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Rick White's got that silver touch

Arts and CultureHistoryCrimeRick WhiteCrime, Law and Justice

Rick White, owner of Vroman's Silver Shop in Glendora, pulls out a photo of a tea service so stately it looks like it would confer a title on any hand that poured from it. White says that its owner spotted a burglar leaving her house with it but that the police were able to recover the set. The bad news: The silver had been tossed from the burglar's car onto a freeway. Damage included dents, broken handle parts and what White matter-of-factly describes as "road rash."

Oh, and there was one other thing. A truck had run over the creamer.

Silver is known as a "noble metal" -- not, as one might assume, because of the element's aristocratic history, but because, like gold, it's hard to vanquish. In chemical terms, it resists corrosion and oxidation. Practically speaking, silver is longer-lived than most dynasties -- a good thing at a time when more consumers are looking to repair rather than replace.

A recent project had White restoring a Colonial covered tankard dating from the 1720s. An early owner had drilled 110 holes to add a spout, and the present owner wanted it taken off.

Inevitably, White says, pieces more than 100 years old "will have had bad history at some point in their lives." In addition to marks caused by accidents and ill-advised additions, monograms may have been removed, leaving thin spots. Too-diligent polishing also can wear away the metal.

Collectors know White as a specialist in American Victorian figural silver plate. He lifts a napkin ring bearing a once-graceful, now sadly skewed swan from a box of a dozen equally fanciful rings. They belong to a dealer in Australia.

He doesn't limit himself to just silver -- there are a number of humble brass and contemporary pewter items re-soldered and waiting on his pickup shelf. And if somebody has "garbage- disposal-ed" a teaspoon, he'll fix that too.

To repair the run-over creamer, White had to remove its handle and base, push the crumpled metal back into its original fluted shape, then reassemble the pieces. It took him 50 hours, or about as much time as he spent on the rest of the tea set. Judging from his expression as he explains the work, he enjoyed every minute.

Vroman's occupies a squat stucco building on the industrial fringe of this San Gabriel Valley city, but the view from the front door is a postcard-worthy close-up of Mt. Baldy. The business was named for original owner Vroman Boyd, grand-nephew of Pasadena bookstore founder A.C. Vroman.

The silver shop has long served customers hoping to find place settings of discontinued flatware patterns, but White was good with his hands and saw additional possibilities. After taking a couple of college-level silversmithing courses and one at the Gemological Institute of America, he served a five-year apprenticeship with an established silver restorer. His parents retired in the mid-1970s and sold the business to White and his wife, Teri. Three decades later, it remains a mom-and-pop operation.

Behind the showroom and office lie a warren of workshops. We pass one that White calls "the dirty room," which houses big motor-driven wheels for polishing and sandblasting, and enter another containing at least three workbenches crowded with items in various stages of repair.

"Originally, this was my clean room, but, you know, chaos occurs," he says.

Chaos has so far spared his collection of hammers, 40 of which hang in neat rows by the door.

White needs their different shapes and lengths to get into difficult areas, like a pitcher's hollow handle, but he doesn't literally hammer out the dents. That would stretch the metal. Good smiths, he says, burnish. He demonstrates on a sauce boat -- Tiffany, 1898 -- positioning the dented area over a round-headed tool and rubbing with short firm strokes. Basically, he says "you're pushing it back to where it wants to be."

Tools, including some he has made himself, are everywhere. So are chests with sets of small drawers like those in which home handymen keep screws. One is devoted to castings that White has made of decorative elements, including delicate Victorian leaf clusters that easily break off. There's also a drawer of little wheels, and another with odds and ends of ivory. An excellent insulator, ivory used to be set in small bands at either end of a teapot handle to keep it cool, White explains. Over time, it shrinks and falls out, especially in a dry climate.

In its pure form, silver is easily bent and marked, so another metal, usually copper, is added to stiffen it. Early American objects were made from coin silver, often derived from smelted coins, which is 90% pure. The term "sterling" refers exclusively to silver that is 92.5% pure, a legal standard established by the U.S. government in 1868. Plated objects, by contrast, contain only a thin layer of silver over a less expensive material such as pewter.

From a lower cabinet, White pulls out a tray with a soft, lustrous finish. The secret of its glow, he says, is not the metal's purity -- it's coin silver -- but its normal use and cleaning.

Sterling, White says, is relatively easy to restore. Even flatware discolored by years of dishwasher abuse can be brought back to a respectable shine for about $3 to $5 a piece. Restoring silver plate involves more processes and tends to be more expensive. First the old outer layer of silver must be stripped off. Once dents and other damage have been repaired, a new layer of silver is fused to the surface in an electrically charged bath. White does the stripping and replating during once-a-week visits to an L.A. facility. A post-garbage-disposal spoon will cost at least $15 to repair. Teapot replating starts at $135; sugar bowls and creamers, $85 and up.

People wishing to preserve their silver should avoid keeping fruit in it for long, he warns, displaying a silver basket whose engraved surface also is etched with an imprint of fruit. Also, be careful putting chicken soup in Grandmother's tureen: The yellow in chicken fat and egg yolks comes from sulfur, the main culprit in tarnish.

Finally, even if you don't polish silver often, wash it regularly. Dust eats the metal. Then not only the shine is lost but also the stories the pieces can tell -- of dinners with relatives we still remember; of vanished habits, like the leaving of visiting cards on silver salvers. For White, part of the pleasure of his work is having so much history at his fingertips.

Vroman's Silver Shop, 442A Fleetwood Place, Glendora; (800) 824-5174; vrosilver@aol.com.

To see our archive of "The Fixers," profiles of repair experts and keepers of fading trades, go to latimes.com/fixers. Send comments to home@latimes.com

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