The Care of Pewter
November 1, 1938 | By John W. Poole
[Originally published November 1938; posted in conjunction with Barrymore Laurence Scherer's "American Pewter," March/April 2013.]
IN ADDITION to the desirability of maintaining the value of personal property, the owner of antiquities possessing historical and cultural significance owes a very definite obligation to posterity. In some fields, little or none of this responsibility may be shifted to our museums. Especially is this true of American pewter. Comparatively little early American pewter of superior quality has as yet been acquired by these institutions. Even the best museum collections in this field fall far short, both in scope and quality, of any one among several private collections.
To my deep regret, ignorance during my apprentice period as a collector resulted in the deterioration of some of my prized pewter. The lessons learned from that hard experience I now pass on to those who care to use them.
This exceptional 7-inch high quart tankard by Henry Will (active New York City and Albany, New York 1761-1793) is priced at $22,500. Will worked primarily in New York City, but left the city for Albany during the British occupation of 1775-1783.
THE FIRST IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF CARE
One of the most important elements in the care of pewter is the ensuring of proper atmospheric conditions for storage. The tendency of "cold" to cause pewter to disintegrate and to become covered with scale like corrosion has been adequately discussed by other writers. Suffice it here to observe that below a temperature of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the basic constituent of pewter tends to lose its "metallic form" and to be converted to gray powder. Hence every effort should be made to keep fine pieces reasonably warm.
At the same time, low temperatures alone appear not to be destructive. In a cool atmosphere that has been very dry, I have found little evidence of scale or "pewter-disease" formation. In the clear winters of New Hampshire, pewter pieces in the unheated portion of a farmhouse, where temperatures have dropped well below zero for protracted periods, have been retained a high polish for five years. On the other hand, a pewter basin partially filled with water has become seriously pitted within a week's time, in a room whose diurnal temperature varied between the limits of 55 degrees and 75 degrees. Most of us have discovered mugs, tankards, beakers, and the like seriously corroded and scaled on the inside bottom, where a little moisture would tend to remain.
Apparently, then, pewter disease (tin pest, it is sometimes called) is born of the unholy wedlock of cold and moisture, each of which by itself is fairy innocuous. The first principle of conservation, therefore, is: keep pewter both warm and dry; but at any rate, do not allow it to become simultaneously cold and damp.
Atmospheric conditions may necessitate other precautionary measures. In cities like New York, whose air is variously polluted, pewter is likely to become quickly discolored. The lover of pewter prefers his possessions bright and polished, as they were in the days of their use. On the other hand, frequent hard rubbing with modern cleaning preparations slowly but surely erodes the soft metal. Though its effects on heavy, plain surfaces may not be noticeable for years, the impairment of the fine and delicate details of hollow ware is soon evident. As for the all-important makers' marks, even injudicious rubbing with a rough cloth may work irreparable damage. Not even the mildest of metal cleaners should come near these precious insignia. They should be subjected to nothing more drastic than gentle washing in a thick lather of soft water and mild soap, followed by complete drying. A soft brush should be used to remove all traces of soap from the fine depressions.
If our sole concern were that of preserving pewter for posterity, we would all agree that the ware should be kept stowed far from any great industrial centre. Since, however, such a measure is out of the question, we must find some suitable compromise. Airtight cases will afford adequate protection; but they are beyond the means of most collectors. Perhaps the best procedure is to keep the pewter clean, but to be gentle about it.
RESTORATION AND PRELIMINARY CLEANING
Another element of care which is nearly, if not quite, as important as that of providing proper atmospheric conditions, is the restoration and preliminary cleaning of examples.
The cleaning of a "Clean" Piece. Pieces which, once polished, have lost their brilliance- as well as acquisitions in a good state of preservation- free from the scale of pewter disease, should be treated differently from pieces requiring extensive restoration. They will seldom require- and preferably should not receive- a soaking in lye, although this is often a valuable and indispensable step toward restoration. An initial attempt, at least, should be made to attain the desired end of cleanliness with a not particularly abrasive metal polish and the follow-up treatment presently to be described. However, if polishing proves excessively laborious, it is safe and proper to soak the article in lye solution. The lye can do no more damage than would ensue from a long-continued polishing.
As a matter of fact, no grounds exist for believing that lye solution has any effect whatsoever on the various metals constituting pewter. The only argument for its avoidance is a kind of reverse of the reason for rubbing butter on a baby's heel: it can do no harm and it may help. My own feeling is that an excellently preserved specimen polished without preliminary lye treatment holds a more lasting polish that will a similarly fine piece that has been soaked in lye. But I may be only imagining.
However, if we must give our pewter the lye, try the following method" to enough water completely to cover the piece or pieces to be cleansed, add ordinary lye crystals in the approximate ratio of one can of lye to two or three gallons of water. Stir intermittently for ten or fifteen minutes to assist solution. It is important that all lye must be dissolved. Do not be timid about the dosage: even a much stronger lye solution will not harm pewter- at least, if exposure is not fantastically long. Nevertheless, it is it is true that solid lye crystals-if they become attached to pewter- can burn and discolor it almost beyond remedy. Similarly burns will occur if part of a piece extends above the surface of the solution. Complete submersion is essential, and no piece should be placed in the bath until solution is complete. If a rule is made never to place a piece in the bath until fifteen minutes after mixing, and the solution in the interim is well stirred, there is little cause for worry.
