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etiquette scholar / dining etiquette / table setting / flatware / caring for flatware

Care of Flatware

When it comes to flatware, some metals require more care than others. Sterling silver and silver plate tarnish, whereas vermeil, gold electroplate, stainless steel, and pewter are comparatively easy to care for.

Tarnish is created by warm air, dust, and sunlight. Heated air contains a small amount of carbon and sulfide (a mixture similar to smog), which react chemically with the surface of silver and cause tarnish to develop. Although tarnish creates a film that diminishes the luster and whitish color of silver, in an ornamental capacity it highlights the recesses of deeply carved ornamentation with a darker hue.

Display or store silver away from heat or sunlight. The ideal temperature to display or store silver is 18°C (65°F). Because heat promotes tarnish, in winter months silver is prone to tarnish more when windows are closed, heating registers are open, and fireplaces emit smoke.

The best tarnish retardant is the daily use of silver. Repeated washings keep silver tarnish-free up to 6 months. After that it may require polish to improve the sparkle.

Tarnish-preventive bags inhibit tarnish. Tarnish-preventive cloth is made of cotton flannel embedded with tiny particles of pure silver that attract tarnish making gases away from silver and inhibit tarnish. Because washing dislodges the particles of silver embedded in the fabric and renders it ineffective, tarnish-preventive cloth is never washed. To make a storage area tarnish-free, buy the fabric by the yard and tack it to the top, bottom, and sides of a drawer or cupboard. Leave enough material to make a flap as an opening. When tarnish-preventive cloth is glued to a surface, make sure the glue is nonsulfurous. Otherwise the glue may leach through the cloth and render the material ineffective.

Use silver protection strips, camphor cakes, and camphor gum. To neutralize tar­nish for up to 6 months in a cabinet or cupboard, purchase silver protection strips from household catalogs and camphor cakes and camphor gum from pharmacies.

Never lacquer flatware or serveware. Lacquer seals the surface of silver and prevents tarnish, but it is recommended only for articles seldom held in the hand, such as a picture frame, a box, or a napkin ring. Because lacquer is susceptible to scratches, once the seal is broken, tarnish forms around the cracks and spreads underneath. Should this happen, take the piece to a silversmith, who will strip and resilver the article.

cleaning silver

Wash sterling silver in hot, sudsy water, followed by a hot rinse and hand drying. Sterling silver is a soft metal, softened further when subjected to the heat of the dishwasher drying cycle, and hand-washing is recommended. Moreover, the motion of the dishwasher subjects the soft metal to scratches and dents, and when left to steam-dry, the water spots leave marks that etch the surface. Because the alkaline content in some detergents is harmful to sterling, a mild detergent without bleach is recommended. Detergents with bleach remove oxidation.

Do not wash silver on a rubber mat. Rubber contains sulfur that darkens the surface of silver and leaves black marks only a silversmith can remove.

Never wash silver and stainless steel together. An electrolytic reaction occurs when silver and stainless steel are washed together. Ions of silver disassociate, transfer to stainless steel, and leave silver articles pitted. Should this happen, take the ware to a professional silversmith, who will buff ware made of sterling silver and resilver items made of silver plate.

Use a nonabrasive tarnish remover. There are several ways to remove tarnish, with a tarnish-preventive liquid, a nonabrasive metal polish with a base of jeweler's rouge, or silver mits made of tarnish-preventive cloth.

To enhance patina rub silver lengthwise. Silver is a soft metal that scratches easily. To enhance the patina (the small scratches that promote a mellow glow), rather than polish silver in a circular or crosswise motion, rub lengthwise.

Promote the same patina for all utensils. The easiest way to promote the same patina for all utensils is to lay flatware on its side in a divided drawer or storage chest, a method that keeps the same utensils from constant use. When flatware is stored in a stacked position, the weight of the top pieces scratches the bottom utensils.

To clean the crevices of silver. To reach into the recesses of deeply carved ornamentation, dip a soft brush, such as an old toothbrush, into silver polish. Wash the article in hot soapy water, rinse, and wipe with a soft cloth that will not scratch the surface.

Don't use silver dip, except between fork tines. The chemical composition of silver dip reacts with the metallic structure of silver and leaves a dull white finish on the surface (however the film is removable with silver polish). Moreover, silver dip removes the black tarnish used as a decorative tool to accent the deep recesses of silver ornamentation

Never soak knife blades above cuff level in hot water. The knife blade is made with a tang, a metal point that projects from the blade where it is inserted into the handle. The handle and blade are joined with cement and covered with silver, producing a small ledge called a cuff. When the knife handle is soaked in hot water above cuff level, the heat may disintegrate the cement or cause swelling that forces the tang and handle apart.

Remove wax from silver. Wax sometimes gets into candlesticks, but it breaks off quickly when silver is placed in the refrigerator. Any remaining wax washes off in hot soapy water.

inhibit corrosion

Sulfur and acids are corrosive agents found in eggs, fruit (notably citrus fruit), mayonnaise, mustard, salad dressing, salt, salt air, vinegar, newspaper print, plastic, rubber products, and flowers arranged in a silver container.

Rinse silver tableware soon after use in hot soapy water. Use a mild detergent (one made without bleach) and avoid soaking silver for a prolonged period of time, such as overnight, as the chloride (salt) in the water may cause the silver to pit.

Line a silver bowl or vase. The acid in fruit and flowers etches silver, and when a silver bowl or vase is used as a container for fruit or flowers, line it with a bowl or jar made of glass.

Protect against salt and salt air. Sodium chloride can pit silver with gray dots. In the early stages, gray spots are removable with silver polish, but when silver is deeply pitted take the piece to a silversmith for a professional polishing. Otherwise, the spots will enlarge and salt will destroy the metal.

Empty silver salt shakers soon after use. To inhibit the corrosive effect of salt, after use, wipe the interior of silver shakers clean with a damp sponge.

storing silver

Store silver in acid-free tissue paper or tarnish-preventive bags. For those who live near the sea, to protect silver from the corrosive effect of salt air, store silver in bags made of tarnish-preventive material.

Never store silver in plastic. Moisture is trapped in plastic bags, sticks to the surface of silver, and marks the metal. Should this happen, take the article to a silversmith for a professional polishing.

Never store silver in newspaper. Today newspaper ink supposedly does not rub off, but why take a chance? Printers ink can mark silver, and leave discol­oration almost impossible to remove.

Before storing sterling silver flatware, count the pieces. To make sure a utensil isn't thrown out during cleanup, count the number of utensils before putting silver flatware away.

care of vermeil, gold electroplate, stainless steel, and pewter

Vermeil is gold-plated silver. Both of these are soft metals susceptible to scratches and dents, and hand-washing is recommended. However, gold does not tarnish and vermeil is resistant to acid and stains.

Gold electroplate is a base metal covered with gold, but the surface is susceptible to scratches and dents made in a dishwasher and hand-washing is recommended.

Stainless steel is a hard metal that does not rust, stains less than other metals, retains a high luster, and offers carefree maintenance in a dishwasher.

Pewter is a soft alloy, prone to dents and scratches made by the jostling motion of a dishwasher, and hand-washing is recommended. Although the blades, fork tines, and bowls of the spoons are made of stainless steel for strength, the handles are pewter and are therefore soft.


- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

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