5- Almost Alchemy. What are the most common living metal alloys?

What is an alloy?

An alloy is a metal made by melting two or more elements together to take advantage of their specific properties. The newly created material has desirable attributes from each.

What are living metals?

Four popular architectural alloys are called “living metals” because they can patinate or oxidize as time passes. They are sometimes said to have “living finishes”. These are: Brass, Bronze, Copper, and Zinc.

Less popular living metals are nickel, silver, and pewter. Transition metals and their alloys make up this group because of their ability to oxidize easily.

What is Brass?

Brass is an alloy of Copper and Zinc. 3 popular alloys exist, each identified with a 3-digit number.

  • (Brass 280) Muntz Metal is the term used when zinc makes up more than 39% of the brass alloy.
  • (Brass 360) Free-machining Brass is another popular alloy, which contains less than 39% Zinc.
  • (Brass 485) Naval Brass is an alloy of Copper, Zinc, and Tin.

Each of these has their own specific best uses, but they can vary greatly in machinability and cost.

What is Bronze?

Bronze is typically an alloy of Copper and Tin, sometimes with small amounts of other elements. Bronze is the hardest of these living metals, and can be the most difficult to work and finish because of this.

What are Zinc and Copper?

Zinc and Copper are pure elements, but they are mixed with other metals, like titanium, to make sheets or wire. These living metals are still generally referred to as alloys because they never appear in pure form.

Nickel, Silver, Pewter and Others: Caveat Emptor

Buyer be ware of countertops advertised as real versions of these metals. I have only seen a real nickel countertop on one previous occasion. This was as I was removing the brand new top to replace it with zinc because the craftsmanship was so poor.

In March of 2022, a run on the nickel market peaked at nearly $103MM per ton before correcting. If you read the fine print, most offerings, including “cold cast”, are not the genuine metal.

Similarly, silver is sometimes touted as an accent inlay or fine metal used for tops. This is rarely the case, and all one needs is a quick look at the futures market to verify.

Pewter is an alloy made of tin with lesser amounts of copper or antimony, and trace amounts of bismuth or silver. People often use “pewter” and “zinc” interchangeably for countertops, but they are actually quite different. 

Pewter is not zinc, and you can easily test for the presence of tin. Some manufacturers charge a premium for pewter and use zinc. The only difference is the upcharge you pay.

In the past, lead was used in pewter and zinc alloys. However, newer alloys of zinc, pewter, brass, bronze, and copper contain only trace amounts of lead. These trace amounts are so small that they are acceptable for human and food contact.

How to choose a metal for countertops

Choosing the correct metal or alloy can make all the difference in the final success of your project. After all, this decision will most likely be a statement piece for your space. With this in mind, you’ll want to think about the overall aesthetic your scheme requires.

While all living metals have a warm and welcoming feeling, brass, for example, has a very inviting character. Use a brass countertop with a dull or Scotch-Brite finish to draw patrons into your design.

Copper countertops are a great statement piece that provide the wow factor that your project might need. Use these tops when you want to make a bold statement that is visible from many vantages.

Zinc is a versatile metal that works well in both traditional and modern designs. Zinc countertops are versatile and durable. All three of these metals provide much more warmth than stainless, which comes across as cold and sterile.

Budget is also a factor to keep in mind. As mentioned earlier, some manufacturers may charge a premium for pewter, even if they’re using zinc. Specifying zinc may be a way to save a significant amount of money, so research and compare prices to ensure you’re getting the best value.

Zinc is the most affordable metal choice, followed by brass. Copper can be the most expensive of these three. Bronze is the most expensive option, generally 20-25 percent more expensive than copper.

Ultimately, the choice comes down to personal preference and the specific needs of your project. Each of these metals performs well in the field and will create a durable project. Carefully weighing aesthetic factors will help you make an informed decision and ensure the success of your project.

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