Caring for your ceramics - cleaning ceramics
Before you start any cleaning, you need to identify your type of ceramic and other materials (such as metal mounts, ivory or wooden handles) to ensure that they will not be damaged.
Examine your ceramic in good light to establish if there are any potential problems. Remember, it isn't always necessary to remove all dirt or stains. They may have historic interest or it may be impossible to remove them without damaging the piece. Before cleaning a whole piece, test clean a small area to make sure you won't damage it.
- Firing cracks, crazing or pitting in the glaze.
- Structuraldamage e.g. chips and cracks. If you tap porcelain lightly with your fingernail it should give a clear ringing tone. A dull sound often indicates a structural flaw.
- A flaking, lifting or unstable surface.
- Exposure to water can cause or worsen corrosionof anymetal parts, which in turn can damage or stain the glaze and cause cracks.
- Some glazes are fired at a comparatively low temperature, which makes them vulnerable to abrasion. Lustre glazes, for example, have a metallic iridescent sheen that can be etched by fingerprints. Gilding is often easily abraded by repeated cleaning.
- Enamels are slightly 'raised' on the surface and may flake during cleaning if the edges are damaged. In some cases, water should be completely avoided during cleaning.
- Restorations. Repairs are always more sensitive to cleaning than the original ceramic.
- Unfired decoration; painted or metal-leaf decoration is vulnerable to damage during cleaning.
Click on the images below to find out how to clean ceramics:
This is a collection of images relating to Cleaning Ceramics
Cleaning glazed earthenware, glazed stoneware
Glazed earthenware, glazed stoneware, soft paste porcelain and bone china
Although glaze will provide a barrier to liquids, earthenware, soft paste porcelain and bone china are porous and glaze imperfections are common but may not be obvious, so take a cautious approach to cleaning.
1. Use a cotton wool swab (on a cocktail or bamboo stick) dampened with warm water that has had a little detergent added (about one drop of detergent per litre of water)
2. Roll the swab lightly over the surface, don't wipe or scrub. Make sure your swab is always clean - change it if you see any dirt on it. Using a dirty swab will leave dirt behind in the cracks
3. When the surface is clean, wipe over again with water (to remove any detergent residues)
4. Blot dry with a paper towel
Hard-paste porcelain dish, 1644 - 1911. Museum no. 491-1931
If there are no potential problems, the piece can be immersed. Otherwise, it should be cleaned as for glazed earthenware. Figures should not be immersed (see Potential Problems ).
1. Clean one piece at a time in a plastic bowl (to avoid knocking against taps) containing warm water with a few drops of detergent (about one drop per litre of water)
2. Use a wet cotton wool ball to wipe over the surface
3. Rinse in clean water to remove detergent residues
4. Blot dry with a paper towel
Black basalt vase, about 1785. Museum no. 1506-1855
Unglazed earthenware, unglazed stoneware and biscuit porcelain
Using any liquid to clean unglazed earthenware risks dirt being absorbed into the body and causing stains. Although unglazed stoneware is more resistant to staining than earthenware, some fine stonewares can mark easily, for example red stoneware and Wedgwood black basalt are prone to watermarks.
To remove dust, brush lightly over the surface using a soft bristle brush (e.g. an artist's sable brush). It is a good idea to put tape over the ferrule (the metal band between the hairs and the handle) to make sure you don't accidentally scratch the surface. Avoid cotton wool because the fibres can snag on a rough unglazed surface.
Figure with basket, About 1758-70. Museum no. C.156-1931
Check figures carefully before cleaning to identify potential problems . Figures are particularly likely to have restorations that may not be immediately apparent, most commonly on hands, feet and bocage (modelled flowers, foliage and branches used as a background). The restorations on this soft paste porcelain figure, for example, include numerous leaf tips and flowers on the bocage, one finger, and chips on the hat that have been filled and retouched. The hat has also been rebonded and retouched.
Clean flat surfaces as for glazed earthenware. For intricate or delicate areas use a soft artist's paint brush (e.g. squirrel or sable, size 4-8). It is very easy to damage delicate areas, so it is better to avoid awkward parts rather than risk causing damage.
1. Wet the brush in a small container of warm water (add equivalent of one drop of detergent per litre of water)
2. Blot excess water from the brush onto clean absorbent paper to avoid drips
3. Brush a small area of the surface at a time, for example one flower or leaf on this soft paste figure at a time
4. Repeat until the surface is clean. Repeat steps 2-4 with clean water to remove detergent residues
5. Dry the brush on clean absorbent paper, and use it to pick up any water left on the surface
Pair of figurines, porcelain
Low fired wares and soft-paste porcelain are prone to staining because of the inherent porosity of the ceramic body. Unglazed areas are particularly vulnerable, but stains can also occur in glazed ceramics if the glaze is cracked or damaged. Stains can be drawn into the body of the ceramic after contact with liquids, foodstuffs, metals or even from materials used to clean or repair objects.
Do not attempt to remove stains with water, solvents or proprietary cleaning products as these can cause the stain to spread, making it worse.
