Is cleaning silver with baking soda and boiling water the magic bullet?
Readers and clients ask me about cleaning silver with baking soda and boiling water all the time. I’ve resisted writing about it because, while it is a useful tarnish removal technique to have in your arsenal, it is NOT the magic bullet for a number of reasons.
The pitfalls of cleaning silver with baking soda and boiling water
I walked into a client’s home the other day to do an assessment of silver she was wondering what to do with. Arrayed on the dining room table was an assortment of blindingly tarnish-free silver. Normally that’s a good sign, right? Well, not necessarily.
She had a large collection of lovely repousse pieces. There were creamers and sugars, lots of flatware, a number of bowls, even a magnificent tea set. And all of it was utterly tarnish free.
My heart sank. I began to examine the pieces closely and although I didn’t think it possible, my heart sank even further.
The lowlights are important too
As the lady with the dinner table full of repousse pieces found out, cleaning silver with baking soda and boiling water is very simple to do, but it can have serious consequences. Unlike polish applied conventionally — with elbow grease — the baking soda/boiling water method will remove tarnish from every millimeter of your silver. Even from the nooks and crannies of your intricate repousse silver.
Unless you have an absolutely plain, smooth surfaced piece, you WANT to have tarnish in the crevices. The dark valleys create the contrasts that highlight the rest of the pattern. Even on a simple thread pattern, the dark line serves an important aesthetic function. Scour out the low points and you’ll seriously detract from the pattern. Then you’ll have to wait for the piece to tarnish again.
Can you see in the photo above how the dark areas on this Baltimore silver sugar and creamer make the pattern stand out distinctly? Remove all of that tarnish and the pattern is indistinct.
Boiling water and white spots
I also noticed that some pieces had pale marks…almost like a ghost mark on them. It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed before on other pieces I know to have been cleaned with baking soda and boiling water. I’m theorizing, but from what I’ve read, it might be that the heat of the boiling water is affecting the silver. This isn’t a mark that can be polished out easily either. Sometimes they seem to fade, other times they don’t.
The issue of water temperature is tinged with irony to me. I’ve had perfectly serious conversations with people who are HORRIFIED by my habit of putting silver in the dishwasher. “But it’s too hot!” And yet in the next breath they inform me that they are regularly cleaning silver with baking soda and boiling water!
My dishwasher, when set on the super-hot cycle, rinses at 160℉. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) mandates that residential dishwashers have to reach 150℉ and commercial dishwashers 180℉ in the rinse cycle to be considered sanitized. Water boils at 212℉. That’s an awful lot hotter than your dishwasher. Anyway I never advocate using the super-hot scrub cycle when your silver is in the dishwasher. When you need the super-hot cycle, keep the silver out until the next regular temperature load.
If you use the baking soda cleaning method, use hot, but not boiling water.
Construction matters too
One other note, although I didn’t see it in repousse house (thank goodness), please note that cleaning silver with baking soda and boiling water can have disastrous effects on some pieces of weighted silver. Wax core candlesticks and other hollowware like compotes, can easily be ruined by pouring boiling water on them. The wax gets very soft during the process and taking the piece out and drying it off can cause permanent bends.
After publishing this post, Linnea in the comments below, raises a great point. She says…
“Is this the technique where you also use aluminum foil? I have never had much luck with that. It removes some tarnish but the piece still needs polishing after, as it looks dull. Am I missing something?”
I was evidently too subtle in my title of “cleaning silver” with no mention of “polishing”! Linnea is correct, this method is useful for removing tarnish via a chemical process, but in order to create that shiny finish, you also need to buff the silver with a soft cloth or via an actual silver polish. It is a chemical de-tarnisher rather than polisher.
She also asks about the foil. Yes, you need to use it in order to create the chemical reaction. I deliberately did not include an actual recipe for this process. It is easily found by doing a google search…just please, think about the pieces you are going to de-tarnish and please, don’t use boiling water.
Do you have a friend who uses the baking soda/boiling water method to clean their silver? Pass this piece along so they can avoid some of the common pitfalls.