What is happening with my vintage flatware?
January 10, 2021 6:34 PM   Subscribe

So a few days ago I asked why my vintage flatware was suddenly tarnished and it turned out the answer was something like "you need to polish it, and it didn't tarnish all at once, it's just that you finally noticed it." So I polished it and all was well. But then...

After polishing (2 types of polish, which we randomly had on hand) we rinsed off the polish and everything looked great. Then I decided to run it all through the dishwasher just to get off any remnants of the polish, and also because we have been using this flatware for between 10-30 years (really) and *always* washing it in the dishwasher with no problems. BUT IT ALL CAME OUT TARNISHED AGAIN. Not as bad as before, but basically it's all got a weird, cloudy finish.


-- We haven't updated our dishwasher any time recently. (It's a Bosch.)
-- We having been using Finish dishwashing tablets for a few years.
-- We have *never* segregated this flatware, keeping it separate from the stainless silverware.
-- We haven't changed anything re: our home's water filtration though I suppose the city could have.
-- There haven't been any other random exposures to chemicals or the like.
-- I can't even think of other elements but really everything has been business as usual.

posted by BlahLaLa to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
Did you wash it with anything made of aluminum? I just moved into an apartment with a functional dishwasher for the first time and in researching best practices I found several sources that said to avoid washing aluminum and stainless steel together because it can cause discoloration in both items.
posted by Fuego at 7:01 PM on January 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I suspect that heavy wear is finally catching up to thin silver plate. I think it's likely the silver was only ever a few mils thick, and by now it is very fuzzed up at the micro level and maybe even absent in spots.

If you polish again and it works, probably best to treat it as hand wash only or learn to love the new mottled look, which I suspect will come about again as soon as you machine wash it again. I like that kind of stuff too and hope I'm wrong. Good luck!
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:09 PM on January 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Have you cleaned your dishwasher lately? If you have, could it be something from the cleaner? If you haven't, you probably could.
posted by saveyoursanity at 7:09 PM on January 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Haven't cleaned the dishwasher. Not sure about the "aluminum in the dishwasher" thing but I can't express enough how little care we've taken in the past -- just thrown everything in there together, all the time, every day for decades.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:12 PM on January 10, 2021

Agree with Fuego that it might be a reaction to being washed with something aluminum. It really does wreck both finishes (learned the hard way).
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:12 PM on January 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: just thrown everything in there together, all the time, every day for decades.

This method likely worked until it didn't, and just because it didn't cause problems for a while doesn't mean it's not the cause. A car will drive with no oil change, for a time. Then 'suddenly', the engine will seize. Except it wasn't sudden, it was happening all along.

The photos from your first post looked like the utensils in question were silver plate, so it's possible (as mentioned upthread) that the plating has finally given up the ghost.
posted by girlalex at 7:30 PM on January 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

Here's my theory: your city water changed.

I'm in NorCal between SF and San Jose. Depending on the year we sometimes switch from SF water (no dissolved minerals, extremely naturally soft) to ground water, which is a lot harder. There may be a bunch of reasons but I suspect your water changed and now you're getting more minerals or more sulphur or more something that's causing the tarnishing. My wife works a whole 2 miles from where we live and the water kettle she uses there gets extremely calcified in a just a few months while we get zero scale in our kettle at home. But, again, sometimes our home water changes because of low reservoir levels.

Why would your city water change? I have no idea. It's pretty rare. But it absolutely can happen. Maybe get your sulphur levels tested.
posted by GuyZero at 8:15 PM on January 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

Also re-reading your question a "cloudy finish" on flatware does sound like hard water staining.

Do you have an electric kettle? Is it getting scale suddenly? Maybe get a hard water test.

The solution is that you can get dishwasher detergents that work better with hard water.
posted by GuyZero at 8:18 PM on January 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

If the issue is that your silver plating is too worn, you can replate at home. It's definitely less expensive than paying someone to do it for you, but does require some equipment and supplies. It's very easy once you have the bits and pieces, tho. There are plenty of YT tutorials, and I can't vouch for any in particular but I have done silver electroplating with a friend who had the setup and it was very straightforward, so any reasonable tutorial should suffice.
posted by ananci at 9:20 PM on January 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Dishwashers are just not a friendly environment for silver. Silver reacts with strong alkalis to form silver oxide, which is brown/black. Dishwasher detergent is extremely alkaline. The rougher the silver surface, the greater will be the surface area of silver exposed to hydroxide ions in the alkaline wash water and the faster the oxide will form.

Sounds to me like your silverware has finally been etched rough enough, on a microscopic level, that oxide formation has now sped up to the point where you're seeing visible deposits in as short a time as a single dishwashing cycle.

The correct fix is to stop putting silver in the dishwasher.

My late mother always prohibited us kids from putting the Good Cutlery in the dishwasher for precisely this reason.
posted by flabdablet at 6:00 AM on January 11, 2021 [7 favorites]

Silver is somewhat reactive. Something in your dishwasher deterg., food, other stuff in the dishwasher, city water, has changed, and it's reacting with the silver. The sulfur in eggs or runner bands an react with silver. It's almost certainly not a health issue, just looks a bit odd. Where I live, the water is so clean it's barely treated, unless there's been a pipe break or problem, then they add chemicals to clean the water; just an example of something that might have changed. I use old silverplated ware; automatic dishwashing removes the silver over time so I hand wash it. I keep a steel cup in the sink, dirty silver goes there until washed. Not a major issue.
posted by theora55 at 7:07 AM on January 11, 2021

Best answer: If your silverplate previously didn't tarnish previously I'd suggest it was sealed & over time the dishwashing has etched the sealer away or etched the surface of the silver so much it oxidises more quickly. Dishwashing detergents are harsh & etch things and could easily etch thin coating of sealer off. So now even after polishing, they just react & oxidise/tarnish again. I'd look at polishing then resealing them and then handwashing only.
posted by wwax at 8:25 AM on January 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

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