How to Care for Antique Civil War Swords

Written by steve jones
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How to Care for Antique Civil War Swords
Use caution and patience caring for Civil War swords such as this one. (confederate officer sword image by Robert Young from

A Civil War sword, whether a curved cavalry sabre, an artillery officer's short sword or an engraved presentation sword, can be valuable links to that important time in American history. However, collectors should handle and preserve them with care to avoid damaging them. Proceed with caution when cleaning or preserving Civil War swords. If uncertain about any step in the process, consult a professional.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Ammonia
  • Light penetrating oil
  • Leather preservative
  • Soft cloth
  • Cotton swabs
  • Soft scouring pad
  • Conservator's wax

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  1. 1

    Check the steel blade to see whether rust is present, and if so, whether it is active or inactive. Active rust is still degrading or pitting the steel. Inactive rust has ceased to harm the metal and usually is dark brown.

  2. 2

    Check the hilt, hand-guard and grip for wear and patina (green or brownish ageing on brass).

  3. 3

    Determine the level of care the sword requires. Attempt only to preserve the sword. Never attempt to restore a sword to its original condition, as that would destroy its value as an antique. Do not attempt to remove any patina or inactive rust; only preserve those conditions. Remove active rust carefully.

  1. 1

    Prepare a clean, flat surface upon which to lay the sword for cleaning. The surface should be long enough to accommodate the blade,; however, the hilt and grip should hang off the edge.

  2. 2

    Anchor the blade with wooden-jawed vices or rubber-tipped alligator clips. If you are using metal-jawed vices, affix one-half-inch thick leather to the jaws to avoid scarring the blade.

  3. 3

    Apply a coating of penetrating oil to blades that have no active rust. Let the oil sit for a few moments, then remove it with a soft cloth.

  4. 4

    Remove active rust with a soft abrasive material, such as a copper scouring pad or brass wire brush. You may use steel wool pads no coarser than 000, but only on blades with no engraving or ornamentation. Apply penetrating oil first and let it sit, perhaps for several hours on heavily rusted areas. Use the scouring material lightly in circular motions to remove rust. Always start in a small test area to check results. Work in only small areas at a time.

  5. 5

    Apply a 60/40 solution of ammonia and water to brass areas of the hilt and guard that have patina. Do not remove the patina. Do not attempt to restore leather sections on the grip. Rather, apply leather preservative with a cotton swab.

  6. 6

    Prepare the sword for storage by applying a coating of conservator's wax to the blade. This is better than oil as a final step, because dust will not cause the wax to degrade.

Tips and warnings

  • Display swords in areas where humidity is less than 30 per cent, or in sealed cases where you can control humidity with desiccants.
  • Avoid touching the blade, as skin oils can cause pitting. If you do touch it, wipe the blade immediately with a soft cloth.
  • Inspect the sword at least once a year for rust.
  • Keep the blade edge facing away from you while working on the sword.
  • Do not ingest verdigris (the oxidation that can form on copper elements of the sword), as it is poisonous.
  • Wear eye protection and a dust mask while cleaning the sword.
  • If you have any doubts about how to proceed with the cleaning process, consult a professional to avoid harming the sword's value as an antique.

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