Monday, February 4, 2019

How To Clean Antique Cut Steel Jewelry.

Cut steel jewelry was a popular style from the early 18th trough the early 20th century.

various styles of cut steel jewelry

It was meant to imitate diamonds and often worn by those people who loved the sparkle of diamonds but couldn't afford it. Though even empress Josephine is said to have worn cut steel jewelry so its not exclusive to the lower classes. It was mass produced, buttons and shoe buckles where especially popular but you can find pretty much any jewelry item imaginable in cut steel. earrings, brooches, tiaras you name it, it was done in cut steel.

Georgian cut steel earrings

Thanks to its mass production cut steel items are still easy enough to find, but they are becoming rarer and more expensive, and for someone on a budget it can be a challenge to find affordably priced pieces in decent condition.
Cut steel is prone to rust and many a nice piece has lots its sparkle due to it. Other cut steel jewelry isn't exactly rusted but has somehow tarnished and lost its shine. But just these items are the ones one can still snap up for a song. 
I got a phenomenal deal on a beautiful 19th century moon and star cut steel hair ornament on eBay recently.

The eBay pictures of my hair ornament

 I paid less that $30 including shipping from the UK and I was ecstatic. It looked OK in the pictures, or rather I  was not sure if they where just bad pictures,but when it arrived the piece looked dull and dark, it had some sort of back oxidation on it that regular polishing just didn't remove.

The condition it was in when I recited it

 And so started my quest to find a good way to rehab tarnished cut steel.
After rubbing it with a microfiber polishing cloth with no results, I figured maybe acid would do it. So I submerged it in a solution of vinegar and baking soda. Bad idea it caused the whole thing to turn even darker leaving a thick residue. It did however remove the little bit of rust it had on the back quite nicely. Then I tried several buffing attachments on my dremel tool but that didn't do much either. After that I gave toothpaste a try. 
The toothpaste actually did yield results. #I used my electric toothbrush and an old brush attachment and spent hours scrubbing the thing. It got better but it wasn't great and it was painstaking work.

After polishing it for hours with toothpaste

 Then I asked the hive-mind on my Facebook page what to do and low and behold a friend of mine said to use a steel  wire brush attachment on my dremel tool! He even sent me a link to the correct attachment on Ebay. I was doubtful because I was concerned that the wire brush would be too harsh and scratch the cut steel. But my friend assured me that he had tried it on several cut steel items and it yielded great results. 
So I ordered the attachment figuring I didn't have much to loose as my hair ornament was dull anyway.
The attachments arrived within a couple of days.

The little steel brush attachment from my dremel tool

The packaging it came in

 There where 3 in the package. I had to try it out immediately and this time I was not disappointed!

After polishing with the steel wire brush.

the whole process took me a whole of 15 minutes and it removed the oxidation completely exposing clean smooth steel! The piece isn't as sparkly as it once was, or at least I don't think it is, but maybe it wasn't super sparkly to begin with? I have read that the lower quality and later period mass produced cut steel pieces aren't as sparkly as the early hand made items. So who knows. In any case my hair ornament is certainly much shinier and in better shape than it was when I got it.
Now I was curious, was it not super sparkly because it was a lower quality piece or was it just because the oxidation had damaged the surface somewhat giving a duller appearance even in its cleaned state.
So I went on eBay and ordered some badly rusted cut steel buttons from England to try and restore them to their former state.

My rusted eBay buttons

When I got them, I immediately set to do some experimentation with them. 
They where badly rusted but the parts that didn't have rust on them where still pretty sparkly. So first I tied to remove the rust with just the wire brush attachment on my dremel. It worked but it was hard to get into the little crevices and remove the rust down there. So I tried the vinegar and baking soda bath again.
That removed the rust nicely but gave it that black oxidation again.

Before the vinegar bath

After the vinegar bath, note the dull black residue

And that black stuff is a pain to remove even with the tool. It worked, but it may have dulled the non rusted parts a bit. The rest of the buttons I cleaned with just the wire brush.

after polishing with the steel wire brush

 I am  concerned that I maybe didn't get to all the rust underneath and in between but they do look nice, So i will see if the ones I didn't put in the vinegar bath have issues with returning rust. The parts where I removed the rust I simply couldn't return to its original shine,compared to the non rusted parts. The surface is just too pitted and damaged from the rust eating away on it. But the buttons look good overall and for the price I got them for I'm not complaining. 
So it seems one can indeed rehab rusted or oxidized cut steel jewelry but its difficult to get them quite as sparkly as they would have been originally.  And only use the vinegar bath on extremely rusted pieces!
That being said its important to store cut steel in a low moisture environment to protect it from rust. Its a good idea to add some silica packs to whatever container you store your cut steel in. You can use those little packets that often come with shoes or other items. I store my cut steel in a velvet bag with some silica packs now.
And try not to wear cut steel in humid/wet conditions. I wore a cut steel brooch last summer to an outside event in Kentucky and after a few hours it had started to rust!
I hope this tutorial was useful for those of you who have a bunch of tarnished cut steel laying around or are considering buying a piece in less than stellar condition
Happy cleaning!