The headline above is guaranteed to horrify any serious coin collectors who come upon it, as there is a hard and fast rule in the world of coin collecting that says you should never, never, EVER attempt to clean valuable coins. And that’s true. If you own coins that have collectible value above their silver content, the last thing you want to do is scrub them clean. Even the most careful cleaning can leave tiny microscopic abrasions that will reduce the value of a true collectible. What appears to a normal person as an ugly yellow-brown accumulation of tarnish is often valued in the numismatic community as the coin’s “patina.”
But cleaning junk silver and silver rounds that have been in circulation is entirely acceptable, and often desirable, because you may have noticed grime tends to collect in the crevices of older coins. You may even own one or two dimes or quarters that are completely black with grime.
(For an explanation of what “junk silver” is, and why you ought to be setting some aside for the future, see my series, “Survival Silver: A Beginner’s Guide.”)
Most old timers will tell you that cleaning silver coins is completely unnecessary and a waste of time. They’re probably right. I don’t bother with it myself these days, but I will admit that when I bought my first stash of silver quarters and half dollars back in the late 1970s, I couldn’t wait to get them home, shine them up, and admire the glistening treasure on the table before me. There is something quite satisfying about the look and the clink of real silver coins.
So before we get started, let me reiterate: this process is only for coins that are already beat up. If you own a coin that has any numismatic value, or a shiny silver proof or commemorative, leave it in its protective case. It will be worth more as-is, even if it doesn’t look as perfect as you think it could.
So, let’s begin. This is the magical part.
Lay a square of aluminum foil loosely at the bottom of a stainless steel pan, fill the pan a couple of inches with water, and bring the water to a boil. Once the water is boiling hot, go ahead and turn off the burner. Now toss a bunch of baking soda into the pan and some table salt. It doesn’t matter how much of each you put in, but I’d use about a tablespoon of salt and maybe a half cup of baking soda. You probably don’t even need that much, but I tend to overdo things.
If your pan is not stainless steel (if, for instance, all you have is Teflon cookware), it’s probably best to lay your aluminum foil onto the bottom of a glass bowl or glass baking pan, then pour the hot water into that. After you have the water and the salt and the baking soda in your container, go ahead and dump your coins in. You will notice that within seconds, all the tarnish on your coins simply disappears before your eyes.
What actually happened is a chemical reaction has transferred the tarnish from your coins onto the aluminum foil. Not as impressive as a science fair volcano, but still pretty cool.
This won’t work on gold, by the way, as gold tarnishes differently than silver. Usually all you have to do to restore luster to a gold coin is to just wash it with dish soap under running water, then buff it dry with a jeweler’s cloth.
That hot water and baking soda treatment got rid of the tarnish from your silver, but it won’t clean off the grime. So if grime is your problem, take your coins to the sink. Scrub them individually under the faucet using baking soda and water, rubbing the gritty baking soda paste into the surface using your thumb and fingers. You may also want to use an old toothbrush; usually the softest bristles work best for getting into the nooks and crannies.
I highly recommend that while you’re at the sink you do all this over a large colander. Dimes are small, and can slip from your fingers and go right down the drain. Quarters can get hopelessly stuck in the garbage disposal.
Once your coins are clean, dry them with a towel, and if you’re going to be really obsessive about it, buff them to a shiny shine with a soft jeweler’s cloth. For stubborn stains, you can put them in a jar of liquid silver cleaner for fifteen minutes, but not much longer than that. The ingredients in silver cleaning solutions vary by brand, and some can end up actually dissolving some of the silver off your coins if you leave them in too long, so read the label. After the recommended period, take your coins out of the jar, rinse them off at the sink, and buff them again with the jeweler’s cloth.
Then take your coins over to the table and sit there dropping them onto each other, reveling in the satisfying sound of the ‘clink’ of real money. Stack them onto various piles, then sit back and admire the treasure you have accumulated. You are the king in his counting house, counting out his money. You are rich beyond your dreams! Mu-Whaa Ha Haaaa!
This will probably be the only time you go to all that bother of cleaning your silver coins, and let’s hope it’s the last time you spread them out to admire them like a child surveying his Halloween haul, but everybody does that at least once.
(Next by Rock: A Toilet Paper Update)