Brass is a beautiful, warm metal with an attractive golden hue. It is a durable alloy of two-thirds copper and one-third zinc. Its high-levels of copper make it slightly antimicrobial and resistant to corrosion. However, it also behaves like copper when exposed to water and air. Not only can brass turn a blue-green color over time, but it also tarnishes, dulls, and darkens easily.
That is why careful and consistent upkeep is necessary if you want to keep your brass decor or fixtures shiny and bright. Polishing brass and buffing brass to a mirror finish will also help extend the life of the brass and keep it looking great.
There are many different do-it-yourself recipes out there that claim to buff and polish brass. These mixtures of common household ingredients are normally helpful for removing a layer or two of tarnish at best. However, if you want to buff and polish brass like a pro, you’re going to need to bring in some heavier-duty tools and a little more effort.
Although the exact method and tools may vary depending on the brass item you are attempting to clean and polish, the general steps are the same. Below is a guide for polishing rough brass like a professional.
- Cleaning the brass
- Sanding and polishing the brass
- Buffing the brass
- Protecting the brass
Step 1 - Cleaning Brass
The first step in any brass buff and polish is to make sure the item is clean. You will want to remove all dust, dirt, hand oils, and general grime from the item before attempting to make it shine. These contaminants can easily damage the brass when you sand or strip it.
First, you’re going to need to wash the piece of brass with soap and water. Mild dish soap and warm water are ideal.
If you are a fan of DIY cleaning methods instead, look for vinegar-based products like tomato sauce, tomato paste, or even ketchup. These mixtures can be spread over the brass and left to sit for 60 minutes before being wiped clean with warm soapy water. A paste of vinegar, salt, and flour can also be applied to the brass and left to sit for a short period.
*If you don't believe us about the ketchup technique, check out the video below.
There are plenty of brass cleaning products to choose from if you aren’t in the mood for creating a science project beforehand. Bottled metal polish products can be found at your local hardware store for generally low prices. These products contain chemicals that the DIY methods will not, but they do a great job stripping the unwanted materials.
If your brass item has a lacquer finish or old, flaking paint, it may be necessary to invest in a commercial product that can remove the old materials faster.
If you choose to stick to the basics and clean the brass with simple soap and water, it is recommended that you purchase a toothbrush with soft bristles for scrubbing. The tiny bristles are perfect for reaching all the nooks and crannies where dirt likes to hide.
Once the brass is clean, rub it down with a clean microfiber cloth. Never use an abrasive cloth or steel wool to clean your brass, as these items scratch and permanently damage the brass surface.
Step 2 - Sanding and Polishing Brass
Next, you will need to strip and sand the brass to polish it – this is where a bit of patience and elbow grease comes in. Patience here is key, as it will show in the final product.
First, you need to assess the overall damage to the brass item. The more damage exists, the lower the grit sandpaper will be necessary. As a rule of thumb, higher grit sandpaper has finer particles ideal for smoothing metal, wood, or any other surface . Lower grit sandpaper is most often applied in situations where an item has a tough, hard surface that requires stripping or has a lot of damage.
If you’re just doing maintenance polishing and your brass is in fairly good condition without any deep scratches or pitting, you can try starting out with a higher grit sandpaper..
How to Sand Brass
To make things simple, start with lower grit sandpaper and work your way up to higher grit sandpaper. For brass, we recommend starting with 320 grit for fairly beat up brass and moving up to an 800-1500 grit sandpaper before hitting the buffing stage.
When working with brass, wet sanding is highly recommended. This technique helps keep the sanding residue and dust to a minimum, while creating a much smoother surface. It is also necessary if you’re looking for that mirror finish. Apply a firm but light pressure to the wet sand paper as you move along the brass to avoid scratching or gouging the metal.
This process is great for small brass items. However, if you have a large brass piece to sand, there are power tools that can help speed up the process.
Buffing vs Polishing
We just wanted to add a quick side note to compare buffing vs polishing here. Many people think polishing is the final step that leaves a bright mirror finish, but it actually comes before buffing.
Polishing a metal uses a more abrasive product than buffing. The entire sanding process can technically be considered “polishing” the brass, but usually the later stages of sanding with finer grit abrasives is where real polishing comes into play.
The purpose of polishing is to smooth out a surface and remove any visual imperfections. Buffing goes even further towards a perfect surface by using less abrasive products that will smooth out the surface to remove any scratches or uneven patches that you won’t be able to see with the naked eye.
Step 3 - Buffing Brass
Once you’ve successfully sanded your brass, it is time to buff it out. This is the step that can get you a mirror finish which includes cut buffing and color buffing.
