About a week ago I was out on the town, running errands and attending to a couple of meetings and trying to get to the bottom of a couple of issues which had been bugging me for a while. After sorting all those things out, I decided to do a bit of antiquing on the way home. I stopped by a tiny little hole-in-the-wall antiques shop that I know of, on a tram-route home from the center of town. I stopped in, poked around, and found something sitting on a shelf…quite dark, dull, ugly, and frankly…unloved.
After some haggling with the shopkeeper he agreed to knock the price down to almost half. And I purchased this rather ugly-looking object, for what can only be described as a pittance – since I’ve seen these things selling for about $150-200 online (and up to $300 in other antiques shops I’ve visited!). Here it is:
My God it’s ugly! What the hell is it, and what swamp did you dig this up from?
What you’re looking at here is a Victorian (or possibly, Edwardian)-era counter bell. To say this was a diamond in the rough is putting it mildly. It was in horrific condition! It was ugly, brown, tarnished and looked like it had been sitting in a sewer for 100 years. But I had to have it.
Back in the days when ringing a bell like this actually provided you with customer-service, a bell like this would be found on every front-desk, lobby, shop-counter and foyer in the world. This particular bell is admittedly, quite plain – there are ones which are extremely elaborate and unique, and which come in all shapes and sizes.
The bell is of a more familiar push-button design, and something which we’d recognise more readily as a service-bell, than say, my other one, which is probably from the 1860s or 70s, and is of a more antiquated, side-striking spring-toggle design:
1860s/70s side-toggle service-bell
But it differs in one main respect. Like the 1870s one above, that ugly duckling in the first picture is a pedestal bell, a style which lasted well into the 1900s, not finally dying out, to be replaced by the more squat, low-based bells which we have today, until probably the 1910s or after the First World War.
Anyway. Back to the bell.
I’d figured out roughly how old it was, and also, how the gong at the top was correctly oriented…Yeah there is actually a way that it fits onto the stand! I didn’t notice it either at first! But if you look at the picture at the top, you’ll notice that the hole drilled through the gong for the stand is NOT drilled dead-center. It’s actually off-center, on an angle.
That is done deliberately – it’s not a manufacturing-fault.
Drilling the hole like that forces the bell-top to sit lopsidedly on the stand. This means that one side of the bell-rim is higher than the other. If you look close, you’ll see that there’s a slight angle, with the left side of the edge higher than the right. It’s made like this so that when the button at the top is pushed, and the clapper underneath swings up (and to the left) to strike the bell, even with your hand or finger still on the button above, the clapper won’t touch the rim of the bell, and therefore, mute the sound – it allows the ring to sound freely and resonate – something that it couldn’t do if the gong was oriented the wrong way around, with the low side of the rim to the left. This would cause the clapper to rub against the underside of the bell, dulling the sound and not producing as loud or clear a ring.
Once I’d screwed the gong onto the bell correctly so that the clapper would strike it properly to produce the best ring, I wondered what I should do next. It is brass…maybe I should polish it?
A bell like this would originally have taken pride-of-place on some shop-counter or hotel desk, its golden yellow brass sparkling in the light from oil-lamps, candles, or the flame of a gas-mantle or an early form of electric-lighting. And I wanted to restore that shine, sheen and sparkle to the brass.
So. Out with the Brasso. Invented in 1905 and still shining to this day, Brasso is probably one of the best metal-polishes in the world. It stinks like hell and it’ll leave your hands as black as coal, but it does the job! It took me AGES of scrubbing and rubbing, wiping, buffing, over and over and over again to remove decades of tarnish, which had built up in caked-on layers of oxidation. But I finally got it all off. And I’d restored a golden shine!
Here is Before:
Dull, dark, tarnished, crusty, rusty, eugh…
…And here’s After:
Golden, polished, shiny brass, scrubbed and buffed to a mirror-finish!
The problem with brass is that…it tarnishes. Left to its own devices, it will eventually turn back to that dull, unsightly brown, tarnished, oxidised appearance all over again. What to do??
Brass has been used for centuries. Its colour, shine, sound and the fact that it’s impervious to rusting has made it an extremely popular metal. And that means that there’s LOADS of ways to clean brass. Everything from ketchup to toothpaste to lemon-juice and baking-soda, crushed salt and Worcestershire Sauce! But the problem is that most of these POLISH the brass…but don’t do much else. Once it’s polished, it’s polished and it’s done.
Of course the way to give the brass any sort of long-term tarnish-protection is to spray-coat it with clear lacquer. I don’t have any, and I’m not about to go out and buy any. That’s when I realised you could use something else at home to produce a similar effect. Not only does it polish the brass, it also gives it a protective coating. It’s not as effective or long-lasting as lacquer, but it does the job if you take care of it.
A small bowl of oil, a paper-towel, and some elbow-grease not only cleans the brass, but after a bit of rubbing, it gives it a nice, protective layer a bit like lacquer. Obviously since it’s a natural product it won’t last as long, but it does what lacquer does, which is what you want it to do – which is slow down the tarnishing process, which is what brass will do, if you leave it alone. You’ll know that you’ve polished it enough with the oil when the cloth comes away clean from the brass. The layers of oil should keep the brass shiny for a nice long time 🙂