How to clean silver plate and silver in under 5 minutes

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Aren't there a gazillion guides on this already?

Not really. Most guides and how-to's assume that you have nothing else going on in your life and you can set aside three hours of your weekend for polishing family silver with non-toxic concoctions of ketchup, banana peels and fresh morning dew.  But if you have just plundered your local auction house like Genghis Khan on a shopping spree, do you really want to make a pit stop in Costco for a gallon of ketchup?

Don't!

Don't bother with any of these:
  1. Grandma's folksy wisdom. Gin, toothpaste, coke, salt, ketchup, elbow grease... Do you darn your socks? Ride a horse to work? Then why clean your silver with rubbing alcohol? Where would you even get that stuff?? And gin shouldn't be used for anything other than getting through family reunions.
  2. Aluminium foil (or plate)  and baking soda.  Yes, it works (I won't argue with science). It's also tedious as hell and doesn't suit anything larger than a teapot. Good luck boiling 10 L of water and finding a bucket big enough to stuff in a large gallery tray.
  3. Branded products. John Lewis sells 250 ml of silver polish for £6.55 and you will get through a lot of that stuff and spend a lot of your time. Not worth it.

And now the do's!
Silver plated tabako-bon, Occupied Japan, c. 1950. Probably the last time it was cleaned.
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Silver plated tabako-bon, Occupied Japan, c. 1950. Probably the last time it was cleaned.

Auction hauls

This section deals with items that have a purely monetary value - you won't spill any tears if the cleaning process removes some of the plating, for example.

I'll describe the list of supplies first, then the process, then all the why's  and how's.
You will need:
  1. Large bottle of water - 5 L - £1.10 from Tesco.
  2. Funnel - £2 from Tesco.
  3. Large plastic bowl and/or a plastic bucket ( you want to be prepared for all sizes) - £2/£3.50 from Tesco.
  4. One pair of marigolds - £2.65 for two pairs from eBay.
  5. One pair of latex gloves that fit you properly - £5.49 for a box of 100 from eBay.
  6. Dust mask/safety mask - £3.99 for a pack of 100 from eBay.
  7. Two soft sponges - washing up kind will do just fine, but don't use the scouring side! Pack of 6 - £2.49 from eBay.
  8. Old towels or plain cotton T-shirts (that you're not planning to wear again).
  9. Silver Dip - £21.23 for 5 L from Amazon. If you plan to be buying this stuff by the bucketload, it's worthwhile to check out the direct website of the guys who sell this on Amazon - Noble Express Catering Supplies - or having a general Google search.
  10. Silverplating solution (Nushine, Tableau, Quickshine, Medallion) - more on this later. If I run out of Medallion, I buy NuShine for £10.99/100 ml on eBay from these folks.
Optional:
  1. Cloth gloves - £1.09 from eBay.
  2. Silver polishing cloth - £0.99 from eBay.

