Tin can

For the historic North Carolina basketball arena, see Tin Can (basketball arena). For the American naval slang term, see destroyer.
Tomato juice in steel cans

A tin can, tin (especially in British English, Australian English and Canadian English), steel can,[1] steel packaging or a can, is a container for the distribution or storage of goods, composed of thin metal. Many cans require opening by cutting the "end" open; others have removable covers. Cans hold diverse contents: foods, beverages, oil, chemicals, etc. Steel cans are made of tinplate (tin-coated steel) or of tin-free steel. In some locations, even aluminium cans are called "tin cans".


The tin canning process was allegedly invented by Frenchman Philippe de Girard and the idea passed to British merchant Peter Durand who was used as an agent to patent Girard's idea in 1810.[2] The canning concept was based on experimental food preservation work in glass containers the year before by the French inventor Nicholas Appert. Durand did not pursue food canning, but, in 1812, sold his patent to two Englishmen, Bryan Donkin and John Hall, who refined the process and product, and set up the world's first commercial canning factory on Southwark Park Road, London. By 1813 they were producing their first tin canned goods for the Royal Navy.

Early tin cans were sealed by soldering with a tin-lead alloy, which could lead to lead poisoning. Infamously, in the 1845 Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, crew members suffered from severe lead poisoning, thought to be caused by eating tin canned food. More recent research suggests the lead poisoning was more likely to have been caused by the water pipe system on the two ships.

In 1901 in the United States, the American Can Company was founded, at the time producing 90% of United States tin cans.[3]


Most cans are right circular cylinders with identical and parallel round tops and bottoms with vertical sides. However, where the small volume to be contained and/or the shape of the contents suggests it, the top and bottom may be rounded-corner rectangles or ovals. Other contents may justify a can that is overall somewhat conical in shape.

The fabrication of most cans results in at least one "rim", a narrow ring whose outside diameter is slightly larger than that of the rest of the can. The flat surfaces of rimmed cans are recessed from the edge of any rim (toward the middle of the can) by about the width of the rim; the inside diameter of a rim, adjacent to this recessed surface, is slightly smaller than the inside diameter of the rest of the can.

Three-piece can construction results in top and bottom rims; in two-piece construction, one piece is a flat top and the other a deep-drawn cup-shaped piece that combines the (at least roughly) cylindrical wall and the round base; the transition between the wall and base is usually somewhat gradual. Such cans have a single rim at the top. Some cans have a separate cover that slides onto the top or sometimes is hinged.

Two piece steel cans can be made by "drawing" to form the bottom and sides and adding an "end" at the top: these do not have side seams. Cans can be fabricated with separate slip-on, or friction fit covers and with covers attached by hinges. Various easy opening methods are available.[4]

In the mid-20th century, a few milk products were packaged in nearly rimless cans, reflecting different construction; in this case, one flat surface had a hole (for filling the nearly complete can) that was sealed after filling with a quickly solidifying drop of molten solder. Concern arose that the milk contained unsafe levels of lead leached from this solder plug.


An empty tin can

No cans currently in wide use are composed primarily or wholly of tin; that term rather reflects the nearly exclusive use in cans, until the second half of the 20th century, of tinplate steel which combined the physical strength and relatively low price of steel with the corrosion resistance of tin. Depending on the contents and available coatings. Tin-free steel is also used.

In some locations any metal can, even aluminium, might be called a "tin can". Use of aluminium in cans began in 1957.[6] Aluminium is less costly than tin-plated steel but offers the same resistance to corrosion in addition to greater malleability, resulting in ease of manufacture; this gave rise to the two-piece can, where all but the top of the can is simply stamped out of a single piece of aluminium, rather than laboriously constructed from three pieces of steel.

A can usually has a printed paper or plastic label glued to the outside of the curved surface, indicating its contents. Some labels contain additional information, such as recipes, on the reverse side. A label can also be printed directly onto the metal.

In modern times, the majority of food cans in the UK[7] have been lined with a plastic coating containing bisphenol A (BPA). The leaching of BPA into the can's contents is currently (as of 2013) being investigated as a potential health hazard.

Standard sizes

Coffee tin with slip-on cover

Cans come in a variety of shapes. Two common ones are the "soup tin" or the "tuna tin." Walls are often stiffened with ribs, especially on larger cans, to help the can resist dents that can cause seams to split.

Can sizes in the United States have an assortment of designations and sizes. For example, size 7/8 contains one serving of half a cup with an estimated weight of 4 ounces; size 1 "picnic" has two or three servings totalling one and a quarter cups with an estimated weight of 10½ ounces; size 303 has four servings totalling 2 cups weighing 15½ ounces; and size 10 cans, most widely used by food services selling to cafeterias and restaurants, have twenty-five servings totalling 13 cups with an estimated weight of 103½ ounces (size of a roughly 3 pound coffee can). These are all "U.S. customary" cups, and not equivalent to the former Imperial standard of the British Empire or the later Commonwealth.

