HOW TO...CLEAN BRASS

This page collects together useful knowledge and tips for the cleaning and preservation of brass items recovered from the sea. Most of the knowledge has been acquired through years of trial-and-error and experimentation.

0..Pre Treatment
1..Initial preparation
2..The Acid treatment
3..Rinsing
4..Scrubbing
5..Final finish
6..Other Tips


Pre Treatment
Having raised your item from the seabed, the first job is to declare the item to the Receiver of Wreck in an attempt to establish ownership of the item. This step should be observed for all items raised from wreck. Items found lying on the seabed which are not obviously from a wreck need not be declared. Declaring an item will simply require you to fill in a form describing the object and the circumstances of its recovery. You will be contacted by the Receiver to acknowledge your droit with a few days, and will then have to wait until the ownership of the item has been established. This wait could be up to a year in length, so is an ideal oppurtunity to pre-soak your item in water as described in the 'Initial preparation' section below.

Initial Preparation
Having received legal title to the item, the next job is to soak your artefact in fresh water for as long as possible. This will allow the salts to soak out of the item and keep any marine growth from hardening too much. Ideally, brass should be soaked in decreasingly saline solutions for anything up to a couple of years before moving on to the next step.

Fine - That's the 'official' method, but in practise, I have found that skipping the 'soaking' stage doesn't affect the final result.

What is important during preparation is to carefully remove any marine growth that can be shifted without damaging the surface finish of the artefact. Also try to remove as much iron as possible, as this tends to neutralise the acid, shortening the life of your acid bath. I use a blunt screwdriver as a 'chisel' and pick away at the lumps of iron concretion without damaging the surface of the artefact. On portholes, pay particular attention to removing remains of the iron nuts, bolts and rivets, which were used to fasten the porthole. Also remove the remains of the iron deadlight and the deadlight hinge pin as well as the sealing gasket which sits between the porthole flange and the ships hull.


Porthole after raising

At this stage, you should obtain two containers big enough to hold your artefact. These should be capable of being filled with liquid to completely cover your artefact. Suggestions are: The base of a water butt, the base of a plastic chemical drum/barrel, cold water tank from your loft (don't use your current one!), central heating cistern etc.

It is important that the container is big enough to hold the artefact, but not too big that you'll need gallons of liquid to completely cover it.

It may be possible to dis-assemble your artefact to make it easier to deal with. A good example would be removing a porthole door from its backplate. Use a hammer and a punch to carefully remove the brass hinge pin, and loosen the dogs to free the door. This may have to wait until the first couple of dips in the acid to loosen things up. It is important to remove any copper or lead items from your artefact, as these will result in an electrolitic reaction, resulting in the brass being copper or lead coated

You'll need some acid. I recommend getting hold of a gallon of 'Hiltons Spirit of Salts'. This is approx 30% diluted Hydrochloric Acid, and is about as strong as you can buy (it smokes when you remove the lid!) This needs to be diluted to about 10% before use. Alternatives (in order of affectiveness) are 'Brick Acid' (from builders merchant), patio cleaner, limescale remover, vinegar, Coca Cola.

You'll need some 'tools'. I recommend a scrubbing brush, nail brush and scotchbrite pads (green scoury pads for washing dishes). An old toothbrush is handy for small fiddly items.

The Acid treatment
Dilute your acid with tap water until it is approx 10% strength (always add the acid to the water, not water to acid). Hot water can be used which will greatly speed-up the cleaning process. Ensure that your acid bath is in a well ventillated space before filling with enough diluted acid to completely cover the artefact. Add the artefact to the acid bath and stand back! It should bubble and foam, and give off poisonous fumes which maike you choke (burning your lungs away basically) - this is normal! It's at this time that you regret not doing this outdoors as the smell of rotten eggs and the site of peeling wallpaper leaves a lot to be desired!

While this is going on, fill your second container with enough tap water to competely cover the artefact.


Porthole in acid. Note bubble pattern on surface of acid bath!


Porthole after acid treatment - free of deposits, but not 'clean'

Rinsing
After about 10 minutes in the acid, pull your item from the acid bath (letting as much acid as possible drain back into the acid bath) and completely immerse in the water bath. You can use rubber gloves for this, or use a wooden 'stick' to hook your item. If you use your fingers, be sure to dip them in the water bath pronto :-)

Use the scrubbing brush and nail brush to scrub the artefact, removing as much of the loose material as you can. Don't worry about getting things shiny at this stage - there's a lot more work to do before we get to that stage. If possible, try to take as much of the artefact to bits as is possible.

