Q: I inherited some salt shakers used by our family for years. The screw-on tops have corroded, and I would like to shine them up a bit. How should I go about it?
A: Vintage saltshaker lids are sometimes pure silver or sterling silver, but others are another metal that was once plated with silver. The base metal on yours is probably brass — a combination of copper and zinc — because the picture you sent shows a coppery tinge on the caps.
If the caps are brass, you have a few options. First, you could just polish the metal, using a commercial metal polish or something you might already have in your kitchen. Some people swear by ketchup or lemon juice. Others advise using salt, flour and vinegar, with about 1 teaspoon of salt, ½ cup of vinegar and enough flour to make a paste. Either way, rub it on, wait a few minutes and rub again, then rinse and dry.
But be aware that polishing partially plated brass is likely to take off the rest of the plating. And polished brass won’t give you the historically correct look for vintage salt shakers, which were typically silver or silver-plated. To restore that look, you have a DIY option that might look good enough, as well as a professional option that would cost more but result in a more durable finish.
If you want to restore a silver look on your own, you can brush on one of the products sold as instant silver plating, such as Medallion Liquid Silver Polishing and Plating Solution ($14.99 from sciencesolutions.com). The solution contains pure silver, and it will chemically bond with the underlying metal using the same process that happens in a battery.
But there are a few critical caveats: Liquid silver products aren’t paint; they work only when the base metal is capable of setting up an electrical reaction with silver. Liquid silver works on copper, brass, bronze and nickel. If the underlying metal is steel, or if the surface is something other than metal, the solution just wipes off. Also, the plating created by liquid silver is super-thin because the plating reaction continues only while there is bare brass or one of the other reactive metals for the liquid silver to react with. These solutions are great for filling in places where plating has worn off on vintage pieces that won’t be used a lot. For your salt shakers, you might want to try it to see whether the spruced-up look lasts long enough — especially if you bring out some of the shakers in your collection only for large holiday gatherings.
For salt shakers you use every day, professional plating will result in a much thicker and therefore more durable silver coating. Professional plating adds electrical current to the plating process, rather than depending on just the chemical reaction that occurs naturally when a silver solution is in contact with one of the reactive metals. When there is current, the silver layer can continue to build up after all of the other exposed metal is covered. And the silver can be deposited on other metals, such as steel. The website finishing.com has a good discussion about the differences between liquid silver and professional plating. See “Silver Plating at Home” in the FAQ section.
Metro Plating and Polishing (301-493-4009; metroplating.com) in Kensington, Md., would charge about $50 per set to silver-plate shaker caps, owner Allison Fishbein said in an email. The shop also offers other options: If the tops are sterling silver, or if they are solid brass and you want that silver look, the shop could clean and polish them for about $25 per set. Or if you want to get a shiny silver look but don’t want to spring for $50 a set, you could have the tops nickel-plated for about $35 a set. “Nickel is a silver-colored metal, but not as bright in color as silver,” Fishbein said. If you brought in multiple tops, you would get a price break, she said.
If you don’t plan to use the shakers but intend to display them as collectibles, there’s another other option: paint. You could hand-sand the tops of the caps, then spray-paint them with a metallic paint, such as Rust-Oleum Chrome High-Gloss Spray Paint ($3.98 at Lowe’s). Don’t use “mirror effect” spray paint, which is designed to be sprayed on the back of a sheet of glass or clear acrylic to create a mirror effect on the front side.
If you spray paint, have a toothpick handy to clean out the holes immediately afterward.