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Vintage metal advertising signs at a gas station

Vintage enamel signs are a charming reminder of a bygone era, which explains why they are so popular. Although these signs are no longer produced in factories en masse, there are plenty still available to buy from collectors and dealers. 

Enamel is particularly good at weathering harsh conditions, but you’re unlikely to find one of these signs in perfect condition. Wear and tear is part of its charm, but there are things you can do to clean your old metal sign. 

Cleaning your vintage enamel sign

You’ll need washing-up liquid, warm water, and a soft cloth to clean your vintage metal sign.

Follow these five simple steps.

  1. Mix a mild detergent or washing-up liquid in a bucket or basin with warm water. 
  2. Dip a soft cloth or sponge into the soapy water solution and wring out any excess liquid so it’s damp but not dripping wet. 
  3. Gently wipe the enamel surface with a cloth or sponge, applying light pressure. For stubborn stains or grime, gently scrub the area with a soft-bristled brush. 
  4. Rinse with clean water to remove any soap residue. 
  5. Dry the surface with a towel or soft, dry cloth to prevent water spots or streaks. 

Washing-up liquid is an effective degreaser, but consider using something more powerful for ground-in dirt and stubborn stains.  

Before you start, test the cleaning solutions you’re about to use on a small inconspicuous area first. You’re looking for signs of damage or discolouration to the enamel. 

How to clean rust off antique metal 

Enamel signs are mostly hardy and can survive decades without tarnishing, but if they get chipped or damaged, the exposed metal is at risk of rust. 

Reddish-brown in appearance, rust is unsightly, and it needs tending to before it worsens. 

There are lots of rust-removal products available to buy off-the-shelf or online, but many experts swear by using kitchen cupboard essentials like ketchup. There are lots of people willing to share their hacks for removing rust.

Test a small area of your sign before you use these homemade recipes. 

What not to use on your metal sign

There are products that you definitely shouldn’t use to clean antique metal. Avoid these cleaning solutions at all costs. 

  • Bleach is a corrosive solution that reacts with metal, causing rust, tarnishing, and pitting. 
  • Ammonia-based products can cause discolouration, dullness, or damage to your enamel sign’s protective coating. 
  • Strong solvents or alkaline solutions are not suitable for some types of metal. 

Finally, avoid using abrasive tools like wire brushes, steel wool, and scouring pads, as they can scratch the surface of your metal sign.

Restoration vs cleaning – which is better? 

Whether you decide to clean or restore your old vintage sign depends on personal preference unless you intend to sell it. If you want to make money on it, consider that a loss of authenticity might be seen as a negative.

Some buyers prefer signs in their original state, so don’t assume that by restoring your old metal sign, you will add value. It comes down to the type of sign and the buyer on the day.