In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, metal serving pieces could be divided into two categories: fancy and not-very-fancy.
Fancy were the silver and, more commonly, silver plated tea sets, trays, vegetable dishes, platters, gravy boats, bowls and other table what-have-yous that were trotted out for holidays, when the boss or teacher came for dinner and maybe Sunday supper.
Not-very-fancy were the hammered aluminum servers. These were much more laid back, going to bake sales, backyard barbecues, potluck suppers and hanging out on end tables filled with mixed nuts in shells waiting to be cracked.
It was a tale of two servers. Silver plate lived on the sideboard or buffet or in the hutch. Hammered aluminum lived in the kitchen, the pantry or perhaps the back of a cupboard.
That was then. Now it’s hammered aluminum’s time to shine as the star server. Of course there’s still love for silver plated teapots with saucy little feet and urn-shaped champagne buckets, but not necessarily on the dining table. Back in the day, it would have been etiquette heresy to plop your amaryllis in a champagne bucket. But now? Heck yes, let me get my potting soil.
Hammered aluminum was made in a vast array of patterns by a vast array of makers. Florals and botanicals, scrolls and flourishes, geometrics were common. Quality varies from maker to maker. Rodney Kent, Continental, Wendell August and Buenilum are among the nicer brands. You can judge better quality from just okay pieces by the thickness of the metal and the quality of the stamped image.
Condition wise, hammered aluminum was a workhorse, so most pieces have scratches, scuffs, abrasions and water spots. When you find a kitchen-fresh piece at a yard sale or thrift shop, it probably has a nice even layer of kitchen grime and dust (as you would too if you had been living in a kitchen for 50 years). A nice sudsy sink with a good grease cutting dish detergent and a soft sponge or cloth will see to that layer. You may need a toothbrush and cotton swabs to get into the nooks and crannies. FYI, Abrasive scrubbies and gritty cleaners are to hammered aluminum what wooden stakes are to vampires. Never should they cross paths. And the dishwasher is strictly out of the question.
To polish or not to polish is a subject of debate. It’s your collection, you should do as you please. These not rare antiques that will diminish in value if you restore the shine. However, hammered aluminum was not intended to be shiny like silver plate. It has more of a soft warm burnished glow. That being said, I like mine polished.
For years, I’ve polished my aluminum with Wenol metal polish. I was fairly satisfied with it. Until I read about using a metal polish from the auto supply store on Dannie Woodard’s blog, The Aluminist. Since Dannie Woodard quite literally wrote the book on hammered aluminum, it seemed a good idea to take her advice, which lead to…
The Hammered Aluminum Polish Throwdown
The tray: a Buenilum double handled rectangle. Note that there is a layer of hazy grease-based residue in the tray’s dimples left even after washing.
The contenders: On the left, Wenol Metal Polish. On the right Autosol Metal Polish. Equal amounts applied thinly and buffed. (Yes, I use paper towels, soft cloths are better, but paper towels are easier). The paper towels above right are from partially through the buffing process. The black residue on the Autosol side is much thicker and darker. Metal polishes remove a tiny bit of the surface of whatever you are polishing, the residue is definitely an indication of the results to come, Autosol is stronger and/or more aggressive than Wenol.
The results: The Wenol tried mightily, but it left behind a lot of the residue in the dimples on the tray. However, it produced a more satin, less bold finish. The Autosol ate up the grease residue and buffed to a fairly high shine. Ultimately, I used the Autosol to finish up the Wenol side.
Note: Some hammered aluminum has a dark patina in design crevices. There’s a fair chance it was put there by the maker to bring out the details in the accents. Polishing can often remove that patina.
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Bonus round: The back of the tray had an area where something had left a right angle shaped residue, not sticky, not touched by dish detergent or Goo Gone solvent. Could Autosol handle it?
Autosol for the win again. It took three applications and buffings, and the residue did not completely remove, so while the right angle is still noticeable, it is nearly gone.