Cut buffing removes the fine scratches remaining after the sanding and polishing steps. Cut buffing brass is best done with either a sisal buffing wheel or a firm airway buff along with an abrasive buffing compound.
Color buffing is used for final polish buffing to bring out the luster and brilliance of the metal. This step is where you’ll see your reflection in the metal, if you took your time to do the entire buffing and polishing process correctly. At this point, you’ll use a looser buffing wheel along with buffing compounds that have little to no abrasive materials in them.
How to Buff Brass
If your goal is to buff brass like a professional, there are a handful of tools to consider adding to your toolbox. As with sandpaper, you must work from the coarsest, most abrasive grit compound and work down to a finer grit.
The Black Magic Emery buffing compound is semi-wet, extremely tacky, and coarse. It is ideal for cut buffing to remove a variety of surface imperfections like pits, scratches, and thin lacquer or paint. It is a high-performing bar that is great to start with when buffing brass. It adds a subtle sheen that helps expedite the later steps.
After applying the black buffing compound, wipe down the surface to remove any residue. Then switch to a clean, spiral-sewn sisal buffing wheel or looser buffing wheel (such as a yellow or untreated white airway buff) and apply a brown tripoli aluminum abrasive compound. Buff the surface as you did with the black emery, and wipe it down to remove any residue.
At this point, your brass is useful and presentable, but not perfect. The brown compound will leave the surface looking almost entirely scratch free and shiny, but following up with a green rouge compound bar is what will get you a real mirror finish. Use this compound with either a yellow or white untreated airway buffing wheel.
You can stop there for almost any brass buffing project, but if you’re a total perfectionist or if you’re working on an object that will be on display, you can take this one step further. A red rouge compound bar is usually used to make precious metals and gold shine, but it can also be used as an optional final step in color buffing brass. When using red rouge, apply it to a soft buffer like a flannel buffing wheel or loose muslin wheel.
How to Use a Buffing Compound
The buffing compounds above are used always used in order from coarsest to finest abrasives during the buffing stage. Most people use these compounds and rouges to give brass its best and brightest shine. These compounds can help a piece of brass achieve a high luster.
Some metals and building materials can only handle certain polishing compounds due to their chemical makeup. Luckily, brass is a versatile material where multiple compounds, from coarse to fine, can be used.
Common brass polishing compounds (from most to least coarse) include:
- Black Emery
- Brown Tripoli
- Finishing Rouges
- White Rouge
- Green Rouge
- Red Rouge
To use a buffing compound, apply it directly to a buffing wheel by spinning the wheel into the compound. Do this lightly without pressing the compound into the wheel too much. The friction and subsequent heat will soften the compound enough to transfer it to the buffing wheel without any intervention on your part. The video below shows exactly how to apply it.
Then, using light pressure, you will want to apply the buffing wheel and compound to the brass surface in a downward motion. The wheel and polishing compound will do almost all of the work for you.
When moving onto a different compound bar, ALWAYS use a new buffing wheel. A buffing wheel that has already been used with a coarse abrasive compound will still be that abrasive even if you apply a different compound on top of it.
Once you have your brass item looking perfectly polished, it is a good idea to wash the brass in warm, soapy water. Doing so will remove any lingering or excess polishing compound from the metal’s surface. Afterward, use a clean microfiber or wool cloth to dry the brass.
If you notice any lingering superficial scratches or mild surface imperfections then further polishing with a finer grit rouge may be needed.
Step 4 - Protecting Brass
Now that you’ve spent all of this time and effort cleaning, sanding, and polishing brass, it stands to reason you want to protect it as much as possible. Luckily, there are a handful of tried and true ways to protect the brass.
The first protective step is to avoid touching the brass as much as possible. Touching brass transfers dirt and oils from your hands to the metal’s surface, which will cause the item to dull much faster.
Of course, this depends on the type of brass item in question. An appliance or brass fixture is going to be touched frequently. It is impossible to avoid that. If this is true in your case, it is wise to apply oil like linseed or mineral oil to the brass surface. Commercial brass polish will also work to protect your brass item from oxidation over time.
To do this, take a clean, soft cloth and pour a small amount of your chosen oil onto it. Then lightly wipe the oil onto the brass. It should be a thin, even coat. If you are refinishing a lacquered brass item, you can also spray on a polyurethane spray lacquer that will give the brass a high shine but can also be removed whenever you want.
Regular cleaning is also a solid and simple way to maintain your brass item’s hard-earned shine. If you notice your brass is starting to look a little dull or grimy, bust out the brass-approved cleaning supplies and get to scrubbing. A well-polished brass item will retain its shine for a while, but you will need to keep at it from time to time.