Antique Bottle Cleaning
An interview with an expert bottle cleaner
By Jeff Wichmann
Founder of American Bottle Auctions
The cleaning of antique bottles has long been a question mark in the minds of many bottle collectors. Some people want their bottles spotless and that often requires a professional cleaning. Some people, like myself, aren't that picky and almost prefer a little stain just to show its original condition. The 21st century bottle cleaner has advanced quite a bit over the last 10 or so years. They now use very special compounds and more efficient machines. The professional can clean more bottles more quickly now, and do a better job than ever before. I talked with a professional bottle cleaner named Lou Lambert last week and asked him some questions about having bottles cleaned and what to expect.
What is bottle cleaning ?
The desire & need to have a clean container for practial reasons has exsisted since the Phoenicians from the first millennium BC. Either from use, neglect or being buried, a bottle glass surface can become altered with the ravages of time. It may include post production issues such as: calisfied deposits, dirt, stain, etc. Cleaning occurs in many differnt forms depening on what's at issue with a bottles surface. It can range from a simple washing to a polishing with vairous compounds at the extreme.
How is it done?
That's the million dollar question. Not one size fits all, infact most every item will have it's own unquie set of circamstances. As with cleaning any kind of antique or collectible a conservative approach is always best. A bottle can be cleaned without
Can stain be removed with liquid cleaners?
Some kinds of deposits or stain can be removed with liquid cleaners but most can not. Often, the surface of a bottle will be altered with the kind of stain that can not be remove with a cleaning product. Acidic minerals in the ground over a period of many years will actually start eating away at a glass surface. The more acidic the soil the more the glass will be alterd. If you were to look at this kind of stain under very powerful magnification you'd actually see that the surface appears etched and eaten away thus giving the glass a dull whiteish look. There's no amount of scrubbing you could ever do to remove this dull look because it's not something that is stuck to the surface. You'll also occasionally see a non dug bottle or decanter with similar dullness or stain on the inside. This too is because the item likely contained an acidic content at one time that had etched the glass surface.
What is the most important part of having a bottle cleaned?
Lots of factors should be considered when having a bottle cleaned but I think the most important thing is NOT to over clean. It's always better to under clean than over clean for many reasons. The longer the cleaning time, the more glass is going to be removed. If you look real closely at the surface of a blown bottle, you will see that there is a texture to an original surface. Often, over cleaning will remove this texture leaving the surface smooth, thus reducing the appearance of an original surface. There is also the risk of causing bubbles in the glass to open by cleaning. I've seen cases where a bubble will open and the tumbling media will pack in the open bubble causing the bottle to crack. You should also consider that who ever cleans your bottle might not have the experience of someone who does this professionally. I've seen way too many botched attempts at cleaning a good bottle and then they are brought to someone like myself to fix. I can't tell you how many bottles I've cleaned after someone else has tried but it's been numerous. This will often result in the over cleaning of a bottle and had it been done right the first time it could have been avoided.
You also need to consider the fact that breakage can occur in the cleaning process. I think some of the best advice I can give someone is this; "If you don't want to risk the chance of having your bottle damaged in the cleaning process then don't have it cleaned".
What are the most difficult bottles to clean?
Anything other than round can be hard to clean because of the uneven tumble action, unlike a round bottle that will roll more evenly. Bottles with heavy embossing can be a challenge getting the glass completely clean around the lettering without over cleaning the surface. Bottles with deep pockets or crevices like a Cathedral pickle can be a problem too. Inside the neck area is another challenge to effectively clean for the novice cleaner.
Bottles that have been hydrofluoric acid cleaned are almost impossible to restore once dipped in the acid. This type of cleaning is extremely dangerous and will not produce the lustrous effect of a professional cleaning. The glass in most old bottle glass is not consistent in composition and will have hard and soft spots. Acid will eat away at the softer areas at a faster rate than the hard. When this happens, the surface will look and feel uneven. Acid will always leave a slightly dull appearance to the glass and will work its way into the glass, leaving a dullness that can not simply be polished away.
What are your feelings about people that think it a sacrilege to clean a bottle?
In general, most antiques and collectibles are more desirable with their original surface, providing that it's not too far-gone. Bottles are one of the few antique collectibles that are often found buried in the ground. Because of this, it's impractical not to clean certain bottles. Often the appearance and value of a bottle can be increased by as much as ten times just by having the surfaces restored (cleaned). It took me years of personal experience, by trial and error and having cleaned many, many bottles, but it is possible to restore a bottle surface without giving it a polished look. I think the folks who don't like to have their bottles cleaned may not fully understand, or may not have seen a restored glass surface done by a true professional.
