Although not one of the precious metals, such as gold or silver, brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, has been a popular and useful metal for thousand of years. While the brass mentioned in the Bible was probably bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, true brass was used by the Romans to produce coins as early as 20 B.C. Several hundred years later, early Europeans were producing small quantities of brass and it was common use in England by the 16th Century.
Most of the brass used in Colonial America was imported in sheets or ingots from England. The need for brass in the manufacturing of navigational instruments such as compasses, quadrants and sextants, spurred the development of brass-working trade – the brazier – and, soon, brass was used to produce many common items including bells, pins, clock parts, buttons, nails, and, of course, candlesticks, candle snuffers and wine racks.
Depending upon the ratio of copper to zinc, brass has a wide range of colors (from pure copper color through yellow and to white) and malleability. Brass will, eventually, tarnish upon exposure to air; lacquering is not recommended as it will discolor in time and is difficult to remove. Instead, brass may be easily cleaned with a commercially available cleaner.
The sheer beauty and substantiality of hand-wrought brass furnishings virtually insure their continued popularity. Surely, such items purchased today will be tomorrow’s heirlooms just as brass items made in the colonial era are so treasured today.
What is the difference in solid brass and brass plating?
A piece is solid brass if the material is pure brass – whether it’s the hollow tube of a chandelier arm, a sheet of brass wrapped around a steel post as in many antique beds, or a two pound candlestick. Solid brass can always be polished to its original beauty, although an old lacquer may need to be removed first.
Brass plated items are usually made of steel or white metal (zinc) to which molecules of brass are electroplated. A lacquer is usually applied to protect the plating. Brass plating is exceedingly thin and will deteriorate over a period of time. Brass plated pieces can sometimes be polished successfully (once the lacquer is carefully removed), but if the plating is deteriorated the piece will probably need to be replated.
How can I tell the difference between solid brass and brass plating ?
First, test with a magnet – a refrigerator magnet will do. Solid brass is not magnetic. If the magnet sticks, the item is usually steel or cast iron, with a brass plating. If the magnet does not stick, you can test further by scratching a hidden area with a sharp tool. If you see a shiny yellow scratch, the item is likely solid brass. If you see a silvery scratch, your piece is likely white metal (zinc). Iron, steel, and white metal can all be replated, in which case a lacquer is always applied to protect the plating.