Cleaning Red Wing Dinnerware

To bleach or not to bleach….

….that is the question.  All pottery collectors have encountered a beautiful piece of pottery, perfect in appearance except for an ugly, greasy stain.  Should you attempt to remove the stain, or should you leave it alone and enjoy the piece as is?  Is cleaning pottery with bleach safe?  Are there better alternatives?  Those are the questions to be addressed here.

This article will reflect my experiences with deep cleaning dinnerware and my opinions on the subject.  Please understand I am not an expert in this area, I am simply sharing my experiences and opinions with my fellow collectors.  Also, my experiences do not include deep cleaning stoneware.  In a few months I plan to write a follow-up article after doing research on the scientific and chemical principles involved.  In that future article I’d like to include opinions and experiences from other collectors.  Please see my contact information below. 

Clay is porous

Those ugly, greasy stains are located in the clay below the surface, not in the glaze.  How do those stains get into the clay?  That shouldn’t happen if the glaze remains intact.  But fine cracks in the glaze can develop; this is called crazing.  Crazing occurs when the glaze shrinks at a slightly different rate than the clay beneath it.  To some art pottery collectors crazing may be desirable, and some glazes are purposefully to craze.  But that’s not true with dinnerware, where the potter’s goal is to create a barrier to keep grease and liquids out of the clay.  Crazing is commonly found in Red Wing Potteries’ earliest dinnerware (the Gypsy Trail and Provincial lines), but is less common with later lines.  The pottery’s early experiences apparently lead to a better match of glaze and clay.

Bleach

Some collectors use bleach to clean pottery.  Some pottery reference books recommend the use of bleach.  I’ve never used bleach to clean pottery, but have seen the damage bleach can do.  While visiting an antique store recently, a very nice Brittany teapot caught my eye.  As I approached the teapot, fine white powdery lines across the entire surface became evident.  Closer inspection showed the powder was oozing from crazing in the teapot’s glaze.  A quick sniff revealed the telltale odor of bleach.  While the teapot was still lovely at that point, without action it would eventually become a pile of dust.  It may have already been too late.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Other collectors use hydrogen peroxide, and I’ve successfully used this method on pieces in our personal collection.  I’ll describe my method, along with some cautions, a bit later.  I am not aware of any piece damaged by cleaning with hydrogen peroxide, thus it’s my opinion that hydrogen peroxide is significantly safer than bleach for this purpose.

Whitening vs. Cleaning

Logic would say bleach and peroxide make pottery appear cleaner because they are whitening agents.  While whitening no doubt helps, my experience shows that peroxide also forces grease out of the clay and thus truly cleans the pottery.  How do I know?  After soaking a grease-stained piece in my peroxide bath, greasy scum floats to the surface.  Because I have no experience with bleach I cannot vouch for it as a cleaning agent.

Basic science: Get the bleach out

All matter is composed of molecules, and individual molecules want as much elbow room as possible.  Whenever possible, molecules will flow to an area of lower concentration.  Think of a group of people in a small space, such as an elevator.  Rather than crowd into a corner, people tend to disperse themselves evenly as much as possible within the available space.  That’s exactly what molecules do too.

As a piece of pottery sets in a bath of cleaning agent (bleach or peroxide), molecules of the agent will try to enter the clay because density of the agent is lower there than in the bath.  If the glaze is not intact, the cleaning agent will successfully penetrate into the clay.  The clay will absorb more and more of the agent, until the concentration of agent is the same both inside and outside the glaze.  At this point the clay is saturated with the cleaning agent. 

If the pottery is removed from the bath and dried without first extracting the absorbed cleaning agent, the agent will remain in the clay.  And if that agent chemically reacts with the clay (and apparently bleach does), damage will occur over time.  Thus it is vital that the cleaning agent, especially if it is bleach, be extracted before drying.

How to extract the agent?  Simply soak the pottery in clean water.  The same chemical process that allows clay to absorb the agent also works in reverse.  Agent-saturated clay will release the agent and absorb water in an attempt to maintain equal concentrations on both sides of the glaze.  Eventually water will replace nearly all the agent in the clay.  The piece can then be safely dried because water does not react harmfully with clay. 

