Polishing Old Copper Fire Extinguishers
Q. I found a couple of those old presumably copper water filled fire extinguishers in my grandfather's attic ... can someone tell me how to polish them? I've seen them about and they are quite the eye catcher. I've rubbed endlessly with little results.
Warmest regards and thank you,Bene B
- Orland Park, Illinois
A. They are good looking units aren't they. I have one hanging on my living room wall for many years now. These were baking soda, acid fire extinguishers. To activate you turned them upside down, dumping the baking soda into the acid water. You can easily see this effect by putting baking soda into vinegar in your kitchen.
The results of the mixing were the production of Carbon dioxide gas, and pressure to propel the liquid at the fire, and some extinguishing through the production of the carbon dioxide.
Many of these old copper and brass extinguishers were coated with lacquer to retain their brightness as they hung in both the office and shop areas of businesses.
Try first washing the outside with either lacquer thinner,
sports mfg. - St. Louis, Missouri
A. Do not use Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK. This solvent though very good is highly hazardous, you need to use a protective mask, goggles, and protective gloves. You can use a very mild acid to clean off highly tarnished areas. Again follow directions carefully.Howard Richards
- Ingleside, Illinois
A. Yes, MEK is absorbed through the skin and can cause liver failure... nasty stuff. When I polished mine I used Top Brite; it's non abrasive and works wonders on brass, copper, silver, gold pretty much anything.
Q. Can anyone tell me what kind of acid was used in these extinguishers?Brian James
- Boston, Massachusetts
A. Vinegar is an acid and fairly mild. That is used for acetic mild reactions(about 20%). A stronger acid would produce a larger reaction, causing more pressure.
Two safe ways to clean brass, copper, gold, or most tarnished items, start with pepper sauce. Yes, Tabasco! it cleans it very well (it has vinegar in it) and follow up with mayonnaise, which has vinegar too. The oil in it will leave a gloss. This will protect the finish. it is a regular item, need to polish often, after all, it is copper and/or brass.
- Atlanta, Georgia
May 21, 2010
A. To help clear up the operation of this type of extinguisher.
The extinguisher holds the soda water and the acid is contained in a bottle that is held in a bracket -when the extinguisher is inverted a weight inside the extinguisher breaks the bottle releasing the acid and activating the extinguisher.They have not been manufactured since early 60's because if the hose is stopped up the pressure will cause the extinguisher to explode. I used a cleaner called Tarn-X and it did wonders.
- Marlow, Oklahoma
A. The best way to get a great shine on those brass or chrome extinguishers is to take them to a metal polishing shop. Just make sure to tell them that the wheel has to turn AWAY from the edges of any of the labels. Then have them dip them in the clear coat that they use. Should cost you about $60.00 tops, but you will have an unbelievable finish that will last for years.Ronald R
- Pomona, California
A. Hi Bene,
- East Quogue, New York
Q. I want to shine up four antique brass and copper fire extinguishers. I am strictly a hobbyist. They are now highly tarnished. I am a bit worried about some advice that I just got, and would like to check it out. I was told to evenly wipe a coat of muriatic acid onto the extinguishers. Then to rinse them with a hose. Then to Use something called Nutra Sol, mixed with water, to neutralize the acid, and rinse it down again. I would obviously do this outside, and wearing protective gloves and clothing. What is your advice? Will it work, or will I not be able to neutralize all the acid? Is there a better agent to use than muriatic acid? What would you recommend as a base to neutralize the acid. I appreciate your advice and will take it.
Thank you very much.
hobbyist - Burke, Virginia
A. I have cleaned up several of them and they were very tarnished I just used a cleanser polish the one I used was called Barkeepers Friend. it is specifically for copper brass stainless It is a powder form I used this to take the heavy tarnish off then I followed up with a liquid polish called Brasso and yes you will have to rub and rub and rub a lot just takes a little time if you have patience I'm sure you can do itChris I
- Irvine California
A. When I was in the Navy we used Nevr-Dull and bug juice (kool aid) usually yellow or orange color due to the color. It worked well for navy copper and brass. Never used it on fire extinguishers.
- Highspire, Pennsylvania
A. I have the same one almost. It had a green paint on it that I thought was tarnish, so I wheeled it like I would do a truck aluminum fuel tank. I put my 2 vector variable speed angle grinder-polishers in 2 vises. one with a yellow united pacific 8" airway pad the other with a united white pad, I use a 2 lb block of brown tripoli [link to product info at Amazon by ed.] rouge with the yellow pad which is course to get the heavy stuff off, then a jackson-lea green 2 lb block to take the swirl marks out, then wipe polish with my Brooklyn Ball Busters Best aluminum polish and a terry cloth rag, when it's cool /damp out it take a few minutes to dry, a old timer showed me a shortcut, I get a coffee can and fill it with flour, I dip a dry rag in the flour and wipe it off.
