before & after basicsbefore and after

Before & After: Cleaning and Restoring Marble

by Daniel Kanter

When I was in the midst of my second apartment hunt in Manhattan, I had a good idea of what to expect. I’d traipse through a couple dozen apartments, and in each I’d shed a little tear over some kind of obvious, aggressive renovation work that had rendered the unit short on prewar charm and long on features such as level floors (who needs ’em!) and Tuscan-inspired bathrooms (really, who needs them?). And that’s more or less what happened.

But when my computer mouse lingered over to the “Brooklyn” link on Craigslist, a world opened, one replete with all the charm — or potential charm — a boy could ask for. Here was a land of big, chunky moldings, gorgeous parquet floors and tin ceilings. There were brownstones and limestones and rowhouses, warehouses and lofts, and the grass outside in the blurry realtor pictures literally seemed greener. Still fairly new to New York, some of my doubts about Brooklyn (Will my commute be terrible? Will anyone ever come visit? Will I fit in without impressive facial hair?) still lingered, but Craigslist gave me a certain notion of what a Brooklyn apartment looked like that I found totally irresistible. But there was one thing about these apartments in particular that stuck somewhere in my mind. Marble. I had seen a few listings for apartments with beautiful, fancy Victorian marble fireplace surrounds and mantels, and some part of my brain generalized the feature to all Brooklyn apartments. It was a given. Brooklyn equaled marble, and I wanted in on that.

There’s just something classic and beautiful about white marble that makes my heart swoon when I see it in basically any application. And so, with my head full of apartment listings and my heart full of dreams, I pledged to teach myself the things I needed to know to take impeccable care of my future-beautiful-marble-fireplace surround.

But fate saw things differently, and I ended up tragically marble-less. Don’t pity me. Really, don’t pity me, my apartment has a cute non-working fireplace, but it’s surrounded by glazed cement tiles the color of poo and a painted wood mantel instead of marble. I’m a survivor, you know?

Anyway — the marble-less thing? That’s not entirely true. Aside from a couple little thresholds in my kitchen and bathroom doorways that were probably installed in the mid ’90s, there’s a big hunky slab of a threshold at the front door that’s original to the 120-year-old building.

For all the charms of my building, maintenance is not one of them. Almost all 20 apartments in the building have the same marble thresholds, and almost all 20 of them look horrendous. This goes nicely with the 80 marble treads on the stairs up to our apartment that are similarly discolored and under-appreciated. But since the marble threshold at my front door sits right in the transition between my apartment and the public hallway, I’ll admit that I always kind of ignored its existence. It’s not really in my apartment, so what does it matter? I’d be cleaning my entryway and maybe I’d stop, wipe down the side inside my door, sigh, and move on with my life, or maybe I’d just leave it alone altogether. Not my problem, I’d say to myself.

But recently I decided that maybe it really was part of my apartment and maybe it really was my problem and maybe I really should put some effort into seeing if I could restore it to some semblance of its original appearance. I know it’s just a threshold — completely utilitarian in purpose and in appearance — but it’s the very first thing one steps foot on coming through the door, and that just doesn’t seem right. I mean, I think my apartment is pretty nice, so what’s this filthy strip of practically fossilized grime doing here? Surely this qualifies as terrible feng shui, or something like that.

Whether it’s the fancy fireplace of my dreams, a vintage marble-topped dresser or table or just a lowly little threshold, there seems to be a lot of confusion about how to handle this ubiquitous natural stone. I did some research and gave restoration my best shot with a few simple products, and it turned out better than I expected! If you have any additional hints, tips or tricks on how you deal with difficult stone-y issues, I’d love to hear them in the comments! — Daniel Kanter

For such a widely used and ubiquitous natural stone, marble is annoyingly temperamental. It’s a very porous, relatively soft stone, which means not only can it scratch and damage easily, but it also tends to absorb stains from all kinds of sources: rust, oil, food, fungi, wax and more. Marble can even get watermarks. In general, for regular marble maintenance, you want to be as low-tech as possible — a soft sponge or cloth and warm water, perhaps with a bit of mild dish soap if you must. Acidic cleaners (like citrus-based cleansers or vinegar), very alkaline products (like bleach) or abrasives should be avoided, as they can etch, pit, and damage the stone.

However, in a circumstance like this one where things were pretty far gone, a little water wasn’t going to get me very far. While I had a difficult time finding information on restoring marble with this magnitude of damage (other than “hire a professional”), I used my best judgment and pieced together things I’d read here and there to come up with my own process.

