Back to Ganoksin | FAQ | Contact

Identifying sterling vs nickel silver

Bought a parcel of goodies at an estate sale that included some
mandrels, tools, hammers, etc., along with two approximately 6" x
10ish" sheets of 20 ga. silver metal. How do I tell if this is
sterling or nickel silver, or what? It is too hard to be fine silver,
too heavy to be aluminum. No markings or labels of any kind, just a
couple of square inches cut off one corner with a jewelers saw (clean
cut with no warping).

Thanks for any enlightenment,

In the absence of an acid testing kit, use what you have in your
w/shop to do a comparative test to establish wether its sterling or

  1. polish a corner, do likewise with sterling and compare the colour
    in daylight.

Nickel brass will have a yellow tinge. Sterling will not.

  1. cut 2 identical sized strips say 1/4in by 2 in one in the unknown
    metal and one in sterling. mark the sterling with say an S stamp!!
    Place on your charcoal block and heat to a red colour. Watch how they
    oxidise. Quench in water and compare via a bend test. The sterling
    will be softer.

If your purchase is sterling a good find!!.

My first thought is “melting points”, since sterling’s is about a
hundred degrees lower than nickel silver’s lowest. If you have a bit
of scrap sterling, you might try a comparison melt (using really good
ventilation, because nickel silver frequently has cadmium as part of
the alloy). I also don’t think nickel silver will ball like sterling
silver will, which might be another test you can do.

I’m sure someone else has a better idea (I’m still learning), but I
hope this helps!

Hello List,

There is a nickel test kit at

The cost is 15.95 for one test kit.

I use this testing kit to make sure all my metals aren’t nickel.

Too many people have allergies including one of my daughters. Some
socks have nickel in the dark dyes.

Veva Bailey

Acid tests are also helpful for identifying sterling silver. By the
way, nickel silver is a misnomer because it doesn’t contain silver,
unless it is plated with silver. Tim McCreight describes one nickel
silver alloy as 65% copper, 17% zinc 18% nickel in Jewelry:
Fundamentals of Metalsmithing (p.131). Nitric acid solutions (e. g.,
14K gold testing solution) will turn copper alloys green and sterling
silver white or gray. A drop of potassium dichromate can be used as
confirmation for silver because it turns sterling silver red and
leaves a red stain on a white paper towel when it comes in contact
with the silver. Jewelry supply stores sell silver and gold testing
solutions in small plastic bottles for about $5-$10 a bottle. Nitric
acid and silver testing solutions can leave an etch mark or stain on
metal, so do not place the drop in a conspicuous spot. The metal can
also be tested by rubbing the metal on a touchstone and placing the
acid on the streak. My new book entitled, "Platinum, Palladium,
Silver & Other Jewelry Metals : How to Test, Select & Care for Them"
has two chapters on metals and fineness testing with illustrative
color photos. See

for more about the book.

Renee Newman

I found that if I anneal unknown silvery metal, and pickle it, it
will either come out white or coppery gray. I once found two big
sheets of nickel in a closet at a school, and a student was
commenting on the temper. I decided to anneal it, and lo and behold,
it was sterling silver when it came out of the pickle. Nickel will
anneal to a bright red quickly and not melt while sterling will
start melting when it is red hot, going on orange. As for wire, I
ball up the end of wire with a torch and I can see if it is nickel,
silverplated or sterling, or even fine silver as a student
discovered which she thought it was wire solder.

Having worked so much in nickel and silver, there are quite a few
differences between the two. Hope that helps. If you anneal silver,
and it stays white after you anneal it but not pickle it, it’s fine


Nitric acid solutions (e. g., 14K gold testing solution) will turn
copper alloys green and sterling

silver white or gray.

One little problem here. Isn’t Sterling a “copper alloy”?

One little problem here. Isn't Sterling a "copper alloy"? 

No, it is a silver alloy that has copper as a component. When
referring to an alloy as a “blank” alloy that material must be the
largest percentage component of the alloy.

James Binnion
James Binnion Metal Arts

Nickel silver isn’t nickel. Just use a drop of your 14k strength
test acid, if you get bubbling and green color, not silver. If it
turns creamy white, silver.

Ben Brauchler

Dick, Regarding your question “Isn’t sterling a “copper alloy”?” I
was using the term “copper alloy” to mean a metal alloy that has
copper as the principle component, e. g., brass and bronze. Gold
alloys that are 14 or 18K more often than not also contain copper,
but they do not turn green when tested with nitric acid solutions
and neither does sterling silver. Renee Newman

Many thanks to everyone who responded. I don’t have an acid test kit
but plan on getting one for just this kind of situation. I appreciate
all the collective wisdom in this group!