Cleaning process, step-by-step.
  1. You need to dispose of the 5 litres of water. Invite all your friends over for a tea party. Water your plants. Give the cat a bath.
  2. Take your plastic bucket/bowl, depending on the size of the item that needs cleaning. Pour a good amount of Silver Dip in.
  3. Put on your dust mask and crack open a window. You don't want to be inhaling Silver Dip or the sulfuric smells of dissolving tarnish.
  4. Put on your marigolds. 
  5. Take your item and swish it around the bowl/bucket. Make sure everything is covered - it doesn't matter if you can't fit the item into the bowl; just rub with your gloves as you go along - this will help remove the tarnish really quickly. If the item is really dirty, take your soft sponge, dip it into Silver Dip and rub on the surface of the item (FYI, you'll get lots of foam). The whole process should take no more than 10 seconds. If you leave silver plated items in Silver Dip for a minute, it will eat all the silver away.  It's OK if your silver plate item comes out still looking fairly tarnished - you've removed the worst of it and it will be so much easier to use a silver plating solution now. If you are cleaning silver - keep swishing!
  6. Rinse your item under warm water and make sure all the Silver Dip has been washed away.
  7. You now have a pale and pink item. Don't panic.
  8. Dry your item as soon as you can with towels/old T-shirts. If you let the item dry naturally, you will get orange streaks. Not the end of the world, but annoying.
  9. Finish all your Silver Dipping. You now have a bunch of pale, bright, possibly pinkish items that look rather revolting . You're right on track.
  10. Unless you've just washed a really dirty, really big tray in your Silver Dip, the solution is still perfectly usable many times over. So grab your funnel and your empty water bottle and pour the Silver Dip you've just used in there. Next time, use that instead of the new stuff. If you have washed a big dirty tray, you can put the liquid through a sieve first and fish out any dirt particles.
  11. Put on latex gloves (you want to be able to 'feel' your fingers for this part) and take your silverplating solution and sponge. Hold the sponge up to the bottle and tip the bottle to the side. You now have a small circle of silverplating solution on your sponge. (A little goes a long, long way and means that you don't have to spend lots of money - this step is the most expensive by far. As you polish, the solution will build up in your sponge and you'll have to take even less from the bottle.)
  12. Start polishing! Like a miracle, the nasty pink brassy metal will turn a nice silver colour. Don't be alarmed if engraved/chased bits go black. We'll deal with that later.
  13. If you're cleaning silver, you'll be done in 5 seconds. If you are cleaning silver plate, you may have to 'repair' bits where the plate has worn off. Essentially, nothing will restore worn silver plate except a re-plating and that costs £££. But if you have an item that has a bit of orange copper showing through around the edges, the silverplating solution will turn that area grey and it won't be noticeable unless you look for it.
  14. Your item doesn't look pink and brassy anymore. It looks black and dirty. Take off your gloves and wash your item in warm water.
  15. Dry immediately - you really don't want streaks this time.
  16. Take a clean shirt and buff to a brilliant polish. If you want to go all fancy, put on your cloth gloves so you don't leave fingerprints on the surface and use a silver cloth. But I personally haven't noticed much difference between a silver cloth and a shirt.
And what do you get in the end? Ta-da!
Now doesn't that look better??
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Now doesn't that look better??

Let's do the math. 
Money spent: £55.44
Time spent: 2 min per item

The cost above is pretty much a one-off, unless you are cleaning industrial quantities of silver (and even I've gone through 15 L in 6 months). If you are buying to re-sell, then your time is worth much more than faffing about with aluminium foil. If you just buy vintage items once in a blue moon as gifts or for your own pleasure, then 5 L of Silver Dip and 100 ml of Nushine will last you a year.

The why's and the how's...

Why a silverplating solution as opposed to, say, Goddard's Polish?

Because you can use a silverplating solution on silver, but you can't use a silver polish on silver plate. You've already 'traumatised' your silver plate by using Silver Dip. Using a silver polish will only remove the plating further. Now, don't believe the hype - something you got on Amazon will not 'turn your copper into silver'. You need an industrial process involving cyanide to achieve that. But a silver plating solution won't be stripping off anymore silver.

Why 5 L of Silver Dip? They sell that stuff in little jars in every department store, don't they?

Yes, they do, but
a) That's not the industrial strength quality you'll be getting when you buy from a professional catering company and
b) do the math. Currently, 256 ml of Silver Dip on Amazon costs £6.35. You'd have to get more than 19 jars to make up 5 L - that's £120.65 as opposed to £21.23. The stuff doesn't go bad, so stick it under your sink and forget about it till you next need it.

Which silverplating solution should you use?

 I personally love Medallion Silver Plating liquid - I have a forwarding address in US  (something I highly recommend to everyone because you can buy things so much cheaper over there), so I have a steady supply. It costs $16.99 (£10.77) for 118 ml; the best silverplating solution price-wise I was able to find here is £10.99 for 100 ml of Nushine. 

Anything else?

I recommend thin latex gloves for applying the silver plating solution because you protect your hands, but still have the dexterity you need to get into all the grooves. Use cotton buds if you can't reach somewhere with your sponge.

