How to Clean Old Brass Buttons

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Natural cleaning methods also work on solid brass fixtures throughout the house.
Natural cleaning methods also work on solid brass fixtures throughout the house. (Image: Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

While time lends many metals and alloys a natural, shabby-chic patina, the passing of years takes a striking toll on brass; as the decades fly by, buttons that once exuded a warm golden glow eventually take on a dark, dull finish. If your latest do-it-yourself decor project features vintage brass buttons, turn to all-natural, common household products to take old brass from drab to gleaming.

Things You'll Need

  • Microfiber cloths
  • Mild dish soap
  • Soft-bristled toothbrush
  • Strainer (optional)
  • Tomato ketchup
  • Kitchen knife
  • Lemon
  • Salt

The Ketchup Method

Dip a clean, soft microfiber cloth into hot, soapy water. Rub the surface of each button with the cloth, using a soft-bristled toothbrush to work dirt out of textured buttons. Rinse the buttons clean with warm water. If you have a bunch of buttons, you can rinse them all at once in a strainer. Dry the buttons by hand using another clean microfiber cloth.

Rub tomato ketchup all over each button, massaging it in and thoroughly coating each surface. Let the buttons sit for about an hour. As the ketchup sits on the buttons, the salt and acetic acid in it breaks down the tarnish.

Wipe the buttons clean of ketchup with a microfiber cloth and hot, soapy water. Rinse them thoroughly with warm water and dry them by hand with a clean microfiber cloth once again.

Brass-Cleaning Citrus

Use a kitchen knife to slice a lemon in half. Remove the lemon seeds. Sprinkle a generous amount of table salt onto the flesh of the lemon.

Firmly rub each button into the salted flesh of the lemon, which cleans the brass with citric acid while the salt acts as a light abrasive. Repeat the process with each button you need to clean, re-applying the salt as necessary.

Buff each button with a clean, dry microfiber cloth to remove the lemon residue and restore the brass to its former shine. Repeat the lemon application and buffing as needed; it may take a few rounds to restore particularly dulled brass.

Tips & Warnings

  • A paste made of equal parts flour, salt and white vinegar serves as an alternative to ketchup.
  • To prevent tarnish from occurring, polish the clean brass buttons with a terry cloth and a dab of mineral or linseed oil.
  • If the buttons are brass-plated rather than solid brass, simply polish them gently with a microfiber cloth and hot, soapy water. Ketchup- or lemon-based cleaning will damage the finish. If you're unsure of the makeup of your buttons, use the magnet test -- brass-plated buttons will stick to a magnet while solid brass buttons will not.
  • Avoid using abrasive cleaning items such as steel wool or metal-bristled brushes on your brass buttons, as these may cause permanent scratches.

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