The flour pulls the oxidation out a little better, dries it off faster and keeps your hands cleaner.
DON'T BUFF TOO HARD, I found out that they're not really copper, mine is copper coated.
- Middletown, New York
January 6, 2008
Q. I have a 2.5 gallon Elkhart Brass extinguisher that has recently developed pin holes and a white powder-like substance on the outside. I assume that the acid water and soda may still be in it. How do I clean this? or to whom do I take it? Thanks for any advice.Roger Gombert
- Stockton, California
April 28, 2008
A. I just picked up 5 of these copper extinguishers to clean up and hang in my Fire Station. I've been using Brasso, a Dremel with polishing pads, and towels for a combo of power and hand polish. Works GreatTim Jones
- Newington, Connecticut
I used a bottle of ketchup on a very tarnished large copper cow weather vane. I wasn't even sure it was copper, it was so tarnished. Brush the ketchup on and let it stand for about 30 mins, rinse, then polish it up! No gloves or goggles necessary.
- Louisburg, Kansas
August 1, 2008
Q. I recently bought an old extinguisher and I liked the patina or tarnished look on it. My husband cleaned and polished it. I want the patina back on it. How do I do that? And if it was worth anything is it worthless now?Jacklyn Ewry
- Greenfield, Ohio
A. Hi, Jacklyn. It will not stay bright if it's not lacquered, so you won't have to wait long for it to lose the luster. You could just leave it be for a few months. But you can accelerate the tarnishing by spritzing with vinegar and salt, or even a very dilute washing with liver of sulphur (this can turn it brown-black very quickly).
If this were a Roman coin or a civil war artifact, removing the tarnish could devalue it. But these fire extinguishers, while cute old collectible items, are far from precious; and I'm sure no one considers the natural tarnish to be of historic value. Maybe in another two hundred years. For now, some people prefer bright and some people prefer tarnished.
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
Pine Beach, New Jersey
A. I've cleaned many of these extinguishers with a mixture that is quite simple. Find a container large enough to submerge the extinguisher. Fill container with equal parts coke and ammonia. Submerge extinguisher and let stand. The longer you let it sit, the better it works. Hope this helps.Sara Miller
- Forney, Texas
April 22, 2009
Q. Many years ago my husband was given a Konus Kemik. I think it is a fire extinguisher but I can't be sure. I would like to know more of its background and how it ended up and if any parts of it are missing.Jela Stewart
- united kingdom
A. TO CLEAN YOUR EXTINGUISHERS, USE OLD COTTON SOCKS, LIKE CREW SOCKS, AND Brasso. PUT BRASSO ON THE SOCK AND RUB THE EXTINGUISHER. THE SOCK WILL TURN BLACK AND GREENISH.
DO A SECTION AT A TIME. LET THE BRASSO DRY EACH TIME AND RUB THE AREA WITH A CLEAN SOCK, CONTINUE UNTIL YOU GET THE SHINE YOU WANT.
- Courtland, Mississippi
October 7, 2009
Q. What will remove the heavy green and black tarnish from Copper Fire Extinguishers with Brass Name Plates?craig teglia
hobby - Las Vegas, Nevada
A. I have polished a number of these from total junk to a bright shine. I have found you can put every chemical known to man but it just removes the top layer. You have to bite the bullet go out and get a bench grinder or preferably a polisher from Harbor Freight. Get a buffing kit comprising three different buffing wheels. Purchase two grades of polishing compound and start getting filthy. On a piece like yours it will take about eight hours of actual work but when it is done you will be extremely satisfied. To purchase these items is very inexpensive.
I save these pieces up over the summer from estate sales and spend hours upon hours polishing. You will kill an extreme amount of time but the satisfaction factor is well worth it.
- Brimfield, Illinois
February 21, 2010
Q. How do I find out the value of my extinguisher. What is the value of an old Gardnere name copper brass extinguisher.Tony Richardson
hobbyist - Humansville Missouri
February , 2010
A. Hi, Tony. We've linked to a book on Firefighting Collectibles and to listings of such items on Ebay. Valuations are off topic on this metal finishing site, so that's as far as we go; sorry. There are probably appraisers in a large city near you. Good luck.
