Q: I have about 60 feet of copper pipe railings that are very tarnished. Some are black now, but others aren't so bad. I have tried Brasso and all the other on-the-shelf cleaners. Some work okay, but they are time-intensive for an area like mine. My railings are the two-inch-diameter copper pipes found in the plumbing section of Home Depot. Is there any kind of instant cleaner that I could douse them with?
A: A mild acid will remove tarnish from copper, especially if you back it up with a little elbow grease and a scrub pad. Applying a clear finish once the copper is bright goes a long way toward keeping the tarnish from re-forming so quickly.
A thick tarnish-remover, such as Everbrite HD Copper Cleaning Gel, might be most suitable for your project because the gel formula is designed to stay where you brush it on, rather than drip off. Wait about an hour in warm weather or even longer if it's cold, until the tarnish looks like it is melting. If the gel dries before you see this, re-wet it by brushing it with water. When the tarnish rubs off easily, wipe off the residue with paper towels.
In all likelihood, the surface will still look uneven, with patches of tenacious tarnish. Rub those away and make the surface evenly shiny with superfine or fine steel wool (labeled 0000 or 000) or with a synthetic scrub pad.
Neutralize the gel formula's acid by rinsing the pipe with a special neutralizing solution or baking soda in water. Follow with a plain-water rinse and dry the pipe with a cotton cloth.
Prepare the surface for a clear finish by wiping with a solvent such as denatured alcohol or xylene. Then apply a clear coating, such as Everbrite Protective Coating. Use a sponge brush, a clear-coat applicator pad, a natural brush or a pad made of lint-free cloth. For coating horizontal pipe rails, a cloth pad might work best. Wear protective gloves, such as ones made of nitrile.
To calculate how much surface you need to treat, dig out a geometry formula from high school. The surface of a cylinder, not counting the ends, is 2πr x height, where the value of π is about 3.142, "r" is the 1-inch radius of your pipe, and "height" is the total length. Everbrite Kit 4oz with Gel, $43.95 from the company's website, everbritecoatings.com, contains enough gel cleaner, neutralizing solution and protective coating to treat 25 square feet, or about 48 feet of pipe like that used on your railings. Given that you have about 60 feet to treat, you could buy two of the four-ounce kits or get the next size up, 16 ounces, for $89.95. Given that the price is virtually the same either way, go for the bigger kit, because it gives you more leeway in case you want to apply multiple coats of cleaner or finish.