5 Tips for Cleaning Antique Glass

By: Sara Elliott  | 
Antique glass needs a gentle touch.

Key Takeaways

  • When cleaning antique glass, first ensure a safe workspace by clearing the area and laying down soft cloths or towels to cushion the glass items.
  • Use mild detergents or ammonia in water for cleaning, but always cushion the sink or use a rubber tub to protect the glass when washing.
  • Dry and display the glass properly to maintain its luster and prevent dust buildup.

An antique glass piece can create a unique and attractive focal point on a shelf or table, and collecting several of these gems is a fun and interesting lesson in the history of our changing cultural tastes. The ins and outs of rehabilitating antique glass can be frustrating sometimes, though. These treasures can be high end auction pieces in pristine condition, but often, they're curio shop or flea market finds that need some major cleaning inside and out.

Eventually, and probably sooner rather than later, you'll find an antique glass piece with huge potential -- if you can just separate it from the accumulated grime of a few decades. Actually, just handling one of these treasures can be risky all by itself. If you have an antique glass collection, you've probably heard the tinkle of breaking glass as a piece you're cleaning shoots out of your soapy hands into the sink. Accidents happen, but there are some tricks to cleaning antique glass that will make your unique specimen sparkle while keeping it in one lovely piece.


5: Know What You're Getting Into

If you own or have stumbled onto what you believe is a museum-quality glass piece, don't try to clean it yourself. Although a soft, slightly damp, lint free cloth may work for minor dusting, anything more aggressive should be evaluated by a pro first. A professional conservator will know how to clean and dry your glass without causing damage. This qualifies as one of those "Don't try this at home" situations where you may end up very sorry you spritzed that vase with commercial window cleaner and let it air dry on your countertop. If you have a piece you can't afford to lose, have it evaluated before attempting to clean or repair it.

If you're trying to maintain an heirloom-quality piece, wiping it down with distilled water regularly should be enough of a cleaning regimen. Without specific instructions to do so from a professional, avoid submerging quality antique glass in water, and keep the water you're using at room temperature or just slightly warm.


4: Avoid Calamity

Not much use in cleaning this window until it's repaired.

Cleaning is an important part of maintaining antique glass, but it isn't the most important part.

The most important part is keeping your collection intact. On cleaning day, create enough room to work, including space for your tools and pieces. Cover the area with a soft cloth or towel. You want to create a cushion in case you put down a piece roughly, tip it over or drop it.


If you're planning on placing a very dirty piece in water and a little laundry detergent or ammonia, line the sink with soft towels first, or if the piece is small enough, clean it in a rubber or plastic tub. Once your hands get wet, it's easy to lose your grip on smooth, slick surfaces. A couple of layers of soft cotton may mean the difference between a close call and the broken shards of your next homemade mosaic project.

Clearly, one of the most appealing aspects of owning glass is enjoying its luster and the way it transforms light into art, so cleaning is important. To ensure that your dirty glass makes it to the sink without any mishaps, evaluate the path to and from your work area as well as the work area itself. Move objects like tables, electrical cords, toys and throw rugs, and make sure the kids (and pets) aren't playing nearby.

3: Perform an Inspection

There are lots of different types of glass, and depending on the style and treatment, cleaning methods can vary. You may have to use a bottle brush to get down through the narrow neck of a bottle to give the bottom a good scrub or opt for a light wipe to avoid taking the gilding off a decorated decanter or platter. Knowing whether there's a film or coating over a piece of glass will give you clues about whether it's safe to use some elbow grease or an abrasive to remove rust spots or mineral deposits. You'll be able to use more pressure to get down into the pitted or upbraided areas of frosted glass than you would be on a piece that has a gold leaf finish. The more you know about the glass involved, the easier it will be to understand how aggressively you can work at getting it clean. Before you stir up the suds, take the time to do your homework on the proper cleaning method for your antique glass.


2: Use the Least Aggressive Method First

You never know what you have until you uncover it's potential.

OK, so you've found a beautiful perfume bottle that looks like it's been sitting at the bottom of a well since the Great Depression. You can see a tantalizing shade of lavender peeking through the grime and want to restore the bottle to its former glory. If you've made the decision to do the work yourself, start with the least potentially damaging cleaning method. If you decide that you can't get the bottle clean without the risk of damaging it, weigh your options before you try something risky. Don't make the mistake of scratching a nice piece of glass unnecessarily when a gentler cleaning strategy would have done the job just as well. Here's a handy list of glass cleaning techniques starting with milder options. For the best results, research your specific glass type before you begin work:

  • Rub the glass with a slightly damp, lint-free cloth.
  • Wipe with room-temperature water to which you've added a small amount of mild detergent or a few drops of ammonia.
  • Wipe with a solution of three parts water to one part vinegar.
  • Wipe with equal parts water and ethanol.
  • Soak glass in room-temperature water with mild detergent or ammonia.
  • Soak glass in denture cleanser.
  • Treat with lime removal products. (Use to get rid of mineral deposits.)

Always clean glass pieces one at a time, and watch them closely to make sure you aren't damaging any components, like painted rims, metal filigree, or decorative caps or bases made of materials other than glass. If you can't tell if your methods are working, wait for the piece to dry and take a look at your handiwork before proceeding.


1: Tackle Pesky Spots

When you want to work on spots like mineral deposits or rust, you can sometimes use mild abrasives on glass without damaging it. Always test the technique you're using in an inconspicuous area, like the bottom of a tumbler, before you tackle the spot itself. If you're determined to lose the spots, one of these methods may be worth a try. Be very cautious when using them, and weigh the advantages of possibly removing a blemish at the risk of making the whole project look worse than when you started.

  • For stubborn spots, scrub with a stiff artist's brush or soft toothbrush. (Choose an inconspicuous area for a preliminary test.)
  • Try a dab of baking soda or toothpaste on a soft cloth.
  • Use polish especially designed for glass-topped stoves.
  • Try window polishing cream.
  • For rust, rub the spot with a copper pad and wipe with water. (Make sure the pad is really copper, and use light pressure.)
  • Use scouring powder applied with a bottle brush to remove the dried gunk on the interior of bottles and vases.
  • To clean the interior of a narrow vase, use an oxygen cleanser, or try equal parts baking soda, vinegar and salt.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to store antique glass to prevent dirt accumulation?
Store antique glass in a closed cabinet or display case with minimal air exposure to reduce the accumulation of dust and grime.
How can I remove stubborn stains from antique glass without causing damage?
For stubborn stains, gently apply a paste of baking soda and water and use a soft, nonabrasive cloth to carefully rub the stained area. Avoid harsh chemicals that may etch the glass.

Lots More Information

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  • Antique Bottles and Glass. "Cleaning Antique Bottles and Glass." Undated. 11/3/10.http://www.antiquebottles-glass.com/cleaning.html
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  • Deck, Clara. The Care And Preservation of Glass and Ceramics." The Henry Ford Museum. Undated. 11/3/10.http://www.hfmgv.org/research/caring/glass.aspx
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