Tin glazed earthenware plate (back view), Italy
Repairs on pieces are almost always more sensitive to cleaning than the original ceramic. Some restoration materials are water soluble, especially if the repair is old. Care needs to be taken to avoid weakening or damaging the repair.
Clean with soft dry brushes (e.g. squirrel or sable, sizes 4-8) to remove loose dust and dirt. If necessary, use a cotton wool swab slightly dampened with warm water and a little detergent to clean around the repair, but avoid the repair itself. Reswab the area with clean water (no detergent) and then blot dry with a paper towel (see Glazed earthenware ).
Red stoneware teapot with unfired gold decoration, 1690-8. Museum no. C.4&A-1932
This describes painted or metal-leaf decoration that has not been hardened by firing in a kiln and is therefore very vulnerable to damage from handling and cleaning. You can clean around the decoration carefully but cleaning the unfired decoration itself should be left to a conservator.
Floor tile, A.W.N. Pugin
Victorian floor tiles
Floor tiles are common in the hallways and paths of Victorian and Edwardian houses.
These are usually of two different types described as encaustic tiles or quarry tiles. Encaustic tiles are decorated with coloured clay inlays. The leather-hard clay was stamped with an impression of the design, which was then filled with a contrasting colour liquid clay 'slip'. Once dried, the excess fill was scraped away to reveal the design. Encaustic tiles may be glazed or unglazed. Quarry tiles are unglazed and often laid in a geometric pattern of contrasting colours.
Unglazed tiles have a matt surface that tends to hold the dirt. They have often accumulated a variety of floor polishes, wax, varnish, paint or lino adhesive. Over time, the rich bright colours on the tiles become obscured by such layers.
1. Remove loose dirt and dust by brushing or vacuuming.
2. Use a scalpel to carefully remove hard deposits, paint spots or very thick varnish layers. Take care not to scratch the tile with a scalpel - you will need to judge the safest angle and pressure required.
3. Add a little detergent (one drop of detergent per litre of water) to bowl of warm water. Use a stencil brush or nail brush with natural bristles to apply the water to a small area about 10 sq cm. Using a circular motion, blot the surface with a paper towel to remove the dirt. Repeat this process, then blot dry before moving on to the next area.
It may be possible to remove waxy deposits with solvents such as white spirit, methylated spirits or a 50:50 mixture of white spirit and water with a drop or two of detergent. Use the solvent on a small swab and apply to an area about 2 sq cm at a time. Work on one tile at a time and blot clean and dry before you move on. It may seem a bit fussy to work on such a small scale in a large tiled area, but it allows you to limit your exposure to solvent fumes and work in a controllable way. Although it is often easier and quicker to use more aggressive methods, these may damage the tiles, particularly if used repeatedly over the long life of the floor.
Proprietary paint stripper can be used to remove paint or varnish. Test a small area first and follow the manufacturer's guidelines for safe usage. This should also be applied following a controlled approach as described above.
As a general rule it is best to avoid applying a sealant because they don't allow tiles to 'breathe', thus trapping damp below and encouraging mould growth. A build-up of silicone sealant can be almost impossible to remove. For housekeeping, use a mat at the doorway and vacuum or sweep regularly.
Glazed earthenware tile, Mexico. Salts are visible as long white needles around the unglazed edges
Porous ceramics may occasionally contain water-soluble salts absorbed from various sources. In dry conditions, the salts are visible as loose white crystalling powder.
Salts can occur in low fired porous ceramics such as:
- architectural ceramics, as a result of contact with cement, plaster and other building materials
- archaeological ceramics, as a result of contact with soil or salty water
- ceramics used to store foodstuffs
In some cases, salts were part of the original constituents of the clay body itself. In others, materials used for repair in the past, e.g. plaster, or inappropriate cleaning materials, may react and cause salts to form in the ceramic.
Repeated cycles of changing humidity will cause the salts within the pores of the ceramic to alter their state from solution (in damp conditions) to crystals (when dry). As the crystals tend to take up more space in the pores of the ceramic than when in solution, the pressure this exerts can disrupt the ceramic causing the glaze to flake, or the body to crumble.
Surface salts, visible as a white crystalline 'powder' can usually be gently brushed away with a soft brush, though they may reappear (and cause damage) if relative humidity fluctuates. Relative humidity measures the amount of moisture that is in the air relative to the maximum amount of moisture that the air could hold at that temperature.
Conservators use poulticing or immersion techniques for removing salts from badly affected pieces. An object with extensive salts or a flaking / crumbling surface should be referred to a ceramics conservator.
Damage through cleaning
Do not use a dishwasher to clean valued ceramics. High temperatures, high pressure water and aggressive detergents can permanently damage glazes and coloured enamel decoration.
Avoid using household bleaches or proprietary cleaning products because they can cause irreversible damage. Cleaning liquid can penetrate the ceramic, taking dirt with it. This can cause new stains or make old stains worse. Often the effect is not noticeable until the object has dried. Abrasive creams and cleaners will damage delicate decoration such as gilding, lustre or enamels and in the worst case, dull the glaze itself.
Produced by the V&A Ceramics and Glass Conservation Studio.