What is Pewter?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pewter is an alloyed metal made primarily from tin, with a small component of lead, copper, bismuth, or antimony. It has been traditionally used to make tableware and decorative items. The metal is highly ductile, meaning that it can easily be worked, embossed, or carved. Its malleable nature has been harnessed for thousands of years, at least since Roman times, and the metal was at one point highly prized.

Pewter teapot.
Pewter teapot.

Tin is the metal that appears in the highest concentration in pewter. Most is made up of at least 90% tin, although other alloys may include as little as 63%. The other metals in the alloy are used as hardeners, to make the pewter practical for daily use and metalworking. Classically, pewter has been cast in molten form, although it has also been worked in other ways. It is also highly tarnish resistant, although it does form a protective patina with age.

Pewter dragon figurine.
Pewter dragon figurine.

In color, pewter starts out glossy and bright, almost like silver. Over time, the metal oxidizes and acquires a grayish tint. Pewter made with lead will eventually turn black, explaining the alternate Roman name of “black metal.” Historically, this material was once very expensive, and owned only by wealthier members of society. Like other alloys, pewter is more useful for certain applications than its component metals alone.

Pewter figurine of Ganesh.
Pewter figurine of Ganesh.

The addition of lead to pewter is potentially highly dangerous. The lead can leach out, especially into food, which is why old tableware has been linked with cases of lead poisoning. Because lead is cheap and easy to work, it was a very popular addition in alloys in the past, which is why people should not actually use antique pewter for eating. Modern pewter tableware is made without lead, and it is safe to eat from, although wary consumers may want to confirm the absence of lead with the manufacturer.

Caring for pewter is relatively easy. The metal is susceptible to damage by acids, so it should always be promptly washed with gentle soap and warm water if it has been exposed to things like vinegar or lemon juice. It should be washed with a sponge or soft cloth to avoid scratching the metal, and dried thoroughly. Pewter can also be cleaned with specialized polish, although people should not use generic metal polish on this alloy, as it can cause damage. Consumers should also be aware that pewter melts at low temperatures, and it should not be exposed to extreme heat.

Classically, pewter has been cast in molten form.
Classically, pewter has been cast in molten form.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon948524

Pewter is one of the most beautiful metals ever!

anon934219

You can get very pretty jewelry pieces made from pewter. I am working with pewter to make a jewelry piece at my school. Apparently, it takes a long time to polish and make it shiny because it is quite grey at first.

OeKc05
I love to wear pewter jewelry. It's not shiny like silver or gold, so it doesn't really show tarnish very much.

I have a pewter necklace and earring set. The jewelry looks almost antique, but it is new.

cloudel

@lighth0se33 – I love the aged look of pewter. It looks like it is right out of medieval times.

I have some pewter wine goblets that look like they belong at the table of a medieval banquet. The part the wine goes in is actual glass, but the base and stem are pewter.

Beginning at the base, a thick pewter flowering vine wraps around the stem and even reaches across the glass about midway. It is adorned with sapphires here and there. It looks like something that must have belonged to royalty.

lighth0se33

I think pewter figurines are beautiful. There is something about the aged look of the silvery color that makes it special.

I have a small pewter dragon that has darkened areas in its recesses. It looks more substantial than silver and very hardy.

orangey03

Wow, pewter eating utensils like a lot of trouble! I doubt you could just toss them into the dishwasher like other utensils, since pewter doesn't do well with heat and can be scuffed easily.

I haven't washed a fork or a spoon by hand ever since I got my dishwasher. I can't imagine having to gently scrub every single piece every time I used it.

Pewter utensils are probably more trouble than they are worth. Also, there's always the danger of lead poisoning. I can't imagine why anyone would bother using them!

anon273677

@anon16823: No, it is only dangerous if you ingest the pewter (basically if you ate it or if you used it to eat).

anon162368

Pewter is safe and sculptures of pewter are still very valued. A late artist by the name Michael Ricker has created some of the best I have ever seen.

anon146533

If jewelry is made from this material will it change

color from wear?

anon110448

No, lead is only unsafe if ingested.

anon90981

eating ice cream is fine! but not in pewter!

anon53255

Is there an antonym for pewter?

anon30337

Are ice cream pewter molds still used and are they safe to use?

anon16823

If lead is unsafe, should I get rid of my pewter collectibles? Even if they are stored in a curio cabinet, just for looking at?

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