The SI unit of mass will probably be redefined within the next few years using an invariable natural constant. Nevertheless, dissemination of the kilogram will still be realized by weighing using physical weights prone to contamination. Published data on cleaning, humidity effects and long term stability of weights show large discrepancies, indicating that not all factors affecting adsorption characteristics of weights are known. In the work reported here, an atomic force microscope (AFM) was used to study surface effects of stainless steel weights at the nanometre scale. Effects of transfer between air and vacuum as well as effects of cleaning were studied by recording topography images of the surface before and after each procedure. An image processing method was developed for improving the sensitivity of detecting changes in images. Ultrasonic cleaning in ethanol removed contamination mainly from the grooves in the surface, while vacuum exposure caused contamination to build up in the grooves. The results show that the surface microstructure of stainless steel weights affects adsorption of contaminants in such a way that grooves seem to be preferential sites for adsorption. AFM has proven to be a valuable tool for studying surface effects of standard weights at ambient pressure with near nanometre resolution.