How long should the piece soak in clean water?  One rule of thumb is to soak the piece in water at last one day for every day the piece was soaked in bleach or peroxide.  Thus pottery soaked for two weeks in agent should be soaked at least two weeks in water.  You may want to change the water occasionally. Doing so will eliminate any agent already expelled by the clay, and since the fresh water contains no agent it enhances the ability of the clay to further expel the cleaning agent. 

It’s my belief that most damage to pottery from bleach occurs because the owner skipped or shortened the water soak step that removes the bleach from the piece.  Can an item be saved if it has evidence (odor, powder) that it was bleached?  Perhaps.  Soaking the piece in clean water would draw bleach out from the clay, as described above.  But if deterioration has progressed too far, soaking in water may cause the piece to break apart.  But that would likely happen anyway with time, so it may be worth the risk. 

My method:

Here is the process I follow using hydrogen peroxide.  Please understand this is not a recommendation to others, I am merely sharing my experiences.  While I’ve encountered no damage to pottery with this method, any use of hydrogen peroxide is at your own risk.

Hydrogen peroxide is available at beauty supply stores labeled as 20, 30 or 40 volume as either a clear solution or an opaque liquid.  Volume is a term that means “percent”, so these products are 20, 30 or 40% hydrogen peroxide.  Strong stuff!  The peroxide used to treat cuts and wounds is only 3%; it will not work well for cleaning pottery.  I use the 40 volume clear solution because it works quicker and lasts longer, but 20 or 30 should also work.  I’ve never used the opaque liquid form and can’t see any advantage to it.

Hydrogen peroxide in these high strengths must be used with extreme caution.  From my experience it stings badly on skin, eats a hole in clothing if not promptly washed out, and causes blistering on Formica tabletops if not wiped up.  Use rubber gloves when handling the peroxide, unless you don’t mind the sting.  I store my peroxide bath and supplies in an unused plastic shower, so any messes can be quickly and easily cleaned up.  I use a covered plastic Rubbermaid tub to hold my peroxide bath.  The container size needed depends on the size of the item to be cleaned.  Of course a bigger container will require more peroxide. The peroxide can be reused numerous times.  I’ve used my current batch of peroxide for nearly a year.  Over time the peroxide weakens and the extracted soil and grease becomes a problem.  I’ve tried to filter off the grease but with limited success.  Eventually it is necessary to discard to weakened, dirty peroxide and start over with fresh solution. 

How long should an item be soaked in peroxide?  It depends on the piece.  Some pieces clean up in just a few days; others can soak for a couple of months and still not be clean.  Generally a couple of weeks are sufficient, but I use my judgment to decide if a longer soak is needed.  Another plastic tub is used for a water bath soak after the peroxide cleaning.  As previously stated, I soak the piece in clean water for at least as long as the item soaked in peroxide.

I have used peroxide to clean stains from dinnerware, but not art pottery or stoneware.  Gypsy Trail and Provincial (Orleans, Brittany, Ardennes and Normandy) clean up quite well, but I’ve had little success with later dinnerware lines.  This is likely due to the crazing issue described earlier. 

Ethics

Opinions vary on whether or not cleaning pottery in this manner is ethical.  Some believe this process merely deep cleans the pottery.  Others believe it is a form of restoration similar to repairing cracks or chips.  In my opinion, if the only benefit from treatment were whitening of the clay then I’d feel this is a form of restoration.  But since the treatment (at least with peroxide) actually removes grease from the piece, I believe this is a cleaning process rather than restoration.  In any event, collectors would be well advised to clean only pieces that will be retained in their collection.  Pottery to be resold should be left “as is”; let the buyer make the decision.  Your ethics and reputation may be called into question if the buyer learns the piece has been cleaned with bleach or peroxide.

Future article

As stated earlier, I would like to gather input from other collectors on this issue.  I plan to compile that input along with my research in a future newsletter article.  Your name will not be mentioned in the article unless you specifically ask me to do so.  Please send your thoughts and experience on this subject to the RWCS executive director at director@redwingcollectors.org with subject:  Larry Roschen, cleaning dinnerware.

Larry Roschen
Dinnerware, Ask the Expert

Posted in FAQ

What is the difference between the vintage stoneware and the current stonewares?

The Red Wing Potteries the operated from the late 1800′s until 1967 when the pottery closed had 11 different ovals during their production history. These vintage Red Wing Stoneware pieces will either have the word "Union" or "Potteries" in their ovals. Without one of these two words, the stoneware piece is most likely a reproduction.