Lately there's been a blog mis-leading folks by giving false inaccurate information about cleaning. The site goes under a disquise of Owl bottles which it has little to do with. but rather a rant to degrade & discredit anyone of importance in bottle collecting.
What are the do and don'ts of bottle cleaning?
If someone has an expensive bottle, some of my best advice is (DO) let a pro clean it. Over the years I've had dozens of good, expensive bottles brought to me for re-cleaning that had been attempted to be cleaned by others. This being the case, when it's properly cleaned the second time, there has to be even more surface glass removed which often results in an over cleaned appearance. You're also risking damage to the item by someone who's not a pro.
The proper approach to cleaning an expensive antique bottle should be conservative, like having a piece of fine art restored. Improper or over cleaning can ruin the appearance and value of a bottle. It's always better to under clean a bottle than to over clean. You can always clean it more, but once over cleaned, there's no going back.
All bottle glass has a surface texture and once that texture is broken through, a bottle will have that smooth over cleaned appearance. It is possible to spot clean and only polish or remove scratching where it's needed, without cleaning the entire surface. Another very important factor, is being able to master 100% uniform cleaning, where the entire surface is being cleaned evenly. It's important to uniformly clean the base, top and body at the same rate, which is very difficult to do without the proper know-how. Often you will see bottles that are over cleaned on the top and inside, but under cleaned on the base, inside the neck and in between lettering.
Awhile back I viewed two very rare Western Whiskey bottles I was interested in buying. I saw both of these bottles before they were cleaned and liked them. The owner felt his bottles would be worth more money clean, rather than stained. He had a friend do them who had over and unevenly cleaned them, leaving their surfaces mirror smooth. They looked clean all right, but unfortunately, their original surfaces had been ruined by the excessive cleaning. It had only decreased their value and my interest.
Tips for people who want to clean their own bottles? Also, why is it better to use a pro?
Cleaning your own bottles can be fun and rewarding. However, I can tell you from twenty years personal experience that it takes several years, and hundreds of bottle cleanings, to master a technique. There are many, many, variables that need to be taken into consideration when cleaning a bottle. Composition of glass, which compound to use for certain glass, tumbling duration, motion rotation, machine speed, tumbling media, amount of compound, combinations of compounds, fluids, rate at which compounds break down, temperature, how item is secured, canister size, etc.
A good way to start is with items of very little value. Expensive or rare items are better off left in the hands of someone with a great deal of experience. Also, consider the fact that just because someone who has cleaned bottles for a long time, it does not make them a professional. I've seen many attempts made by some folks, who have cleaned for years, that were satisfactory at best. The best way to find someone who knows their stuff is to ask around and actually look at some of their work. Don't have a good bottle cleaned by someone who's work you're not familiar with or who doesn't come highly recommended.
Anything else you think is important? Cost of cleaning, what not to clean, whatever you think is important?
That old saying: "You get what you pay for", usually holds true for bottle cleaning too. There are a few folks out there who will clean any bottle for around $15 and that's exactly what your going to get... a $15 job. I'd strongly advise anyone to NOT have a good bottle cleaned in this manor. Most true professionals will charge on a individual basis, dependent on the extent of restoration needed.
What about potstones, cracks, bubbles and tight corners?
All of these can present problems and possible damage in cleaning a bottle. Potstones will often crack in the cleaning process. I'd advise folks who have a nice bottle with a potstone to, NOT have it cleaned. Cracks can travel in the cleaning process and can cause a bottle to come apart while cleaning. Bubbles close to the inner or outer surface can open, thus causing compound and tumbling media to lodge inside the open area. I've also seen bottles break when this happens from the pressure of the material being packed into a tight space. Corners can become tightly packed with tumbling media, causing a bottle to crack from the pressure. However, there are ways to prevent this from happening.
What's clear from our discussion with Lou, is that not every bottle needs cleaning and that over- cleaning is the worst thing you can do to a bottle. For those of you who just want to spruce up a favorite bottle, without going to a pro, you might try what Bryan Grapentine does. He gets a little polish from a rock-polishing store. He next makes a water/polish compound and coats the bottle with it. Then, he very gently rubs the bottle, continuing to use cool water on the surface. This way of cleaning is easy, inexpensive, and it enables you to stop at any time when the results are satisfactory. Of course, that doesn't do you any good if you have a bottle stained from the inside. For a good start, with real hard to get rust and other gunk, a solution of 50% water and 50% muriatic acid can really help. Also, don't forget that if you dig a bottle, sometimes it's amazing what a little soap and water will do. Make sure you don't use warm or hot water and then allow it to sit in a cool breeze. The same is true of the reverse. I had more than one bottle talk to me after I cleaned it, then let it dry by a warm light. It said, "tink".