I started by using a flat razor to lightly scrape away any big drops of dried paint. If the paint doesn’t come up with fairly little effort, it’s best not to push it — you don’t want to add scratches or gauges on top of the ones that might already be there!

After cleaning up the loosened paint, I scrubbed the surface of the marble with a homemade solution of four parts water and one part hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide has mild bleaching properties and is a very weak acid (close to neutral on the pH scale), making it a good product for this type of application. Hooray, chemistry!

I’ll admit to being a little surprised and a little ashamed at just how dirty this thing was. Some of what I had assumed would be old set-in stains mostly disappeared with only a couple minutes of scrubbing. Sometimes a little elbow grease really is the bulk of the answer.

Since there was still a fair amount of staining along with a bunch of light surface scratches, I decided to wet-sand the surface. To do this, I used my electric palm sander (you could also do this part manually!) and kept the surface of the stone wet by spraying it with water from a spray bottle, adding more water as needed. By maintaining a wet surface, sanding dust stays contained to a paste on the surface instead of flying all over the place, including into your lungs.

I started with a 120-grit sandpaper, then moved to a 320-grit and finished with a 600 grit. The bigger the numbers, the finer the sandpaper and the smoother the finish. This was around the time I ran into no less than three of my neighbors, who now think I’m a deranged lunatic.

Things were looking really good after the wet sanding, but there was still some yellow-ish discoloration on a few parts of the marble — deep, set-in stains — that I wondered if I could improve. To remove stains, I needed a poultice, which is essentially a substance that can sit on the marble’s surface and reabsorb the stain. Most paint or hardware stores have whiting (calcium carbonate) or other poultice powders specifically for lifting stains off marble and other porous stones, but I wanted to try making my own.

To do this, I mixed six parts hydrogen peroxide, one part ammonia and enough baking soda to make a paste. Then I slathered the mixture on the marble and covered the whole thing in plastic wrap, taping down the edges of the plastic wrap to create a seal. Ideally, I would have let this all marinate for about 24 hours, but I got antsy and only left it on for about three — enough for the paste to mostly dry. Incidentally, I think this is more or less how my grandma bleached her hair in the ’50s.

After wiping away the excess baking soda, the stains had definitely reduced by about 50%. I could have reapplied the mixture and let it sit for longer or gone to the hardware store to invest in a commercial poultice powder to see if I could improve them further, but I decided to let the remainder of the stains be. They’re very subtle, and this is an old building with old stuff in it. I don’t want it to look brand new!

The final step was applying a sealer product, which should help protect the marble from future stains and make future cleaning much easier. I chose this one because it was cheap and dried quickly, and I applied two coats about an hour apart. I never wanted the marble to be super shiny or look polished, but the sealer definitely gave it a nice subtle sheen that just screams “I’m clean!”

I was a little leery of messing around with natural stone, but it really was relatively easy and painless in the end! And now what was once a dirty eyesore is a nice, original feature and a fresh, welcoming thing to come home to! Even if it’s only kind-of-sort-of in my home.

Now about those 80 some-odd stair treads . . .

Daniel Kanter is a freelance writer and designer who blogs about his home at Manhattan Nest.

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  • I moved to Jersey City almost a year ago and was lucky to find and apt in an old building with the marble fireplace you so dearly wanted… Ive been hunting for a good, as natural as possible remedy for the marble which was obviously not appreciated by its previous tenants. This is the best “recipe” I have seen yet! I will definitely be trying this as a wknd project very soon!!
    Thank you Daniel!!

  • I love your solution for the marble. I also believe we bought the same home, as my foyer has the same marble and tile. My question is first, is there a specific name for the black and white tile, and, how can I possibly refurbish them. Home Depot suggested I replace them…I love the uniqueness of this old home, and want to bring it back to its original beauty. Any suggestions on the tile? I admire the eco-friendly and do my best, but none of the aforementioned ideas and other DIY, or home remedies have worked.

  • Wow, the result looks fantastic. But did you come across the V&A Museum’s site (Britain’s finest) in your research? The parts where they recommend, “Avoid using bleach on marble: it does not remove stains and may change its colour or chemically react to fix the stain permanently,” and “Stain removal without risking damage to the marble surface requires skill and experience. A stone conservator may be able to reduce or remove some stains by poulticing. They will also be able to minimise the risk of spreading the stain and making it worse,” are particularly relevant ;) Still, as I said, the result looks great. You must have a great gift, or have done some very thorough research, to have got it right. Well done!

