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:
08/09/2016

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We’ve reviewed these procedures for general consistency with federal standards for rehabilitating historic buildings and provide them only as a reference. Specifications should only be applied under the guidance of a qualified preservation professional who can assess the applicability of a procedure to a particular building, project or location. References to products and suppliers serve as general guidelines and do not constitute a federal endorsement nor a determination that a product or method is the best alternative or compliant with current environmental regulations and safety standards.


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 "General Methods of Cleaning Nickel Silver".

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: 2017-08-13