Finding and digging up relics while you are out metal detecting is cause for excitement. You could be holding a piece of history in your hand. You also could be holding a bunch of dirt and muck in your hand. After being buried for who knows how long, the relics you find are likely to be covered with dirt or tarnish. It’s understandable that you would like to clean them up and make them presentable, but how do you clean and preserve your treasured finds safely? Very carefully. Some finds, especially old and rare coins, can greatly decrease in value if they are scratched or otherwise marked during cleaning, so special care must be taken.

Coins aside, here are some ways that you can clean and preserve the relics you find based on the type of metal:


For the most part, gold items don’t need much cleaning even after being underground. Usually soaking them in warm soapy water does the trick. If there is some remaining dirt, a soft toothbrush can be used to remove it.


With silver relics, start off cleaning them the same way as you do with gold – warm soapy water and a soft toothbrush. If that isn’t enough, you can try the washing soda method. Add an ounce of washing soda and a pint of distilled water to an aluminum pan. Place two pieces of crumpled aluminum foil in the pan, and soak the silver items until the tarnish is gone. Only use this method for relics, not coins.

Pewter, Lead, and Tin

Oxidation causes pewter, lead, and tin to tarnish. This patina is best removed with very fine abrasives like a jeweler’s rouge or rottenstone. If that doesn’t work, it’s best to take your relics to a professional for cleaning as you don’t want to damage them.

Copper and Brass

Relics made of copper or brass need special care, but there are several methods that detectorists use to clean them up. One of the most widely used is a mixture of equal parts denatured alcohol and distilled water, combined with precipitate chalk to a paste consistency. Apply it to the relic, let it set, then rinse off. You may have to repeat it a few times. Another method is to use half a lemon and salt – rub surface gently and rinse. 

Iron and Steel

Iron and steel relics are some of the most commonly found while metal detecting. Because these types of metals are prone to rust, the first step is to remove as much of the rust as possible. Depending on the potential value of the relic, you can do this with a wire brush, wire wheel, or fine bronze wool. Once the relic is as rust free as possible, it needs to be sealed with lacquer, a wax coating, or clear plastic spray to keep it from rusting again. If your relic is valuable, consider letting a professional do the clean-up.

What if You Don’t Know?

If you don’t know what the relic is that you have found or what type of metal it is made of, err on the side of caution and don’t clean it until you know. Online metal detecting forums are great places to get help with relic identification. Other detectorists are happy to help you figure out what you have and how to clean and preserve it.