Antique Sword Cleaning
How and when to clean up antique weaponry is, by far, the most common message I receive. Each collector has their own preferences—some like to leave their items completely untouched while others will happily use a grinding wheel to make them look as though they just left a parade ground. For me, the level of restoration lies somewhere in the middle and each item must be assessed individually.
Before we begin, it’s important to state clearly that working on antiques can reduce their value drastically—if you have something precious or you’re unsure about restoration please contact an expert or send a direct message to me for guidance. You alone are responsible for your items and, sometimes, the best course of action is to do nothing.
Most of the blades that collectors see are rusty. There are two main types of rust: the black patches and pitting of dead rust and the dusty red of active rust. The black patches detract from the aesthetic qualities of a blade but they often show its age too—an aspect that some people actually prefer. Red rust should never be left, however, because it will continue to destroy the steel until it is neutralised or the metal is gone.
My preferred method for taking off superficial rust is to use a polish called Autosol. This is easily found online and can be applied with one’s fingers, plastic scourers or even fine-grade steel wool, depending upon the subject’s stubbornness. After applying the polish to the steel, carefully work it in and then use clean, soft rags to take it off. An old toothbrush will remove any left polish leftover in crevices and cracks. This process can be repeated until the desired result has been obtained but one or two rounds should be enough. Illustrated above is an Edwardian sword hilt covered in active rust; illustrated below is the same sword after being scrubbed with steel wool and polished with Autosol.
An alternative to this physical method is chemical removal. Products like Evaporust will eat away at rust and leave the naked steel behind. The blade pictured to the right was heavily rusted, far beyond what steel wool could affect, and so it was left in a bath of Evaporust for two days. The end result is better but, in my opinion, quite artificial-looking in person and so I feel that this is a product to be used in specific cases.
Old grease is another common element that one might have to deal with and this will often have darkened and hardened. Two methods can be employed to break it up: white spirit might soften the grease enough to simply scrub it off; while dental or bamboo picks can be used to chip it off. Both methods require care if used on brass as it is a soft metal easily scratched and any gilding that might still exist will likely be thin. Hard, dry grease can be seen on the hilt pictured above left, with the eventual results observable above right. These results were achieved by painstakingly chipping off the grease a few millimetres at a time but it was worth it as underneath there was a surprising amount of gold-plating still intact.
This is a product that many owners will likely have used on brass hilts, often liberally, and it almost always leaves an undesirable grey residue behind. This likes to inhabit any valleys and nooks and must be chipped off. Lemon juice helps to break it up but this will also lighten the colour of the brass and, while nobody likes Brasso’s residue, brass’s natural dull patina is much desired by some. The hilt above had considerable residue in its voids, especially within the royal cypher. This required softening with lemon juice and then picking out bit by bit.
To clean shagreen (see below), I use a stiff-bristled toothbrush and a circular motion. I will then feed the shagreen with a light oil like 3-in-1, dabbing off any excess and leaving the remainder to soak in (this will also feed the grip’s wooden core). The grip wire, if there is any still present, can be buffed gently but care must be taken because it is often fragile.
Over time, leather will dry out, lose its strength and crumble. Dry and cracking scabbards, hilt liners (see above left), and grip coverings can be fed with a few different products. I use Dubbin, Elephant Wax and Saddle Soap, and have yet to find much of a difference between these three products. Apply them sparingly with a soft toothbrush or clean cloth.
Above are two ‘before’ photos and one ‘after’. This South Indian katar had been covered in thick varnish by a previous owner. The sheet silver was already peeling so removal of the varnish required some care. I used a product called Stripit to kill the integrity of the varnish then I applied oil and a cloth to remove the leftover gunk. The blade was far more robust and so I could scrub it with oil and steel wool before polishing it.
While some purists sneer at such methods I believe that they have their place. (If Henry Wilkinson had had access to a rotary tool he most certainly would have used it.) Essentially, they do the same job as the manual methods listed above except at a much quicker pace. Of course, this increase in speed also means an increase in the risk of damaging something and so it’s important to practice first and to go slow. In the photograph above, we can see the heavy surface rust on a sword by Henry Wilkinson being taken off easily to reveal the discoloured, but unharmed, steel beneath. This was done with a rotary tool and a steel wire brush head. If used with little pressure, the wire isn’t hard enough to hurt the steel beneath; but it is hard enough to attack the rust above.
To finish, it’s a good idea to seal the steel against the environment and some people like to do this by wiping down their blades with an oily cloth. Others, like me, prefer to apply a few coats of Renaissance Wax to seal the blade invisibly. This is a quick and easy process, and well worth it. Please feel free to add your comments below.