Robin Butler on Twitter

March 2011

I am frequently asked about the care of decanters - how to keep them bright and clear, what to do if they are not, can they be repaired if damaged, and so on. Despite what some may think, in many cases glass can be restored very satisfactorily.

The most frequent problem is a milky cloudiness which will not respond to usual home cleaning techniques. Quite simply, there is no satisfactory domestic remedy. Lead shot may alleviate the appearance for a limited time, but actually only aggravates the problem, making a long-term solution impossible, and other ‘solutions’ merely hide the problem temporarily. The only remedy for a cloudy decanter is to have it professionally cleaned. It is serendipitous that the best man in the UK for this job lives near me.  I know of nobody outside the UK capable of doing this job, and sending them here is not usually a commercially viable proposition.

To prevent a decanter from becoming cloudy is therefore, a no-brainer. So first we must ask why glass becomes cloudy. Most cloudiness inside old decanters is caused by the glass being etched by alkaline substances (like detergents) dissolved in the water that we use to clean them. Obviously few antique decanters are put in dishwashers, and the special powders and tablets used in dishwashers are the worst offenders. However, even hand-washing with milder detergents can cause the problem to a slight degree, and leaving decanters to soak exacerbates it considerably. So the answer is to wash decanters for the briefest time possible to do the job, then rinse and dry them immediately. The same applies to drinking glasses too, especially if they are lead crystal. Thankfully, our line in modern drinking glasses do not suffer in this way at all.

Drying a decanter after use is very important. One can buy decanter driers, which are long thin tubes of gauze filled with silica gel or some other desiccant. However they are an unnecessary expense, despite their re-usability. An equally successful way to dry a decanter after use is to make a wick of newspaper and after making it bone dry by putting it in a low oven, feed it into the decanter for 20 minutes or so. If the decanter still has moisture in it, repeat the process.

It is different if a decanter has a brownish stain. This will have been caused by leaving sherry, port or even claret in it for a considerable time - an awful waste of good wine! Stains can usually be removed by inserting two or three denture-cleaning tablets in the decanter, and filling it to a point above all the staining with warm water. After an hour or so, the stain should have gone; then the rinsing and drying process can be brought to bear. I will discuss problems with chips or cracks in glass at another time, but in the meantime, here is an interesting tale.

Recently I was asked by a friend if I could do anything with his decanter - the top two inches were completely broken off, and a crack extended a further inch down the neck. Usually such damage would be uneconomical to repair, but although my friend is a dealer (and has been since 1949), the decanter was one he used for his daily tipple of port, and cost was of secondary importance as it was not going to be sold. What made it a decanter in a million, was the extraordinary and huge coat of arms, very finely engraved and covering all of one side of the body. Because the neck was step-cut, my restorer was able to make a replacement neck, cut off the broken part and invisibly glue it so that it was useable again. It now continues to give great joy. It cost nearly £200, and my friend was almost speechless when he saw what appeared to be his undamaged decanter - not for the cost, but that such restoration could be done - and be all but invisible.

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While on decanters, there was pattern which was extremely popular about 200 years ago, and it is clear from the number of survivals that they were made in vast numbers. The pattern was probably popular because it was highly functional; it did not gurgle when wine was poured from it, a good grip was afforded by three neck rings, and the minimal cutting enhanced the ability to judge the colour and clarity of the wine inside. At the time it was known as a ‘prussian’ decanter, and the name having been lost for most of the intervening time, is now used again.

Two particular joys of the prussian decanter are first, that so many were made that they are not collectors’ pieces, and so do not carry a price premium. So, they are affordable. Second, it is very easy to have more than one on a table and they will look as if they match one another. As I write this, I have six, and put together, there are very few differences between them, although I bought them from different people and at different times. Pairs of decanters are usually about 3 times the price of a singleton, while sets of four, are more or considerably more expensive, and sets of 6 Georgian decanters hardly exist at all.... well, the inference is clear isn’t it?

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