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Most decorative and kitchen copperware sold in the U.S. in the last 30-40 years has a protective lacquer coating to resist tarnishing. If your copper will be used for display only and not exposed to steam or moisture, you can leave the lacquer on and your copper will require only occasional dusting and a quick touch-up now and then with copper polish. However, if you plan to use a lacquered copper piece for cooking or food preparation (even just boiling water) you must remove this lacquer before using it. Even if your piece is only to be used for decorative purposes, there are several instances in which you may want to remove the lacquer:
The piece is older and some of the lacquer is already coming off. If you remove the lacquer completely, it will not have that “splotchy” look.
Small specks of tarnish are appearing UNDER the lacquer coating that cannot be removed with copper polish. Removing the lacquer will enable you to easily polish off the tarnished spots.
You prefer the “old copper” look, and want your pieces to develop a patina (the warm brown color seen in aged, unpolished copper). Removing the lacquer will enable your copperware to develop a more even patina in much less time than if you leave the lacquer on.
Your item will be exposed to steam or moisture, for example hung on the wall near the stove, or kept on a burner (such as a coffee pot or teakettle). Over time, steam or moisture will weaken or destroy parts of the lacquer, giving it a whitish color, and tarnish spots will appear under the protective coating.
You can remove the lacquer on most copper pieces by immersing them in a solution of 1 tablespoon baking soda per 1 quart boiling water. A large stockpot or canning kettle, simmering on the stove, will work for larger items. If your piece is just too large to be boiled, try using tongs and dip a section at a time into the boiling water/baking soda solution. When you notice the lacquer peeling off, or a clear scum rising to the top of the water, take the piece out and immediately scrub with a soft cloth or sponge and copper cleaner or polish of your choice (Wright’s Copper Cream is the brand I prefer). You may have to repeat the procedure a few times to get rid of stubborn spots.
Occasionally I have come across a type of lacquer that just will not respond to the baking soda treatment. In those instances I have successfully used lacquer thinner, available at hardware stores. Parker makes two products that work especially well in removing lacquer from metals:? Park’s Metal Refurbisher, and Park’s Lacquer Thinner. Always test lacquer thinners in an inconspicuous area of your piece first, to be certain it won’t cause corrosion. Be sure to follow the directions on the label (except the part about using a wire brush ? use a sponge or soft cloth instead!). Nail polish remover with acetone will also remove most stubborn patches of lacquer.
If you love the new, shiny pink color of copper, you’ll find you need to polish your unlacquered pieces more often. However, without the lacquer, your polishing chores will require much less elbow grease, as the tarnish or? patina comes off much more easily on unlacquered copper.
When cleaning your copper, avoid using steel wool or scouring powders, even liquid ones like Soft Scrub. They contribute to the fine, hair-like scratch marks on the surface. Dishwashing liquid, citrus degreasers, and non-grainy cleaners are fine. If you feel that powders must be used, apply with a soft cloth and rub gently.
You may have heard of a technique for cleaning and shining copper involving a paste made of lemon juice and salt. This has the same effect as using a powdered cleanser ? it will leave tiny scratches on your copper finish. Baking soda does a better job of cleaning and doesn’t scratch when applied with a soft cloth. Lemon juice isn’t necessary ? it smells nice but has little cleaning value aside from cutting grease. In the same vein, cleaning copper with ketchup is a myth. It simply doesn’t work.
You may have heard of a technique to “restore” the patina in newly polished copper in which copperware is heated in the oven. Heat marks are not the same thing as patina, and the appearance of this false oven-induced “patina” is usually disappointing. In addition, heating empty copper cookware or other pieces for a period of time can warp the metal. Please don’t try this unless you’re experimenting with a piece you don’t mind permanently warped or damaged. The passage of time is the only thing that will restore a true patina to copper. Removing the lacquer from your pieces will speed up the process significantly.
Copper can be lined with nickel, stainless steel, or tin. Stainless finishes will often have circular rings emanating from the center, a spun look. Stainless and nickel are very shiny when new. True tin linings were discontinued in this country before the turn of the century because of food safety concerns.
Usually only antique pieces or those made in the Middle East are truly tin-lined. Modern imports that claim a food-safe tin lining use a zinc-based alloy which is food safe. Tin and zinc-based alloy linings have a dull appearance. Many people prefer not to cook or prepare foods in copper that is lined with a dull metal especially if the origins and age of the piece aren’t known.
Unlined copper should not be used for cooking, especially anything acidic (tomatoes, most fruits, vinegar, or sauces/condiments that use any acidic ingredients). The copper creates a chemical reaction with the acid that is considered poisonous, though the effect may be long-term. The exception is a copper beating or mixing bowl. The chemical reaction of the copper and egg whites allows for quick stiffening of the mixture and is not harmful since eggs contain no acid. And of course, dry mixing is perfectly fine in unlined copper.
Copper is an excellent conductor of heat. That combined with its beauty is why copper cookware is so popular, and so expensive! If you’ve purchased a piece of decorative or functional copper from me, I truly hope you enjoy it. It is my one collecting passion, and I always welcome questions or comments from other copper junquies.