How to Clean Stainless Steel Chain Mail (Chainmail)
Advantages of Stainless Steel
One of the biggest advantages of using stainless steel rings to make chain mail is that it is easy to clean and polish, as well as being beautiful and durable. How you clean chain mail made of stainless steel depends on what type of object you've made and what, if any, other materials have been working in with the stainless steel rings.
Use the Dishwasher?!
In the case of a stainless steel mail shirt, skirt, or other large solid piece of mail, throw it in the dishwasher—top rack—and run the dishwasher. The grime will come right off, just like it does off of your cooking utensils.
Tip: Make sure that no part of the chain mail hangs down blocking a turning sprayer, if your dishwasher uses a spinning arm of some type to get the upper-rack full of dishes clean.
Important Note for All Cleaning Methods that Use Water
For all of the cleaning methods suggested here that involve using water to clean your chainmail, or if your chainmail suit gets wet while you are wearing it, be sure to dry it off immediately or it might rust after all. Just like with stainless steel flatware, the high-quality stuff will never rust, whereas the Dollar Store stuff just might, because the high-quality stainless is, as its name suggests, stainless.
In MOST cases, the stainless steel rings you're able to buy/make is lower quality than your average flatware, but much higher quality than Dollar Store stuff.
If you don't know the purity of your stainless steel to begin with, how do you tell? First, try calling the place you bought the rings from. If you don't get an answer, there are still a couple of ways you can experiment with to tell what grade your stainless is:
- Put one or several chainmail rings in an old glass, fill the glass with water to cover the rings plus some to account for evaporation (your glass might be half full after all!). Set it aside to see how long it takes to rust--overnight, 2-3 days, anything beyond that isn't worth testing both because it means you've probably got good-quality rings and because you wouldn't want your chain mail to stay wet longer than 2-3 days in the first place. (Wouldn't that be a miserable weekend!) An old T-shirt under chain mail that rusts will help a lot.
- Use a magnet. High-quality stainless steel finished appliances, so popular of late, won't allow a magnet to stick to them. (That's right, no report cards stuck to these refrigerators with magnets.) If you have such an appliance and a small magnet, perform this experiment: see if you can get the magnet to stick. Although it shows some attraction for the metal, it's not usually enough even to sustain its own weight, let alone your kids' report cards and cousin Alana's new baby girl. Now go to the silverware drawer and see if your forks, knives, or spoons will stick to the magnet. No? Again, there is some pull but not much. Finally, test your stainless steel chain mail rings and any object you have made using these same rings. Most likely the magnet will be drawn to the rings/object a bit more than it was to the high-quality stuff in the kitchen, but not LOTs more. If it's highly attracted to the magnet, you probably have steel rings and not stainless steel rings. So, just be aware to stay out of the pool in your coif and dry all chain mail as soon as possible if it gets wet. Ditto with placing pieces in the dishwasher--be sure to be there when the cycle is finished to dry off the chain mail piece.
- Note that this type of ring will generally NOT make good pieces of jewelry, either, because it will rust as it contacts the oils and acids and sweat of human skin. (See my article about keeping costume jewelry from rusting for a work-around for jewelry, "How to Keep Cheap, Fake, or Costume Jewelry from Tarnishing and Leaving Green or Black Marks".)
Use Liquid Dish Soap for Small Items
In the case of jewelry and smaller pieces like butchers' gloves, wash it with a liquid dish soap and baking soda paste, rubbing it between your hands for several seconds before rinsing it off and drying it.
The Ultrasonic Cleaner Method
Yet another method of cleaning small pieces is to place them in a home ultrasonic cleaner with the manufacturer's recommended cleaning agent (if any).
Tip: Buy the kind of ultrasonic cleaner that you would find at a beauty store or possibly a drug store, not the kind you'd find for parts washing at a hardware store or other manufacturing store. Your budget will thank you, and they can usually be stored neatly in a drawer or cabinet when not in use.
Tumble-Polish Out Scratches While Cleaning Chain Mail
With this method, which takes much longer than the others, you get multiple credit because it not only cleans but also polishes. If you need to polish scratches out of small pieces of chain mail as well as clean it, nothing beats a rock tumbler.
1. Simply place the item(s) in the tumbler along with other stainless steel pieces or raw rings or stainless steel shotgun pellets (the tumbler should be about 1/2 to 2/3 full), close the lid, and run the tumbler without water or grit of any kind.
2. Check the progress every hour or two by washing your sample pieces in dish soap and water and drying it.
3. Keep tumbling until you get the scratches out and the dirt off.
Tip: If you wish, you can use a tumbling medium such as baking soda or crushed walnut shells to speed up the cleaning process. I occasionally use baking soda, but usually just run it through dry.
4. When you are done, use a fine-screened sieve and, over the kitchen sink or outdoors, pour out the contents of the tumbler. Start separating out the piece of armor from the tumbling medium(s) you used--gunshot, walnuts, etc. Don't worry about baking soda; it washes away easily with a little water.
5. Which takes us to the final step: Wash the piece of cleaned, shined, but filthy chain mail in liquid dish soap and warm water. (Your hands will welcome this step, too.) Now all that's left is to clean the tumbling media for the next time and any other messes you made.
Note that most of these instructions are ONLY for pieces made of solid, high-quality stainless steel. Other materials woven into the chain mail, such as other metals and beads, probably cannot withstand these cleaning methods and should be removed, in the case of leather laces, or the soap-and-water hand washing or ultrasonic cleaner method should be used.
There are no guarantees that these methods won't damage your chain mail, although I have used them all with success: use your best judgment before trusting your prized piece of mail to any particular cleaning method.