How to Clean a Copper Still Inside and Out

5 gallon copper still assembled

Copper is a durable, rich material that will last you decades if cleaned and cared for properly. It’s inexpensive to clean your copper still, but it does take a little time and effort on a regular schedule to keep it in tip-top, polished condition. You can clean your copper still with homemade recipes of flour, vinegar, and salt, or you can purchase commercial copper cleaners. Using a commercial cleaner may require additional steps or safety precautions before using the still for a run.

What if I don’t clean my copper still?

Copper reacts to oxygen over time (it “oxidizes”), developing a dark brown and then a green lustre if not regularly cleaned. Think of the color of a 20-year-old penny or the Statue of Liberty - that is what happens to unpolished copper.

This coloration is called a “patina,” and some people prefer the natural copper look for their stills. You can own a perfectly useable copper still and let the outside develop its natural patina. However, to keep the interior safe to produce useable distillates (such as alcohol that’s safe to drink and essential oils that are free of toxins), you will want to thoroughly clean the interior of your still after each use.

The first cleaning and vinegar run

When you are ready to use your copper still for the first time, gather the disassembled parts and wash them thoroughly with hot, soapy water. After drying them, you will perform a “vinegar run” to remove impurities and prep the still for use.

Place the pot of your still over your heat source, and fill it to about 20% capacity with an equal mixture of water and vinegar. Assemble the parts of the still and turn on the heat without setting up your cooling process for the condenser. Soon after the water boils, steam, water, and vinegar will come out of the condenser spout into your collection container. You can turn off the heat, and you should allow all parts of the copper still to cool before disassembling, rinsing with hot water, drying, and using them for the first run of your distilled water, alcohol, or essential oil.


Regular interior maintenance

If you’re using your copper still, it’s important for the safety and purity of your products that you keep the interior clean. In addition to the important vinegar run before the first use, you will want to let your still cool thoroughly and disassemble it for cleaning after every use. The heat and alcohol vapors help protect and clean the copper, but you want to make sure that no build up collects which could contaminate your alcohol or essential oils.

After rinsing your copper still pot, fill it to about 10% capacity with clean water and dedicate an unused toilet scrub brush as your still-cleaning brush. Scrub all parts of the pot’s interior thoroughly. If your copper still has a column, rinse it well, and then use a carboy cleaning brush to scrub it - it should be about the right size and shape for the job. Rinse your copper still thoroughly with clean water, and dry it completely. Store it in a safe, dry place until its next use.


Polishing the copper

Spot clean:To spot clean tarnish that begins to appear on the outside of your copper still, you can use ketchup. Simply rub onto the spot, let it sit for 10-15 minutes, and remove thoroughly with a dry cloth. The vinegar in the ketchup will help remove the tarnish efficiently, but the ketchup does leave a slight smell if not thoroughly cleaned off. You could clean your entire copper still with ketchup, but it might cost you a lot of time.


Organic clean: If you want to keep all of your copper still shiny, a combination of flour, vinegar, and salt will give you great results. Calculate the recipe for your still based on its size (5 gallon, 10 gallon, etc). For every gallon, combine 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 cup of vinegar. Then, add flour until the mixture creates a paste. The paste is applied to the copper, left for 30 minutes to dry, and removed. You can repeat the process if necessary.


Commercial products: With very little effort, you can clean your copper thoroughly and keep it looking polished and new with a commercial copper cleaning product. Products like Tarn-X are available at home improvement supply stores, as is the safety equipment you should purchase to use them. (You will want gloves, eye protection, and a mask). These commercial cleaners have strong chemical odors and can leave residues, so they are not recommended for use on the inside of your copper still. You will also want to use commercial cleaners outdoors or in a well-ventilated area, and follow the directions exactly.


Whether your copper still is a decoration or a tool that you utilize, it is a beautiful piece that adds value to your home. Keep it clean and enjoy its beauty as well as its usefulness.


Article by: Jim Thomas


Jim Thomas
Jim Thomas

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