A few weeks ago, I found an awesome brass Chinese drum stool in a flea market. It had at least four things going for it that I loved: vintage, metal, unique pattern, eclectic vibe.
What it did not exactly have going for it was condition. Chinese drums stools are also called garden stools, and I’m pretty sure this one was being used in some kind of outdoor capacity, because the bottom three inches or so was covered in a pretty thick green tarnish.
I actually left the store without it that day because I just wasn’t sure what kind of condition I could restore it to. And also because I’m an extremely indecisive shopper, so I rarely buy anything that cannot be returned with out very serious and measured thought. This is why if you eat at a restaurant with me, I’m probably going to ask the server come back two or three times before I’m at all prepared to place an order. After doing some research and sleeping on it, though, I was ready to commit.
It turns out there are a lot of different methods for cleaning and polishing brass, and they range from so natural you can eat them (ketchup) to so chemical they would probably eat you (a product called Descale-It, which boasted some amazing before/after pics, but also cost $35 online).
In the end, I went with the combination of items that seemed most reasonable to me, and that I already had in my house. They included soap, water, vinegar, Brasso, and Bar Keeper’s Friend. Here’s the process I followed:
- Wash with hot, soapy water. The stool was pretty dirty, both inside and out, so it needed a good scrub. I used a plastic bristled brush to wash away the dirt and get in all the crannies.
- Soak in vinegar for between 30 minutes to an hour. I was doing all this in a utility sink and didn’t have enough vinegar to fill the sink with it, so we put the vinegar in a spray bottle and applied it repeatedly over this period of time.
- Lightly scrub with fine steel wool. The vinegar started to break down the tarnish, but the steel wool was really helpful for getting it off. The key is to be sure you have a very fine steel wool so that you don’t scratch the brass. This means you probably shouldn’t use the old S.O.S pads in your cabinet, but you should be able to buy fine steel wool at most hardware stores.
- Rinse! Man, was that vinegar stinky.
- Polish with a combination of Brasso and Bar Keeper’s Friend. After the washing and the vinegar, the stool was really water stained and almost looked worse than when I started. The polishing was when the end result really started to show. Both Brasso and Bar Keeper’s Friend are metal polishers, each with pros and cons:
- Brasso is the gentler and has about the same consistency as lotion, so it’s easier to apply.
- Bar Keeper’s Friend is more powerful, but it’s a powder that has to be mixed with water, so it can get a little messy, and it definitely feels like you’re using a chemical.
I used Brasso on the majority of the stool and Bar Keeper’s Friend on the areas around the top and the bottom that needed a little extra help. You can see a big difference in this picture between the side that had been polished and the side that had only been washed.
Side note: you see me wearing gloves in this picture, but I did not wear gloves when I washed it, and I am here to tell you, YOU MUST WEAR GLOVES THROUGH THE ENTIRE PROCESS. I got tarnish under my fingernails that is not totally out even as I type this. I had to paint my nails immediately so that people did not think I had a rare disease, but that couldn’t conceal it. Learn from my mistake and avoid this nasty state of affairs.
Back to the point, the end result is about as good as I could have hoped.
It hasn’t found a permanent place in the house yet, but it’s tried out a few spots, and proven itself pretty versatile.
I think I’ll keep it.