If you’re considering a metal faucet, sink, or countertop for your kitchen or bathroom, you may have heard the term “living finish” or perhaps “organic finish.” Any metal other than stainless steel that is not coated with a sealant or metal 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 “rusting” (exposure to oxygen), but this patina process is also caused by other environmental factors that the metal surface might come into contact with, as well as wear and tear from regular use.
When applied to plumbing fixtures, the question most often comes up regarding copper sinks. Manufacturers of faucet and drain hardware typically address this issue 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 like that of a sink and require a manufacturing process more akin to “production”. Therefore, many of the handmade copper and bronze sinks are not sealed and will have a true live finish.
Metal products with a chrome finish or stainless steel products are often referred to as “non-living”. This is only partially true. In fact, the surfaces of these products can darken over time depending on the environment and the care given to them. We’ve also heard nickel referred to as a “dead finish” but the fact is 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 metal finish over time? The answer to this question depends on whether or not a patina was applied artificially when the sink was made, the environmental factors present during use, how much the product is used (wear), and the type of maintenance or care employed.
If you are purchasing a copper sink that is finished (ie not a “bright copper”), heat and/or chemicals have been applied to speed up the aging process. You’ll see terms like “oil rubbed bronze” or “worn copper.” To create these finishes, the metal has been exposed to a chemical bath and possibly also to heat, which reacts with the metal and changes the color. The darker the finish, the less the metal will patina or age after it is installed. In a way, you are “jamming” the patina process. Regardless, it still has a vivid finish that will evolve, but generally speaking, the darker the patina is at first, the slower it will change over time.
Environmental factors specific to your home and chemicals that may be exposed to the surface of your sink are the big unknowns. Every application and environment is different. Moisture, air salinity, contaminants and oxygen work together over time to coat metal surfaces with a characteristic patina. If you have a copper sink in the kitchen and you expose the metal surface to certain acids like those found in a lemon, it will actually dissolve some of the patina. The constant changes due to these myriad factors are appreciated by some and unwelcome by others. I personally like the rich tones and earthy browns that appear over time. I see this as “character” and appreciate the uniqueness in color and tone between two identical products in different settings.
If you appreciate a vivid finish, the care and maintenance of your sink will be quite easy. If you want to avoid it, this is possible to a certain extent. There are several different ways to slow down the patina process. Applying a brass or furniture polish that does not contain polishes or cleaners can slow the change in patina in the same way that a car wax protects your car’s finish. If you wish, you can remove the patina from a sink with metal polish or a mild acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar. 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 are afraid of 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 you end up with, you can always start over! Any copper or brass cleaner will revert the patina to a shiny surface if desired. If left unprotected, the aging process starts all over again and within a few weeks you will start to see the metal surface 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, occasional cleaning with soap and water is really all you need to do. If you choose to wax your sink, this is generally something you’ll need to do only every 3 to 6 months, depending on the amount of use. You can read more about copper sink care and maintenance at Copper Sinks Online.