“Finally we were ready to move; our tears were wiped away, our buttons were polished, and our muskets were as bright as emery paper could make them.” – Colonel Edward F. Jones, of the 6th Massachusetts
I’m often asked how to clean dug buttons. My first answer is usually “Don’t Clean Them”, but I do carefully clean my buttons so that they are more attractive and displayable, and to be able to read or see important details like the back/maker mark on the reverse side for reference.
Many Civil War buttons, flat/coin buttons, and other great buttons may still maintain some of their gold or silver plating (gilt). The trick in cleaning these is to preserve as much of the remaining gilt as possible while removing the dirt and other buildup from the button. Just scrubbing with soap and water can cause unnecessary loss of remaining gilt.
BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL
I’d like to start by saying that if you have a very rare, very valuable button, unless you are absolutely super confident of your technique, I strongly recommend that you have it cleaned by a professional in your area. Until you are confident, practice on dug buttons with little or no value to refine your technique.
If you have a fragile button, one that is unstable or has cracks, missing pieces or has major deterioration, it is also a good idea to barely rinse it off, leave it alone, or have a professional look at it.
It is always best to clean a given button that you would like to display as little as possible. Once it is displayable, you don’t have to get it completely free of buildup or try to change the color. That killer bluish green verdigris almost always looks much better than the button without it. Often that color and a bit of buildup highlight the details and make the item look better than if it were removed, and the more you clean it, the more you risk in damaging it. Buttons that have an uncleaned, dug verdigris may be much more valuable to collectors, as they look more like the real dug deal, which they are, and not a clever fake.
Be extremely careful with the shank (loop) on older buttons. Some shanks are very very fragile and may be barely hanging on. You don’t want to lose the shank and reduce the value or desirability of the button.
Don’t get carried away cleaning too hard trying to bring out the backmark on a button. Soak it in olive oil for a couple weeks if you must, but don’t risk damaging the button just to read the backmark.
It is not a good idea to submerge two piece (hollow) buttons into any type of liquid. The reason is the liquid may get inside the button and be hard to get out and get dry, and could cause more damage/deterioration over time.
If you do use any type of chemical to clean a given button, be extremely attentive. It is easy to get distracted. Don’t let something like a phone call or favorite TV show cause your button to get “burned” by sitting too long coated in the liquid.
CLEANING BUTTONS WITH LIGHT TO MODERATE DIRT AND LITTLE CRUST
Use just water with a little soap. Don’t put the soap directly on the button – put it in your hand and let the soapy mixture run off your hand and onto the button. Clean using a very soft toothbrush, Q-Tips, and use a wet toothpick to carefully remove dirt from the letters and tiny nooks and crannies of the design.
When it looks nice and displayable while wet, consider leaving it alone. It will dry out and not look as good, but adding wax, vaseline or olive oil as we will discuss below will bring out the color.
DEALING WITH HEAVILY ENCRUSTED BUTTONS
Many detectorist use heated ammonia, but my preference is as follows:
For buttons that are extremely encrusted, such as flat/coin buttons that are so heavily encrusted with buildup that I can’t read the back mark. This is the riskiest method of cleaning that I use, but if done carefully, can preserve almost all of the gilt remaining on a button, while cleaning the button fairly quickly. Cleaning only one side at a time, front first, I take a Q-Tip and coat it in Aluminum Jelly (pictured), applying it carefully to one side of the button. I carefully let it sit no more than one minute. Then I put some soap on my hand and run water over it and let the soapy water run over the button to neutralize the acid. I do not use a toothbrush. I will use a wet toothpick or wooden skewer to carefully work dirt out. This is done slow and painstakingly. To get the best results you want to repeat in small steps.
PRESERVING THE BUTTON AFTER CLEANING
I’d like to note that some detectorists do not put anything on the button. I cannot argue with this. After all, it has been in the ground for so long and is fine. My thought is that the button was protected by the dirt and crust built on it, and since that has been removed, it makes sense to keep oxygen away from it using something that could be washed off easily.
Only after I am satisfied that the button is clean enough, I may coat it in a thin layer of petroleum jelly or olive oil, careful to wipe away excess, to help preserve it.
Give the button a couple hours to dry after you coat it. Often it will look “Greasy”, but after drying will look perfect.
On some buttons where I really want to bring out detail, instead of jelly or oil, I will take a small piece of canning wax, such as “Gulf Wax” and rub it with my fingers until it has melted, and apply it to the button carefully with my fingers, rubbing it into the details softly and wiping away any excess. Take your time and rub any remaining waxy looking white spots until they melt as well. Don’t use this method on fragile, crumbling buttons – you don’t want to cause further damage.
Experiment with petroleum jelly, olive oil, and wax to see what looks best to you.
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