Maintaining Zinc and Copper
Many people refer to zinc and copper as ‘living metals’ because they react to substances that come into contact. A patina forms and changes color over time. These color changes are an inherent property of the materials and should be considered when choosing either zinc or copper as a counter top surface. These are rustic metals, and ever changing. Consider the grain of wood, or marbling in stone, or the subtle variations and character that mark the natural beauty of silk.
These soft metals may show scratches, which is considered part of the rustic, weathered charm. Many scratches heal and evolve as time passes.
Many owners choose to let the patina bloom naturally based on pattern of use. The result is usually a rustic or industrial look that is very popular. In contrast, those who prefer the precision look of stainless steel, which was developed to keep a perpetual shine, may feel the developing patina may look like stains. Zinc or copper might not be the best surface for them.
Treatment and Clean up: the following information is intended to provide a knowledge base on dealing with the patina as it changes and evolves. For the most part, leaving the metal alone is the best course. Blemishes form and fade away. We’ve seen instances where the attempt to treat a particular blemish in a patina ends up making the situation worse. If you encounter a blemish that seems out of place, the best advice is to wait for a while before trying to alter it. It very well may evolve on its own, or at least become less intrusive as time goes by. Once you begin to treat an area with the methods below you’ll find that newly buffed and sanded spots will react more quickly to stimuli. Imagine trying to alter the pattern of marbling in a stone, or the flow of grain in wood.
Oxidation: a powdery white mark. Standing water on a zinc surface will likely result in some oxidation, forming a powdery white color or glass ring. This can usually be removed easily with a soft cloth and dish soap if it is newly created. The longer the white marks are there, the more persistent they will be to remove. You might need a more abrasive cloth, or even fine steel wool or Scotchbrite pads to remove them.
Patina marks: darker in color. The reaction to some chemicals will result in darker colors, even black, when exposed to skin oil, constant moisture or acids. Marks and minor scratches on can be rubbed out with a fine abrasive pad like 3M Scotchbrite or 0000 steel wool.
Deeper scratches can be removed with sandpaper. 220 grit fine paper will remove the top layer of a patina and clean up scratches. Rub the entire top in a circular motion to add a very nice feathered pattern. An orbital sander is the best choice for removing patina/scratches.
The finer the sandpaper, the glossier the finish will be. Sandpapers up to 2000 grit may be used depending on your desires. Experiment! Low grits, like 60 or 80, give a swirling affect to the surface and take off more materials, cleaning deeper. A semi‐gloss finish requires a finer grit, around 600.
The process will likely remove the patina around the spot to reveal a shinier gray area. This will form its own new patina fairly quickly. Think of it as a scab that heals again.
Waxing: We wax our tops to help keep them ‘clean’ of fingerprints and such during transit and installation. The wax will wear off and the patina process will begin. In our experience the first patina marks are often glass rings or fingerprints, and that first ring can look like a blemish on the surface. We recommend that you give it some time for more rings and patina marks to appear. In a short while your pattern of use will be revealed, and the marks will flow together to an attractive mottled surface. So, don’t react too strongly to the first ring. Imagine a thousand of them instead.
Use Carnuba wax or furniture wax. After installation, we suggest an occasional application of wax, similar to the way you would maintain fine wood furniture. A layer of wax can help put a barrier between the zinc and daily use and will greatly slow down the patina process.
Rubbing Compound: Automobile rubbing compounds can result in a uniform polished look to the zinc, resulting in a mirror finish. Use a machine polishing pad for the best results.
Protect your soft metal countertops by using trivets for hot plates, use cutting boards for chopping. Wipe up any liquids or spills promptly to prevent spotting and glass rings.
General light cleaning: dish soap with a sponge or soft cloth, wipe the surface dry to leave no soap residue. Avoid ammonia, citrus acids and bleach products, as these might result in new patina reactions due to the chemicals within. Commercial sanitizers used in restaurants will clean the surface thoroughly.
Heavier cleaning: use a more abrasive pad, like fine steel wool or a Scotchbrite pad. Barkeeper’s Friend, a white powder, is also effective removing patina build up. Follow the directions on the container for the best results.
Re-finish the top: One of the great things about zinc and copper is that you can return the material to its original gray by buffing it with a random orbital sander. Use low grits (60-80) to remove heavy patina and scratches. Finer grits produce their own scratch patterns on the metal. Experiment to find your favorite look. Once buffed with sandpaper, however, the top will be prone to react quickly to anything that touches it. We recommend wiping it down immediately with denatured alcohol, and then waxing it right away as the alcohol evaporates.
Custom Patina Treatments: We often treat our zinc and copper work with various acids to achieve colors and patterns. This is more of an art than a science, because the metal reaction is a bit unpredictable. One helpful feature of a custom patina is that it starts the natural patina process off on a particular color note thereby minimizing the ‘first glass ring’ issue described earlier. After installation, new patina marks are most often ‘hidden’ in plain site on the top among the hues we have created with the acid treatments.
Pattern of use: It is important to note that zinc will ultimately, over years, form its own pattern of use, overtaking the custom patina with its natural evolution. For the most part, zinc goes darker over time, settling around a mottled, rustic look similar to pewter, and is not likely to become lighter. But again, the patina process is a bit unpredictable. In the end, it will do what it does due to the environment.
Ask about our custom patinas and we will provide samples.
When cleaning custom patinas, be careful to go lightly in order to not remove too much zinc material, thus removing the custom patina down to the raw gray zinc.