How to Remove Lacquer from Brass

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Brass is a shiny metal will a beautiful appearance, and has long been valued for its hardness and exceptional malleability. This material is used to create many different items for household use, such as jewelry, vases and statues, or kitchen and bathroom taps. Many antique items made of brass are still in circulation today. 

In this article, we’ll explain what lacquered brass is and why lacquer is applied in the first place. We’ll discuss how to tell if your workpiece is pure brass or brass-plated, and teach you how to safely remove lacquer from either material. 

Removing Lacquer from Brass

Stripping the lacquer from brass is an easy process that can be completed with minimal special equipment.

What You’ll Need

Hot water, dish soap, and a chemical solvent like acetone are the supplies you’ll need to complete this task. A plastic putty knife, old toothbrush, and shop rag are helpful accessories. 

How to Take Lacquer Off of Brass

  1. Determine whether you’re working with solid brass or another metal with brass plating applied on top. Solid brass is not magnetized. Grab a refrigerator magnet and place it against the object in question. If it clings to the metal, there is likely steel or cast iron underneath a thin layer of brass. If the magnet slides off, move on to the second test. Scratch an area of the object that isn’t highly visible, using a sharp nail or safety pin. If the scratch shows silver, your object is probably a brass-plated white metal like zinc. If the scratch is shiny and yellow, it’s safe to assume you’re dealing with solid brass. 
  2. Consider your options. If you de-lacquer a brass-plated piece that is in good condition, you might be able to polish it and apply new lacquer. If the lacquer has already degraded the plating is unlikely to be in good enough condition to be polished. If your piece is pure, solid brass, you’re in luck. This incredible material can be polished and re-lacquered over and over again. No matter how beat-up it looks, pure brass can always be restored. 
  3. Trigger expansion and contraction. Hot water will force the bronze to expand slightly. When it cools, it will contract. This can loosen the bond between metal and lacquer, making it easier to scrape or peel off the protective coating. If the object is small enough, submerge it in a sink full of very hot water for five minutes. For larger objects, pour kettles of hot water over the surface in a well-drained area, being careful not to splash yourself.  When the object has cooled, use a plastic putty knife to scrape off the lacquer. 
Brass furnishings
  1. Use a chemical solvent. Acetone, mineral spirits, or store-bought lacquer remover will help dilute and remove the lacquer. If your product is pure brass, you can use a scouring pad to help work the lacquer away from the brass. If you’re de-lacquering a brass plated object, avoid abrasive materials that may cause scratches. A shop rag is perfect for working the chemical solvent into the lacquer. 
  2. Clean the nooks and crannies with a toothbrush.  Where the metal folds or joins, lacquer tends to build up more thickly than on flat surfaces. If stubborn lacquer remains after you’ve used hot water and a chemical solvent, grab an old toothbrush and get to work. The stiff bristles and small surface area of a toothbrush make it the perfect tool for scrubbing lacquer off brass. Coat the head of the brush with solvent by dipping it directly into a dish or cup. Vigorously scrub the nooks and crannies of your brass object until the lacquer dissolves. 
  3. After all the lacquer is completely removed, wash the brass with warm, soapy water to remove the traces of chemical solvent. When it’s dry, you can remove the tarnish (if desired) using a lemon juice and baking soda paste. Polish the brass using mineral oil and a soft rag if you plan to leave it in its natural state, or reapply lacquer to prevent tarnish from accumulating. 

Related: Learn how to take lacquer off of wood.

When NOT to Remove Lacquer from Brass

Lacquer thinner is available in both commercial and industrial formulations. Industrial-strength lacquer thinner can be used in place of a chemical stripper, using the instructions above. 

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Commercial-grade lacquer thinner is an acceptable alternative for denatured alcohol. However, lacquer thinner tends to leave a white residue when used to strip brass down to the bare metal. You will need to use denatured alcohol to remove this residue.

Lacquer thinners also evaporate fairly quickly when exposed to air. This is an advantage when applying lacquer, as it allows control over the viscosity of the lacquer as it is applied. When de-lacquering, this quick evaporation slows the removal process.

Why Is Brass Lacquered?

As you scrub at your brass heirloom, you might start to wonder why it was ever lacquered in the first place.

Over time and with exposure to air, a chemical process called oxidation takes place on the surface of brass. The resulting corrosion creates a dull, filmy coat on top of pure brass that can be gray or black. This is called tarnishing. 

Lacquer is a finisher that is used on a variety of surfaces, ranging from furniture to wood to metal and everything in between. Technically it is a clear nitrocellulose that is sprayed onto a surface
Brass is lacquered when it is desirable to prevent tarnishing.
 
If the lacquer is not maintained, it will degrade and tarnishing will occur. When it is desirable to restore the metal to a like-new state, it is easy to remove the old, degraded lacquer, polish the brass, and apply a protective coat of new lacquer.

Man applying lacquer on a piece of wood

Should I Use Lacquer Thinner to Remove Lacquer From Brass? 

Lacquer thinner is available in both commercial and industrial formulations. Industrial-strength lacquer thinner can be used in place of a chemical stripper, using the instructions above. 

Commercial-grade lacquer thinner is an acceptable alternative for denatured alcohol. However, lacquer thinner tends to leave a white residue when used to strip brass down to the bare metal. You will need to use denatured alcohol to remove this residue.

Lacquer thinners also evaporate fairly quickly when exposed to air. This is an advantage when applying lacquer, as it allows control over the viscosity of the lacquer as it is applied. When de-lacquering, this quick evaporation slows the removal process.

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Conclusion

Brass is lacquered to reduce the need for polishing and prevent the corrosion that leads to tarnishing. Over time, lacquer degrades and may need to be removed. Pure brass can be lacquered and polished an unlimited amount of times.

Brass-plated objects can usually only be polished and re-lacquered once before the brass plating degrades. For antique brass objects, confirm that removing the lacquer will not damage the value of the object before proceeding. 

Start by exposing the object to hot water for about five minutes. Peel away most of the lacquer with a plastic putty knife. Use a chemical solvent to dissolve the remaining lacquer, working it into tight areas with an old toothbrush. Wash the brass with warm soapy water and dry before polishing and/or re-lacquering.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.