How to clean mid-century brass lights

How to Clean Mid-Century Brass Lights

As we continue to document the restoration of our home, we constantly discover new things like this one today – how to clean mid-century brass lights. It’s not exactly at the top of the to-do list, however we are working on the deck area and it was one of the eye sores. Also not 100% a factor for documenting what we are doing to this house, but we know other people might like to learn about this process as some current day homes also have brass lighting. The process is really simple and can be used regardless if it is an exterior light or some other type of brass fixture inside your home. This process is also a test as at some point, I will need to disassemble our Mid-Century Modern Sputnik chandelier to clean it.

Get to know Brass

Brass, a gold-colored (sometimes rose gold when dirty) metal alloy made from copper and zinc. Brass is used to make lighting fixtures, doorknobs and all type of products that typically show a bright appearance. Brass will tarnish, blacken and dull when exposed to just about anything. Even just the plain oxygen we breath. That is known as oxidation. I have solid shells from the Navel Destroyer my dad served on. They need to be polished at least once a year if not more to maintain their luster. Today, we will return the bright finish on one of our outdoor brass lights using common household products. Even older mid-century brass lights can come clean in minutes.

Brass surfaces may be going out of fashion, but brass could provide significant health benefits over more modern materials like stainless steel and plastic. Brass has been shown to reduce and kill bacteria quickly, according to a recent study published in Molecular Genetics of Bacteria. In contrast, bacteria can survive for weeks on steel and plastic surfaces.
Touching contaminated surfaces is one of the main ways super-bugs like MRSA are spread. And many high-touch public surfaces are not cleaned or disinfected regularly. Surface materials such as brass that inherently kill bacteria could reduce the risk of spreading super-bugs in both the community and in hospitals.

Staph infection

Brass protective coating

Some Mid-Century Brass lights have coatings on them like a clear coat known as a lacquered finish. This protects the brass from the elements and will keep the light a shinny gold for years. This coating (especially on outdoor lights) is most likely gone after 10-15 years. Our lights are a perfect example of this surface breaking down.

close up dirty light

Brass Cleaning Tips

I tried to clean these lights with many types of polish and cleaners. Due to the severe oxidation or old lacquer finish (not sure which as it was so dirty) it needed to be cleaned and any material on the surface removed. I started with a simple washing it in the sink and then used some 3M scrub pads (so I did not damage the surface). It really did not matter at the end of the day. Even if I broke out my drill with polishing pads on them (which I highly recommend for many jobs in the kitchen and bathroom) soaking worked the best in our situation. IF you don’t see immediate success with various cleaner just stop and go buy a gallon of vinegar.

How to Clean Mid-Century Brass Lights

Let’s get started – here is what you need!

Cleaned and polished exterior lighting fixture

Total Time Needed:



Total Cost:



Required Tools:

– Sink
– Deep cooking pot
– Heat Source (Stove or grill)

Things Needed?

– 1 gallon of Vinegar
– Baking Soda
– Various brushes
– Steel Wool, 00 Very Fine
– Dish-washing liquid

Steps on How to Clean Mid-Century Brass Lights

dirty brass light in need of cleaning

Step 1

Take down your lights from the wall and brush off spider webs and anything that is lose on the light (bird droppings for example). If needed use a garden hose.

dirty brass light

Step 2

Carefully dismantle the lights. You want ALL electrical wiring and sockets removed from the light. Remove the glass and anything that is not part of the brass fixture.

cleaning the old brass light

Step 3

Take your dish soap with warm water and wash the light in a sink or tub. This should be scrubbed down to get any final material off the light prepping it to be cleaned and polished. My sink ended up looking horrible but it was a clean light after. I did do a couple of tests with other cleaners but ended up going with the vinegar method.

soaking the top shield in brass and water

Step 4

Now after washing take a smaller bowl and some of the detail parts and soak them in 50/50 water, a drop or two of dish washing soap and white vinegar. I used this for the fine detail like the reflection plate as I really wanted to make sure it was perfect.
– if needed throw in some baking soda.

Vinager after soaking a brass lighting fixture

Step 5

Now take a cooking pot and put it on the stove. Fill up half way with vinegar and a little water and bring the solution to boil. This is what the solution looked like after cleaning just this one light. Keep in mind, I had already cleaned this light. Once on boil drop the heat down and add the brass item (light in my case) to the solution.

close up of a clean brass light

Step 6

After the brass has a minute to heat up (this is key) the pores in the surface open up and the oxidation will automatically disappear. ZERO work on your part. However to really get the gold color to come out you need to use some steel wool. In this image you can see that some oxidation is still present. IF you notice this, the brass needs to be polished (i.e. it looks like rose colored gold vs. bright gold). Use fine steel wool that you can buy here and polish away.

UV resistant Clear Coat spray

Step 7

We are not sure about what next steps might be for us. We have discussed painting portions of the light and keeping parts brass… however we will for sure seal the brass with a UV resistant clear like this Krylon UV-Resistant Clear acrylic coating.

Before and After Cleaning a Mid-Century Brass Light.

Project Costs

For all needed supplies this one is pretty cheap – around $25

Thank you for stopping by, we hope this tip will help you in restoring your home and any projects you have for cleaning brass items. While they do take a little bit of maintenance and care they are unique and I hope you cherish them like our family does. We appreciate the support and interest in our little home and family.

Until next time!

Hey Daddy-O, don't Agitate the gravel (leave quickly), stick around and say something...