Some cleaning suggestions:
1. Room temp water only. Anything other than that can cause bottle glass to crack.
2. Always turn bottle up-side-down and leave in box over night to drain all excess water.
3. Vinegar and water 50/50 is a good cleaning combo.
4. Coca-Cola works well too believe it or not.
5. If you use muriatic be sure to wear eye protection and gloves and use only in a well ventilated area. ALWAYS keep your muriatic solution in a plastic container and covered with a lid. The fumes will cause metal to rust up to 40 feet away. Always dilute with water and pour the acid into the water and NOT water into acid.
Lou Lambert can be reached at (707) 823-8845 and his email address is email@example.com .
Responses from our readers:
Have you heard of that Owl drug blog that has little to do with Owl products but instead is some kind of lunitic rant? That guy has done
everything he can to discredit everyone in the hobby that's anyone. It seems he has his own agenda about cleaning bottles.
From my own expierence with him I can tell you that fellow isn't dealing with a full deck. He's without question the most disrespectful
person I've encountered in 40 years of being in the hobby. I've yet to hear a good word about him but plenty of negitive. He's done nothing
to benifit the hobby and has discredited everyone.
Hi Jeff- Great article. Lou is one of the best, has good tips and has been a help to me in the past. One step I have learned with Muriatic acid dipping is to keep a bucket of fresh water with a good dose of baking soda in it next to the acid bucket. after dipping in the acid. drain the bottle and give it a dip in the soda solution. This will neutralize any remaining acid. Also, if you have open bubbles, the foaming action will help with getting the left over oxides out after polishing. I find that a quick dip in acid solution after polish will remove most left over oxides. The bottle should be rinsed with clean, fresh water after the baking soda dip. Larry Chipman
After reading the very informative article, I still have one question that wasn't answered: is it possible to "pro clean" a bottle using a polishing compound only, without removing any glass? In other words, remove the foreign stain, mineralization, etc. but not "cut" into the bottle's original glass surface? Always wondered about that! Anybody know the answer? Regards, Mike Dickman
Hi Mike; Here's your answer; There are basically two kinds of stain that you'll find on most old bottles. The first being the kind that adheres to the glass similar to content stain or a kind of deposit left by something that causes it to stick to the glass. This kind of stain can usually be removed with a liquid cleaner of some sort. A 50/50 mixture of muriatic acid and water is the strongest chemical you should ever use on vintage bottle glass for any kind of deposit that appears to be stuck to the surface. However the acid will have no effect on an oil based deposit. For this, I've had to use either paint thinner or paint stripper.
The second and most common kind of stain is one that actually eats into the surfaces of the glass. This is usually caused by a mineral or chemicals interacting with the composition of the glass causing it to break down. If you were to look at this kind of stain under very high power magnification you'd actually see that the surface is partially eaten away or etched/pitied looking. When this happens the only way to get it clean/clear looking is to polish it. When a bottle is polished you're actually taking down the surface of the glass ever so slightly to cut through or remove the etching/stain. That's where you need to know when to stop. Under magnification, the textured surface of bottle glass is usually very thin. Polishing it ever so lightly will preserve the surface but over-polish and you'll cut right through it. On some bottles with heavy etching/stain there's no way to do a light job and have it look right. I've found that a light polish on a heavily etched/stained bottle will often make the appearance look worse. When working with a bottle like that is where things get tricky in order to do a good job without over cleaning. -Lou
Unlike painted surfaces, glass does not oxidize nor does it patinate in dry air. In my opinion, cleaning should only be done by a professional if the bottle is valuable. If it is over-cleaned which includes weakened embossing, or making the bottle oval, then I feel the bottle has been significantly reduced in value. Personally, I don't like or buy over cleaned bottles, nor do I like weakly embossed bottles, but that is a personal opinion. If a bottle is stained, and cleaned nicely, I feel it enhances the value because its eye appeal is increased. Very few people like to look at colored bottles in the light when the bottle is heavily stained. That being said, there are exceptions to every rule. Good Article, you should start publishing a magazine.