Even so, it is inadvisable to permit any great expanse of pewter- such as a plate- to rest squarely on the bottom of the container. Tip it, to allow circulation and to avoid pressing against some causal small crystal. Provision for such free circulation is especially important if the bath is to be heated after the pieces are immersed in it.
A hot bath acts faster than does a cold one, otherwise there is no difference- whereas two or three hours' cold soaking might be necessary, twenty minutes will usually suffice in a bath heated to a mildly steaming point.
After the bath, use a stick- or other utensil that will not scratch the soft metal- to maneuver the piece so that it may be grasped without immersing one's hands in the lye. Wash the piece well in running water, using a rough cloth or medium brush. If the discoloration passes off easily, leaving a clean surface varying in appearance from bright metallic to a dull light gray, the lye has done all that it can. If the appearance is not as just described, a second soaking may be needed, probably with more lye added to the bath; with very hard water considerable lye can be consumed by the "hardness."
(Note. In case of accidents with lye, it is well to know that vinegar is a very efficient antidote.)
After the above treatment, with the piece dry, begin polishing. Not all metal polishes are suitable. I distrust fast-working concoctions. "Noxon" I find entirely suitable. Using a generous quantity of polish and a bit of cotton cloth, rub the piece vigorously. The application will soon become black and muddy, but so long as it remains semi fluid the scouring will continue to be effective. When the surface (never including the mark) is presumably well polished underneath the Noxon "mud," clean by first thoroughly mixing into it an extremely heavy lather of a good soap- Ivory Flakes, for example. Be sure the job is thorough and be sure that no crevice is overlooked. The use of a brush is virtually mandatory. This done, use the same brush and soft water to remove the soap. Hard water positively should not be used; combined with the soap, it invariably leaves deposits on the metal. Rain water is the best; many artificially softened waters are far from good. The final burnishing should be given with a not too hard woolen cloth or chamois. If the final polish is not satisfactory, the whole operation, rubbing with metal polish, lathering, scrubbing, and drying should be repeated. Whether or not a lye bath is used, the polishing, lathering, and scrubbing procedure will always be the same.
Reason for the Procedure. The reason for all this hocus-pocus are plenty. Traces of either lye or metal polish left on pewter and permitted to dry can spread havoc. They must come off! In addition to considerations of good treatment, the above method is less laborious than more conventional use of metal polishes. Without lathering, reasonably complete removal of dirty polish may require vast quantities of clean rags, and even then is likely to be complete in appearance only.
TREATEMENT OF PIECES WITH HANDLES
Non-metallic elements, such as wooden handles of teapots, should never be soaked in lye solution.
The lye treatment of tankards, mugs and the like, which have hollow handles, requires special precautions. Most handles are hollow and very often their inner chambers are accessible through holes or cracks, some-times so insignificant as to be scarcely visible. Lye once admitted through such orifices is virtually beyond hope of removal. At best, lye thus trapped does not good, and frequently, by slow leakage, leaves a disfiguring and probably permanent streak on the vessel. Unless holes are fairy large, certain simple precautions will prevent lye from entering. If holes are sizable, they should be plugged with wood (toothpicks will do) before the soaking.
Furthermore, the bath at the outset should be somewhat warmer than the surrounding air and should be slowly raised in temperature over a low flame as long as the piece remains in it. In this way the air trapped in the hollow chamber, will expand continuously throughout the operation, setting up and maintaining a sufficient pressure to exclude liquid.
The piece must be removed from the bath before the latter's temperature ceases to rise. Under no condition must the bath be allowed to cool even slightly before the piece is removed.
TREATMENT OF DAMAGED PIECES
The matter of repairing breaks, holes and the like in pewter comes outside the scope of the present article. The damage with which we are now concerned relates to surface damage: dents, scratches, and especially that type of corrosion known as "pewter disease."
If possible, dents and other deformations should be corrected by placing one side of the piece against a surface, preferably wooden, conforming approximately to the shape the restored section should possess. Restoration of outline should be effected through gradually applied pressure, only that of the bare hands if possible. When hands will not suffice, pressure should be applied with a piece of soft wood, sharp corners being used only on sharp corners of the pewter piece. Under no circumstances should the piece be hammered into shape with something hard. Hammering inevitably produces dents virtually immune to all methods of correction. If great care is used, it is permissible to hammer with soft pine. While an almost endless amount could be written about the removal of dents and other deformations, experience is the only good teacher. If the precautions cited are carefully observed, it is almost impossible to injure a piece. With care plus experience, one may become surprisingly expert in making repairs and will be delighted at the transformation which he can work in what seem to be hopelessly disfigured pieces.
TREATMENT OF PEWTER DISEASE
Although much may be done to improve the appearance of a badly scaled piece, truly satisfactory cure of the worst cases is next to impossible. Unless it is of supreme rarity and importance, a badly corroded piece were better not acquired. On the other hand, where the penetration of the scale is comparatively slight- about 1/64 of an inch- remedies may be applied.
