How to clean an old, tarnished belt buckle (with photos)
In this article I'll discuss the methods I use for cleaning the belt buckles that I sell on Etsy. These techniques are not exclusively for belt buckles and can be used on anything old that is made from brass, bronze, pewter, or silver. I'll go over how to clean with soapy water, polishing compounds, and steel wool.
Summary: Warm, soapy water and a brush with plastic bristles is a great way to remove grime and light tarnish from your belt buckle without overcleaning and hurting the value. This is the method I always recommend first - it doesn't take much time and you don't have to buy any special products.
Don't clean your belt buckle unless you have to!
The first piece of advice that I give to someone who asks about cleaning a belt buckle is that you shouldn't... The problem is that heavy cleaning with chemicals or abrasives will remove the rich color and patina that develops on metals like brass and silver. I've made this mistake dozens of times and I'm always surprised at how much I regret my decision. So before you pick up the steel wool, take a little time to look over your belt buckle and decide if you really do want to clean it.
Here are several reasons to hold off on a deep cleaning:
Heavy cleaning will remove black coloring that was intentionally added by the maker of the belt buckle - there are oxidizing agents and paints that belt buckle makers will use to provide a two-tone effect on solid brass belt buckles. Chemical polishes will remove tarnished areas on your brass, but they will also remove the blackening. The buckle on the right has a small tarnished spot on the letter "D", but the
dimpled background has been treated so it turns black and gives high relief to the lettering. A chemical polish on this buckle would remove the blackening and reduce the value.
The same thing is true for sterling silver buckles that were made using the "overlay method". A chemical polish would remove the black background that makes the design stand out from the polished surface. This buckle has some discoloration from age around the edges, especially on the left side, but I would never polish a belt buckle like this. Collectors strongly prefer to have the patina for looks, and it is also a good indication of age and metal purity.
Cleaning can remove the surface of plated belt buckles -
Many mass-produced belt buckles from companies like Bergamot Brass Works, Indiana Metal Craft, Great American Buckle Co, and others made buckles with a base metal and then plated them with brass, pewter, or nickel. The plated layer of metal can be thin and flake away with heavy cleaning. Here's an example of a belt buckle with brass plating that looks much worse after a cleaning because the base metal now shows through.
I recommend that you do a little research to try and figure out what your buckle is made from before you start cleaning. I've created an index of manufacturers and artists to aid in identification of belt buckles, including photographs of hallmarks and maker's marks. To access the index, click here.
Cleaning can damage resin or plastic belt buckles -
Belt buckles made from casting resin will develop micro-scratches when cleaned, giving them a cloudy appearance. There are specific compounds and cloths made for polishing plastic. In the future, I'll be writing another article specifically on this process. You can subscribe to my email list to get notified when it becomes available.
NAP/AMINCO buckles -
Some belt buckles made by NAP, AMINCO, or Heritage will have an enameled insert that can be damaged with cleaning. These inserts are held in place with a foam-backed adhesive that can degrade over time. I've had back luck trying to clean these buckles because water and polishes will get trapped behind the insert and then cause it to peel away or fall out.
How to clean your belt buckle
Warm Soapy Water
If you decide that you do want to clean your belt buckle, I recommend starting out with warm water and dish soap just like you might use to clean your dishes.
The trick is to use a brush with plastic bristles that will dig down into the cracks and crevices of the design on the belt buckle. The plastic bristles are firm enough to get rid of grime and tarnish, but soft enough to avoid damage. Scrub the buckle for a couple of minutes from different angles to get it as clean as possible.
This is the brush that I've used to clean a few hundred belt buckles.
Here's an example of a western rodeo trophy belt buckle that was just plain dirty... The areas around the paisley accents and lettering are hard to reach though, which is why the brush comes in handy!
Cleaning this buckle with a chemical polish would have been a TERRIBLE idea and probably would have removed a bunch of the black paint and gold plating. All it needed was some TLC with soap, water, and a brush.
-Here are more examples of buckles where I use soap & water cleaning-
Top - The plastic bristles on the brush dug into the grooves on the squirrel's fur really nicely and removed the white tarnish (especially around the ears and mouth) while keeping the nice brassy color.
Middle - The acrylic insert on this buckle had a lot of grim that came off easily with soapy water... no chemical polish necessary (which can melt plastics)
Bottom - This buckle has holes and unusual shapes that would be difficult to get to with a sponge and the brush was a much better choice. A light cleaning will make this much easier to sell in my shop.
(left is before cleaning- right side is after)
Remember, If you do a light cleaning and find it's not enough, you can always move on to another method—but you can't undo any cleaning you've already done.
Sometimes it's necessary to use an abrasive chemical polish to clean belt buckles. There are many brands out there, but I've always used Brasso.
