Cleaning vintage can be a real pain in the ass. Let’s just get that right up front. And while the internet seems to hold the answer for every other question, it can be difficult sometimes to find out how to clean vintage objects other than clothing. Figuring out how to clean vintage metal objects often ends up being a trial-and-error process.
The good news is that vintage/antique metal objects are usually pretty easy to clean, provided they are in good condition, and not falling apart from rust. We’ll use my coffeepot as Exhibit A.
It was looking sad. You can see the water spots and general dullness. This pot is made of aluminum. Don’t be put off buying something because it’s not made of stainless steel – there is nothing wrong with aluminum, and it’s quite easy to clean. It took me about 20 minutes to clean this coffeepot.
All you need is the correct type of cleaner – in this case, aluminum polish.
But here was the bad part. Coffee stains. For this, I needed a steel wool pad. Any bad stains and discolorations on metal can usually be taken care of with steel wool, but be aware that steel wool can leave scratches behind. (Update: Magic Erasers will also remove coffee stains from a stainless steel or aluminum carafe.)
If there is a stain on the outside of an item, (in an area that’s highly visible, in other words) always try to remove the stain with soap and/or scouring powder first. Use steel wool as a last resort.
In this case, it was the inside of a coffeepot. Not a big deal if there are scratches.
Much better. Not perfect, but some of those stains have been in there longer than I’ve been alive. They’re pretty much entrenched.
I also had to clean a brass item. It’s the same method, but using a polish made for brass.
That’s a ’40s fire extinguisher, if you’re wondering. For this, I made a paste of water and Barkeeper’s Friend. I applied the paste with a toothbrush, moving the toothbrush in circles. Then I washed the paste off with hot water. Be extremely careful around labels and any paint! If you apply too much pressure, labels and paint can wash away.
Here is another brass before-and-after.
See? That’s why we polish!
If you have any questions on how to clean anything vintage, shoot me an email or leave a comment below.
21 thoughts on “How to Clean Vintage Metal”
I recieved a metal bread box…it's in rough shape..wondering how I might clean it up. I'm sure the rust can't be dealt with, but thought it might shine up a bit. Can you repaint vintage metal? It's red/white metal…thanks
You sure can! Scuff it up a bit with sandpaper, and repaint it with spray paint. It should work just fine.
Hi Beth,What can I use to clean vintage locker baskets without taking away the vintage look of it?
Hi Mia, You can try making a paste from baking soda and water, and use a toothbrush to gently scrub it into the metal. This will take off any gunk or grime and shouldn't be too harsh. For something stronger, try Barkeeper's Friend. Make sure to get the powdered stuff, not the liquid.Good luck!
I have an art deco smoking stand and the metal appears to be chrome on the base and chrome or nickle on the top. The base has "peppering". What is the best way to clean this?
I would try a chrome polish from an auto parts store. Another method I just heard about is to use aluminum foil – try Googling 'how to clean chrome with aluminum foil' to get exact instructions. I've never tried it so I can't personally vouch for how well it works, but it seems to be a popular method.
I purchased an old telephone stand that is metal with "faux" wood shelves. It's not a precious metal but it still needs cleaning. Any suggestions?
If you're unsure of what type of metal the stand is made from, I suggest gently cleaning it with a thin paste made from baking soda and water. You can add a few drops of dish soap if the stand is really dirty or greasy. Use a clean rag or a toothbrush to apply the paste, and just gently scrub it in and then rinse it off.
Hi! How should I clean the metal on a vintage suitcase?
I would suggest gently scrubbing the metal with a thin paste of baking soda and water. Rub it into the metal with a rag or toothbrush. That usually works pretty well.
Awesome! Thank you!
Nice site! In addition to a bunch of late 1800's silverware – none matching – that I know how to polish, I have a small bread-box sized black metal trunk. (Well, some of the black has scraped off and the silvery metal shows through. No rust at all, though. It was used 1900-1925 by my grandmother for papers. The latch/lock is missing and it is dented up pretty well. I call that "character". LOL. The fun part is that my father and one of his siblings scratched their names in the thing when they were kids .Hardened dust has filled the dents and handle areas. I don't think it is a metal that would rust – but don't want to use water.Sure would like your ideas for cleaning up and keeping "as is" for a "memento" in the family.
Unfortunately, I don't know how to go about cleaning it without using water, unless you can find some liquid metal polish. For the hardened dust (and I know exactly what you're talking about, that stuff makes me crazy!) I would mix a few drops of dish soap into some water, dip a Q-tip into it, and gently clean it out. If it does rust, it can usually be removed by using Barkeeper's Friend on it. (The powder, not the liquid.)
I found a ton of dirty metal keys in an alleyway. I thought that I'd clean them up and make some jewelry! I'm just going to soak them in dish soap and water. Any special suggestions? 🙂
Sounds like you've got a pretty good plan already! I would suggest not soaking them for too long, or they could start to rust. Another thing you could try is making a thick paste of baking soda and water, and applying it with a toothbrush; then get in there and gently scrub everything away. A toothbrush would work well to get into the tiny grooves on keys. If they look dull after cleaning, try a bit of metal polish or Barkeeper's Friend to help shine them up.
I have an old children's scooter that is totally covered in rust. Is it safe to sand blast this item to remove the rust before priming and painting? From what I understand this will leave small pits in the metal. Is there a better way to remove rust. I also have an small vintage grape press that has some rust on the press gears but do not know how to remove rust without damaging the sign on the front of press. Any help would be appreciated.
Hi there! Sandblasting with fine grain sand will not pit metal. (That's how auto body shops remove paint, after all.) It's a fairly fast method to remove paint, if you have the equipment, but it must be painted soon after sandblasting, or it will rust. The rust on the press may be able to be removed with a small wire brush, but will have to be painted or oiled to keep the rust from coming back.
We just acquired a vintage Hanson Dairy Scale which is unfortunately covered in dirt/rust. The face has painted lettering and numbering so I'm looking for a good way to clean this scale up without ruining the lettering/numbering. Any ideas would be appreciated.
I would try a baking soda/water solution first – mix the two until a smooth paste is formed, then apply it with a cotton swab or rag. For rust, try the same method with the powdered version of Barkeeper's Friend. Either be very gentle around the lettering or avoid it altogether, I'm not sure I would try anything other than water on the lettering.
We own a house built in 1940 and it has the original coal fireplace surround, basket and summer door. I believe everything other than the summer door is cast iron. The summer door is a much lighter metal. Any suggestions on how to clean it?
Aside from using a wire brush to remove any rust or debris and then polishing it, I haven't a clue. I think Google will have a better answer for you than I do.
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