To Clean or Not to Clean…

I was rather amused the other day at an online argument about whether of not to clean a coin. Apparently someone went to town cleaning a really nice silver find and in the process might have lessened its value. The cleaner or polisher responded that they never sell their finds so they could do whatever they wanted with it. The nagging coiney would have nothing of it and the end result was a back and forth with friends and fans of each chiming in with their advice and best practices.

Much like the “do coins sink deeper” topic this is another without a definitive or compelling answer. Just bring it up and you will hear recommendations, recipes, systems and always someone will swear they have the “best” way, the “professionally accepted” way to do it. Interesting too that almost all coin collecting websites have disclaimers in bold print when referencing the topic.

My take…

When I started detecting in the 70’s I didn’t give a lot of thought to cleaning coins. When I came home I would just rinse them under the spigot and leave them on a paper towel to dry. The older copper coins (Indian Heads and Large cents) were a different story with most having a lot of corrosion and what I called the blue crud. I would let them soak in soapy water (dish liquid) for a day or two and then use a toothbrush to try and improve their appearance. It usually wound up being a waste of time and I just left them and moved on. I also tried the olive oil thing but other than darkening the coin it did little if anything to help.

Looking back now I probably should have been smarter when it came to cleaning my finds but I’ve always been a searcher not a tinkerer. I may still have a few of those crusty coppers though that box has yet to turn up. They also could be scattered to the four winds thanks to the 2015 tornado.

I asked three detectorists who I respect a great deal to share their views on cleaning coins…all put me to shame.

Dave Wise

“I find cleaning my copper coins (Large cents and colonial coppers) is done the easiest way by letting them soak in room temperature peroxide for an hour or two.

Then I dab some Q-tips into the peroxide and gently work on the surfaces, using clean Q-tips as they become dirty.

If you see pits and porous marks on the coins surface when you are done cleaning with this procedure, don’t think it was the method that caused the pitting. Your coin was pitted before the cleaning and those pits were filled in with dirt giving your coin the appearance that it was smooth before any cleaning attempt.

I have had good results doing it this way. There are many other methods people swear by but this is what I am comfortable with. You can ask around and get different ideas from other diggers and I’m just letting you know how I do mine. Here’s a few “before and after” photos.”

A few of Dave’s before and after photos…Click to enlarge

Best of luck to you!



Ron Guinazzo (a.k.a.Chicago Ron)

“With 35 years of digging coins and artifacts I have heard many thoughts on the subject. I realize that all opinions are completely valid as whoever recovers the spoils makes the decision as to cleaning and preserving. But let the cleaner beware!”

My take on the subject is this:

“For me the thrill is in the find not the monetary value. When I recover a coin be it silver, bronze or copper, I want to know what I have found (slightly OCD) so wiping the coin to see what it is, is what I do. Obviously with a gold coin I would use water and only dab it so as not to scratch. But the majority of the coins I find in parks and on the beach will be common dates and usually in circulated condition. Even when hunting in England where the silver coins are up to 2000 years old, I still wipe to reveal the find.  I will probably never sell any of my coin finds so the monetary value is of minimal importance to me.

There are those that carry a water bottle and a tooth-brush into the field to clean every find. Relic hunters are probably way more likely to find expensive examples that could be completely ruined by the swipe of a finger. In fact I saw a friend put his finger right through the civil war button another friend had just dug. Much to the finders displeasure.

The clean or not clean question will always have its chance to end in tears. When you dig a silver dime and wipe it with your finger to reveal a 1916D (that would have been in AU condition) you just lost a boatload of money…. JUST LIKE THAT!

By the way is anyone interested in an AG-4 1916D merc… I’ll give you a real good price. LOL….”



Don Mituzas

“There are a lot of different opinions when it comes to cleaning coins. As a coin collector for more than 50 years the old adage of never clean a coin just doesn’t apply to ground finds. The goal most often with ground finds is to improve the appearance without scratching or damaging the coin. First, silver coins can usually be cleaned as well as damaged easily. Rinsing off the dirt and putting it in an ultrasonic cleaner with a little dish soap and water. Probably the safest method. For coins with more dirt caked in, electrolysis can help get the dirt out, just be careful connecting the clip to the coin. For most silver coins that are not high-grade of rare I just rinse off the dirt, apply some liquid soap and use a soft old toothbrush to clean them.