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
Pine Beach, New Jersey
May 31, 2010
Q. The inside where the bottle is supported is highly discolored and appears to be corroding. How do I clean this? Thank you.
Retired - Redding, California
A. I have polished "many" brass extinguishers over the past several years. The conditions ranged from minor to severe. I've used Brasso on the easy ones but for the severe cases believe it or not use Lysol Toilet Bowel cleaner. Step one- You pour the cleaner onto soft brass wool or fine grade steel wool and begin to buff lightly until the color returns. The copper will turn a "salmon" color. Step two, use a buffing wheel and a product called Tripoli ( Ace Hardware). Finally step 3 I use a product called Flitz to complete the polishing process. You can also use Brasso. The very final step is to seal it with a clear gloss finish. A few coats are sufficient. I have taken a $15.00 extinguisher and sold it for up to $150.00
I have also placed the extinguisher in a PVC pipe....... fill the pipe with water until it covers the extinguisher then remove the extinguisher. Add the Lysol, stir and replace the extinguisher. Let it sit for several hours or more and remove it. It should be a salmon color. Then follow the above steps (two and three) . Here are before and after pics. Good Luck!
- Deltona Florida
December 13, 2010
A. I am now a retired firefighter. One of my duties as a rookie was to polish brass on the fire equipment as well as the poles and extinguishers.
The best thing we found was Brasso, to clean the copper and brass, I also slightly remember about using a lemon juice on the copper. So maybe try these tricks and see if it helps, just don't yell "Movie" in a firehouse, gets everybody in a panic! :), firefighters don't like missing movies.
Some of the small extinguishers that have a push rod in the end are very dangerous if chemicals come out of them, they were primarily black and silver or black and gold, I don't remember the name of the chemical but it's not to be touched, inhaled absorbed , etc. -- so be careful; they are small about 12-16 inches in length and about as round as a soda can.
- Clyde, Texas USA
April 20, 2011
A. I do not recommend any of the brass polishes that are sold; they attack the copper and brass and leave red spots because brass is made of zinc and copper and this polish attacks the zinc and leaves red spots and please do not use vinegar, for it is an acidic base. I have been a professional polisher for over 35-40 years. I have hi-speed buffing machines with cotton buffing wheels that I have buffing compounds that are compatible to the brass and copper and is very clean. This is not a job for an amateur because you can get hurt. Once it is polished do not use this store bought lacquer that is sold by Walmart but a professional lacquer from Agate lacquer co; this lacquer is made for toughness and outdoor use it will give you years use of bright clean brass or copper without polishing. I hope I helped and saved you some disastrous results on such beautiful and collectible items. By the way if you ever find one with the Elkhart stag on the front grab it; it's worth over 200 apiece now. Thanks for letting me share.wallace gainey
- columbia, South Carolina united states
May 30, 2011
A. The glass DOES NOT BREAK...
How they work:
Sulfuric acid in the bottle at the neck DRIBBLES out when the extinguisher is reversed. It then mixes with bicarbonate of soda which had been mixed in the water. The resulting carbon dioxide gas which is lighter than water rushes to the top (the bottom reversed), expands, forcing the water out of the bottom (the top reversed). As all the carbon dioxide is gas pushing out the water; NONE of it assists in putting out the fire. This extinguisher was exclusively a water extinguisher, and ineffective against electrical or oil fires.
If the bottle containing the acid breaks, all the acid is exposed at once, and the resulting pressure is too much for the extinguisher to bear, and it EXPLODES.
That is why the extinguisher has been replaced by constant pressure extinguishers.
As a fire extinguisher technician, I replaced a hundred of them in the 70s. I had 30-ish copper ones, and tried to polish by hand: Disaster! I then took them to a professional metal shop who ELECTROPLATED & lacquered them, and sold them at the Rose Bowl swap meet. Four of them are lamps in living rooms of friends, and after over 30 years, still looking great.
- Ventura California
July 18, 2011
Q. I have a 1906 brass fire extinguisher with all its original tags still with it I just want to know if they are worth anything and if they do what would be a good price to sell it for thank you for your patience and help with this matter.Jim Yaser
- Millbrae, California, USA
A. Hi, Jim. We don't print any estimates or appraisals on this metal finishing site lest we be swamped with such stuff. But if you don't want to trust a local antique dealer with an evaluation, you can find similar stuff on E-bay and see what people are asking for it. Good luck.
