Tarnish – Definition, Examples, History & More – Art Conservation and Restoration Glossary

What is Tarnish?

Tarnish is a thin layer of corrosion that forms on the surface of metal objects, typically silver, copper, brass, or bronze. It is caused by a chemical reaction between the metal and sulfur compounds in the air or other substances. Tarnish can give metal objects a dull, discolored appearance and can detract from their beauty and value.

Tarnish is a natural process that occurs over time as metals react with their environment. It is often seen on jewelry, silverware, coins, and other metal objects that are exposed to air and moisture. Tarnish can also be accelerated by factors such as pollution, humidity, and exposure to certain chemicals.

Causes of Tarnish

The primary cause of tarnish is the reaction of metal with sulfur compounds in the air. These compounds can come from sources such as pollution, industrial emissions, and household chemicals. When metal objects are exposed to sulfur compounds, a chemical reaction occurs that forms a layer of tarnish on the surface of the metal.

Other factors that can contribute to tarnish include humidity, which can increase the rate of corrosion, and exposure to certain chemicals such as chlorine or ammonia. Additionally, handling metal objects with dirty hands or storing them in improper conditions can also lead to tarnish formation.

Effects of Tarnish on Artwork

Tarnish can have a number of negative effects on artwork, both aesthetically and structurally. Aesthetically, tarnish can give metal objects a dull, dirty appearance that detracts from their beauty and value. Tarnished artwork may also lose its luster and shine, making it less visually appealing.

Structurally, tarnish can weaken metal objects over time, causing them to become brittle and prone to damage. In severe cases, tarnish can lead to pitting or corrosion of the metal surface, which can be difficult or impossible to repair. Tarnish can also obscure fine details and intricate designs on metal artwork, diminishing their artistic value.

Methods of Removing Tarnish

There are several methods for removing tarnish from metal artwork, depending on the type of metal and the severity of the tarnish. One common method is to use a commercial metal polish or tarnish remover, which can be applied to the surface of the metal and buffed off with a soft cloth. These products often contain abrasive particles that help to remove tarnish and restore the metal’s shine.

Another method for removing tarnish is to create a homemade cleaning solution using ingredients such as vinegar, baking soda, or lemon juice. These natural acids can help to dissolve tarnish and restore the metal’s luster. To use this method, simply apply the cleaning solution to the tarnished area, scrub gently with a soft brush or cloth, and rinse thoroughly with water.

For more stubborn tarnish, a professional cleaning or restoration service may be necessary. Professional cleaners have specialized tools and techniques for removing tarnish from metal artwork without causing damage to the surface. They may use methods such as electrolysis, ultrasonic cleaning, or chemical baths to remove tarnish and restore the metal to its original condition.

Preventing Tarnish on Artwork

There are several steps that can be taken to prevent tarnish from forming on metal artwork and keep it looking its best. One of the most important preventive measures is proper storage and display of metal objects. Metal artwork should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and sources of humidity. It should also be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper or stored in airtight containers to protect it from exposure to air and moisture.

Regular cleaning and maintenance of metal artwork can also help to prevent tarnish from forming. Dust and dirt can accelerate tarnish formation, so metal objects should be cleaned regularly with a soft cloth or brush to remove any buildup. Avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive cleaners, as these can damage the metal surface and cause tarnish to form.

Another way to prevent tarnish is to apply a protective coating to metal artwork. This can be done using products such as lacquer, wax, or clear sealants, which create a barrier between the metal and its environment. These coatings can help to prevent tarnish from forming and make it easier to clean and maintain metal artwork over time.

Professional Restoration of Tarnished Artwork

In cases where tarnish is severe or difficult to remove, professional restoration services may be necessary to restore metal artwork to its original condition. Professional restorers have the knowledge and expertise to safely remove tarnish from metal objects without causing damage to the surface. They may use techniques such as polishing, buffing, or chemical treatments to remove tarnish and restore the metal’s shine.

Professional restoration services can also address other issues that may be present in tarnished artwork, such as corrosion, pitting, or structural damage. Restorers can repair these issues and restore the artwork to its original beauty and value. Additionally, professional restorers can provide advice on how to properly care for and maintain metal artwork to prevent tarnish from forming in the future.