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Planning for holiday dinners and celebrations usually means bringing out the good silver and some decorative items made of metal that don't get much use the rest of the year. You need to start early if you want to get everything polished and looking great before company arrives. But before you begin, it's important to understand exactly what you're dealing with. Each type of metal should be treated differently to produce the best results, and some tarnish, in fact, is best left alone.

Here are some tips for dealing with tarnished metals.

What is tarnish?

Tarnish is a discoloration resulting from oxidation, a chemical reaction between metal and its environment. Acids on your hands, smoke and dust in the air, sulfur compounds in foods, bare woods, many paints, even some fabric drawer-liners all contain chemicals that can react with metal, leaving behind that familiar dull coating of tarnish. Washing and polishing can remove tarnish, but any traces of detergent or polish left behind can attract moisture, leading to a far worse problem -- rust.

Contrary to popular wisdom, tarnish is not damaging. (It's not dirt, and it doesn't penetrate the surface of metal.) Sometimes the best approach is to do nothing at all. Many collectors prefer the charming patina of age over a shiny, new-looking item, and a bit of tarnish in engraved designs helps to set them off, making them more beautiful. So where you can, try to learn to live with tarnish. Where that's impossible -- on the flatware that people will eat with, for example -- eliminate it with the gentlest method available.

Removing tarnish

Washing alone sometimes removes tarnish, so that should always be your first step. Be sure to pad the sink and work area with towels to guard against scratches and dents, and wear gloves to protect both your hands and the piece.

Remove dust with a soft-bristled brush, then wash with a damp cloth and mild detergent. Don't submerge a piece completely, and be especially careful with composites of different materials, since seams are easily weakened. Rinse and dry pieces thoroughly with a soft cloth.

If tarnish remains, try a polish: Polish-soaked cloths and liquid polishes are best for mild tarnish, while pastes and creams are better for more severe problems. Always start with a milder product and move to a stronger one if necessary. Use products formulated especially for the type of metal you're working on (see specific tips, below), and never use chemical dips -- they are too harsh.

Use a light touch, and polish in the same pattern each time, usually circular on hollowware and lengthwise on flatware. Wash again and dry well afterward.

Metal by metal

Aluminum is slow to tarnish and does not polish brightly. Clean indoor pieces with isopropyl alcohol; for outdoor aluminum (such as lawn furniture), leave the tarnish as a protective layer against the elements. Avoid contact with copper or iron, which can lead to corrosion.

Brass is typically coated with a clear lacquer to prevent stubborn tarnish. If not lacquered, a coating of paste wax will slow tarnish development. Use a polish made for brass; never use acids such as lemon juice or vinegar, or ammonia-based products, such as window cleaner.

Bronze is typically made more appealing with a subtle patina, so dusting and gentle washing is all that is usually required.

Cast iron absorbs water and rusts easily. Always dry after washing. Remove small rust spots with a utility knife; steel wool will strip rust from larger areas. A coat of wax, oil or paint can help prevent rust.

Chrome is usually used as plating over other metals, as it does not corrode or tarnish. Use a chrome cleaner to shine the surface, and gently buff away water marks. If the underlying metal corrodes, causing pock marks, leave them alone.

Copper develops a green patina, which is often desirable when used outdoors. Copper pots can be shined brightly, although some cooks like to leave the tarnish, claiming that it helps conduct heat. A natural polish of lemon juice or white vinegar, along with some coarse salt, will make copper gleam.

Gold won't tarnish, though it can be damaged by impurities in tap water, so always dry it thoroughly. Treat gilt and plating gently, dusting with a soft brush.

Nickel fixtures rarely show tarnish; usually only washing and buffing are required. If nickel plating chips, it should be recoated to prevent corrosion.

Pewter is not meant to be shiny; washing and dusting are usually sufficient. Always use a mild, nonabrasive polish if desired.

Silver should be used and washed regularly, and polished only when needed with the gentlest effective product. Store pieces in tarnish-resistant silversmith's cloth pouches or in drawers lined with such cloth.

Stainless steel is vulnerable to water spots, so it should always be dried immediately. Remove spots from sinks and counters with a stainless-steel cleaner; polish with the grain, when needed.

Tin is typically thin and delicate, so it should be treated with care. Always dry thoroughly after washing, because rust can develop quickly.

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