Edo Period Mirror Restoration: The Polishing (Stage 1)

Project 15, part 2 – Kidaore (Part 1 here)

I love a good “before” pic! ❤

Welcome back to the Edo Period mirror restoration project! This week I finally got brave and began to clean and polish my mirror. It may look like I dive cavalierly into my projects, but the truth is I spend a lot of time hemming and hawing over causing potential further damage to my antique pieces before I start work. I think I’ve mentioned this before with regards to garments, but I do quite a bit of research on things that end up in my possession to be sure that they don’t have significant historical value. If they did, I’d absolutely make sure they got into the right hands – be it a museum, historical society, or private conservator! This is because once a private party does restoration work – especially a private party like me with no formal training – it removes a great deal of said historical value.

There’s some concern that these white and green spots might be “bronze disease.” Hopefully this process of cleaning and oxygen exclusion will prevent further deterioration.

For example, removing broken thread from a busted seam and re-sewing it takes away information about the kind of thread that was used during that time period, and historical techniques of sewing. Or in the case of this mirror, removing the patina and re-polishing it means that any old polishing marks are eliminated (which could have provided a clue to how it was originally cared for/polished). The look and depth of the patina could also allow a trained historian to potentially more accurately date a piece. And so on, and so forth. I use restoring my antique pieces as a way of learning more about them, and also as a way of giving them utility in my life, so I make sure that I’m not destroying something priceless before I get started!

Not very reflective right now! You can just barely see a faint shadow of my finger “reflecting” below the actual shadow of my finger.

Since this mirror (while lovely and interesting) is not in fact priceless (as it happens I paid $30 for it), I got to work on cleaning it! As I was researching how to start, I found this absolutely wild YouTube channel where the producer just polishes all sorts of crazy stuff like fish bones and chunks of coal. He (I’m making a presumption based on the name – Hans) seems to have access to some random antiques as well because he’s posted several videos of him polishing bronze and brass items. His very first video was him polishing the surface of an antique bronze mirror that looks VERY much like a pre-Edo mirror!

The video is not in fact 15 hours long.

His starting point was a bath of vinegar and salt, but most sites I found through additional searching recommend a paste rather than a bath. After rinsing and drying my mirror I made a blend of equal parts all-purpose flour and kosher salt (I don’t keep table salt in the house), and then added vinegar until it was spreadable but not drippy. It smelled like the chips part of fish and chips! I gently rubbed it onto the mirror and right away I could tell it was removing some patina. As it sat, parts of the paste turned green as well.

Strangely, this was not nearly as bad of a sensory experience as cleaning the lace on my Meta dress. It was gritty rather than slimy, which I think was the deciding factor in my brain not absolutely trying to yeet out of my skull in panic.

After an hour, I scrubbed it off and then did the other side. The first thing I noticed was how incredible the difference was just with this! For one you could actually see the bronze. For two, on the mirror side, it became clear that a different metal had been plated over the bronze! I’m going to be honest, I actually kind of panicked for a moment because mercury was really common in old European glassed mirrors for a solid 400 years. “Did I just give myself mercury poisoning?” is not a question I like having to ask myself, and it’s not one that comes up with textiles a lot (although arsenic on the other hand…). And as much as I might identify with the phrase 京の着倒れ、大阪の食い倒れ (Kyo no kidaore, Osaka no kuidaore; “Bankrupted/ruined by clothing in Kyoto; bankrupted/ruined by food in Osaka”), I don’t actually want to be ruined by clothing! 🙂 So I took a hot minute to do some more research.

Well that’s looking a bit better! All the white and green corrosion is gone, and everything is now back to being a lovely bronze color!

Lucky me! Looks like most Japanese mirrors from this period – if they were plated at all – were plated with either silver or nickel. Still, without knowing the exact combinations of metals used in the process, I didn’t want to grind too much on the plating. Additionally, as you can see, it was already wearing quite thin in many places on the mirror. Just like a katana, mirrors only have so many polishings in them before they’re destroyed, and I didn’t fancy destroying what remained of the plating on mine.

Note the face of the mirror is clearly more silvery than the bronze handle, and you can see patches of bronze through the worn spots in the plating.
Look! You can actually see a reflection now!!

So join me next time as I decide on a new plan for finishing the polishing! If you haven’t already, please subscribe below to get a notification each week about my latest post, and I look forward to seeing you next week here on Mukashi no Sewing! ❤

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