun. Archived from the original on 14 May 2011. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  5. ^ Bachmann, Konstanze (1992). Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators. Smithsonian Institution. pp. 132. ISBN 9781560981749.
  6. ^ Bachmann, Konstanze (1992). Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators. Smithsonian Institution. p. 69. ISBN 9781560981749.
  7. ^ Bachmann, Konstanze (1992). Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators. Smithsonian Institution. pp. 99–101. ISBN 9781560981749.
  8. ^ Bachmann, Konstanze (1992). Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators. Smithsonian Institution. pp. 100–103. ISBN 9781560981749.
  9. ^ Perkins, Beverly (2003). "The De-electrification and Re-electrification of Historic Lighting Fixtures at Winterthur Museum". Journal of the American Institute of Conservation. 6. 42 (3): 457–462. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  10. ^ Wharton, Glenn (Jan 1989). "The Cleaning and Lacquering of Museum silver". Western Association for Art Conservation. 11 (1): 4–5.
  11. ^ a b Cripps, Wilfred (1967). Old English Plate. London: Spring Books. pp. 17–18.
  12. ^ a b National Park Service. "Caring for Silver and Copper Alloy Materials" (PDF). Conserve O Gram. NPS. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  13. ^ a b Drayman-Weisser, T (1992). Caring for Your Collections. New York: Harry N. Abrams Incorp. pp. 109–121.
  14. ^ Selwyn, L (2017-09-14). "Care and Tarnish Removal" (PDF). Canadian Conservation Institute. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  15. ^ Bachmann, Konstanze (1992). Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators. Smithsonian Institution. p. 103. ISBN 9781560981749.
  16. ^ a b c Douglas, Ellen. "All Natural Way to Clean Tarnished Silver". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 5 April 2012. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  17. ^ Herman, Jeffrey. "Silver Care". Society of Silversmiths. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  18. ^ "Tarn-X Tarnish Remover Review and Other Silver Dips - WARNING!". Retrieved 7 October 2018.
  19. ^ SALIMBENI, RENZO (2006). "LASER TECHNIQUES FOR CONSERVATION OF ARTWORKS" (PDF). Institute of Applied Physics “Nello Carrara”- CNR. Retrieved 1 October 2013.
  20. ^ Schmidt-Otta, K (October 2004). "Plasma-Reduction: Its Potential for Use in the Conservation of Metals" (PDF). Retrieved 1 October 2013.
  21. ^ "Cleaning treatment of a tarnished Daguerreotype by using the reducing afterglow of an atmospheric plasma". Archived from the original on 2013-09-27. Retrieved 2013-10-01. Accessed 1.10.2013.
  22. ^ a b c Caswell Electroplating in Miniature. "How to Buff and Polish: An Introduction to Buffing & Polishing". Caswell Inc. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  23. ^ Wanhill, R.J.H., 2000, Brittle archaeological silver. Identification, restoration and conservation, Materialen, 16, 30– 5; also NLR Technical Publication NLR.