Early coppers are a whole different story as they usually come out of the ground with corrosion. Most detectorists can’t wait to see what they found and start rubbing off the dirt while in the field. The usually rub off some or all of the detail doing this. Each copper has to be examined closely to determine what’s best. Some coins that are heavily corroded can lose their detail by doing much of anything as the detail is sometimes in the contrast between the dirt and the copper. I prefer not to get any coppers wet except those that have fairly stable surfaces and then you might be able to soak them in peroxide for an hour or two and gently pick the dirt off with a toothpick. Most times I just use a soft dry brush to gently brush the dirt away. Do NOT use olive oil to soak old coppers. It does nothing but destroy them.

Indian and 2 cent piece cleaned with Andre’s pencils….

Indians, two-cent pieces and wheat pennies are a different story than coppers. They are made of bronze. It’s much harder to damage these. People use a lot of different methods to clean them. I usually try to wash off most of the dirt and even scrape some off with a fingernail. I find a lot of Indians so if they are common dates and not in high-grade I usually just throw them in a tumbler with soap and water for an hour. I use Andre’s pencils on the better two-cent pieces and Indians. They come in a set of 4. There is a hard and fine pencil for picking out the dirt and a finishing pencil that finishes off the remainder of dirt and dust. They work quite well.

Connecticut copper cleaned using just Andre’s finishing pencil. Standing Lib quarter cleaned in ultrasonic.

There is no one way for cleaning coins coming out of the ground. My one caveat would be very careful with old coppers. Way more often they are damaged with cleaning then improved. I NEVER use water on any of them and rarely even peroxide. Also be careful with silver coins as they can scratch easily. My best advice is to do nothing until you had a chance to look the coin over to decide what you want to do. Most diggers can’t wait to destroy a coin because they want to see how nice it is.”



So there you have it….four different detectorists, four different takes and if you Google “cleaning coins” you will find a hundred more.

Finally let me suggest…

If you find a coin it’s yours to do with how you see fit and that includes selling it. If however you are thinking about cleaning it, research the various recommended methods and if you have any doubts at all…DON’T!




Filed under Metal Detecting

14 responses to “To Clean or Not to Clean…

  1. francis blazi sr.

    Usually I want to put the crud back on. I have seen good detail,including dates,carefully picked off the crud,to reveal a smooth,feature less disc.

  2. Bigtony

    One thing if the coin is not really a terrific date or rarity – use a bit of aluminum foil to rub off the dirt. Works good on common wheat cents and clad if your just curious about the date.
    If it’s a better find – I use the peroxide and q-tips method.

  3. If the coin is modern spendable, then clean it by all means. But if not, DON’T.

    Most of the spendable coins I recover from the beaches scrub up well in a solution of salt and vinegar.


    Hi Dick, As a newbie I rinse under the tap. I will throw in my view on cleaning silver though. I had a great aunt who was in service and she said that you should never use any polishing medium to clean silver, only ever rinse it in mildly soapy water and that’s what I’ve done with the few silver coins I’ve found thus far.

    Best John
    PS Well done on your weight loss so far.

    • Sounds reasonable to me John. Less work and less headaches. I am indeed pleased with the weight loss. Best part is I feel better and he moe energy. Have a great weekend….

  5. Bob Sickler

    For 50 years I’ve wrestled with what to clean and what not to clean. I’ve never been of the mind to liquidate anything I ever found with exception of current circulated coinage. Happiness for me has been about the chase and never worrying about “what’s it worth” too much. I would not, on the other hand, take sandpaper to colonial silver coins! I also don’t like piling what I find dirty in a coffee can in some dark corner either.

    So what do you do? If your intent is to profit from what you find, don’t clean it at all. Let the buyer worry about that with professional restoration. If you display your finds with an intent to sell later, then use soap and water gently to remove what is possible enough to enjoy the display without damaging the patina of the find. If you are like me and have no intention to sell, but enjoy your finds in a display (or not), then I would clean to the extent you are happiest about what you found.