This belt buckle, made of German silver, had heavy tarnishing after being exposed to water for a long period of time. It looks much better (but not perfect) after polishing.
I've used Brasso on solid brass, bronze, and german silver belt buckles, but it can also be used on stainless steel, aluminum, and pewter—it's not recommended for silver. If you're cleaning a silver buckle, there are specific products for that like Wright's, Blue Magic, and others.
For Brasso, Follow the directions on the back of the bottle and apply the polish using a cloth or sponge. I like to get a layer of polish over the whole surface I'm going to clean and then let it sit for a couple of minutes. Then, I use the abrasive side of a sponge and start rubbing the face of the buckle over my sink.
The compound has an abrasive that gives it a gritty feel (sort of like toothpaste) and will help to remove heavy tarnish and discoloration, but it will also leave very light scratches on the finished surface. It's very similar to using sandpaper on a piece of wood. So, I tend to scrub the surface horizontally with a back and forth motion that minimizes the appearance of any polishing marks. If you use a circular motion or frequently change directions it can show up on the finished surface.
Overall, I've had a great experience with this method and I've probably cleaned a couple hundred buckles this way. This "Kenny" belt buckle is made from solid brass and had some ugly marks and stains, so I decided to use a polishing compound on it. It looks much cleaner now, but the tradeoff is that you lose the rich color that comes from age.
If you're like me, you'll spend a couple of minutes polishing by hand and then realize... "Can't I use a power tool to do this?" A buffing wheel or dremel might seem like a good way to speed up the process, but I wouldn't recommend it. In my experience, a buffing wheel is too fast and creates problems with Brasso polish. The friction will cause the belt buckle to heat up and dry out the polish. If you don't pay close attention, you'll end up baking it into any cracks or crevices on the buckle. It gets really hard like cement, and you'll have a difficult time trying to remove it. So now, I only use the polish to clean by hand... it's sort of a pain, but I get much better results.
Steel wool is a last resort for me when it comes to cleaning buckles. It can be used to get rid of really heavy tarnishing, but takes a lot of effort so I don't use this method very often. One thing you may not realize about steel wool is that it comes in grades, similar to how sandpaper has a rated grit. So, if you decide to clean your belt buckle with steel wool you'll probably want to buy a few different sizes. I keep a supply of #1 (Medium), 0 (Medium-Fine), and 00 (Fine) for working on heavily tarnished brass belt buckles. If you've never used finer steel wools (0 through 0000) you might want to put on a pair of rubber gloves before you start handling it. The metal fibers are so small that they can get lodged into your skin and cause irritation.
Start out with the coarsest steel wool you have (grade #1) and submerge your wool pad in water. Take your time to thoroughly polish the belt buckle, spending extra time on areas with persistent discoloration. The fibers in the wool will break up as you use it, and you might see a dark powder or residue forming. I like to do this in my sink with some water in the basin so I can occasionally rinse the buckle and pad.
You can also use steel wool to buff out heavy scratches. For the best results, scrub perpendicularly to (across) any large scratches. When you're satisfied that you've removed the tarnish on the buckle, you can use the finer wools to remove any fine scratches that you've caused with the course wool. Start working the metal with the next-finest wool (grade 0), rubbing all area in a circular motion. Repeat the process with grade 00 wool until you achieve a fine polish. You can continue with even finer wools if desired.
Polishing a belt buckle can damage it, so be certain that it's what you want to do. If you're not sure, try doing a light cleaning with soapy water and a brush and see if you like how it turns out. You can always do additional polishing with a product like Brasso or by using steel wool. Try to figure out what your buckle is made from before you start cleaning because plated buckles or plastics can get damaged.
If you found this article helpful & want to support BeltBuckleHistory.com,
here are the products we use & recommend:
Plastic bristled brush: Link
Brasso multi-purpose metal polish: Link
Steel wool #1 grade (medium): Link
Steel wool 0 grade (medium): Link
Steel wool 00 grade (medium): Link
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About the Author:
Brock Lane has an M.S. in applied economics and operates multiple shops on Etsy, eBay, and Shopify. He maintains an inventory of over 10,000 rare and unique belt buckles, leather belts, and other goods. He leverages his sales history and professional background to write about trends in online retail marketplaces. Brock is an eBay & Amazon affiliate & earns commission from linked products and stores.
Learn more at: www.beltbucklehistory.com
Shop for vintage belt buckles on Brock's Etsy Shop
or at Brock's eBay Store
Other articles you might enjoy:
Tiffany Belt Buckles - The Complete Story: Link
Index of Belt Buckle Manufacturers and Artists: Link
Belt Buckle History-by-decade Articles: Link
How to clean a tarnished belt buckle: Link