Repairs Pewter, Silver & China


Some info on pewter repair and other antique items. In the restoration and repair of antiques of all kinds, from furniture to china, silver, pewter and so forth, the idea that if a little is good a lot is better has no place. Instead, the collector, and especially the enthusiastic beginner, should be as ardent an adherent to small doses, well spaced, as was the old-fashioned homeopathic family doctor. Also do not put too much faith in that ingenious tinker-like repair man you have been told about who can do anything from making new legs for a highboy to welding broken glass.

Although I know an automobile mechanic who has more ability in making old clock movements run and keep time than any man I have ever met, except for a few European-trained clockmakers, my experience has been that most of these "fix-anything" handy men are apt to do the wrong thing when turned loose on an antique. Their intentions are the best in the world, but through lack of appreciation of antiques they are liable to commit such atrocities as replacing the handles of a silver tray with rivets instead of resoldering them-to cite a true but extreme example.

These handy men are often engaging characters, and charge much less than experienced workmen who are specialists in their fields, but the results of their ministrations can be near to tragic. So if you take an antique to one of them, stay with it and supervise what is done.

There still remain a few simple and practical things that the collector can do for himself in restoring and caring for the pewter, silver and china that he may collect. For polishing antique silver jewelry, the most simpel way is rubbing it with a soft cotton cloth.

First, there is pewter. One of the collectors of my acquaintance prides himself on the fact that he personally has re-conditioned almost every piece in his collection that needed such attention. The room in which he does this is as replete with equipment and special tools as a dentist's laboratory. In fact, as he sits here cleaning and polishing a teapot and forgetting the daily problems of his business in New York, his long white smock and professional manner give him a somewhat clinical appearance. What this man can do for an ailing pewter plate, porringer or coffeepot is amazing. He has spent ten years, at least, teaching himself the art of pewter restoring, and guards the finer points of it as closely as a professional magician does his best tricks and illusions.

There are a few fundamentals, however, which this pewter specialist and others like him employ in repairing pewter that passes through their hands. With many pewter pieces, the collector is chiefly concerned about cleaning and polishing. This he can do if patience and strength of arm hold out. He would do well to start with simple tasks and practice on pieces made by American pewterers of the ,.coffeepot" era. These are fairly plentiful, and not too valuable. If, at first, through main strength and awkwardness he injures such a piece, he can charge it off to tuition.

If early in his pewter collecting he acquires an earlier and rarer piece, he should entrust its repair and reconditioning to an expert. When it comes back, he can examine it closely to see how well the work was done, and this will give him a standard for his own efforts.

In starting to clean and polish a piece of pewter, hold it to the light and examine it for any fine holes. If it is a tankard, teapot or other hollow piece, fill it with water to test for leaking seams or joints. These can be repaired with the deft use of a small electric iron, such as is used for radio repair work, and plumber's solder. Here, again, practice is needed to learn how to use the least possible amount of solder in closing a hole or sealing a seam.

Next comes cleaning and polishing. Unless a piece is badly oxidized, the dull slate-gray surface of a long neglected piece will yield to patient rubbing with a mild abrasive. I have found that an ordinary kitchen scouring powder, moistened with a little kerosene, is satisfactory. With stubborn pieces, I try powdered Bristol brick, standard for scouring steel knives in the kitchens of our grandmothers. If this doesn't produce desired results, try the fine grade of emery called "flower of emery" in hardware stores, and then fine steel wool.

With either, use kerosene instead of water. It brings out the desired sheen more readily. Even with this procedure, some stubborn spots may have to be rubbed with a piece of fine emery cloth. This should be done sparingly or one will cut too deep into the metal. Such cleaning and polishing must be followed by thorough washing with soap and hot water to rid the pewter of all traces of oil.

Some pieces that will not come bright under this treatment because the oxidation is deep-seated may yield to sterner methods. Try soaking such a piece in a penetrating oil used at garages to loosen rust-frozen bolts. While still covered with the oil, scrub the piece with a piece of shingle end or other handy fragment of wood. If scales still cling to the surface, add a little nitric acid and scrub again.

