Holiday Tip: A Rub-Free Solution For Silver Tarnish

December 08, 1998

Foil, Water, Baking Soda: A Rub-Free Solution For Stained Silver
Johns Hopkins Professor Offers Simple Trick to Lift Ugly Tarnish from Fine Serving Pieces


You're preparing for a holiday party or a family gathering. You've invited the guests and planned the menu. You take out your finest utensils and serving pieces -- then let out a loud groan. The silver is badly tarnished. It's time to tackle one of the season's least popular traditions: cleaning and polishing the silver.

Many people just reach for a commercial product and start rubbing. But a materials scientist at The Johns Hopkins University says a simple home recipe using baking soda, water and aluminum foil can remove stubborn stains from silver with minimal muscle power. Jerome Kruger, a professor of materials science and engineering, says this method is particularly helpful in pulling tarnish from narrow grooves and intricate patterns, places that are hard to reach with traditional cleaning methods.

Kruger is an internationally respected expert on corrosion, and tarnish -- like its cousin, rust -- is a product of the corrosion process. In fact, the term is derived from a Latin word for "gnawing," the same root that produced "rodent."

"Corrosion is the deterioration of a material, usually a metal, as a result of chemical reactions with the environment in which it is placed," Kruger explains. "Tarnish is produced when silver reacts with sulfur compounds in the air, such as the gas released when you boil eggs. Tarnish doesn't harm the metal. It's just ugly. Silver pieces are supposed to be bright, shiny and lustrous."

To remove tarnish, Kruger triggers another chemical reaction that separates the sulfur from the silver. Here are the four easy steps: The tarnish in the cracks and crevices should be removed by this procedure. If not, repeat.

Although commercial silver polish products will also remove tarnish, they usually require more scrubbing. "The tarnish in the grooves is very hard to remove with commercial cleaners," Kruger says. "The reason that this process works so well is that it acts electrochemically. There is a flow of electrons between the silver object and the aluminum foil, and that's what removes the tarnish."

The electrochemical process may not entirely restore the original gleam, Kruger cautions. People who want some extra sparkle may choose to apply a small amount of commercial polish to the broad, smooth surfaces of the silver piece.

Kruger first circulated this tarnish removal recipe in a consumer cleaning tips pamphlet produced by the federal agency now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He was employed by that agency before joining the faculty at Hopkins.
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A color slide of Professor Kruger is available; Contact Phil Sneiderman (see above).
More information on Professor Kruger's work on corrosion is available at
http://www.jhu.edu/~matsci/people/faculty/kruger/kruger.html

The Johns Hopkins University
Office Of News And Information
3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843
Phone: (410) 516-7160 / Fax (410) 516-5251
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Johns Hopkins University

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