Time to polish silver!

When the holidays approach, it’s time to start planning festive parties, elegant tablescapes and delicious meals. One of the most important holiday tasks is cleaning silver tableware and polishing silverware so everything shines. Once you learn how to clean, polish and store silver, you may discover you enjoy using your silver all year long. This article covers everything you need to polish silver and get your household silver clean and ready for prime time.

How to store silver

Besides offering guidance for cleaning silver pieces, I also cover the best ways to store your silver.  When you store household silver properly, your silver will stay clean and tarnish free. This guide to cleaning, polishing and storing silver will help you keep your collection in perfect, usable condition.

Resources for caring for silver at home

I’m once again indebted to silver seller Jeanne (on instagram @Valley_Vintage_VA). She graciously answered my questions and offered great advice on cleaning, storing and using silver. Jeanne offers incredible silver plate and sterling pieces on her instagram. Be sure to pay special attention on Sunday when she lists her latest sterling silver flatware and tableware.

Don’t miss part one, Things to Know Before You Buy Silver.

cleaning a silver pot

Cleaning and Polishing Silver

There are a few things to consider as you prepare to polish silver. The first is that cleaning and polishing are often used interchangeably. There is definitely some overlap between those words but they’re not really interchangeable. It would be more accurate to consider cleaning silver as the act of removing food residue, dirt or other grime from pieces and polishing silver as removing tarnish and buffing the piece to a shine. So in some cases, your silver will need to be cleaned and then polished. In other instances (like after a meal), you might only need to clean silver.

All silver can be cleaned and polished but there are differences in cleaning and polishing sterling silver and cleaning and polishing silver plate pieces. It’s important to understand how sterling silver and silver plate are different so you don’t damage your silver.

What’s the Difference Between Sterling Silver and Silver Plate?

One of the reasons many people prefer sterling silver to silver plate is durability. Sterling pieces are pure silver (93%) combined with a strengthening base metal like nickel or copper. Since the entire piece is a uniform metal, it can withstand a more vigorous cleaning. You can buff scratches out of sterling silver and use more aggressive cleaning methods.

Silver plate pieces are made from a base metal and then a thin coating of sterling silver is applied. Silver is a soft metal, so that thin coating is very easy to scratch away. When silver plated pieces get scratched or rubbed too vigorously, the plating comes off and the base metal will show. If you’ve ever seen a piece of silver that had a copperish cast, it’s because the plated silver has been rubbed away.

How to clean silver flatware

If I’m washing silverware after a meal, I gather it up and let it soak briefly in warm, soapy water. This loosens the food and grime and makes it easier to wipe the surfaces clean. The easiest way to clean silver flatware is to put all of it into a shallow dishpan or tall glass and let it soak while you wash the rest of the dishes. When you’re finished with the plates and serving pieces, the flatware will be easy to clean.

Quick note here – Don’t soak  if they have steel blades or parts. The steel, especially if it’s not stainless (which is true for really old pieces), can rust very quickly and the rust is difficult to remove. Wash this type of piece immediately with a damp cloth and a quick rinse. Pat them dry immediately.

After soaking, wipe each piece with a soft dishcloth or rag. An old t-shirt makes a great silver cloth or you can use these lint free dishcloths (my personal favorites). Don’t use  anything abrasive or rough because even lightly textured fabric can scratch the silver. This is especially important with plated items. Scrubbing them, even with a cloth, can rub the silver plating off, exposing the base metal.

Cleaning silver serving pieces

If you wash serving pieces immediately after the meal, you’ll greatly reduce the likelihood you’ll need to do any serious scrubbing. Whenever possible, use glass or crystal liners in silver serving pieces to make clean up easier.

For silver serving pieces or dishes, rinse them in warm water as soon as the food is removed from them. Then gently wipe all the food off with a soft towel and dish soap. Rinse thoroughly with hot water and sit on a dish rack or towel to dry.

To keep silver from getting water spots, wait until the pieces are nearly dry, then hand-dry with a soft towel.

Do you need special soap for cleaning silver?

No, your regular dish soap is safe and effective. Just make sure you use only very soft cloths with no texture.

Can you put silver in the dishwasher?

There is not a definitive answer to this, unfortunately. It depends on the quality of your items and also your dishwasher. There are plenty of people who put their sterling silver in the dishwasher without issue and there are plenty of people who hand wash instead. My advice would be to check the manufacturer settings for your dishwasher and to see if your silver came with any care instructions.

Jeanne suggests that it’s up to each person to decide if they want to put their silver in the dishwasher. She cautions against putting plated items in the dishwasher, however. Both high heat and dishwashing chemicals can wreak havoc on silver plated items.

If you have any doubt about putting your silver in the dishwasher, just hand wash it. Better safe than sorry.

How To Polish Silver

Clean silver, whether it’s just been washed after a meal or whether it’s coming out of storage, might need to be polished. Polishing silver removes tarnish and gives the pieces a mirror-bright shine. For some pieces, polishing the silver is as simple as a quick rub with a polishing cloth. Other items might need a more thorough polish with polishing cream.

