Cleaning & maintenance

Maintenance: Metal polish for tarnish



I need to do something about the tarnish popping up on this lovely display piece.

Maintenance: 50cm cocotte

I don’t worry about tarnish on my working copper pans but I do have a few pieces on display that I like to keep bright and shiny. This is one of them: a gorgeous 50cm oval cocotte, beautifully restored by Rocky Mountain Retinning, currently in repose in a place of honor. But copper being what it is, scabrous-looking patches of tarnish have sprouted in inconvenient locations on its display flank. I would like to get that tarnish off and find a way to forestall more from forming.

A recent rainy day gave me an excuse to work on it, and I thought I’d write it up. I have a two-step process for this.

Display copper maintenanceFirst I will use a copper cleaner because it’s the fastest and easiest way to get existing tarnish off the copper. Bistro is my favorite brand because it’s the least likely to scratch, but tough tarnish can resist it. I keep Wright’s Copper Cleaner as backup for severe cases.

Copper cleaner comes in a tub and has the texture of a clay-like paste. It combines strong acids that dissolve tarnish with abrasives that help dislodge layers of tarnish deposits. It’s applied with a soft sponge and then rinsed and washed away with dish soap and warm water.

Display copper maintenanceThen I will use a metal polish to shine the copper and lay down a thin protective seal that helps prevent new tarnish from forming. My preferred brand is Simichrome, but Flitz and Wenol are also good.

Metal polish comes in a tube and has the consistency of toothpaste. It consists of very fine-grained abrasives that micro-polish the surface of the copper and give it a deep shine. I apply a dab of polish, rub it in small circles, and then buff the area with a clean cloth until it shines, working slowly over the copper in patches.

I don’t rinse or wash the copper afterwards. The polish is petroleum-based and it leaves behind a very thin layer that serves as a physical barrier between the surface of the copper and the air, and that is what helps the copper resist more tarnish. Washing the copper with soap and water will wash this layer away, so it’s best for pieces that don’t get used very often.

I like using copper cleaner first and then metal polish because I’ve found it’s the fastest and most thorough way to get display copper back to a nice bright look. Could I skip the copper cleaner step and just use metal polish? Yes — metal polish removes tarnish very effectively and can even diminish patches of tarnish that resist copper cleaner. It’s also a much finer-grained abrasive, so you can really go to town on discolorations without worrying about leaving scratch marks behind.

But the downside is that unlike copper cleaner, metal polish requires mechanical action to do so. The acids in copper cleaner go to work the instant they hit the metal — massaging it around helps it work more thoroughly, but it does a certain amount of work all by itself. But metal polish does nothing unless I rub it in with some force and then it must be buffed away. And the deeper the tarnish, the more rubbing it takes to attack it with the metal polish. If I use copper cleaner to knock out the overall surface tarnish, I can reduce time and effort during the much more labor-intensive metal polishing step.

Here’s the cocotte and its lid, ready for the procedure. You can see the dark tarnish patches clearly.

Here’s the toolkit I assembled:

  • Copper cleaner (Bistro)
  • Sink, dish soap, and non-scratch sponge
  • Metal polish (Simichrome)
  • At least two clean rags that I don’t mind getting permanently stained
  • Comfortable chair and a surface on which to set the pot for polishing

Cleaning and polishing the lid

Step 1: Copper cleaner

I took the lid to the sink, splashed it with a little water, and applied copper cleaner all over to lift away as much tarnish as I could. You can see right away how well the cleaner is cutting through the worst of the tarnish deposits.


After I’d wiped the cleaner over the copper, gently massaged it into the tougher tarnish patches, and rinsed it away, I then washed the copper with dish soap, warm water, and a non-scratch sponge.

Step 2: Metal polish

I dried the lid thoroughly and took it over to the table and chair where I could sit and work on it in comfort. Here’s how the lid looked after the initial cleaning.

Display copper maintenanceThat bad patch of tarnish is almost completely gone, which is great. However, the lid has picked up some light reddish dots and swirls — I’m pretty sure this is tarnish from contact with my household water, believe it or not!

I can usually prevent these spots if I dry the pan quickly after it’s been washed, but in this case, I’m not going to worry about it. This is quite light tarnish and should be easy for the metal polish to remove.

Display copper maintenanceI apply a dab of metal polish to my polishing rag and rub it over the surface in small circles. Out of the tube the polish is cream-colored but it turns dark as it’s rubbed over the surface. It is picking up more traces of tarnish as well as tiny amounts of surface copper as it is polishing i

The polish has solvents in it that help it spread but they evaporate within a few seconds. Once that happens, the polish thickens and becomes more intensely abrasive. I focus on rubbing in small circles over the entire area, and give extra attention to dark patches of tarnish.

Display copper maintenanceOnce I’ve polished the area, it’s time to wipe off the excess polish and buff it to a shine.

I use a clean-ish area on the polishing rag to remove the majority of dark used-up polish. The area looks cloudy as it still has a visible layer of polish on it.

