Welcome to the ABA! Bell Talk Forums Small Bells Is it okay to clean the tarnish off an 18th century bell?

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    • #12129

    • #17148

      Wow. Loaded question!
      You are likely to get a lot of varied opinions on that one.

      If you type “cleaning bells” and similar strings into the search at the top right of the blue bar above, you will get pages on the subject. The one I like is found if you type:
      “Mosean Bell Foundary” in the search.

      Basically I treat it as such:
      – if the bell has been mutilated (i.e. painted with radiator paint) I am more likely to try and clean it.
      – if the bell has loose dirt on it (i.e. dust, mud, light soiling) I will use a soft brush and/or water to clean and then dry thoroughly.
      – if the bell has light rust on it, (i.e. not flaking off) I will usually either leave it alone, or if worried give it a light weight oil treatment to protect it.
      – if the bell has heavy rust on it and is not historically significant, I’ll try and reverse it with a light electrical charge (similar to what you can buy for cars to trickle a charge into the car body to stop rusting.)
      – if the bell has only light oxidation I am very reluctant to clean. If I do it’s with great care and the softest cloths etc. possible. The problem is that you are rubbing off the chemically changed outer layer. This is acting like a natural barrier to the ‘fresh’ metal below. When you rub it off or use cleaners, you are removing metal from the bell. Have a look on the various auction websites, notice how the designs/faces/etc. on most bells are almost worn off? That’s what happens with cleaning over time. The more abrasive the cleaner and cloth, the more metal removed each time.

      Also consider the fact that the patina is a strong indicator of age. That’s why most collectors want to see it – not that they particularly like to look at dirty bells, but rather that it helps to distinguish the originals from the fakes.

      If the bell is at all historical in nature, I personally believe it should only be touched by a professional conservator.

      However that said, it is really up to you. Some folks like to only display cleaned bells. It’s a matter of taste.


    • #17149

      My opinion may also differ from others.

      I doubt this is an 18C bell. It is one on the St Peter’s bells, in the pattern most often seen, and with the cross at the top missing. Most of those were made in late 19C or early 20C. These are most often found in a 5″ or 6.5″ size. They often now sell in the $100 range, and nobody much cares what is done to a $100 bell.

      Most of the postings here on cleaning/polishing bronze bells have to do with church/school/railroad/fire bells, not with smaller table bells. In general, bronze has a more open surface structure than brass, and even if initially untreated will acquire a patina in time. My general advice with bronze is that, unless it has a corrosion problem, wash it, wax it or oil it, and otherwise leave it alone. Unless a chemical patina has been applied, brass often acquires only a light surface oxidation, often not very attractive, and many people like to polish brass bells. Same thing with silver – some people like to polish it to remove all the tarnish, some people like to polish lightly but leave the light-dark contrast, some people don’t touch it. Same thing again with pewter or zinc. It was bright and silvery to begin with, but will tarnish over time. Leave it alone, polish lightly yourself, or send to a commercial polisher – your bell, your choice, do what you want.

      The most interesting thing about this current bell is the two-tone effect. I assume the top is gilt over brass or bronze. The lower part looks like it may be silver-plated over brass or bronze, or it could be pewter or zinc. You should be able to tell the difference from the ring tone.

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