    For coins in acidic soil, the surface quality of the planchet converts to a thick oxide often keeping the details of the stamping intact, especially if the coin was not circulated much at the time of loss. Many will be fooled into thinking if they remove the “green”, a super high relief coin will remain. Sometimes the dirt that surrounded the coin will become part of the patina as well and trying to remove it will obliterate the features of the coin. My recommendation is to consult the “Red Book” first and determine the coin’s rarity and relative value. If it is rare, say an 1877 Indian Head Cent, by all means DO NOT clean it with anything!

    Here’s what I’ve done and used over the years to clean finds…

    1. Clad coinage you intend to convert to paper money at your local bank or coin sorter needs to be cleaned thoroughly for obvious reasons. The “long ride”, and probably the most effective without surface degradation, is to use an electric tumbler filled with layers of coins, aquarium gravel and baking soda. Often I will discover “Wheat” cents and other surprises among the clad using this method. To get the grunge off clad coins quick, I use a cup of white vinegar and a tablespoon of table salt stirred with a wooden dowel in a glass mason jar. This procedure is corrosive and you will need to monitor the progress short of destroying the coins for the best result. Nickel and clad coins will stain with the color of your copper coins if cleaned together. You will need to rinse the coins thoroughly in fresh water to stop the corrosive action.

    2. Common value silver coins that take on a heavy black patina from salt water or acidic ground moisture… Under a trickle of running water make a wet paste of Baking Soda in your palm. Rub the silver coin gently in the paste between your fingertips just enough to make the raised features of the strike become visible. Some black silver oxide will remain in the crevices and enhance the coin’s appearance if you are careful. Baking soda will not scratch the coin, but has enough “edge” to remove the oxides. Rinse and dry with a paper towel.

    3. Large cents with light oxide patina and dirt adhesion can be cleaned by soaking in Hydrogen Peroxide as already stated in this thread. I recommend suspending the coin in the solution using a wooden clothes pin on the edge of the coin so both sides receive equal action. Keep an eye on the cleaning process and do not let it go too far. Ultrasonic cleaners and specialized copper cleaning solutions, if you own them, can also be effective. In every cleaning scenario, it is important to not remove yourself too long from the process.

    4. Coins/Relics with the strongest patina and adhesion… I use a homemade electrolysis bath. I don’t want to take all of this thread’s space to detail how to make one, but you can probably find articles about electrolysis on the web if you search. This method by far removes the worst adhesion effectively. Again you have to monitor the cleaning process to avoid damage. I only use this method on the most hopeless specimens that are almost unrecognizable. I’ve had a few coins where electrolysis made it possible to read a date and motto. This will make most coinhunters cringe, but I’ve actually used the green scrub pads and 0000 grade steel wool afterwards on some hopeless Large Cents to bring back luster to the surface and remove the remaining stubborn adhesion. In time these super clean Large cents will gently patina back to a more natural look. If they look better, I feel better about what I found is the simple truth.

    The results of cleaning can sometimes make all the difference to whether you are proud of what you’ve recovered or packing it away unappreciated! You decide!

    • Bob, could you explain it more detail please….LOL. Thanks a million for sharing. I will also add a link to this next update.

      Appreciate you my friend and have a great weekend.

  6. I use wax paper and Elmer’s White Glue to clean dirty coins. Lay the coin on wax paper, pour a thin film of Elmer’s White Glue over the entire coin, overlapping the circumference by a half-inch or so. When it dries, I peel it off the wax paper, then peel the sheet of dried glue off the coin. It removes all the dirt, but leaves the patina.If you FORGET to use the wax paper, you will have basically just glued a dirty coin to something or other. I never scrub a coin with a brush or use chemicals. Just sayin’ Good post Dick!

    • Certainly different ideas and theories out there. Yours too is totally new to me. Then again most of what’s going on in the world is new to me. Jim thanks for sharing….hi to Patti.

  7. Bigtony

    Wow, I can’t wait to find an old coin and glue it to something because I will probably forget the wax paper! No kidding of course, I will try that one on my 1986 Kennedy clad half recently found when I get home from my daughters. Thanks

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