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What is Britannia Metal?

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  • Written By: James Doehring
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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Britannia metal is a mixture of tin, alimony and copper that is commonly used in household items. Though it has a smooth and shiny surface, a layer of silver is often applied to Britannia metal. Elkington & Company first developed the process of electroplating in the 1800s, which made silver-plated Britannia metal objects commercially successful in England. Britannia metal is known for its strength as well as its aesthetic properties and is much stronger than tin alone. Silver-plated utensils and teapots are frequently made with a Britannia metal base.

The metal was known as “Vickers White Metal” when it was first produced in 1769. Its use didn’t become widespread until the mid-19th century, however. To meet the demand in England for silver-plated items, Elkington & Company experimented with cheaper, more effective ways of mounting silver onto a base of another metal. George Richards Elkington, who was an English manufacturer born in Birmingham, patented the first successful electroplating procedure in 1840. Elkington & Company electroplated both large pieces and smaller jewelry and cookware items in the lucrative Victorian market.

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In the process of electroplating, an electric current is used to charge a coating, such as silver, so that it will bind to another material. The base metal must be electrically conductive to properly bind to the added layer. Both materials are immersed in a liquid solution that permits the flow of electricity during binding. Electroplating is used nowadays to add a surface layer with desirable properties or to build up the dimensions of undersized parts. Britannia metal has largely replaced nickel as the preferred base metal for mounting silver.

The composition of Britannia metal gives it its material properties. Generally consisting of 93% tin, 5% antimony and 2% copper, it has a silvery-white color. Though mostly consisting of tin, it is stronger and harder than pure tin. It is also easier to machine and can be worked in sheets or with a machine tool such as a lathe. Unlike many brittle materials, the metal can undergo significant deformation before fracturing. Minor variations in the composition of Britannia metal give rise to slightly different characteristics of the material.

Silver-plated household items are commonly made using Britannia metal. Eating utensils, drinking vessels, and other objects made of pure silver would have been very expensive, so the approach of using a different base metal was pursued. Britannia silver, on the other hand, is a high-grade silver that was used in coins.

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