Copper was once used as a metal for making coins in its pure form, but rising costs in recent years have seen UK coins become less dependant on copper, which is now frequently combined with steel, zinc and nickel for cost saving and long life.
Copper has been used to make coins for many centuries. In the early days of coinage, it proved easy to mint and was also durable, plus it’s a little-known fact that copper has anti-bacterial qualities, and is a non-allergenic material! So, why are UK coins not made of pure copper, and what – in fact – are they made from?
One reason that copper is not used alone is that it can suffer from deterioration with use: have a look at an Old Penny from the early part of the 20th century, and you’ll see that they tend to fade. However, copper is still widely used in coin manufacture, as we will see when we go into more detail, but there is a further reason why copper alloy – that is copper mixed with other metals – has become the metal of choice for coins: the cost.
Not that long ago, copper was used widely to make coins – and other items – as it was a very cheap metal. Demand for it boomed as a result, and the value of copper rose quite dramatically. In 1986, for example, the value of a metric ton of copper was around $1250. Thanks to increased demand, by 2011 that had risen to an astonishing $10,000 or thereabouts. It’s clear to see that pure copper has become an expensive metal from which to mint coins, hence the introduction of alloys.
What are UK coins made of now? We’ll take a look at each of the coins in general circulation – ignoring commemorative editions such as the £5 and £100 coins – below.
What are Coins Made Of?
1p and 2p
Let’s start with the 1p and 2p coins (and formerly the 1/2p) which are informally known as ‘coppers’, and for good reason! Introduced upon decimalisation in 1971, the two lowest denominations of coin currently in circulation in the UK were originally made from 97% copper, hence the nickname and colour. This was mixed with zinc (2.5%) and tin (0.5%). However, in 1992, the composition of these two coins was altered dramatically; current ‘coppers’ consist of 94% mild steel (which itself is an amalgam of iron, carbon and manganese) with just 6% copper, primarily to give it the colour, in order to save on production costs.
5p and 10p
Originally made from an alloy of 75% copper and 25% nickel, the 5p and 10p coins underwent a radical revamp in 2011, and are now made from 94% mild steel with a 6% nickel element. The nickel is the outer plating that gives the coins their shiny silver look.
Introduced in 1982, the 20p coin remains a mixture of 84% copper with a 16% nickel content for the outer coating. It remains one of the few UK coins to have undergone no changes in size or composition during its lifetime.
The current 50p piece – smaller than its predecessor at 27.3mm – was introduced in 1997. However, it retained the metal composition of the older coin, this being 75% copper and 25% nickel, which it retains to this day.
£1 and £2 Coin
The original £1 coin – the circular one we remember fondly – consisted of 70% copper, 24.5% nickel and 5.5% zinc. In 2017, due to heavy counterfeiting of the coin, the Royal Mint introduced the new 12-sided coin that echoes the old ‘thrupenny bit’ in shape. The outer ring is made from 76% copper with zinc and nickel, while the inner part is nickel plated copper. The same metals are used on the £2 coin.
The use of copper still prevails, then, but in lesser quantities than before, and largely due to the excessive price of the metal in the 21st century.