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How To Clean An Old Mirror

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Old and vintage mirrors add a touch of class to many different interiors, especially in entryways and bedrooms. However, drawbacks can become obvious when the mirror gets dirty, since the manufacturing process was very different all those years ago. We will show you how to clean an old mirror without damaging it.

How To Clean An Old Mirror

Special care needs to be taken when cleaning an old or vintage mirror for many different reasons. Naturally, we want to preserve the original aesthetic of the piece, but if the mirror is in use it also needs to be cleaned for clarity. The glass mirror itself is going to the most important part of the cleaning process for home use, whereas for collectors, it may be the frame.

  1. Mix one part rubbing alcohol to two parts water.
  2. Dip a microfiber or other lint-free cloth in the water and alcohol solution.
  3. Wring the cloth out so that it is not dripping.
  4. Rub the front glass of the old mirror until any smudges are gone.
  5. Dry the mirror with another cloth if necessary.
Clean vintage old mirror

Tips for Cleaning Old Mirrors

  • If you do not have rubbing alcohol handy, vinegar and water (in the same 1-2 ratio) will work similarly but may leave behind the smell of vinegar.
  • Do not use abrasive cleaners to clean old mirrors. They may create tiny scratches in the glass surface that will eventually look like hazing.
  • Do not use newspaper to clean mirrors. This is an old trick to avoid streaking because of the way newspaper was printed, but modern newspapers use a vegetable-based ink that can bleed, leaving black streaks on the frame.
  • Using gloves while cleaning allows you to grasp the frame, or even put pressure on the glass, to hold it in place while you clean the glass without leaving fingerprints or smudge marks.
  • Avoid common glass cleaners to protect your frame. If you insist on using one of these normally ammonia based cleaners, be sure to spray your cleaning rag instead of the old mirror. Most commercial cleaning products will damage old frames on contact.

How to Clean an Old Mirror Frame

Typically ornate vintage frames jut out from the wall and help to create different 3-dimensional textures. Many of these mirror frames were built using gesso and oil to attach gold leaf. Other methods of applying gold highlights to vintage frames may use a different process but are just as sensitive to cleaning solutions and most types of moisture.

How to protect the frame when cleaning an old mirror:

  • Do not spray cleaner directly onto the mirror.
  • Reduce the amount of cleaning solution used so that it does not drip.
  • For very delicate frames, stop cleaning with a solution before reaching the frame edge. Clean that area with a lint free cloth that is just barely damp with water.

How to clean old mirror frames:

  • Dust on a regular basis with a feather duster.
  • To clean more aggressive dust particle buildup, clean the frame with a dry, soft bristled brush. Either nylon or natural are fine as long as the bristles are not too stiff. Unused (or very well cleaned) paint brushes may work well for this.
  • In extreme cases, where perhaps you have purchased an old mirror and are trying to clean it up for display, use the slightest amount of water (we’re talking a drop or two) on a lint free cloth, and rub with that. Test it first in an inconspicuous area of the frame.
  • If you find that any of your cleaning methods are beginning to damage your vintage frame, stop work on it and take it to a framing professional.
Antique mirror

If you are only interested in cleaning the frame for display around the house, you can attempt to clean the frame with less care than is described here. However, understand that it is very easy to devalue a vintage mirror by being too aggressive with cleaning solutions or even just with water.

Vintage Mirror Construction

A mirror is generally constructed from two layers – a glass layer to keep the surface smooth, and a reflective layer to bounce light back and create the image that we see. This type of specular reflection maintains the image without distorting it, but damage to either the glass surface in the front, or the reflecting surface in the back, can cause problems.

Aside from scratches or cracks caused by accidental damage, the glass layer in an old mirror normally stays in pretty good shape. Hazing and smudges can occur but normal cleaning will take care of those. It is still important to be careful when cleaning, if not for the glass, then for every other part that connects with it.

In extremely old mirrors, the reflection layer may have been created from an application of tin-mercury amalgam that can be toxic if scratched or otherwise damaged. It is important to protect this layer when moving, and to basically ignore the layer when cleaning. If damage is found on a surface created with mercury, do not try to fix it yourself, but take it to a professional service for repair.

Conclusion

Cleaning an old mirror is not hard but you need to pay attention to what kind of cleaners you are using, and you cannot be sloppy with your solution application. The frame and the mirror backing are the most important areas to keep in mind while cleaning so that they are not damaged in any way.

Allen Michael is the Founder and Editor of Home Viable, a website that he started to provide readers with tips on home efficiency and automation. He draws on his engineering background combined with his family-of-four experiences for his articles.