Repeat Acid/Water cyles until the artefact shows no signs of 'fizzing' in the acid bath. Don't worry if it doesn't seem 'clean' yet. The acid is purely removing the calcium based deposits on the brass, and won't remove old paint, iron, gaskets etc. Don't leave your prize artefact in the acid for more than a day or so....or it will eventually dissolve!

Scrubbing
Having satisfied yourself the acid is doing no further good, remove your item from the water bath and drain it, replacing it with fresh tap water. At this stage it is possible to leave your artefact completely immersed in the water bath. Do not under any circumstances, leave it out in the open air, or partly immerse it in the water bath, Doing so will result in your prized artefact turing bright green and destroying the surface finish. Leaving it sticking out of the acid bath or water bath will generate a green tide-line on the item, which is very hard to remove later. Break the artefact down into its constituent parts such as removing porthole hinge pins to seperate doors from frames, remove dogs (turnbuckles) from their threads (it may be necessary to drill out a brass pin at the top of the thread which prevents the dog being fully unscrewed) Using the scotchbrite pad, scrub the artefact until it becomes a yellow shiny brass colour. This stage can take may hours. You'll get through a couple of pads on a single porthole. The scotchbrite is a mild abrasive and will lightly scratch any polished surfaces. You can use scotchbrite in conjunction with a cream cleaner such as jiff etc or use steel wool, brillo pads. Other options for cleaning at this stage are:

i)....Do nothing. Some items look better with a dull finish
ii)...Use progressively finer pieces of wet-and-dry sandpaper to produce a mirror-like finish
iii)..Use a wire brush in a drill to get the item cleaner. Beware - this is a harsh technique which will leave the item with a permanent 'brushed' finish
iv)...Use a nylon brush in a drill to get the item cleaner. This is a less harsh technique than the wire brush, and the 'bushing' can be polished out with scotchbrite and brasso.
v)....Use a shot blaster/bead blaster. This can get the item very clean, very quickly, but will leave it with a permanent 'satin' type sheen which will dull over time giving a very dark appearance.


Porthole after being wire bushed - dull finish

Final finish
Having 'cleaned' the item with scotchbrite etc, you'll be left with a technically 'clean' piece of brass which is brassy coloured.....but dull. For polished surfaces, I use a buffing wheel either attached to a bench grinder or a fast drill. Used in conjunction with progressively finer grades of buffing soap, mirrored finished can easily be acheived. Beware that some items look more 'authentic' without being buffed. To finish the item, I tend to use brasso (duraglit) to provide the final finish which will leave your item very shiny. Other options include using baking soda as a mild abrasive or cigarette ash mixed in petroleum gel (as a finishing compound) If you wish to retain this 'gleaming' finish, it will be necessary to laquer the item before it tarnishes. My own tried and tested technique for this is:

i)....Having polished the item with brasso, wash it with fairy liquid in the bath. Be sure to wash it thoroughly, as we need to remove all traces of polish etc. Rub the fairy liquid into all the cracks and crevices and ensure that all surfaces are washed. You'll be amazed at how much 'cleaner' the item gets at this stage.
ii)...Rinse the item in the bath or shower. Remove all traces of detergent. Be careful not to handle the item with bare hands at this time.
iii)..Dry the item with a clean towel. Do not handle the item with bare hands.
iv)...Quickly 'paint' the item with a good quality laquer. Only apply one coat and do it swiftly. The item will be dry within minutes and can be handled after an hour.

So far, none of my laquered items are showing any signs of tarnishing beneath the laquer. It does save having to polish them! If, on the other hand, you wish to 'tarnish' your item to provide that time-aged 'patina' look, spray it with a weak solution of vinegar and leave for a few hours before rinsing off in tap water.


Porthole after being buffed, polished and laquered

Other tips
A useful tip for cleaning shell cases, is to avoid the use of acid, as this can leave slight 'water marks' on the surface of the brass which mar the final appearance on the shell case. Instead, put the shell case into the freezer for a couple of days. Boil enough water to fill the shell, then pour the boiling water into the shell case (having removed it from the freezer). The expansion and contraction of the brass case will result in most of the calcium growth/barnacles literally falling off before your eyes. Then clean it in the 'normal' manner using scotchbrite pads etc. Stubborn deposits can be removed by tapping them with a blunt item (plastic handle of screwdriver etc). As the case was polished when it went into the sea, most of the growth on the case should just fall off. Do be careful not to hit the detonator in the bottom of the case. It should be safe, having already been fired, but you never know!