How to Clean Metal With Little or No Elbow Grease

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Natural techniques to make stainless steel, chrome, aluminum, copper, brass, and the family silver sparkle

Lemons, limes, salt, vinegar, baking soda, isopropyl rubbing alcohol, boiling water, and laundry detergent are just a few of the common household items that will help you breeze through your metal cleaning chores. There’s no universal metal cleaner, as some materials are soft and others extremely durable, and they all require their own fix—but happily, there’s an eco-friendly homemade solution for each.

Stainless Steel

From kitchen appliances to outdoor furniture, surgical equipment, and boat railings, stainless steel is popular for good reason. It’s strong, durable, corrosion-resistant, and extremely low-maintenance. However, despite its name, it can become stained. If your stainless steel is slightly discolored, save some money on conventional nonabrasive stainless polishes by sprinkling baking soda on a sponge instead. Scrub down, wiping in the direction of the grain just as you do with wood, then rinse thoroughly with hot water and wipe with a clean cloth.

To liven up dull stainless steel, rub it with a lemon peel and then wash as usual. The lemon oil in the peel cuts through grime that other cleaners may miss and restores the luster. If using a lemon peel is too strange for you, or the area is too large, you can use the lemon oil that you use on your furniture instead. Additionally, isopropyl rubbing alcohol works almost as well, and it disinfects.

Keep the harsh chemicals away, including bleach, as well as harsh abrasives and stiff cleaning brushes; all of these can damage the surface.


Known for their gleaming shine, chrome fixtures, door knobs, and other accents add warmth and ambience to the home. The secret to keeping chrome (which is actually a thin chrome finish over another metal or plastic) looking good is to get into the habit of wiping it down after every use. This is much more practical with soapy and wet sink faucets than with door knobs, but keep in mind that the dirtier that chrome gets, the more difficult it is to clean.

For chrome that’s beginning to show some general neglect, moisten a soft cloth with rubbing alcohol or window cleaner, and then wipe it on the chrome surface to remove residue and built-up grime while restoring the shine. For chrome that’s tarnished, rub on white (not gel) toothpaste. For more serious grime or tarnish, sprinkle baking soda on a moist sponge and rub it gently into the chrome. Let it sit for five minutes, and then rinse it off with a clean rag dipped in warm water. Applying the baking soda with a moist, synthetic scouring pad works well for difficult spots. Buff it dry with a soft rag.


In most cases, warm water and dishwashing liquid are all you need to keep aluminum looking good. Just like wood, it has a grain; look closely and you’ll see it. Always rub on cleaners in the direction of the grain for best results with less effort. Some rusty and tarnished aluminum surfaces can be cleaned by rubbing the offending spots with the shiny side of a crumpled piece of aluminum foil.

Use a bottle cork to clean particularly stubborn rust or discoloration spots. First, dampen the flat edge of the cork so that it absorbs some of the metal polish, then apply more polish and rub away. When you rub the cork over the spot, its flat surface and naturally abrasive properties do the rest, saving you lots of elbow grease. When working on aluminum, keep the temperature above 50 degrees F, as it scratches more easily in cold temperatures.

To remove oxidation from outdoor aluminum, wipe it down with a clean rag dipped in a mild laundry detergent such as Wisk. Rinse thoroughly and then apply a coat of a car or boat polish to protect the now-clean surface from further degradation, rubbing it on in the direction of the grain. When all else fails, vinegar can be used to clean and acid-etch aluminum that’s about to be painted.

If you’ve got a silver service, soak them in a bowl lined with aluminum foil and filled with hot water and a tablespoon of laundry detergent. (Zadorozhnyi Viktor/Shutterstock)

The Family Silver

Before you rush to polish discolored silver, wash it with soapy water (mild dish detergent works fine) and then buff it dry; this may be all that’s needed. Remove minor spots with the mild abrasive cleaning action of white (not gel) toothpaste applied via a soft, clean rag. Hand sanitizer on paper towels might also do the trick, or put a few drops of ketchup on a paper towel, rub it on, allow it to sit for 15 minutes, then rub it off with a microfiber cloth, and rinse with warm water. For detailed objects such as antique candlesticks, use a soft toothbrush to work the ketchup into crevices.

If you have a silver service for 12, line a bowl with aluminum foil, then add hot water and a tablespoon of laundry detergent. Mix well and drop your silver items inside, making sure they all touch the aluminum foil. Allow them to soak for one minute. Use kitchen tongs to agitate each piece, and after the tarnish flakes off, rinse and lay them on a paper towel to dry. It’s part alchemy, part magic. Best of all, as with all the other tips, it’s accomplished with household items you probably already have on hand.

Classic Shimmer

Long before corporations came along with their solutions in a tube or spray, wise generations used these methods.


Clean copper pots, pans, and decorative objects with half a lemon sprinkled with salt. Simply rub the lemon around, then allow the lemon juice to work for a few minutes before rinsing and drying. For tough tarnish or burnt-on food, cover the area with ketchup, let it sit for half an hour, then rinse with warm water and dry it.

For tarnished brass, apply a half-lemon sprinkled with salt or mixed with cream of tartar. (The Law of Adventures/Shutterstock)


The same half lemon sprinkled with salt technique recommended for copper also works on tarnished brass. For more stubborn stains, mix cream of tartar with enough lemon juice to form a paste, apply with a cloth or soft brush, and let sit for 10 to 20 minutes before rinsing it off with warm water and buffing it dry.


To restore tarnished treasures made of pewter, rub down with the large outer leaf of a head of cabbage—no, we aren’t making this one up! Buff to a shine with a clean, soft cloth. For badly tarnished surfaces, dip super-fine No. 0000 grade steel wool into olive oil and scrub cautiously. Wash with soapy water, rinse, and buff dry.

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