Then I switch to the buffing rag and give the area a brisk all-over wipe. The buffing rag takes away the cloudiness and reveals a deep burnished shine. My goal here is not to scrub away every last trace of polish — I want to leave a tiny layer behind to seal the copper from contact with air.

I continue working over the entire surface of the lid in sections. The polish is also good for the brass handle, but I am careful not to leave traces of polish in the crevices. Once I’m done I check the surface for left-over cloudiness that needs to be buffed away or stubborn areas of tarnish that need a second treatment.

Here’s the before and after. The patches of tarnish are gone and the surface is shinier overall. It’s hard to judge in these photos, but the copper also has a deeper tone that makes it more beautiful to my eye.

Cleaning and polishing the cocotte

I do the same process for the body of the pan. I won’t re-narrate it in detail but you can follow along in the pictures.

Like its lid, this pan is in a restored state but has some unsightly patches of tarnish that had sprung up in various inconvenient locations.

Display copper maintenanceThe first step is to apply copper cleaner in the sink and then thoroughly wash it off with soap and water.
The copper cleaner softens but does not completely remove some of the more established patches of tarnish. In addition, the sidewalls pick up quite a bit of instantaneous light tarnish.

Display copper maintenanceI apply a dab of polish with the rag, rub it in circles over a small area until it dries, then buff it away.
The results are pretty dramatic.

The finished pot looks terrific.

This took me about an hour and I think it was time well spent. The pot is clean and will resist new tarnish for quite some time.

Some helpful tips

Don’t skip the step of washing the pot off with soap and water after you’ve rinsed off the copper cleaner. The acids in copper cleaner are strong and if any of them are left on the copper they can actually accelerate the formation of tarnish. You may also want to use dishwashing gloves to protect your hands.

Rinse and wipe carefully around the handle. Copper cleaner can build up in those crevices and it’s best to get it out of there before it dries and hardens.

Take breaks. This is repetitive physical work — my arms and hands get tired. I try to switch polishing hands and also watch my posture so I don’t hunch over too much.

I hope this is a helpful example! I have a couple other big pieces that need some maintenance, so if you liked this post, I’ll document those as well.

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  1. I would also exhibit this dream of a cocotte. Beautiful!

    A good suggestion for maintaining two old and fairly dull pans. Despite multiple treatments with the aforementioned copper care products, they do not really want to shine. A polishing machine would probably be helpful in these cases. Now I’m going to polish them with Simichrome, as suggested. I had read about Simichrom years ago, but had to find out that this polish is no longer available in Germany (and probably in the whole of the EU). So I gave up at that time. The retailer shipping prices for this small tube are partly pure exorbitant ($ 45). Well, I found a cheaper option and ordered 2 tubes. It is enough for me if the tubes are not delivered for a few weeks. But sometimes it happens surprisingly quickly. Thanks for the tip and the great result of your polish.

  2. I have never tried it myself but I have a friend who has a lot of copper and brass ornaments, he sprays them with what he describes as the cheapest hair laquer he can buy. Apparently it blocks air contact and so keeps the metal bright. When it does tarnish it can be washed off with dish washing detergent and warm water for polishing again.
    In the UK I can buy autosol and also Peek. There is a big classic car following in Germany so there must be a chrome polish available.

    1. Roger, that’s an interesting idea — but I’d be worried about stickiness. I’ve never thought of hairspray as a form of lacquer. When I’ve gotten hairspray on surfaces, it’s matte and tacky-feeling, not smooth and dry. But maybe this would make for a good experiment…

  3. Zapon lacquer, a nitro lacquer, protects against oxidation, but is not a polishing agent.
    Of course there are many good chrome care products in Germany. Oldtimmer fans recommend Autosol. But that is only one opinion of several. Simichrome is also a German product that was developed in the 1950s and exported to the USA. It is considered the finest polish for certain metals worldwide and is also used by jewelers. I don’t know why it wasn’t available in Germany for a long time. Allegedly, it should be available again in Germany at the end of the year, but at a significantly higher price.

  4. Have you ever tried Mauviel Copperbrill? Once upon a time, not long ago and not far away, Terrell wrote to Valerie Gilbert: “Mauviel Copperbrill est une chose merveilleuse. Merci beaucoup!” Valerie Gilbert wrote back: “Merci a vous” which is the closest thing I can imagine to a thank you card from Princess Diana.

    1. Hey Terrell! I believe Bistro and Copperbrill are the same product, one marketed by Matfer and the other by Mauviel. Bistro is a little less expensive than Copperbrill, but they’re both more expensive than other products. I prefer them because in my experience they are the least likely to scratch copper.

      And congrats on hearing from Valerie. By all accounts she is a formidable businessperson. I would love to meet her but I’m afraid I’d bore her with endless questions about Mauviel history in the 1830s!

  5. I found a listing for “Simichrome All Metal Polish Tube” on Amazon. It is reasonably priced at about twelve dollars – I may try this when my Copperbrill runs out.

    1. Hey Terrell! That’s a great idea — but keep in mind that they are applied differently and produce different results.

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