Nickel Silver: Characteristics, Uses and Problems

Procedure code:
501017G
Source:
Jester, Tom, ed. Twentieth Century Building Materials: History and Conservation. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2004.
Division:
Metals
Section:
Metal Materials
Last Modified:
07/20/2016

References

Gayle, M., Look, D. and Waite, J. Metals in America's Historic Buildings: Uses and Preservation Treatments. Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1992.

Zahner, L. W. Architectural Metal Surfaces. New York: Wiley 2004.

For guidance on cleaning nickel silver, see 05010- 02-S.

Introduction

Characteristics of nickel silver:

  • A copper-nickel-zinc alloy that contains no silver.

  • Contains 50-80 percent copper, 5-30 percent nickel and 10-35 percent zinc; it may also contain small percentages of lead, tin and manganese.

  • Higher amounts of copper make the nickel silver metal more ductile and more resistant to corrosion.

  • Higher amounts of nickel make nickel silver look more like silver.

  • Higher amounts of zinc slightly improve corrosion resistance, lower the melting point, raise the nickel silver's strength and hardness, but decrease its ductility.

  • Has many of the same characteristics as brass and bronze.

  • Has existed for over 2000 years.

  • May be wrought, cast, rolled, stamped, forged, drawn, extruded and machined.

  • Silvery-white in color.

  • Takes a high polish.

  • Extremely hard.

  • Abrasion-resistant.

  • Malleable.

  • Ductile.

  • Nonmagnetic.

  • Highly resistant to environmental corrosion.

  • Suitable for soldering and welding, depending on the presence of lead.

  • Develops a protective oxide, or patina when exposed to oxygen; the patina is brownish-green when exposed for long periods of time.

  • Called copper-nickel or false copper in the late 1600s due to the reddish color of the ore, but lacking the ductility and malleability of copper.

  • Discovery that the silver ore contained nickel occurred in the mid-1700s; established as a new elemental metal by Aksel Frederik Cronstedt.

  • A German version called new silver was marketed in the 1800s.

  • Called German silver in England up until World War I; called nickel silver after that time.

Typical Uses

Typical historical uses for nickel silver include:

  • Nickel alloys commonly used for coins and ornamental objects.

  • Tableware and plated objects.

  • In the 1840s, nickel superseded copper as the material of choice for silver plating; nickel was harder, stronger and more durable than copper.

  • Electroplating became the most fundamental application of nickel silver in the early 1900s; some uses included costume jewelry, keys, soda fountain and bar equipment, cigarette cases, automobile radiators and hub caps.

  • Used for more decorative and structural elements in the 1920s, such as decorative panels, doors, grilles, railings, plumbing fixtures, plaques, trim and divider strips in terrazzo floors.

  • Popular for door knobs, handrails and push plates because of its abrasion-resistance.

  • Use of nickel silver declined in the 1950s.

  • After World War II, stainless steel and aluminum replaced the use of nickel silver due to their low production cost.

  • Most buildings containing nickel silver were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.

Typical current uses for nickel silver include:

  • Industrial and electrical purposes.

  • Cast and wrought forms of the metal are occasionally found in building designs.

  • Manufactured today only in silver-white or white with a yellow tint; shades of pale yellow, green, pink and blue can also be produced by varying the nickel content; custom orders can also be made to match an older nickel alloy finish if necessary.

Natural or Inherent Problems

  • Corrosion: The zinc content of Nickel Silver makes the alloy metal sensitive to acid and sulfur pollutants and will tarnish in their presence.

  • Stress Corrosion Cracking: Tensile strength combined with exposure to a corrosive environment; factors affecting this type of deterioration include temperature, metal composition and metal structure.

  • Sensitive to chromic and nitric acids due to its high copper content.

Vandalism or Human-Induced Problems

  • Scratches and dents.

  • Susceptible to mechanical deterioration such as fatigue, but not creep.

Last Reviewed 2016-07-20