Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cheap Thrills: Silver, Elbow Grease

For months, I had my eye a small, silver-plated bucket in an antique shop on Charles Street. I couldn't figure out what it was originally used for, and I wasn't wild about the price: $85. But it was so pretty that I kept visiting it. The shopkeeper used it as a cachepot; a small flowerpot fits neatly inside.

I went on eBay, searching for silver-plated buckets. I discovered that it's an ice bucket, but not the kind that chills a bottle; it's sized to hold cubes or crushed ice for cocktails, and it once had matching tongs and a little perforated drain inside.

I managed to find a couple of inexpensive ice buckets on eBay that were identical to the one in the shop. But instead of looking shiny and perfect, they looked like this:

It's hard to know what you're getting when a piece is this tarnished. If the plate is worn down to the base metal, you're going to be disappointed after it's polished. On the other hand, you can get a bargain if you're willing to do the work yourself.

I hedged my bets by asking the dealer and if I could return the bucket if it turned out be missing any noticeable plating. She nicely agreed, and apologized for not polishing it herself. I paid $22 plus $10 shipping.

It arrived today and I was eager to get it into the kitchen for polishing. I love to polish silver — don't ask me why. It's hard work, it ruins your hands if you don't wear gloves, and I always forget to buy gloves at Back Bay Hardware. I was there last week, knowing I needed something, and left empty-handed because I couldn't remember what. Maybe next time, I'll notice my cracked, flaking hands and ask Eric or Lex for latex-free gloves.

After 45 minutes of rubbing like the dickens with Wright's Silver Cream (also via Back Bay Hardware), I had a beautiful, gleaming ice bucket with no signs of damage. An overdue polishing produces dramatic results, worth the effort and ruined hands:

I had forgotten how tough it is to remove ancient tarnish. I never let my own silver get that black. I was afraid I was going to remove the plating myself. I huffed and puffed and wore out the applicator sponge. (And I was already worn out: in gym class today, our instructor kept making us do planks and eight push-ups as "breaks" after he wrecked our shoulder, arm, and chest muscles with barbells and free weights. I can barely lift my glass of milk and cookies even now. But after all that agony, I can't feel guilty about the cookies.)

I remembered I had a glittery silk hydrangea spray, a Christmas clearance item from Pottery Barn a few years ago, which had never found a home. (Moment of silence for the Newbury Street store, a great place to waste time and money.) I popped the spray into the bucket and placed it on a pierced silver plate, a recent $20 find at the Cambridge Antiques Market that was serving no useful purpose. (That's a fun place to browse, by the way. With scores of dealers, it's reminiscent of Brimfield, minus apple fritters, sunburn, and dust.)

VoilĂ :

Fake flowers aren't my style, but this will do until I can pick up a potted primrose at the florist. (Update: Make that a Persian violet; primroses are toxic for cats.)

I should mention that we do buy things at the antique shop on Charles Street that gave me this idea. If we don't patronize our small, independent stores, they have a bad habit of going out of business. I try to do my part to keep my favorites going. I sent my husband there for my Christmas present this year and he obediently spent a bundle. We'll be shopping there again, I'm sure. But $85 for an ice bucket?


  1. Oh...love the before and after photos and the place for the lonely hydrangeas.

  2. The pot is looking so cute abd shiney. I loved it. Can u please tell me how to remove sticky and grease oil strains on silver. I live in India.


  3. Hi Padmini,

    Here is a link with a lot of silver-cleaning information:


    You may not be able to find these products in your country, but he does say to try isopropyl alcohol (with gloves and ventilation) to remove sticky residue. Good luck!


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