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Living Finish Definition: The Facts About Copper Sink Finishes

If you are considering a metal faucet, sink, or countertop for your kitchen or bathroom, you may have heard the term “live finish” or perhaps “organic finish.” Any metal other than stainless steel that is not coated with a sealant or a metallic finish such as chrome will acquire a “patina” over time. This means that the finish will change and evolve through exposure to the environment. Some call this “oxidation” (exposure to oxygen), but this patina process is also caused by other environmental factors that the metal surface could come into contact with, as well as wear and tear resulting from regular use.

When applied to plumbing fixtures, the question arises most often regarding copper sinks. Faucet and drain hardware manufacturers generally address this problem with certain coatings that protect the metal surface from the environment, thus preventing patina or changes in finish. However, these types of coatings (PVD or other types of clear protective finishes) are more difficult to apply to a larger surface area such as a sink and require a more “production” manufacturing process. Therefore, many of the handmade copper and bronze sinks are unsealed and will have a true live finish.

Metal products with a chrome finish or stainless steel products are often referred to as “non-live”. This is only partially true. The surfaces of these products can, in fact, become dull over time, depending on the environment and how well they are cared for. We have also heard of nickel as a “non-living finish”, but the fact is that nickel will also patina or “tarnish”. However, this process is significantly slower than unprotected copper or bronze.

With unprotected brass, bronze or copper, the patina process occurs more quickly. What happens to the finish of the metal over time? The answer to this question depends on whether the patina was artificial when the sink was made, the environmental factors present when it is used, how much the product is used (wear and tear), and the type of maintenance or care employed.

If you are purchasing a copper sink that has a finish (that is, it is not “shiny copper”), heat and / or chemicals have been applied to speed up the aging process. You will see terms like “oil rubbed bronze” or “weathered copper”. To create these finishes, the metal has been exposed to a chemical bath and possibly also heat, which reacts with the metal and changes the color. The darker the finish, the less patina or aging of the metal after installation. In a way, you are “shortening” the patina process. Regardless, it still has a vivid finish that will evolve, but generally speaking, the darker the patina at first, the slower the change will be over time.

The specific environmental factors in your home and the chemicals that may be exposed to the surface of your sink are the great unknowns. Every application and environment is different. Moisture, air salinity, pollutants and oxygen combine over time to coat metal surfaces with a characteristic patina. If you have a copper sink in your kitchen and you expose the metal surface to certain acids, such as those found in a lemon, it will actually dissolve some of the patina. The constant changes due to this myriad are treasured by some and not welcomed by others. Personally, I like rich tones and earthy browns that are produced over time. I see this as “character” and appreciate the uniqueness of color and tone between two identical products in different settings.

If you appreciate a vivid finish, caring for and maintaining your sink will be fairly easy. If you want to prevent it, this is possible to some extent. There are several different ways to slow down the patina process. Applying brass or furniture wax that does not contain polish or cleaners can delay the change of patina in the same way that an automotive wax protects your car’s finish. Yes, the patina on a sink can be removed with a metal polish or a mild acid like lemon juice or vinegar of your choice. Waxing the surface will preserve the shine, or the sink can be left untreated to develop a new patina.

We often feel that our customers fear a live finish … or that this type of finish will require more maintenance. Our answer is always the same: if you don’t like the patina that you eventually end up with, you can always start over! Any copper or brass cleaner will revert the patina to a shiny surface if desired. If it is not protected, the aging process begins again and in a few weeks you will begin to see the surface of the metal darken. Also, you can always buy a sink with a darker finish and keep the surface waxed. This will ensure the fewest changes over time. As for maintenance, all you need to do is an occasional cleaning with soap and water. If you choose to wax your sink, this is usually something you will need to do only every 3-6 months, depending on the amount of use. You can read more about the care and maintenance of copper sinks at Copper Sinks Online.

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