Removing tarnish from old brass furniture hardware.

Furniture Refinishing:

Refinishing An Old Dresser - Part 4
Renewing Tarnished Brass Hardware

In This Article:

Paint stripper is applied to brass drawer handles to remove the original coating. The parts are brushed with tarnish remover, then rinsed and buffed on a wire wheel. The handles are sprayed with lacquer to protect the finish.

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Skill Level: 2-3 (Basic to Intermediate)

Time Taken: About 4 Hours

By , Editor


Before refinishing, the drawer handles on this dresser had become quite tarnished.

They didn't look bad against the original medium-brown stained wood, but I stained the wood a deep red color, and I felt the handles needed a cleaner look.

Brass furniture hardware before cleaning tarnish.


Old brass drawer handles with tarnish around edges.

I removed the screws on the inside of each drawer and pulled the handles off.

These handles are brass-plated metal, not solid brass. I wanted to make these handles look better, so I decided to try to remove the tarnish.

I understand that a lot of brass hardware is coated with lacquer to slow down the natural tarnishing process. Dried lacquer can usually be removed with lacquer thinner. The first thing I did was put the handles in a plastic cup, pour in some lacquer thinner, and brush the hardware with a paint brush. The solvent got plenty dirty, but there was still some gunk on certain parts. I couldn't really tell if the coating had been removed.

Then I applied some paint stripper to the handles, let it soak for about 15 minutes, and power-washed them. This removed the gunk, but the tarnish still remained.

I put the hardware in a dishpan and squirted some Brasso® on the metal.

Applying Brasso tarnish remover to brass furniture hardware.


Spreading Brasso metal polish with a paint brush.

Then I used an old paint brush to dab the paste around.


The Brasso paste started to dry out after a few minutes. Since the label stated that it contained ammonia, I decided to try adding some household ammonia to thin the paste. After some brushing, the ammonia mixed completely with the paste. I was able to create quite a "lather" after a few minutes of brushing.

Adding household ammonia to prevent Brasso from drying.


Rinsing furniture hardware with a garden hose.

After about 30 minutes of soaking in diluted Brasso, I put all the handles in a plastic crate and washed them with a garden hose.


When the handles were dry I buffed them on a wire wheel mounted on my bench grinder.

However, I discovered that it was easy to buff through the brass plating, so I had to keep the buffing to a minimum.

Wear eye protection if you do this. I once had a wire wheel buffer throw a piece of wire in my face. Stuck right in my forehead.

Buffing drawer handles with a wire wheel on a bench grinder.

Buffing small parts on a wire wheel can be tricky. If you don't hold the part tightly, the wheel can rip it from your hands or jam it into the guard.

I suppose a small fine wire brush could also be used for this, but that sounds like a lot of work. If the tarnish wasn't so heavy, I could've just followed the Brasso instructions and applied the paste to a soft cloth and rub until the tarnish is gone.


A Confession:

Before I took these pictures, I did some experimenting with other chemicals for removing the tarnish from the brass drawer handles.

I wanted to try soaking a handle in strong acid, so I poured some CLR (Calcium-Lime-Rust Remover) in a dishpan and let a drawer handle soak for about 15 minutes. I'll note that the instructions say "do not use on brass or copper", but I used it anyways.

Comparison of tarnished drawer handle after acid etching with clean brass handle.

The handle on top was given the acid bath. Note that the acid didn't remove the tarnish, but it did change the color of the brass. I'm guessing that the acid attacks the zinc near the surface, leaving more copper and giving the reddish color.

The handle on the bottom had been cleaned using Brasso, then buffed on the wire wheel.


I set each handle on a finished drawer to compare the color. I liked the reddish-brass better, so I decided to acid-treat all of the handles.

Comparison of copper-colored handle and brass handle on red-stained cherry wood.


Acid etching brass furniture hardware.

I put all 16 drawer handles in a dishpan and poured in some CLR. Actually I used Home Depot's ZEP brand of Calcium-Lime-Rust remover, which works just as well and cost less.

I didn't even have enough liquid to cover the handles completely, so I used an old paint brush to dab the acid around, making sure each handle remained wet.


Warning: Acid Can Be Harmful!

If you use any type of strong acid, you really need to wear rubber gloves and eye protection. A face shield is even better. It's really easy to splash a few drops of acid on yourself. If you do, rinse right away.

Use with good ventilation. I did this work outdoors, so the smell wasn't a problem.


After the handles were dry, I installed one screw in the back of each handle and made a "hang-hook" from a piece of mechanic's wire. I just wrapped the end of the wire around the screw head, and bent the other end to form a hook.

Then I set up a hanging rod in my basement to hang the handles from while I spray-finished them. I just supported a 10-foot piece of pipe from the floor joists, using bungee cords to hang the pipe from a couple of nails.

I poured a couple of ounces of nitrocellulose lacquer into a plastic cup and thinned it about 25% with lacquer thinner. I poured the thinned lacquer in my spray gun and sprayed each drawer handle.

I'll note that lacquer is available in ordinary spray cans.

Spraying lacquer on furniture hardware to prevent tarnish.


Apparatus for spray finishing small metal hardware.

Here's a better picture of my 5-minute support apparatus. You can see the blue bungee cord at the upper right.

After I sprayed all the hardware with lacquer, I let them hang for half an hour while they dried. Lacquer dries very fast, but it's not as durable as urethane.

When the handles were dry, I removed the wire hooks, and they were ready to be re-installed in the dresser.


After refinishing, the brass drawer handles looked much newer and cleaner.

Maybe some people prefer the "rustic" or "distressed" look of the handles before I removed the tarnish. That's understandable.

I felt that the original appearance didn't do justice to the color and quality of the refinished dresser.

Refinished drawer handles on refinished cherry dresser.


Read about spray finishing this dresser.


More Info:

Tools Used:
  • Plastic Dishpan
  • Old Paint Brush
  • Garden Hose or Power Washer
  • Bench Grinder with Wire Wheel
  • HVLP Spray Gun
  • Air Compressor
Materials Used:
  • Paint Stripper
  • Brasso Tarnish Remover
  • Ammonia
  • Calcium-Lime-Rust Remover
  • Mechanic's Wire
  • Nitrocellulose Lacquer
  • Lacquer Thinner
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Written January 11, 2009