Restoring Bronze Plaques & Memorials

Our preference is always to keep metal objects as close to original as possible,  which is why we have been offering our  free eBook, Preserving Bronze Plaques & Memorials.   While preservation will keep newer ones from deteriorating,  it won’t help after they become badly weathered.  Because of this we are now working on an eBook showing how to restore them.  The worksheet below outlines that information.  If you would like to be notified when the eBook is finished, send  eMail request to be put on list.

Please note: the process below assumes that the plaque or memorial is solid bronze.  Do not use it on other metals without clear advice from a knowledgeable expert.  If you are not sure, take the time to  find out. 

Supplies & materials:
–Stainless steel brush (medium stiffness)
–Sandpaper (One sheet of 220 grit, wet/dry)
–Sanding Block (tool designed to keep the sandpaper flat when sanding, available in hardware stores
2″ x 4″ size, or thereabouts.  We recommend the rubber kind)
–Ivory dishwashing liquid
–Plastic cup
–Plastic pail with tap water for rinsing
–Kitchen type plastic scrub brush
–Water sprayer containing distilled water
–Cotton towels (2 or 3)
–“Canned Air” (aerosol spray can, used to blow dust out of computers, etc.,  this is optional, but really good to have)
–Leather dye (see instructions below)
–Cheap artists brush about 1/4″ wide
–Can of clear spray lacquer (see instructions below)

Instructions:           [It is best to do all of these steps on a warm dry day.  If the area is one that gets watered regularly, check to make sure you have time to allow for drying before it gets watered again. ]

1) Preliminary cleaning.   Brush the entire memorial (in several different directions, especially the background) with the stainless steel brush.   This will remove most of the greenish type of corrosion and some of the tarnish.  Any remaining discoloration will be taken
care of in the following steps.

 2) Sand the high points.  Cut a strip of the sandpaper the width of the block and long enough to securely attach it on each end, making it as tight as possible.   Rubber sanding blocks have some “give” to them, which is easier on your hands, something you will appreciate because this part of the operation takes elbow grease.

You can see lines (actually tiny scratches) in the metal from the manufacturer’s original highlighting process.  Follow the direction of
these lines.  Rub the sanding block back and forth on the tops of the letters, numbers and decorative details, using an even, medium pressure.   Sand just enough to make the high points brighter.  This removes  metal, but it is only a few thousandths of an inch.  You don’t want a mirror shine because a highly reflective surface is harder to read.  Fold a piece of sandpaper and work it into spots that  have been nicked or dented, then blend in as best you can.  You want to end up with an even look with all the sanding lines going in the same direction.

3) Wash.   Mix about a teaspoon of Ivory dishwashing liquid in a cup of water and scrub away the dirt and metal particles from sanding with the kitchen type plastic brush.  Rinse well with regular tap water, repeat if necessary and then rinse a final time with distilled water (with the sprayer), to achieve as chemically clean a surface as possible.

4) Dry.   Use cotton towels to soak up the water.   “Canned air” helps to speed things up by blowing droplets away.  If the metal is warm, it won’t take long for the plaque or memorial to completely dry.

5) Darken the background.  Manufacturers vary in how they apply the color.  Most select either dark brown or black.   Even if a plaque or memorial is badly deteriorated there is usually enough color left to know what the original was.   In most cases this isn’t critical, but if you want a specific color, you will probably have to experiment on a test piece to get the right mix of colors.   We have found that leather dyes are the simplest, satisfactory way to darken the background.  Leather craft stores are a sure source for the dye, some regular craft stores carry it as well.  Fiebing’s is the brand that is popular in our area.   We use dark brown most often, followed by black, followed by a mixture of the two.

Leather dye is permanent and usually covers any green or similar discoloration that wasn’t removed in the cleaning steps.  Tape plenty of masking or newspaper around the plaque or memorial, because if it spills onto the cement or stone base, it may be very hard to remove.  The dye is hard to get off your hands too, so wear rubber gloves.   Refer to the bottle for safety considerations.  Any cheap artist’s paint brush about 1/4″ wide will work to apply the dye.   Brush it onto the background and up the sides of the letters, numbers and other details.  Go back over the area as the brush dries to get a uniform look.  Try not to get dye on the high points, but don’t worry about it if you do.  The dye may appear splotched or mottled as it dries, but it will darken and even out when you finish the final step.  Let it dry completely.

6) Resand the high points.  Lightly sand in the same direction as you did before, removing any dye and blemishes you missed the first time.  This will cause a little metal dust to fall onto the background, but if the dye is dry, it won’t stick.   Brush it away with the vegetable brush (make sure it is clean and dry) and spray the rest away with the canned air.    Don’t touch the sanded areas because oils from your hands can adversely affect the next step.

7) Apply lacquer coating.    We use regular spray-can clear lacquer.  Even though the lacquer is clear, it is still best to mask around the area, or leave the masking from the dye step in place, if you are doing this on the same day.

Use a windbreak if there is any kind of breeze, which can blow dust, grass clippings, or other debris onto the freshly lacquered surface. A large sheet of cardboard works well.   Fold it in thirds, so as to wrap around the plaque or memorial and place it upwind.   If the wind isn’t blowing too hard, it will stand by itself.  If the wind is blowing too hard, you might want to wait for a better time, or have someone hold it.

Follow the directions on the spray-can and go over the entire memorial several times lightly from all directions.  A uniform glossiness is good indication you have an even coating.   If you spray an area too much the lacquer will puddle, but most memorials have textured backgrounds which disguises this.  Spray-can lacquers are applied like any other paint, practice on a piece of cardboard to get a feel for it, if you haven’t done this before.

We recommend Permalac aerosol spray-can lacquer (manufactured by Peacock Labs,  which is available in many metal supply stores, or on line.  It has UV inhibitors and holds up for several years.  Ace hardware’s clear lacquer #17027 also works well but doesn’t have the UV and corrosion inhibitors that the Permalac has.  If you use the Ace lacquer, you can always go over it with a wax that has UV inhibitors when it is completely dry (a couple of days after applying it).

8) Regularly clean the memorial.  Use the preservation process described in our eBook.  Dirt and other contaminates naturally build up on the surface, making it look bad and speeding up the deterioration process.

Related background information:

Preservation vs. Restoration.  Some have asked about the difference between preservation and restoration.  These terms are used in various ways, but for our purposes “preservation” means keeping an object in as good a condition, given its age, as possible and “restoration” means bringing an object back to as new a condition as possible.

When it comes to bronze plaques and memorials, preservation involves keeping them clean and coated with a preservative (wax) and restoration involves more vigorous cleaning, abrasively highlighting the letters, numbers and decorative details, darkening the background and coating with a clear lacquer.

*Corrosion.  Is a term that describes metal in various stages of deterioration when it reacts chemically with the environment;
especially oxygen, moisture and pollutants.

With ferrous metals, this is usually called rust.  With non-ferrous metals it starts as tarnish, which is a dark oxide  layer that builds up on the surface.  This oxide layer tends to protect the metal, but if there are flaws in it, or if harmful
chemicals are present, the metal can disintegrate, or corrode (causing the typical green color on bronze plaque & memorials).  Preservation prevents this from happening.  Restoration helps to correct it.

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