The marble mantel in my apartment is easily the plainest in the building, an 1865 Second Empire row house in Boston’s historic South End. But itÕs still white marble, that lustrous, luxurious material that recalls the snow-white peaks of Carrara– or it would, if only the mantel were clean. When I moved in, the top surface was pitted in places and stained with a combination of soot, rust, and what appeared to be coffee rings. Rust-colored stains and more soot grimed the fireplace surround. I’ve since discovered that stains that looked the toughest cleaned up with a little bit of soap and water, while seemingly innocuous stains despite repeated treatments using an arsenal of chemical weaponry.
Types of Stains
Most stains on marble fall into one of five categories: soot or smoke, oily stains, adhesives, organic stains such as coffee and tea, and rust. If the mantel will come clean at all, each of these problem stains usually responds to a specific solvent that unlocks the stain within the stone. That said, itÕs not always easy to determine the cause of a specific stain. Plan to experiment with several different cleaning agents, particularly if your mantel appears to have multiple types of stains, as mine did.
Since marble is porous and easily damaged by acids or abrasives, teasing out certain stains requires a bit of finesse. While a number of commercial marble cleaners are on the market, it’s relatively easy to create your own cleaning agents, usually with materials available at the local hardware store.
Mix up a sudsy batch of a non-ionic detergent, such as Ivory Liquid, with warm water, and scrub the mantel with a medium-stiff, natural bristle or plastic brush. (Avoid wire brushes, steel wool, or other metal utensils.) Use a toothbrush dipped in suds to clean tight spaces.
If the mantel is still dirty after this initial cleaning, use a stronger cleaning agent–ammonia diluted with water, or full-strength if necessary. Organic stains may respond better to a mix of hydrogen peroxide and water. Be sure to wear rubber gloves to protect your skin when you’re working with these chemicals.
While you can also try a little diluted household bleach on persistent stains, bear in mind that bleach may etch the stone. (Never combine bleach with ammonia; together they produce a toxic gas that can cause severe damage to the respiratory system.)
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