Both bronze and brass may include small proportions of a range of other elements including arsenic, lead, phosphorus, aluminium, manganese, and silicon. The distinction is largely historical. Modern practice in museums and archaeology increasingly avoids both terms for historical objects in favour of the all-embracing “copper alloy”.
Brass is used for decoration for its bright gold-like appearance; for applications where low friction is required such as locks, gears, bearings, doorknobs, ammunition casings and valves; for plumbing and electrical applications; and extensively in brass musical instruments such as horns and bells where a combination of high workability (historically with hand tools) and durability is desired. It is also used in zippers. Brass is often used in situations in which it is important that sparks not be struck, such as in fittings and tools used near flammable or explosive materials.
Brass has higher malleability than bronze or zinc. The relatively low melting point of brass (900 to 940 °C, 1,650 to 1,720 °F, depending on composition) and its flow characteristics make it a relatively easy material to cast. By varying the proportions of copper and zinc, the properties of the brass can be changed, allowing hard and soft brasses. The density of brass is 8.4 to 8.73 grams per cubic centimetre (0.303 to 0.315 lb/cu in).
Today, almost 90% of all brass alloys are recycled. Because brass is not ferromagnetic, it can be separated from ferrous scrap by passing the scrap near a powerful magnet. Brass scrap is collected and transported to the foundry where it is melted and recast into billets. Billets are heated and extruded into the desired form and size. The general softness of brass means that it can often be machined without the use of cutting fluid, though there are exceptions to this.
Aluminium makes brass stronger and more corrosion-resistant. Aluminium also causes a highly beneficial hard layer of aluminium oxide (Al2O3) to be formed on the surface that is thin, transparent and self-healing. Tin has a similar effect and finds its use especially in seawater applications (naval brasses). Combinations of iron, aluminium, silicon and manganese make brass wear and tear resistant.