Caring for Your Pewter & Tinware
Historically, pewter was polished to remove the dull grey oxide layer that forms when it is exposed to the air. However, this grey surface is now considered desirable and removing it may reduce your pewter's monetary value. An exception to this is 'art pewter' of the 20th and 21st centuries, which was meant to have a bright finish.
Please read the Basic Guidelines page before attempting to clean your object.
To keep a grey surface:
- dust with a soft brush
- lightly swab the surface with methylated spirits to remove dirt and fingerprint marks
- rub gently with a soft cloth
- apply a wax coating to help protect display pieces
Problems can arise when the patina is uneven. If you have this problem, consider leaving the surface untouched.
If you decide to polish:
- swab surface with methylated or white spirit
- rub with a soft cloth
- if the object is a display piece, coat with wax and buff gently
White or pale grey powdery corrosion products are sometimes found on pewter. These may be lead and/or tin corrosion products.
Tinware is ferrous metal that has been coated with tin to inhibit corrosion. If there are gaps in the tin layer, e.g. worn areas or scratches, iron corrosion products can form and may spread over the tinned surface. These can sometimes be removed by rubbing the corrosion spots with a swab dampened with white spirit. A small amount of a mild abrasive cream on a cotton swab can be used but there is a risk of damaging the soft tinned surface. So rub gently and check progress often. Clear any residues using a swab dampened with white spirit, followed by a swab dampened with methylated spirit.
Commercial signs and advertisements, biscuit tins etc are often made of tinned iron or steel that was decorated with a painted or printed design. Iron corrosion products can form in the same way as on unpainted tinware but it is much more difficult to remove rust spots without damaging the decoration.
Before trying to remove corrosion, check your tinware is not an exceptional piece with monetary value. If it is, or has sentimental value, consult a conservator.
It is very easy to damage the decoration, either by abrasion or by the action of solvents. If in any doubt, leave them untouched. Put a little white spirit on a swab and test a small area by rolling the swab over the surface and checking the surface for damage and the swab for pigment.
If there is no damage, use a swab dampened with solvent and roll it over the surface to remove dirt. Gently rub the rust spot, to remove as much of the red corrosion product as you can. Don't be tempted to coat the object with wax, as the solvent in the wax may affect the paint layer.