How to fix a silver knife that’s come apart

February 26

Question: To clean a set of antique silverware, I wrapped the set in aluminum foil and put it in very hot water with a bit of baking soda. This procedure cleaned the silver very well but destroyed whatever was holding the knife and the handle together. A black, sandy substance appeared and when I scratched it, the connecting part became exposed. Can you suggest a shop that can fix my knife?

— Washington

Answer: You’re right that aluminum foil, warm water and baking soda is an almost magical recipe for removing tarnish from silverware, whether solid or plated. Unlike other methods, it does not eat into the silver. Instead, it reverses the chemical reaction between silver and sulfur in the air that caused the tarnish to occur in the first place. Science Is Fun (scifun.chem.wisc.edu), a Web site run by a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, explains the science.

The problem is that sterling silver knives often have rosin — which is basically pine tree pitch in a hardened form — as the glue and filler connecting the hollow handle and the blade. “When heated, the rosin softens, like toffee or candy,” Joseph Grenon, owner of Awesome Metal Restorations in Kensington (301-897-3266; www.awesomemetals.com), said in an e-mail. “Sometimes there will be sand or whiting mixed in to extend the volume of rosin. Occasionally we see tar.” Sometimes the rosin just softens and then hardens again as it cools. But when a knife is left in hot water for a long time or put in a dishwasher, the rosin softens and expands enough to actually push the blade away from the handle.


The reader’s antique silverware. (Reader photo)

Grenon can reset the blade for about $35. On antique pieces, he does the restoration with rosin. On some newer pieces, he uses a hard, permanent cement.

Metro Plating and Polishing, also in Kensington (301-493-4009; www.metroplating.com), does this type of repair, too. Dennis Mace Jr., the owner, said he would need to see the piece to give an estimate.

I have several chests of drawers that have been in the family for more than 100 years. They are solid wood and very sturdy, but the drawer bottoms have shrunk. Is there a way to correct this without causing any damage?

— Burtonsville

The bottom on an antique drawer is usually a thin piece of solid wood. Wood expands and contracts in response to shifting humidity in the air, so it’s fairly common for the bottom piece to shrink so much that it pulls out of the slots that hold it to the drawer. This can be repaired without damaging the piece, but the method depends on how the drawer was constructed.

If the bottom fits into grooves on the sides and front but is nailed at the back, you might just need to reposition the bottom. Take out the drawer, flip it over, and remove the nails at the back. Flush-cut pliers are best for this, but work gently so you don’t split the wood. Once the nails are out, tap the bottom piece toward the front until it’s securely in the groove there. Then lock in the new position. If the bottom still reaches the back of the drawer, just drive in one brad or tack at the center, through the bottom. If the bottom is too short to nail to the back, glue a thin spacer to the back edge of the drawer bottom. Hammer in one brad after the glue dries.

If the bottom is falling out of the side grooves, you’ll need a new drawer bottom cut from ¼-inch-thick plywood. Make the new piece slightly undersize in width so it slips in easily. (To calculate the width, measure the inside of the drawer, add the depth of both side grooves, then subtract ¼ inch for easy clearance.)

Installing a new bottom piece is also the best solution for a drawer with an enclosed bottom, meaning it’s supposed to fit into grooves on all four sides. You’ll need to completely disassemble the drawer for this repair. Remove any nails, then gently tap the drawer apart at the corners with a padded hammer. If a joint doesn’t budge, try softening the glue by warming the area with a hair drier. Scrape off old glue before you reassemble the drawers.

If you do need to disassemble the drawers, recognize that there is some risk of splitting the wood, especially if the drawers have delicate dovetail joinery. Depending on your skill level and the value you put on the furniture, it might be wise to hire someone skilled in repairing antiques.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

The Checklist: Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks, month by month, at washingtonpost.com/home.

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