Below are some examples of the new potteries in Red Wing markings and logos.

Red Wing Stoneware Pieces

Red Wing Stoneware Co. Logo

Red Wing Pottery

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Posted in FAQ

What is the best way to use a Red Wing Crock as a planter?

It is possible to use your Red Wing Crock as planter outside with soil as long as it has good drainage. In the bottom of the crock we would recommend either 4 inches of sand and stone on the bottom for drainage or simply place another pot in the crock so water can drain from it into the crock. 

As soon as the weather in your area get to be 32 degrees or colder, you need to move the crock inside (not in an unheated garage either).   If the crock is not move there is a risk of damage from the water or moist soil. The cold temperature will
freeze the the two and both the water and soil will expand and crack the crock.

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How can I sell my Red Wing Pottery pieces?

The RWCS website or the Ask the Experts service will not give specific advice on how to sell your Red Wing Pottery pieces. However here there are several important factors to consider when selling:

1) Speed of sale
2) Time and effort on your part
3) Price expectations
4) Your location (reaching potential buyers)

Here are several ways a person can sell items, along with pros and cons of that method.

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What is a Ski Oval?

The Ski Oval is generally believed to be the first Oval used by Red Wing. You will find the Ski Oval on stoneware pieces that are decorated with either a red wing or birch leaves. The distinction of a “Ski Oval” is the design located right below the words Red Wing on the oval. It is a marking that looks like a down hill ski. Some collectors attempt to control their collecting by only buying stoneware pieces that have the Ski Ovals. Others are not as disciplined in limiting their buying and collecting.

Click Here to see other Red Wing Stoneware Ovals

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Posted in FAQ

Why do I find different patterns of dinnerware in the tan-fleck glaze?

This is called ‘After the Strike’ dinnerware/art ware. They
are the tan-fleck or solid-orange items, regardless of pattern or shape
that were ‘sprayed’ as a result of the provisions of the liquidation
court order.  The court allowed completion of ‘in-process wares’
as a stipulation of the liquidation of the potteries, and became part
of the property of Gilmer’s post-Potteries corporation.  This was
done by ‘a few’ of the Union employees for a few weeks in the
Fall/Winter of 1967 as they could not support bringing back enough
employees to hand-paint the remaining bisque-ware of each pattern.

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Posted in FAQ

I have a vase that says Red Wing on the bottom. How can I find out more about it?

You have several resources available to you. On
this web site will be an “Ask the Experts” feature where you can submit
a picture and description of condition, etc. and you will get a
response with a range of value.  There are also reference books
available for purchase in book and antique stores or available in your
public library. Most popular are the books written by Ray Reiss about
dinnerware and art pottery.  There are also other authors who have
written about Red Wing pottery.

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What are the officials events sponsored by the RWCS?

Currently the RWCS sponsors two events, the July Convention and the February MidWinter GetTogether. There are sub-events at MidWinter and July Convention such as the Show and Sale and Educational Seminars. At the July Convention there is a Banquet on Saturday evening as well.

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Red Wing Collectors Society FAQs

As you look at the site, there are most certainly questions that come to mind. You have a couple of options, first, look at the list of most Frequently Asked Questions to see if there have been others who have similar questions. The questions listed are grouped into three main categories RW Products, Events and Membership. If your question is not answered through the Frequently Asked Questions, please contact us.

What printed material is there available to reference for information on Red Wing?

There are a number of books available on Red Wing Products. Here is a list of several books to consider using when doing research about your Red Wing pieces.
Bougie, Stanley J. and David A. Newkirk, Red Wing Dinnerware, 1980.
·DePasquale, Dan and Gail and Larry Peterson, Red Wing Collectibles, Collector Books 1985.
·DePasquale, Dan and Gail and Larry Peterson, Red Wing Stoneware, Collector Books 1983
·Newkirk, David A., A Guide to Red Wing Markings Book 1,2, 1979, 1995.
·Reiss, Ray Red Wing Art Pottery Including Pottery Made for RumRill, Property 1996.
·Reiss, Ray Red Wing Art Pottery Two, Property 2000.
·Reiss, Ray Red Wing Dinnerware Price and Identfication Guide, 1997.
·Tefft, Gary and Bonnie Red Wing Potters & Their Wares, Locust 1981-1996.
·Viel, Lyndon C. Clay Giants Vols. 1-3, Wallace-Homestead 1977-1987.

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