If this also fails, the last resort is boiling in lye; but in using this remember that lye is a strong caustic and can cause a serious burn. Wear goggles to protect your eyes from a chance spatter, as well as oil-treated leather work gloves for the safety of your hands. Have a pair of kitchen tongs at hand so you can remove the piece for examination. Since the fumes of boiling lye are disagreeable, if not harmful, the window should be open and it would be wise to have a bottle of vinegar at hand as a counteragent if the lye should spatter.

Do this boiling in an iron, brass or enamel-ware kettle, never in one of aluminum, for the lye will eat through that metal. Do not use too strong a solution; a half-cup of lye to a quart of water is strong enough. Watch the boiling carefully. Boiling too long can ruin a piece of pewter, so remove the piece frequently for examination and stop the process before the caustic action has gone beneath the surface.

Pewter so treated should be thoroughly rinsed or even soaked in clear water to remove all trace of lye. Then the piece is ready for ordinary polishing.

Once a collection of pewter has been cleaned and polished, the problem is how to keep it bright and shining. If the pieces are used on the dining table fairly regularly, ordinary washing with soap and water, together with occasional polishings with any good silver polish, will be sufficient. With pieces not used frequently, the best practice is to polish them about twice a month. Rubbing them with a woolen cloth dampened with a light oil will be sufficient. In order not to leave fingerprints that cause tarnish, wear a pair of fabric gloves when doing this polishing.

There is not much the collector can do with brass or copper antiques besides cleaning and polishing them. If there is a break or a soldered joint has loosened in andirons or candlesticks, I have found it better to have it rectified by a repairman who has an acetylene torch welding outfit. With bronze braising rods and the high heat of his torch, there is hardly any repair such a man cannot accomplish. When the work is finished and excess metal has been ground off with an emery wheel and the piece then buffed smooth, it is difficult to see where the repair has been made. Leaking seams or small holes in brass or copper teakettles are also better repaired in this manner. It also holds true for the open kettles that are coated with block tin on the inside, but these should be touched with solder which is the nearest thing to block tin generally available.

For polishing brass and copper antiques, there are a number of compounds that can be bought at hardware stores. These will produce a fine polish with plenty of rubbing, but the best of them are fairly expensive. For a cheaper polishing agent, salt and vinegar has been used for a very long time. Even less costly is the sweat, sand and water method. If you live in the country and happen to have an ant hill handy, dig out some of the very fine sand with a kitchen spoon.

Then with some old cloths and a little water added to the sand, keep working on the pieces until they gleam. I saw this treatment applied to a set of old fireplace tools with finials so black that they resembled the wrought iron of the tools themselves. Within an hour of patient work, the soft sheen of brass gleamed as though these fireplace tools had been given regular cart for years. Sea sand sifted through a fine coffee strainer to remove any particles of grit is equally good, and probably easier to get. Most building supply yards carry it as part of their line of plasterers' supplies. Twenty-five cents' worth of this sand will be more than enough to polish a large collection of old brass and copper.

In order to eliminate repolishing, some people like to have their brass and copper pieces coated with metal lacquer. This should never be done with andirons or kettles intended to be used near or over a fire. Intense heat will burn the lacquer and discolor it, after which it can only be removed by polishing on a power-driven buffing wheel.

Repairs on antique silver are difficult. Making them calls for such special tools that the collector should not attempt to do the work himself. If possible, select a professional who has had experience with antique pieces and has a reputation for doing fine work. Such a repairman will not mar a piece, nor hurt it by smearing on too much silver solder. Good workmen of this type charge well for their work but the results justify it. Be sure, however, when you take a piece to be repaired that it is understood that you do not want it burnished. If this is done, it will lose all of its patina and look as if it were new.

There are a number of excellent prepared polishes for cleaning silver, and if directions are followed good results can be obtained. Occasionally a piece that has been put away for a long time will become so tarnished that it looks practically black and ordinary polishes will not clean it. On such pieces, silversmiths use a special chemical dip. It is poisonous and most collectors prefer to have such work done for them, but for those who want to do their own dipping, here is the recipe of the dip my grandfather, B.M.Bailey, used all the years that he was an active silversmith in Vermont and for many years afterward to keep his own silver gleaming.