There are two traditional ways to polish silver. One is to use a silver polishing cloth to dry rub tarnish off the surface. The second is to use a mildly abrasive cream polish, followed by cleaning with soap and water, to wash the tarnish away.

What is the best way to polish silver?

Both polishing cloths and cream polishes have their place in keeping your household silver looking its best. Sometimes the two can be used interchangeably but there are some situations in which one is a better choice. Always read the instructions on silver cleaning and polishing products before you use them. Newer silver flatware and other silver items may include instructions from the manufacturer for cleaning and care. In that case, it’s best to defer to those.

When and how to use a silver polishing cloth

A polishing cloth can remove light tarnish quickly and easily. The best variety of silver cloth has two sides, one to remove tarnish and one to give the piece a final buff. I use this type of silver polishing cloth when I just need to give my silver pieces a quick shine. Polishing cloths are less effective for cleaning badly tarnished pieces.

I also keep some of these thinner polishing cloths on hand. They work great for items with larger surface areas, like trays.

Advantages of silver cleaning cloths

Polishing cloths are perfect for cleaning intricate silver,  small items with a lot of curves or grooves or for pieces you don’t want to or can’t get wet. They’re also excellent for sliding in between the tines on forks. Since the tips of forks are prone to discoloration, it’s important to keep them clean and tarnish free. Keep a few of these silver polishing cloths on hand.  It’s very helpful to have one stashed in your silver storage chest, in the buffet and in the kitchen if you use your silver regularly.

To remove tarnish with  silver cloth, just gently rub the white side of the cloth on the discolored area. The cloth will remove the tarnish and become stained. Then use the other side of the cloth to lightly buff the piece to a shine. You can wash silver polishing cloths but they don’t clean well. It’s best to just replace silver cleaning cloths once they become completely stained.

cleaning silver

Disclosure: I’m an affiliate for Lehman’s Hardware, Azure Standard and other companies. Clicking on links in my articles and purchasing products may result in the seller offering me compensation. I only share products I use and enjoy. Affiliate relationships help me cover the cost of producing content for Hey Big Splendor.

When to use cream polish for silver

Polishing creams are very effective at removing tarnish and buffing out scratches on sterling silver pieces. They are equally effective on small items and large serving pieces or bowls and they can make quick work of polishing a large amount of silver.

If a piece of silver is very tarnished, it might take a couple rounds of polishing to clean it. Silver creams break down the tarnish quickly, making it easy to remove even heavy tarnish. If, however,  a piece of silver is severely tarnished, even polishing cream might not be able to remove it all. In that case, consider having the piece cleaned by a professional silversmith if the piece is valuable or has sentimental value.

The biggest downside to polishing silver with a cream polish is that you have to work at a sink and wash every piece after polishing. It’s a more elaborate affair than just giving the silverware a quick buff with the polishing cloth. Since the pieces must be rinsed, it’s not suitable for items that shouldn’t get wet. Like pieces with felt bottoms or backings or silver elements of a cloth or wooden item – think things like silver picture frames, candlestick holders or pin cushions with silver framing.

How to polish silver plate with cream

Silver plate pieces should be cream polished with caution. Go slowly, rub very gently and check the progress frequently. It’s very easy to scratch silver plate or even to polish the plating right off. When polishing silver plate, use a very soft cloth of sponge. For very fragile pieces, I actually just use my hands to rub the polishing cream over the surface.

The best silver polish cream

I use Wright’s Silver Cleaner and it’s excellent. There are plenty of other great brands, but this is my pick and I go through a few of these tubs each year! It removes even really heavy tarnish without damaging my silver.

The sterling and plated pieces Jeanne sells are all cleaned by a professional silver cleaner who uses Hagerty’s silver cleaning products.

Many silver polishes come with a sponge or applicator. You can also use a cloth or very soft foam sponge. For areas with a lot of crevices, use a horsehair brush like these to work the cream in.

If you don’t have a horsehair brush, Jeanne suggests using a very soft toothbrush instead.

How to polish silverware and silver pieces

Rub the polishing cream onto each piece and rub gently until the tarnish or discolorations come off. With sterling silver pieces, you can use cream polishes pretty unreservedly. Be sure to rinse the cream polish off thoroughly with warm water. It can leave a residue after rinsing, which does not always show until the piece has dried. Because of that, I like to polish the silverware, rinse it to check that all the tarnish is gone, and then wash it quickly with dish soap and a soft towel.

Once the silver is completely dry, use the flannel side of a polishing cloth to give it a light buffing for maximum shine.

How to store sterling silver so it won’t tarnish

Storing silver correctly keeps the pieces clean and reduces the work you’ll need to do to make them shine. Sterling silver should be stored out of the air and light to limit tarnish. That might mean a dedicated silver flatware chest, a silver cupboard or closet or some other option. Unless the silver storage is also decorative, like a glass front cabinet, silver items should be put into cloth bags or cases. These bags and cases are lined with material that has anti-tarnishing properties. They also provide cushioning for the pieces, which helps prevent scratches or dings.

