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I have a wrought iron handrail in my home that has black gunk on it about 1/32" thick in the groves. It comes off easily if I scratch it with my fingernail. The junk is not really noticeable, since it is black and who looks at a handrail anyway.

How might I go about cleaning the handrail without taking off the black finish? Soap and water? Gentle brush? Metal brush? Scouring powder? Chemical cleaners?

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Assuming the railing is painted, you should use a brush that isn't too abrasive. I'd start with soap and hot water along with a scrub brush like you'd use on pots and pans (with natural or synthetic fibers). You can add chemical household cleansers if needed.

To fully refinish the railing, you'll want a wire brush. Use this to clear off any flaking paint or flaking rusty areas, as well as scour the entire surface to prepare it for a new layer of paint. Clean with a mild solution of water and soap, let dry, and cover with a primer/paint designed for metal. I'd recommend a spray, because you can find primer+paint products designed to seal over light rust, which is often a concern on iron railings. But you can also use a brushed primer/paint as long as the directions indicate it's OK for metal.

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