By the way, if your gloves tear and you get the stuff on your hands, your nails will turn brown until they grow out. If that matters to you, apply some clear nail polish before you start your project.

Why do any of this in the first place??

Well, I do it to make money, and so should you! Refer to the pictures above. Imagine you are at an auction, or a vintage store - which one would you buy? The nice polished item or the one that looks like it spent the better part of the century in someone's basement? Now imagine you have some silver plate knick-knacks sitting around and you bring them down to your local auction house for some weekly general sale - the kind where they don't bother doing photos or even proper descriptions. If you bring a box of silver plate that looks like it's been through the wars, that's exactly how your items will be entered: "Lot 7, box of silver plate items, including a dish, candelabra, saucer, etc., estimate £10-15". 
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But bring this in and suddenly you have  "A silver plate fruit basket, £20-30". 

Is it worth your time, effort and money? That is something that only you will be able to answer, but I know that I would have really appreciated the guide I'm writing right now back when I first made my tentative steps into the beautiful world of silver and silver plate! And so would my housemate who had to smell the wonderful aromas of baking soda reacting with aluminium and silver tarnish.

Pricier items

What if you bought some silver plate for £200? Christofle can easily go for thousands and you don't want to run the chance of destroying your silver plate because the phone rang when you were at the Silver Dip stage. Well first of all, once you get the hang of it, you'll know exactly how much Silver Dip an item needs. Here's a pretty little Christofle silver plate fish that's been through the process.
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Sad and forlorn in a small auction house. 
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Shiny and pretty at Bonhams!

...but if you are feeling apprehensive, skip  the Silver Dip stage and do the whole thing with Nushine (or other silverplating solution of your choice). It will take longer and you might want to put the TV on, but you'll know for sure that you're not stripping any silver plate this way.

But what about "patina"? Don't people age silver on purpose?

Listen, if you have some 16th C apostle spoons sitting around, then, no - don't chuck them into Silver Dip. But if you had that in your drawer you wouldn't be reading this guide, you'd be on the phone to Christie's. Speaking of which - have a look at their online catalogues. Unless an item is really old and that is its selling point, you won't see any silverware that hasn't been cleaned. Have a look at Pushkin Antiques who  manage to combine both the old-school charm of Grays Antiques and selling on eBay -they may well be buying their stock in a less then stellar condition, but they certainly aren't selling anything that doesn't look  bright and shiny, which is really the original purpose of silver and silver plate - to look pretty.

WARNING!

If something has great sentimental value and you'd grab it before your kids if the  house was on fire, then you should avoid any DIY. Go to a professional! Try to find one on recommendation - my mom once brought in a pair of diamond earrings for a clean and they came back blue. Cleaning silver properly is a fiddly and ardurous task - here's an excerpt from Victoria and Albert Museum silver department:

" Swab surface with methylated or white spirit to remove grease and dirt - some tarnish may also be removed.
If tarnish remains, try gently rubbing a silver cloth over the surface - this has mild abrasive particles embedded in it. To get into small corners with the silver cloth, cut out a small square, make a cotton wool swab, wrap the silver cloth round the swab and use the swab to push the silver cloth into the small areas. It can be helpful to moisten the silver cloth with methylated spirit. After using the silver cloth, rub over the area with a swab moistened with alcohol to remove residues.
If tarnish still remains, try a mild abrasive paste, cream or foam. Make a swab, moisten it with distilled water and pick up a little of the cleaning product. When the swab turns black, change it for a new one. Rub gently over the tarnished area in a circular motion. Remove silver foam residues with a swab moistened with distilled water. Residues can be difficult to remove and you may need to repeat this step.
Swab lightly with methylated spirit. If the object is going on display, you may wish to gently rub it over with a clean dry silver cloth, which incorporates a tarnish inhibitor, or use a coating.
"
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Thank you!

Well folks, that's about the gist of it! Thank you for reading and if you have any pro tips on cleaning silver or anything else you'd like to share with the community, please use the comment section below.
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