The first tin alloy used on a large scale was bronze, made of tin and copper, from as early as 3000 BC. After 600 BC, pure metallic tin was produced. Pewter, which is an alloy of 85–90% tin with the remainder commonly consisting of copper, antimony, and lead, was used for flatware from the Bronze Age until the 20th century. In modern times, tin is used in many alloys, most notably tin/lead soft solders, which are typically 60% or more tin and in the manufacture of transparent, electrically conducting films of indium tin oxide in optoelectronic applications. Another large application for tin is corrosion-resistant tin plating of steel. Because of the low toxicity of inorganic tin, tin-plated steel is widely used for food packaging as tin cans. However, some organotin compounds (compounds formed from tin and hydrocarbons) can be almost as toxic as cyanide.
Tin is a soft, malleable, ductile and highly crystalline silvery-white metal. When a bar of tin is bent, a crackling sound known as the "tin cry" can be heard from the twinning of the crystals. Tin melts at low temperatures of about 232 °C (450 °F), the lowest in group 14. The melting point is further lowered to 177.3 °C (351.1 °F) for 11 nm particles.
β-tin (the metallic form, or white tin, BCT structure), which is stable at and above room temperature, is malleable. In contrast, α-tin (nonmetallic form, or gray tin), which is stable below 13.2 °C (55.8 °F), is brittle. α-tin has a diamond cubic crystal structure, similar to diamond, silicon or germanium. α-tin has no metallic properties at all because its atoms form a covalent structure in which electrons cannot move freely. It is a dull-gray powdery material with no common uses other than a few specialized semiconductor applications. These two allotropes, α-tin and β-tin, are more commonly known as gray tin and white tin, respectively. Two more allotropes, γ and σ, exist at temperatures above 161 °C (322 °F) and pressures above several GPa. In cold conditions, β-tin tends to transform spontaneously into α-tin, a phenomenon known as "tin pest". Although the α-β transformation temperature is nominally 13.2 °C (55.8 °F), impurities (e.g. Al, Zn, etc.) lower the transition temperature well below 0 °C (32 °F) and, on the addition of Sb or Bi, the transformation might not occur at all, increasing the durability of the tin.
Commercial grades of tin (99.8%) resist transformation because of the inhibiting effect of the small amounts of bismuth, antimony, lead, and silver present as impurities. Alloying elements such as copper, antimony, bismuth, cadmium, and silver increase its hardness. Tin tends rather easily to form hard, brittle intermetallic phases, which are often undesirable. It does not form wide solid solution ranges in other metals in general, and few elements have appreciable solid solubility in tin. Simple eutectic systems, however, occur with bismuth, gallium, lead, thallium and zinc.
Tin becomes a superconductor below 3.72 K and was one of the first superconductors to be studied; the Meissner effect, one of the characteristic features of superconductors, was first discovered in superconducting tin crystals.