He kept it in a tightly covered five-gallon stoneware crock with "POISON" in two-inch red letters painted on side and lid. Into this crock he put two gallons of rain water and a pound each of cyanide of potassium and "salts of tartar," as potassium nitrate was then called. This was stirred with a wooden stick until the chemicals were completely dissolved. When using the solution, he had a large tub of scalding hot water standing close beside the dipping crock.

Each piece of silver was dipped by hand, and as soon as the tarnish had disappeared it was thoroughly rinsed in the hot water. After the silver had been wiped dry. it was rubbed vigorously with a rouged chamois skin to remove any slight grayish tinge that might remain from the dipping. A crockful of this dip will retain its potency for many years, but having one in the home is not recommended unless the container is adequately labeled and kept under lock and key when not in actual use.

For the collector whose antique silver is kept in a cabinet or enclosed cupboard or, if flatware, in a drawer, the frequency with which it must be repolished can be materially reduced if small cakes of camphor are put with it. Camphor fumes keep silver from tarnishing. One small cake is enough for a good-size drawerful of flat pieces, and two cakes to each shelf of a cabinet or cupboard should be adequate to keep the larger pieces displayed there, bright for some weeks.

China, next to glass, is the most breakable of all antiques. Therefore the collector will be more frequently faced with the problem of repairing broken or damaged pieces of china than anything else. Although in magazines appealing to hobbiests some very alluring advertisements can be found of supplies with which the collector can do expert work as his own china-mender. I have yet to see any sizable amount of home-done repairs of this sort that are as satisfactory as those done by expert china repairers.

Such men can do very fine work, which comes as near as possible to remedying perfectly an unfortunate break. To my mind, when a piece of china must be repaired, I think it is worth paying the price to have it done by one of these experts. They can rivet broken plates, mend and reattach snapped handles, patch broken teapot spouts, make knobs on covers fast with small metal bolts, rebuild missing fingers on figurines and do other remarkable repairs that cannot be seen unless a piece is inspected very carefully. Sometimes such repairs are visible only with the aid of a magnifying glass.

For pieces of either porcelain or earthenware that have become discolored with tea or food stains, there is a simple and harmless way for removing most of such stains. Simply soak the piece in clorox or a strong solution of bleaching powder, now used in many industrial processes. The glaze of such a stained piece is slightly porous, and soaking it for a day or two in either solution will permeate beneath the glaze and bleach the stains.

Recently I made some tests to see how effective such bleaching could be, and here are some of the results. An English porcelain teacup having a pronounced brown line along its age crack was soaked overnight and the brown line disappeared. It has not returned, although the cup has been used for coffee at least once a week since then. A small teapot, probably of English ironstone ware, although unmarked, was covered with a network of fine brown hairlines. After it had been soaked in the clorox solution for several days, all the stain disappeared except for a few traces at the tip of the spout, and even they were much fainter.

In the case of a Leeds platter that was covered with mottled light brown stains, I poured paraffin over half of it and when the paraffin was cold, filled the platter with the bleaching compound. Two days later I emptied it and removed the paraffin. The unprotected half was practically clear of stain, while the other retained its brown mottling.

As further checks to be sure this soaking in a bleaching solution would not have any bad effects on decorations done in colors or gilt, especially those applied over the body glaze, I put a number of different pieces into the bleaching bath and left them for several days. The pieces included an Oriental Lowestoft blue and white cup, a piece of French porcelain with a heavy band of gilt, a Staffordshire transferware saucer in sepia and a small vase with decorations in five colors. I examined each closely and found the bleach had had no effect on the colors of any of the pieces. Also some broken pieces put through the same test showed the solution had not reacted on the material itself, even at the cross section of the break.

As a result of these tests, I feel that use of such a bleaching bath to remove food and other stains is a safe and practical means of restoring stained pieces of both porcelain and earthenware to their original tone. Such stains may return in time, but if that happens the pieces can be put in another bath for a second bleaching.

Just one last observation. If you have antique china vases, figurines or the like, don't have them converted into electric lamps if this requires drilling them. Such conversion damages their value as antiques, and usually they are not much good as a source of artifical illumination, which is the true purpose of lamps. Leave such antiques alone, and enjoy them as colorful and interesting decorative accessories.

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