Ted Mooney, P.E. RET
Pine Beach, New Jersey
A. I'm really not sure why some of the postings describe such efforts to polish these copper extinguishers. I have collected a few of these in my time and simply use Brasso and a roll of paper towels. Paper towels work well because of their very slight abrasive effect from the wood pulp. Cotton socks, etc, will also work but I have found not quite as well. It takes about an hour of work and they always come up really nice and shiny, except where they are dinged up or have scratches. It's not hard and I don't have to submerge it into any containers of weirdly named chemicals (Liver of sulfur??? LOL).
Now some of them may be lacquered and those DO require a bit of work to remove the lacquer. Just some good quality paint stripper works fine for that, but if they are tarnished then they probably aren't lacquered anyway.
As I said, I have done several of these now, in their typically tarnished condition, and they all polish up very nicely. Just sit on your porch for an hour and get it done. Easy stuff. :)
- Seminole, Florida, USA
Ed. note: Nobody suggested liver of sulfur as a polish, Jerry. It was suggested for the exact opposite purpose: to instantly re-darken an old fire extinguisher which the owner regretted having polished if they were not patient enough to let time re-darken it.
December 7, 2011
I have vintage "The Homoh fire Extinguisher". I wish to ask who would be the best type of person/business to convert this into a table lamp. I appreciate your thoughts...Kindest of regards Jill
- United Kingdom
December 16, 2011
Q. I just bought an Elkhart extinguisher and I am having trouble removing the top of the canister. I tried to grease it with WD-40 to no avail. Does anyone have any suggestions? Thanks for your help :)James Mancuso
- Reading, Pennsylvania, USA
A. The Soda-Acid type water fire extinguishers were all made the same way, no matter what the brand was. A casing with hose and nozzle, usually the nozzle was the same material as the lid. Inside was a cast iron cage, and a glass bottle with a cork. When you got the extinguisher to where it would be stored, you removed the cork and put the lid on. The glass bottle was filled partially with sulfuric acid. The casing was filled with 2.5 gal of water/bicarbonate of soda mixture. Turning the fire extinguisher bottom up produced a gas-causing chemical reaction, neutralizing the acid, and pushing the water out. This was how "chemical fire trucks" worked, too, but on a larger scale. Many large, wheeled, industrial fire extinguishers were the same way, but they were mixed when the need to use them arose. They were messy, dangerous and ruined a lot of stuff.
I grew up in a family where we had a lot of men who were volunteers in the 20's-60's. Then I got back into it in the late 90's. At one point, I had about two dozen different extinguishers. My grandfather, a fireman and ambulance driver in the 50's and 60's kept three of these in active use. Stored, ready, and charged until about five years ago when one was knocked over. You know what happens when they sit too long, filled with water? They corrode inside. The elbow to the nozzle got plugged with chunks of blue-green material, it hissed for a few minutes after being tossed behind the barn to vent...and exploded, violently. Took the paint off an old car, and the barn alike. The yard died, and the ground was blue-green till it rained. I would suggest cleaning it up, and putting it on the wall. I would NOT suggest trying to charge it. Get a pressurized water extinguisher you can fill with a tire pump, if you like to play.Chris K
- Dushore, Pennsylvania USA
February 9, 2012
Q. Hello to all,
I have two Fyr Fyter soda/acid extinguishers and trying to restore. Two things I am dealing with, and one is the removal of the brass cap. It is stuck and if anybody can offer good ideas how to unscrew it, please let me know. Item two, does anybody know any parts replacement web site for the hose/nozzle? I need two of them.
