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What is Brass?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Brass is a buttery yellow alloy of zinc and copper which has been manufactured for thousands of years in many parts of the world. Its uses vary depending on the percentages of zinc and copper, and which other metals have been added to alloy to bring out specific properties, but they include cartridge cases for weapons, pipes, weatherstripping, decorative accents on homes, musical instruments, and household ornaments. The color of the alloy will also vary, depending on the amount of zinc: brass gets lighter in color with additional zinc, and can reach a pale yellow stage.

Basic brass has approximately 67% copper and 33% zinc, making it stronger and more durable than copper, although not as strong as metals like steel. Alloys with even less zinc start to turn reddish in color, and are sometimes called red brass. Other metals are sometimes added to the alloy include lead to make the metal more workable by machine, tin, arsenic, and antimony to resist corrosion, and iron to make it harder and easier to forge.

Numerous terms are used to talk about this metal, including “cartridge brass” and "Dutch brass," but in the United States, brass is assigned a number under the Unified Numbering System. All alloys are first designated by the letter C, for copper, followed by five digits that provide specific information about that alloy. If the number starts with one through seven, the brass can be machined or forged, while numbers starting eights and nines refer to metals that can only be worked through casting.

Brass and bronze, an alloy made from copper and tin, have been made for thousands of years, although brass was often made by accident. Early intentional brass was actually made with calamine, a mineral which contains zinc. By 200 BC, China was differentiating between the two alloys, and in 300 AD, Germany and the Netherlands became well known in Europe for their brass. In 1746, the properties of zinc came to be more generally understood, and England patented the technique for producing the metal in 1781. By 1852, it had paved the way to early automatic weapons, as cartridges made from this metal alloy could expand to fill the breech of the gun during firing and then contract for rapid removal afterwards.

Commercial brass is usually lacquered to resist corrosion, as the metal is highly subject to corrosion. Caring for it around the home should take this lacquer into account, as you do not want to accidentally remove it. Never use highly abrasive cleaners, as they can scratch it. If you know that it is lacquered, use a specialized polish in very small amounts to lay a thin layer of protection on the brass, and buff it out. For raw metal, clean with alcohol or a very mild abrasive before polishing and rubbing with olive oil to resist corrosion. Should it become tarnished, use vinegar or ammonia to lift the tarnish, or use a mixture of lemon and salt to gently rub it out before polishing.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon942550 — On Mar 27, 2014

How was brass first used?

By anon319462 — On Feb 13, 2013

I have a brass chain that has 180 stamped on every link. What does this mean?

By clabooco — On Dec 20, 2012

Can you use different polishes to bring out the zinc (yellow) color or copper (reddish) color? Lemon and salt produced a very red brass and I was looking for the more yellow "look" of this alloy.

By anon302135 — On Nov 07, 2012

Is brass a mineral?

By Dave96 — On Dec 26, 2011

How much does "pure" brass cost per gram?

By anon233857 — On Dec 09, 2011

Yes. Brass can melt.

By anon170279 — On Apr 25, 2011

can brass melt?

By anon153107 — On Feb 16, 2011

what is the current ppo (price per ounce) of brass?

By anon112348 — On Sep 20, 2010

will brass break?

By anon111122 — On Sep 15, 2010

are there many types of brass?

By anon94014 — On Jul 06, 2010

what does 8 -7 and symbol (not sure if this is correct) vcm mean on the bottom of heavy brass?

By anon77116 — On Apr 13, 2010

how conductive is brass? and is brass magnetic?

By anon72600 — On Mar 23, 2010

Brass is non magnetic.

By anon65388 — On Feb 12, 2010

i thought brass was corrosion resistant.

By anon61270 — On Jan 19, 2010

will brass burn?

By john1373 — On Jan 17, 2010

Brass has never been manufactured for thousands of years all over the world. This is a sweeping generalization. In remote continents like Australia it was only introduced from Asia or Europe only hundreds of years back. Refer to "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond.

By anon50181 — On Oct 26, 2009

is brass magnetic?

By anon21844 — On Nov 23, 2008

is it heavy compared to the other metals?

By anon17815 — On Sep 08, 2008

What is the material called "Bronze RG10". Not easy to find the properties.

By anon7706 — On Feb 01, 2008

how conductive is brass?

By anon1512 — On Jun 01, 2007

what are the limitations of brass?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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