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.