amateur restorer - Fletcher, North Carolina
A. I have restored numerous fire extinguishers and have found that a long piece of thick/stout wood that fits through the lid rings is a safe way to get the lid off. If you can find a piece that is just small enough to barely fit into the rings on the lid you can put a pipe on the wood as leverage or use a hammer to tap the wood. the wood does not damage the lid. hope this helpsNoel Macarthur
- Shelby, North Carolina
May 17, 2012
Q. I recently purchased a Red Star Model 303 fire extinguisher at a garage sale. At some point someone painted it red. You can see the tarnished copper around the top where the paint has rubbed off. I would like to strip and polish it, but was concerned about de-valuing it if I did. Is it better to leave it as is or restore it as it would have been new?Rob Ellis
- Bend, Oregon, USA
September 5, 2012
A. I have been in the firefighting equipment business for 41 years (and still am today). The Soda / Acid fire extinguishers were filled with approximately 2.5 gallons of Water with dissolved Sodium Bicarbonate. We filled thousands of them back in the day ...we mixed batches in 55 gallon drums of warm water with 2 propellers on a shaft attached to a motor to mix the 40 pounds of Baking Soda slowly dumped in the drum. It mixed for at least 15 minutes or more. Then there was a glass bottle approx. 3 inch diameter by 6" tall "half" filled with 66 degree Sulfuric Acid (very, very nasty stuff). The clear glass acid bottle had a narrowed neck. In the top was a "lead" stopple or stopper. It was about 1.5" tall with a flat bottom... kinda looked like a mushroom. It loosely sat on top of the glass bottle. The extinguisher hung on the wall this way...but when needed, the user would invert the fire extinguisher, allowing the stopple to come out and the Sulfuric acid mixed with the Soda Water and a chemical reaction occurred creating carbon dioxide (and who knows what else) gas to be generated "pressurizing" the cylinder and pushing the diluted soda water onto the fire. Note that Soda Acid fire extinguishers were for class A ordinary combustibles like paper, trash, wood, anything that leaves an ash. They had to be emptied and refilled with fresh Soda Water and Sulfuric Acid every year. They came in Brass, Copper, and eventually Stainless Steel. I believe the Stainless Steel units were last sold in 1969.Mike Ausbrooks
They were prone to burst because spiders and wasps would plug up the nozzle tip and when used on a fire, the nozzle tip would not let the agent to escape and the cylinder had no way to relieve the pressure generated, so it would burst. Many people were hurt over the years. Kids in school would jam their pencils in the end of the nozzle and break it off. Same result...the tank would rupture.
Anyway, the easiest way to remove the cap is to get a pipe, or bar, or long wrench or breaker bar and put in the top cap crossways. Assuming the tank is empty of any contents, stand over the top of the extinguisher and hold the tank with your two feet squeezing the tank. Bang the wrench in a counter clockwise motion until it comes loose. If it is tough to get off, try penetrating oil. Be persistent...give the penetrating oil to do its job... It should eventually come off. Be sure to rinse the inside with cool or cold water several times to be safe. Wear protective gear ...
To clean...that's a tough one if you are not familiar with the properties of some acids. If the extinguisher is down to bare metal...great! If not...you have some work ahead of you. I have used both sulfuric acid and muriatic acid on the outside of the tank to cut through the black / brown ugly lacquer. It takes several coats to do it. I put one extinguisher in one 5 gallon bucket. First, do this somewhere that has great positive ventilation...the fumes are bad for you! I would slowly, precisely, and gently pour the acid directly on the extinguisher, allow the thick syrup-like acid to run down the sides into the bottom of the bucket. Then I would slowly and gently move the extinguisher to another clean 5 gallon bucket and gently repeat the process, each time trying to cover areas not yet touched by the acid. The extinguisher will foam a little and turn kind of pinkish. That's good! When finished dispose of the acid mixture properly... Remember this stuff is really, really, really bad stuff. It will eat a shirt, or pants, or rags up in a matter of minutes! No kidding!! Next rinse the acid /crud off the extinguisher WITH SLIGHTLY COOL WATER. NOT COLD, NOT WARM, AND DEFINITELY NOT HOT WATER. Warm or hot water will stain the brass / copper. Not good. Use slightly cool water. Then wash extinguishers with any gentle dish washing liquid and slightly cool water and a soft brush. Right side up, upside down, on it's side, on it's other side. Then when you think it is acid free...rinse, rinse, rinse with slightly cool water. Let dry... use a soft cloth or whatever you have. Folks, this is only one way to do this....don't do this unless you can dress appropriately with all necessary PPE... Acid is a very unforgiving agent.
Now for the rewarding part. Go to a gun store, or to a sporting goods store, or order on-line some SimiChrome polish... Great stuff,,,better than any of the products I have ever used...and I have used them ALL! Rub with a soft cloth in a circular motion 4" square sections at a time. Let dry to a haze and then buff. Caution: the rag and Simichrome will turn black...don't be alarmed! It is supposed to do that. When done you may wish to clear coat it to keeping the air and moisture to get to it and make it lose it's luster and shine. Worse thing, you will have to polish it again with the Simichrome. Enjoy. Be safe.
Firefighting Equipment - Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
January 8, 2013
A. Hello fellow restoration fans. Me and my partner Jonathan did a small web episode on restoring a brass and copper Pyrene Soda/Acid fire extinguisher. In the video is a walkthrough of the process that we used to get an extremely nice finish.Davis Hack
Hope this helps!
- Traverse City, Michigan, United States
August 31, 2014
A. I've been in the marine industry for many years; plus my dad had my a$$ polishing boat metal since I was a kid....from Boston Whalers to yachts. I noticed most boaters had Flitz on hand. Salt water can be cruel.
- Manchester, Tennessee, USA