  • This article was fabulous! We recently purchased a home with 4ooo square feet of terrazzo flooring & we haven’t been able to find someone to clean & reseal them. I’m antsy to get doing on them as we’ve got a few areas with deep set in stains, your poultice looks like it might be an easy remedy to try first to see if we can lift them.
    For the first time I’m hopeful that the flooring in our MCM will be brought back to it’s original glory!

  • Thanks for a very informative article Daniel, do you think I could use the same procedures for terrazzo stains?

  • Another great poultice: Bar Keepers Friend Cleaner and Polish. It is in a cardboard can like the old Ajax or Comet cleaners (if not at your grocery try hardware store). Just add water to make a soupy paste. I just did a bar/cabinet top that had fifty years of rust colored stains and left it to dry for 48 hours. Great result with 95% of stains out.

  • Good for you Daniela! Love the article and your OCD. I have many clients that I would love to read your article. And learn how you showed initiative. I hope to read more.

  • Last month I moved to a new apartment and I have marble floor in the bathroom. It should be cleaned because it looks old and dirty. Thank you a lot for the interesting natural cleaning solutions! I will give them a shot!

  • i have some cabinet tops with over 100 year old marble tops and don’t know how to clean it. Also have some tables left to me with the same old marble. Someone told me to clean it with Baking soda but I’m not sure . Can you help? Thanks

  • Hi, I have new and sea,ed marble top. Got a few grease stains so treated with baking soda paste and now have huge marks- what to do??!!!

    • Ignorant of how delicate marble is I cleaned my table with bleach to disinfect it and now have a gritty surface . What can I do to restore its lustre?

  • Someone suggested using Barkeeper’s Friend to clean marble, but I’d be wary of using it as one of its main ingredients is oxalic acid. It’s a strong enough acid to etch the marble, I should think.

    • Ah … sorry about that. I may be wrong. Seems that oxalic acid is one of the main ingredients in the polishing powder used to re-finish marble surfaces. Apparently, it ‘fuses’ the crystalline surface of the marble, effectively sealing the porous holes. So Barkeeper’s Friend may be just the thing!

  • Thank you for all your information I was trying to do this for my coffe table (marble) and I was wondering since I have calcium carbonate at home (I use to make chalk paint) do you know the recipie to make to clean the marble?
    Thank you in advance

  • Thanks! Can’t believe how difficult it is to find instructions on how to clean and restore marble. I let minerals from our hard water build up on shower walls and the marble cleaners and polishes on the market are useless at this point. wish me luck!

  • Thank you for this information. My front door looks just like your pic. I live in a 92 year old building full of marble in the hallways, unfortunately, totally neglected by the landlord. I will try your solution. It is amazing how little information there is on the Web. All one sees is ads.

  • Hello from France via England. LOVED this blog. Made me giggle. Comforts me to know I am not the only one suffering from OCD. I am doing up my 8th house. Mad. Mad. I have red paint on my white marble patio table but after this ace info it won’t be there long. Thank you

  • Thank you!!! I was I received a dresser,wash stand and table all marble topped. Wash stand is the worst I was ready top give up on the top with a shelf for the soap. It is rough and no shine at all. That suites me fine but the texture yuck. I was going to put it back together and place it in my foyer. I ran my fingernails over it and had black grime. I looked up cleaning marble and got your blog. Looks like this will work

  • I have marble steps, big solid rectangular blocks stacked together to make the steps. I have done all of the wrong things to reverse the stains on my marble steps, left behind by a nearby brick cleaning. I hope that I can inch my errors backwards by utilizing some of your methods. They seem so solid and we’ll thought. If I succeed I can’t wait to seal and protect them! Thank you so much for sharing your experimentation and results!

  • We are restoring the shower marble threshold in our bathroom. I am going to attempt your cleaning process. However, there is a hairline cracked on one end. Any advice on how to repair the crack so it’s not so noticeable? Thanks, THOUROUGHLY Enjoyed YOUR article.

  • Thank you for such a good blog. Marble is a popular option for countertops, tabletops, flooring, and fireplace mantles. While it brings natural beauty to your home, it requires special care to prevent damage and stains, which occur easily due to marble’s porous surface

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