Storing silver plate so it won’t tarnish

Like sterling, silver plate pieces need to be stored away from air and light. Plate and sterling items have similar storage needs but it’s really important to store plated pieces with extra care. If silver plate becomes scratched or heavily tarnished, the piece may be impossible to restore. For that reason, try to store silver plate in high quality silver bags or in specially made cases or containers. Doing so will prolong the life of the pieces.

Using anti-tarnish cloth and bags to store silver

Silver storage bags are a really inexpensive and easy way to protect your silver and keep silver from tarnishing. How and what type of silver bags you need will depend on your silver pieces, of course. The good news is that silver bags come in a huge range of sizes, so there is almost certainly something that will work for most small to midsize pieces.

Ideally, each piece of silver will have it’s own spot on a shelf. Unfortunately, many of us have limited storage space and might need to stack or nest pieces. If this is the case, be sure to use padding in between pieces. Never stack heavy pieces on top of other pieces or stack more than a couple of items. The excess weight will bend or warp your silver.

How to store large silver items

For big pieces, like punch bowls or candelabras, you might need to get creative. Anti-tarnish fabric is sold by the yard and is quite reasonably priced. If you sew, you can purchase yardage and make your own bags or covers. If you don’t sew or if the piece is just too unwieldy, you can always opt to simply wrap the item in the fabric. It’s not elegant but it’s very effective.

My huge punch bowl gets wrapped in two yards of cloth and then tucked into the bottom of our buffet each year. I never need to do more than give the bowl a quick rub with a silver cloth when it’s time to make the Christmas Punch!

I buy this anti-tarnish cloth. It’s proved very durable and it’s easy to cut and sew. I like it in black but it comes in a wide range of colors.

Where to store silver

If you have an unused closet or cabinet, or even a large storage bin, you can line it with anti-tarnish cloth to create a larger silver storage area. Even in a closed cabinet, closet or container , it’s still a good idea to store individual pieces in bags or wrap them with cloth. Unless your closet or cabinet is lined with silver cloth – in that case, you can simply arrange your pieces and keep the closet closed.

The less contact a piece has with the air, the less it will tarnish. Make sure to store silver in a climate-controlled area that doesn’t have wild temperature fluctuations. Avoid storing silver in very humid areas or areas that are likely to take on moisture.

Can you store silver in plastic bags?

It’s your silver, so you can store it wherever you’d like but a plastic bag isn’t my first choice. Having said that, my grandmother-in-law stores many pieces of her gorgeous sterling wrapped in tissue, inside plastic bags, tucked away in her sideboard. They are not noticeably tarnished and don’t seem to suffer any ill-effects from it. If you choose to use plastic bags to store your silver, be sure the piece is in a silver cloth bag or wrapped in tissue so it’s not in contact with the plastic.

Keeping silver on display clean

Silver pieces that in a display case will need to be polished occasionally. Air will still get in and over time, they will tarnish. It can be easy to overlook this, so be sure to check pieces from time to time. And silver pieces that are on display in the open air should be polished regularly. If you give display items a quick rub each week, they’ll stay shiny without much effort.

Using baking soda to clean silver

You may have seen videos of people lining their sink with foil and then adding water and baking soda to make a cleaning bath. I haven’t tried this method because I haven’t had a reason to – but I wanted to mention it here as an option. Since this isn’t something I’m personally familiar with, I don’t feel comfortable offering any advice about it.

Using toothpaste to clean silver

This was actually my first experience with cleaning silver. It was one of those perennial ‘helpful hints’ that I would read about in magazines. Many years ago, I used toothpaste to clean and polish a small area of one of our chandeliers. It was very effective and it didn’t seem to damage the silver but knowing what I do now, it’s not the method I would use. Silver polishing cream is just as effective and far less abrasive.

While there’s nothing wrong with looking for ways to make chores and. maintenance easier, be wary of ‘magic’ silver cleaning ‘hacks’. Some of these may be safe for your silver but others may damage it. I wouldn’t say that cleaning and polishing silver is fun, exactly, but I see it as part of the experience of using silver – and I would encourage you to try and view it that way, too, instead of searching for quick fixes and gimmicky cleaning tricks.

More tips for cleaning, polishing and storing silver

  • when in doubt about cleaning or polishing an item, check with a silver expert or the manufacturer. Every piece is different and it’s best to exercise caution
  • once you’ve finished buffing a piece, handle it as little as possible. Use cotton gloves or a soft cloth to hold pieces so you don’t put finger prints and oils on them.
  • if the pieces aren’t going to be used immediately, put them away as soon as they are completely dry.
  • storing your silver in closed bags, chests, closets or containers is the best way to prevent tarnish, if the pieces aren’t used regularly
  • using your silver often is not only delightful, it’s the best way to avoid tarnish. That might sound counterintuitive but it’s true.
  • finally, it’s better to plan a quick weekly rub down for silver you use often or that is on display than to wait until it’s built up discoloration. For pieces on display, be sure the surface is free of dust or debris before polishing

How do you keep your silver in perfect condition? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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