Fire bells, ship bells, cow bells, sleigh bells, dinner bells, and school bells--all of these and many other kinds of antique bells are made of brass. Whether people collect them for decorative or functional purposes, all bells need to be cleaned and polished to maintain shine and lustre.
Clean off the dirt and grime. Soak the bells in soapy water. Use a cloth or small brush to clean off the dirt. Do not neglect any decorative crevices. If you have trouble removing some of the dirt, soak the bell more before scrubbing a second time. A child's toothbrush or cotton swabs may be useful for hard-to-reach spots. Rinse carefully to remove all soap residue. Then dry the bell.
If required, remove the old lacquer from your antique brass bell. Cleaning may uncover old, flaking lacquer. Lacquer on metal usually lasts about 10 years but does need to be reapplied after that time. Use a commercial lacquer remover. You may need to use fine steel wool with the lacquer remover. Clean again with soap and water to remove residue from the lacquer remover.
Polish the bell. Use a commercial brass polish or mix calcium carbonate with rubbing alcohol or distilled water for a more gentle polish. Carefully rub the whole bell.
Not all bells have a bright shiny finish. Some brass bells have intentionally dark or semi-shiny surfaces. Again, wash the bell with soap and water. One option is to use acetone (an organic solvent) to clean the surface. Conservators often use acetone for cleaning.
Lacquer the antique bell. Applying lacquer protects the bell's surface from tarnish, dirt, and oils. Immediately before you apply the lacquer, wipe with a soft cloth. Avoid leaving fingerprints on the bell before you apply the lacquer. Use the paintbrush to apply the lacquer in even strokes. Allow to dry.
Keep your antique brass bell clean through frequent dusting or wiping with a damp cloth. You should not have to polish the bell again until you see cracks or flakes in the lacquer.
If you use calcium carbonate instead of commercial brass polish, mix it with enough rubbing alcohol or distilled water to make a heavy sludge. Use that to polish your bell.
Whenever you use metal polish, it removes some of the metal. Polish with light, gentle strokes to help preserve the life of your bell.