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Tips on keeping silver heirlooms brilliant

Published on -11/7/2013, 10:09 AM

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Silver has been prized for centuries for its beauty and durability. Harder than gold, it has long been used for currency, jewelry, utensils and housewares.

Silver flatware is probably one of the most prized possessions in a home. But, unfortunately, many people store their silverware away only to use it once or twice a year for special occasions (that is, if they remember to unpack it.)

Actually, silver is very durable and can be used and enjoyed on a regular basis without fear. With time and use, silver develops a satiny patina, a soft lustrous finish which results from a blending of the fine lines and scratches. So, regular use enhances the beauty and value of the pieces.

Tarnish is one problem you will encounter with silver. Regular use and washing reduces tarnish significantly. Certain steps can be taken to further minimize tarnishing, however nothing will eliminate it completely because it is the result of a natural chemical reaction that occurs when silver comes in contact with sulphur-containing substances in the air.

Silver should be cleaned when it begins to show tarnish or a yellowish dulling of the luster. Here's a simple technique for cleaning silver: line a plastic or glass container with a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place the silver directly on the aluminum foil, making sure every piece is touching the foil. Sprinkle dry baking soda over the silver (use two to four tablespoons per quart of water needed) and pour over boiling water to cover the silver pieces. Let stand about five minutes, then rinse and wipe immediately. You might need tongs to lift the silver from the hot water to protect your fingers.

If the silver is only lightly tarnished, all of the tarnish will disappear within several minutes. If the silver is badly tarnished, you many need to reheat the baking soda and water mixture, and give the silver several treatments to remove all the tarnish.

This works through a chemical reaction which transfers the tarnish from the silver onto the aluminum, releasing a bit of sulphur gas in the process. So if the baking soda solution bubbles and you smell a whiff of rotten-egg sulphur, you'll know the reaction is working.

This process works for silverware and larger silver serving pieces, too. But be aware it removes all the tarnish. So, if you're used to a trace of tarnish in the deep crevices to highlight the design on your silver items, understand that will go away, too.

There are also a variety of liquid, cream or paste products on the market that clean and polish silver nicely. Be sure to follow the manufacturers instructions for use.

Many of you might be using your silver flatware for the upcoming holiday season. Keep the following pointers in mind to hold tarnishing to a minimum and protect the beauty of your silverware:

* Don't let salt and high-sulphur foods such as eggs and mayonnaise remain on the silver items for an extended length of time. They speed the tarnishing process and salt can corrode the silver if left long enough.

* Wash silver as soon as possible after meals in hot, soapy water and dry with a soft cloth.

* Avoid draining silver pieces on a rubber mat. The contact with rubber can promote tarnishing.

Don't be afraid to use your silverware for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If the silverware set is a family heirloom, be sure to tell the children about the relatives who used it before. Teach them how to properly care for the silver pieces and if they're old enough, let them help with cleaning and polishing. Having an heirloom that can be handled, used and cared for will help the whole family appreciate and enjoy a treasured possession.

Linda Beech is a Kansas State University Research & Extension agent in Ellis County specializing in family and consumer sciences. lbeech@ksu.edu

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