What’s Pewter?

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Pewter is a ductile alloy of tin with small amounts of lead, copper, bismuth or antimony. It has been used for tableware and decorative items since Roman times. Pewter is malleable, resistant to oxidation, and turns grayish with age. Antique pewter with lead is dangerous, but modern pewter is safe. Pewter should be washed with mild soap and warm water, and not exposed to extreme heat.

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

Tin is the metal that appears in the highest concentration in pewter. Most are at least 90% tin, although other alloys can contain up to 63%. The other metals in the alloy are used as hardeners, to make the pewter practical for everyday use and metalworking. Classically, pewter was cast in molten form, although it was worked in other ways as well. It is also very resistant to oxidation, although it does form a protective patina with age.

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

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

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

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