Such brass! Condiments given a shiny new role

March 15, 2003|By ROB KASPER

BORED WITH routine maintenance, I recently tried cleaning with condiments.

I polished some soiled brass with a cloth dabbed in Worcestershire sauce, then tried to spiff more dirty brass with a shot of ketchup. Yes, it has been a long, dark winter.

Ever since a couple of years ago, when I removed a water spot on tabletop by applying a dab of toothpaste, I have been drawn to the concept of pulling materials from the "wrong" household cabinets to get a job done.

So this week when I found myself both with some tarnished brass and some time on my hands, I searched the pantry cabinets for cleaning agents.

Besides the novelty of the practice and the strong likelihood that it would impress my friends - having a reputation as one who is clever with Worcestershire sauce is nothing to be sniffed at - there was also a practical benefit to this approach. Condiments can serve as emergency backup supplies, when the bottle of conventional brass cleaner, which is kept under the kitchen sink, turns out to be empty.

This difference in perception - is a vessel "empty" and in need of being thrown out or does it have "plenty" of value left it and should be saved? - is, I believe, a common source of domestic tension in America today.

There are "tossers" who subscribe to the notion that a container is "empty" and needs to be replaced with a full one when the only thing left of the original substance is microscopic residue.

There are the "savers" who contend that as long as trace elements of the original are present - a drop or two of liquid - then the vessel still has life left.

Invariably tossers and savers cohabit and regularly exchange views over the "empty" jugs of milk left in the fridge, the slivers of soap remaining in the bathroom, and whether the bottle of brass cleaner sitting under the kitchen sink is drier than the Sahara or bubbling with more moisture than a Garrett County stream.

It is tempting to get on your high horse and point out, for example, the folly of "saving" two swallows of milk in the bottom of a jug in the fridge. But I have learned that such high-handed tactics can backfire, when for example, you have to explain the "wisdom" of saving a minuscule amount of anti-freeze in the jug you keep on your workbench. So rather than pitching a fit when I found an almost empty bottle of brass cleaner, I instead reached for a full bottle of Worcestershire sauce.

I had read that wiping unlacquered brass with a rag dipped in Worcestershire sauce, then wiping the brass clean with another damp cloth, would do wonders for the metal. The source of this tip was 500 Terrific Ideas for Home Maintenance and Repair by Jack Maguire, a 1991 spiral-bound book.

I tried the Worcestershire rag technique out on a couple of the dingy legs of a brass pot and, sure enough, the finish gleamed. Faces of some creatures had been carved into the legs, and after drinking in a splash of Worcestershire, the creatures seemed to be smiling. I figure it is the vinegar in the sauce that does the work, or maybe the garlic. The pot was clean, but it did smell like Chex mix.

Next I broke out the ketchup. I stumbled across the idea of using ketchup to clean brass while reading the letters to the editor section of a nautical magazine. (Sadly, this is how I spend my spare time.) A reader from Houston wrote that after he squirted ketchup on the brass fittings of his boat, let the ketchup sit for 15 minutes or so, then wiped everything off with a clean rag, the fittings were shining like the noonday sun.

I didn't have a boat , but I did have a brass pot I could squirt.

The ketchup experiment, though, was not a success. It is hard to work with; too goopy. Rather than cleaning the legs of the brass pot, the ketchup seemed to take refuge in them, hiding in their nooks and crannies. I had turned the pot upside down during the cleaning, and when I set it right side up, blobs of ketchup emerged from their hideouts and fell to the floor. This was neither appetizing nor efficient.

I switched back to the Worcestershire rag to try to clean the tarnished brass mail slot in the front door of the house. It did not work. Unlike the brass pot, the brass on the mailbox slot was coated with lacquer. To clean it, I learned, I first would have to remove the lacquer, then clean the brass, and finally apply new coats of lacquer.

There are various types of solvents sold in hardware stores that strip lacquer from brass. But in keeping with the kitchen-cabinet approach to home maintenance, I've got my eye on a bottle of hot sauce made with fiery peppers. It was given to me by Boog Powell, the former Orioles slugger, whose homemade hot sauces, like his appetite for life, are extraordinary.

So before I apply any solvent, I am going to try burning the old lacquer off that brass mail slot with a couple of shots of Boog's hot sauce.

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