Many commercial metal polishes and metal cleaners contain some pretty harsh chemicals – the ones that are designed to remove rust and tarnish are the most toxic and they are not what you want to breathe in. Let’s not even think about the environmental hazards of manufacturing the stuff. It’s better for the environment – both on a large scale and at the household scale – to make your own metal polishes and cleaners.
Of course, not all metals are the same, so different metals require different sorts of polish and different treatments.
Brass: Make a mixture of ordinary table salt and either lemon juice or vinegar. Rub this over the metal and leave it to sit a while to start reacting with the metal. Heating the vinegar or lemon juice will speed up the process. Rub well, then rinse off. It is probably better not to use this mixture on an antique piece, as the acid may damage it (this applies to all metal items that can be cleaned with acid-based home made cleaners/polishes). Get a professional house cleaner to clean this for you.
Copper: This can be cleaned in the same way as brass and leaves saucepan bottoms gleaming. Alternatively, do not polish it at all to allow the characteristic verdigris of aged copper to develop.
Bronze: This does not actually need polishing or having the tarnish removed, as the green patina is part of the character of aged bronze. Bronze should be dusted, or else lightly wiped with a cloth to remove any dirt clinging to it. Do not get bronze wet – it doesn’t like water.
Pewter: Like bronze, this metal needs only minimal cleaning and can come up with a reasonable shine just from buffing with a soft cloth or a “silver cloth”. If a jug, mug or goblet made of pewter has ever had a toxic polish used to clean the inside, do not attempt to use it for drinking, as this metal is very absorbent, but the toxins may leach out into the liquid drunk from the glass (hmm – this fact might be useful for detective fiction involving a poison mystery).
Silver and silver plate can be cleaned with a silver cloth. You can make your own silver cloth by soaking an ordinary soft cloth in a mixture of 4 teaspoons whiting (try your local hardware store), 2 T ammonia and 3 cups water. Do this outside or in a well ventilated place, and avoid breathing in the fumes. Wring it out, wearing rubber gloves, then leave it in a ventilated spot until it is only just damp, then store it in a zip-lock bag until you need it. Silver (but not silver plate) can be cleaned by dissolving a handful of washing soda in warm water and placing a bit of aluminium foil at the bottom of the dish. Dip your silver in and leave it for a few minutes then dry. If you have silver items with a very intricate design worked in the silver, do not over-polish it. The experts say that a little tarnish helps the design of the silver stand out better so it can be appreciated.
Stainless steel: This can be washed with regular detergent along with your regular load of crockery. Rinse well to prevent water spots on the steel.
Chrome can be cleaned with a little household ammonia. However, ammonia is very damaging to paintwork of cars, so be careful not to spill it, and also be careful not to breathe in the fumes or to get it on your skin. Better still, use baking soda applied with an old toothbrush or a soft cloth and rinsed off.
Gold does not usually need any special polishing – just dust it and wipe off any grime.