Wire and Cable Conductor Materials

The conductor at the center of the cable is usually made of metal because metals are generally conductive. However, some are more conductive than others. Aluminum, copper, and high strength alloys are just a few of the materials you’ll find at the center of your cable.

Aluminum Conductor

Aluminum is lightweight, affordable, and can be used in diverse applications. Although it is less expensive than copper, another popular conductor material, it is also less conductive.

Copper Conductor

Copper can move electricity efficiently and is both inexpensive and versatile. While bare copper is used often, it can also be dipped in tin to improve its performance. To learn more, see “types of tinning” below.


Steel may also be used as a conductor. It isn't as common as aluminum or copper because, generally, it doesn't conduct electricity as well. However, copper-clad steel is often used in cables requiring exceptional mechanical strength, or as a grounding conductor.

High Strength Alloys
Alloys are solutions made with one or more metallic elements. They are generally stronger than the element(s) used alone. Though high strength alloys are common conductor materials, they are generally silver-plated or nickel-plated as well. To learn more about plating, see the section on “other coatings” below.

Conductors can be coated with other metals to increase or improve desirable characteristics. See below for information on tinning and other coatings.


Types of Coating

Silver-Plated Conductors - Silver is the most conductive metal, but it is very expensive so it is used in its pure form only in extreme situations. Silver plating is much more common. It improves conductivity and widens the wire’s operating temperature range. Silver-plated wire can usually perform from temperatures of -65°C to 200°C. This coating is a common choice for many aerospace applications.

Nickel-Plated Conductors - A coating of nickel can be applied to increase corrosion resistance, and to expand the operating temperature range of a wire or cable. If the nickel is thick, a wire may be able to withstand temperatures up to 750°C. Nickel-plating also adds a layer of mechanical toughness for cables that must withstand extreme conditions.

Tinned Conductors - Conductors can be tinned to improve water resistance, increase conductivity, and to allow for easy soldering. While tinned conductors are more expensive than bare metal conductors, the benefits can more than pay for themselves. On average, tinned conductors can last up to ten times longer than non-tinned. Generally, tinned conductors are used in electrical and electronic equipment in a wide range of industries. There are even different types of tinning designed to meet the various needs of different applications. The types of tinning are as follows:

  • Tinned - With basic tinning, individual strands are coated with tin. This is the least expensive method of tinning. It is accepted under UL, CSA, ASTM, and Mil-Spec standards.
  • Heavy Tinned - This is similar to basic tinning, but it uses a much thicker coating of tin. It is commonly used with high frequency induction heaters because it can bond on stripped areas while the rest of the cable remains flexible.
  • Prefused or Pre-bond - In prefused or pre-bond tinning, heavy tinned copper strands are twisted and then fused along their entire length. This type of tinned conductor shares the characteristics of a solid conductor, but is less likely to break or work-harden in flex applications. Prefused or pre-bond conductors are usually accepted under UL and CSA guidelines, but not by Mil-W-16878 cable specifications.
  • Overcoat - This type of tinning involves covering tinned, twisted copper strands with an overall coating of tin. Its advantages are the same as those of prefused or pre-bond tinning. It is accepted by the UL and the CSA, but not the Mil-Spec standards.
  • Topcoat - With topcoat tinning, bare copper strands are twisted together and then given an overall coating of tin. Like overcoat tinning, it is accepted by UL and CSA specifications, but not Mil-Spec.

When discussing a particularly difficult or abusive application, consider tinning as an option for your cable. It may improve the overall function of the cable and can protect it from wear and tear.


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