The first step is the lye bath, already described. The time of soaking will usually be longer than with pieces in good condition, and the solution strength about half again as great. The reaction will consume an appreciable amount of lye.
If marks are affected by scale, hot soaking should be avoided, and melted paraffin poured over the marks to protect them while the piece is soaking overnight in a warm room. Later the paraffin may be removed with boiling water.
Heavily scaled pieces often emerge from the lye bath terrifically pitted, which explains why lye solution has sometimes been given a bad name. However, no condemnation is warranted. Lye will clean pewter, revealing holes previously filled with dirt and corrosion, but never creating new ones. These holes may completely penetrate the metal, but they were there before the lye treatment, though plugged and invisible. Disappointments of this type are all too common, and sometimes a piece for which considerable hope was entertained will turn out to be of little value save as sold for the repairman.
If the piece should chance to be a great rarity, like a John Bassett plate, it may warrant having its thousands of pits filled in. This can be done, although pains must be taken to match the color of the pewter used for filling. Pewter exhibits a surprising number of shades not detectable in separate pieces, but readily apparent when two metals become incorporated in a single item. Moreover, this filling of pits is expensive; an enormous amount of time is involved in first-class work; and when it is done the piece is, of course, not "all original." I wish to repeat that only the greatest rarities merit thirty-dollar repairs.
RESTORATION OF CORRODED MINOR ITEMS
Although justification for expensive restoration of inexpensive pieces may not be established, a piece "too good to throw away" may often be made presentable if the collector is willing to putter. My own position is that restorative steps comparable to, and as drastic as, the damage are always justified. Since I am convinced that resurfacing by pit filling is really never worth while, I believe that elimination of the pits by grinding down the surface is entirely permissible. A pitted piece even when cleaned is ugly, and will constantly collect dirt. Its surface is a far poorer approximation of the original than will be that of a "buffed" piece. To accomplish this buffing the following procedure will, I believe, be more satisfactory than the use of a buffing wheel. It produces equally effective results without imparting the "buffed" appearance.
With a sandpaper coarse enough to speed action but fine enough to avoid scratches deeper than the existing pits, scour the piece down until the deepest abrasions seem to reach the level to which the surface should be reduced. Unless the original paper was No. 000, use successively finer papers until No. 000 has been employed, always considering the "deepest scratch" a standard for judging the time to shift to a finer paper. Next use Dutch Cleanser or Bon Ami on the same basis, and finally quadruple-O steel wool, rubbing in circles around a plate or around a mug rather than radically or up and down. Such fine scratches as remain will then be much less noticeable.
The point at which operations start in the above procedure will not always be the same, but will be determined entirely by the nature of the pitting. Many pieces will be found to demand only Dutch Cleanser, or Bon Ami, or steel wool, or sometimes the last alone. If no abrasive more drastic than the steel wool is needed, results will frequently be improved by finishing with the metal polish and soap treatments already described. If pitting is so deep that sandpaper is required, the use of metal polish seldom improves results. This is tantamount to saying that badly pitted pieces will not finish as well as those whose pitting is shallow.
A NOTE OF WARNING
It must be surmised that I recommend the general use of such abrasives as Dutch Cleaner, Bon Ami, and steel wool. To reiterate: restorative measures as drastic as the damage are justified; but more drastic measures are to be condemned. Remember also that any polishing removes some metal, and that it is highly desirable to keep such losses at the lowest possible minimum. If lather scrubbing alone may be substituted for some of the periodic cleanings with metal polish, the owner of pewter should be very happy.
PACKING, STORAGE, ET CETERA
In several instances I have been greatly distressed to observe the butchery of pewter in storage. Except where friction is impossible- a doubtful assumption at best- direct contact of pewter pieces with hard surfaces or with each other is to be deplored. A stack of plates, particularly if some are rough, is a menace to valuable marks. Careless removal of a plate from a stack may result in serious scouring: it has happened time and again.
I have a particularly heartbreaking instance in mind. A certain plate, bearing one of the rarest and choicest American touches, lay at the bottom of a thirty-pound stack. I estimate that repeated pulling out and replacing of this plate reduced the legibility of its marks by thirty per cent. If plates must be stacked, place papers between them, and lift the top plates rather than push and pull. Hollow ware which cannot be stacked should stand separately on shelves or be wrapped in plenty of paper before storing in boxes or barrels.
DIFFERENT SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
In submitting my methods and ideas regarding the care of pewter, I make no claim to a monopoly of wisdom. Many of the ideas advanced are in the realm of controversy. Certain of my very good friends hold views diametrically- but in my opinion, diabolically- opposed to mine. I admit that in the highly skilled hands of a select few among my opponents certain methods of which I disapprove will save labor and accomplish little, if any, harm. On the other hand, every advantage pertaining to "fast methods" is based on pernicious powers; instances could be cited where acid cleaning and polishing- particularly of marks- has wrought irreparable damage. Granting once again that very drastic methods may be justified by prior serious damage, I still maintain that any piece whose condition be designated "good or better" is capable of restoration by the lye, Noxon, lather, and dry-cloth-polishing method.