Stainless steel takes light touch

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TIPS FOR CARE

SHINY AND NEW

General care tips from Lowe’s:

Dusting with a soft cloth will add a quick shine to stainless steel.

Never spray cleaners directly on the appliance surface. Apply the cleaner to a cloth and then wipe the surface down.

Always go with the grain on stainless steel surfaces.

Do not use cleaners with abrasives, steel wool or thinners.

Use a dedicated stainless steel cleaner

SCRATCH REPAIR

Tips from the Family Handyman:

Have several grit levels of sandpaper on hand. Start with the finest grit and move up as needed.

Use light strokes and move with the grain. Keep your strokes straight.

Use a sanding fluid to help prevent oxidation of the metal.

Sand the rest of the panel to blend.

Smeared surfaces and grease buildup come largely from using too much stainless steel cleaner, says Karen Adams, owner of the Mop Bucket, a cleaning-supply store for homeowners and commercial-cleaning services. When using stainless cleaner, a little goes a long way.

Stainless steel appliances. They’re eye-pleasing, sleek and darned near a cliche these days.

But that ubiquity means a lot of people are wrestling with the same problem: how to keep stainless steel clean, ward off scratches and keep a notoriously touchy surface factory-fresh.

Deservedly or not, stainless steel has picked up a reputation as something of a dirt magnet.

“It is a surface that requires a certain amount of attention,” said Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports. “A good way to understand that is to go to the appliance section at a store and look at the appliances. And you’ll see they often do have fingerprints all over them.”

If there’s one silver lining to this, it’s that manufacturers of appliances and household cleaning products have heard the concerns and fired back with waves of cleansers, coatings and stainless steel alternatives.

When approaching stainless maintenance, think loosely of your car, said Scott Bennett, kitchen and bath designer at the midtown Kansas City Home Depot.

After all, a lot of the current wave of stainless cleaning products can act a bit like a car wax, Bennett said. One product he recommends is Stainless Steel Magic, which he said minimizes fingerprints and gives a polished look. Simple Green’s Stainless Steel One-Step Cleaner & Polish is another winner, he said, and both cost just a few dollars.

Also similar to car maintenance: stainless steel responds better to dedicated stainless cleaning products, Bennett said.

“You can use other cleaners or just soap and water,” he said. “But it will probably leave streaks and water spots. If you just take a damp cloth and wipe it down, you’ll have streaks, and you’ll do nothing to prevent fingerprints.”

Others say it comes down to personal preference.

Jeff Adams of the Mop Bucket, a Kansas City cleaning-supply store for homeowners and commercial-cleaning services, said if you want a glow, an oil-based stainless steel cleaner is the way to go. But oil-based products can dull as soon as water hits the surface.

For a more natural look, Adams said he prefers non-ammonia glass cleaner or a water-based stainless cleaner.

“It’s not going to give you a great shine, it’s just going to clean it and remove smudges,” he said.

Whatever you use, don’t overdo it, he said. Fingerprints, smeared surfaces and grease buildup come largely from using too much stainless steel cleaner — and the more you use, the more money you’re spending.

Consumer Reports has found few differences among cleaners and recommends consumers pick the least expensive option available, Kuperszmid Lehrman said.

Another cleaning key: Use a lint-free cloth. Paper towels will work fine, but lint-free microfiber probably will produce the best results.

Still too much of a hassle? Consider eschewing stainless altogether in favor of faux-stainless veneers.

Unlike most true stainless-steel refrigerators, they have the benefit of being magnetic (meaning the family fridge can once again become an art display and open-air filing cabinet). And faux-stainless veneers happen to be less expensive than true stainless.

That price discrepancy may grow more noticeable in coming years. Kuperszmid Lehrman notes that the prices of raw materials for stainless steel have been going up. Some manufacturers have been holding back prices because of the economy, she said, but that may soon change.

Still, true uncoated stainless stands head and shoulders above the other options when it comes to scratch repair because you can sand it.

With faux surfaces, or even coated stainless, sanding isn’t going to produce much more than a mess, said Rick Muscoplat, contributing editor at the Family Handyman magazine.

Some cleaners will fill in scratches. If sanding is your only real hope, however, there are solutions available, such as the $30 Scratch-B-Gone kit, which includes several grades of sandpaper.

“As far as elbow grease, you’re not going to break a sweat,” Muscoplat said.

But there is a certain touch involved.

“If you go across the grain, you get more scratches and can make it even worse,” Muscoplat said.

Make sure that your brush strokes are straight and that you don’t curve away at the end of each one, he said. Test your skills first in an inconspicuous spot.

The end result, Muscoplat said, is hard to argue with, especially for a do-it-yourself project.

“I had a scratched dishwasher and used the kit, and no one can even tell I ever had scratches.”

If the scratch is too bad or if there is a serious crease-style dent, replacing the door may be the only repair option. And on a $2,500 fridge, a new door can set you back hundreds.

For some owners, including Muscoplat, stainless steel just isn’t worth it.

“I spent more time cleaning it than any appliance I ever owned,” he said. “I’d probably never buy stainless again.”

For other owners, stainless is likely to be the finish of choice for years to come.

“You don’t have to worry about it going the way of avocado green or harvest gold,” Kuperszmid Lehrman said. “Stainless steel is around, it’s popular, and it’s probably not going away.”

As for the cleaning issues, she said, “I think you’re just going to have to ask yourself how crazy are you going to be about your finishes in the kitchen? How much is a smudge going to bother you?”