In the United States, cook books will sometimes reference cans by size. These sizes are currently published by the Can Manufacturers Institute and may be expressed in three-digit numbers, as measured in whole and sixteenths of an inch for the container's nominal outside dimensions: a 307 x 512 would thus measure 3 and 7/16" in diameter by 5 and 3/4" (12/16") in height. Older can numbers are often expressed as single digits, their contents being calculated for room-temperature water as approximately eleven ounces (#1 "picnic" can), twenty ounces (#2), thirty-two ounces (#3) fifty-eight ounces (#5) and one-hundred-ten ounces (#10 "coffee" can).[8]

Can Name Dimensions (inches) Capacity (U.S. fluid ounces) No. 2 can equivalent Typical products
6Z 2216 x 312 6.08 0.295
8Z Short 21116 x 3 7.93 0.386
8Z Tall 21116 x 328 8.68 0.422
No. I (Picnic) 21116 x 4 10.94 0.532
No. 211 Cylinder 21116 x 41416 13.56 0.660
No. 300 3 x 4716 15.22 0.741 Cranberry Sauce, Pork & Beans
No. 300 Cylinder 3 x 5916 19.40 0.945
No. I Tall 3116 x 41116 16.70 0.813
No. 303 3316 x 438 16.88 0.821 Fruits, Vegetables, Soups
No. 303 Cylinder 3316 x 5916 21.86 1.060
No. 2 Vacuum 3716 x 338 14.71 0.716
No. 2 3716 x 4916 20.55 1.000 Juices, Soups, Vegetables
Jumbo 3716 x 558 25.80 1.2537
No. 2 Cylinder 3716 x 568 26.40 1.284
No. 1.25 4116 x 238 13.81 0.672
No. 2.5 4116 x 41116 29.79 1.450 Fruits, Vegetables
No. 3 Vacuum 414 x 3716 23.90 1.162
No. 3 Cylinder 414 x 7 51.70 2.515
No. 5 518 x 558 59.10 2.8744 Fruit Juice, Soups
No. 10 6316 x 7 109.43 5.325 Fruits, Vegetables

In the rest of the world, where the metric system of measures is used, tins are made in 250, 500, 750 ml (millilitre) and 1 L (litre) sizes (250 ml is approximately 1 cup or 8 ounces). In situations where products from the USA have been repackaged for sale in such countries, it is common to have odd sizes such as 3.8 L (1 US gallon), 1.9 L (1/2 US gallon), and 946 ml (2 US pints / 1 quart).

In the UK and Australia, cans are usually measured by net weight. A standard size tin can holds roughly 400g; the weight can vary between 385g and 425g, depending on the density of the contents. The smaller half sized can holds roughly 200g, and it can vary between 170g and 225g.

Fabrication of cans

Rimmed three-piece can construction involves several stages;

Double seam rims are crucial to the joining of the wall to a top or bottom surface. An extremely tight fit between the pieces must be accomplished to prevent leakage; the process of accomplishing this radically deforms small areas of the parts. Part of the tube that forms the wall is bent, almost at its end, turning outward through 90 degrees, and then bent further, toward the middle of the tube, until it is parallel to the rest of the tube, a total bend of 180 degrees.

The outer edge of the flat piece is bent against this toward the middle of the tubular wall, until parallel with the wall, turning inward through 90 degrees. The edge of bent portion is bent further through another 90 degrees, inward now toward the axis of the tube and parallel to the main portion of the flat piece, making a total bend of 180 degrees. It is bent far enough inward that its circular edge is now slightly smaller in diameter than the edge of the tube. Bending it yet further, until it is parallel with the tube's axis, gives it a total bend of 270 degrees. Outward from the axis of the tube, the first surface is the unbent portion of the tube.

Slightly further out is a narrow portion of the top, including its edge. The outward-bent portion of the tube, including its edge, is slightly further out. Furthest out is the 90-degree-bent portion of the flat surface.

The combined interacting forces, as the portion of the flat surface adjacent to the interior of the tube is indented toward the middle of the tube and then outward forward the axis of the tube, and the other bent portions of the flat piece and the tube are all forced toward the axis of the tube, drives these five thicknesses of metal against each other from inside and out, forming a "dry" joint so tight that welding or solder is not needed to strengthen or seal it. Clear illustrations of this process can be found here

Opening cans

The first cans were heavy-weight containers that required ingenuity to open, with implements such as knives. Not until several years later, after can manufacturers started using thinner metal sheets, were any dedicated can openers developed.

While beverage cans or fluid cans such as soup merely need to be punctured to remove the product, solid or semisolid contents require access which is generally gained by removing one end of the can. Although this can be accomplished by using something like a great, heavy knife, specialized and more convenient can openers have been devised and marketed.

Some cans, such as those used for sardines, have a lid that is specially scored so that the metal can be broken out by the leverage of winding it around a slotted church key. Until the mid-20th century the lids on some sardine tins were attached by soldering and the winding key was used to tear the solder joint apart by brute force.

The advent of pull tabs in beverage cans spread to the canning of various food products, such as pet food or nuts (and non-food products such as motor oil and tennis balls). The ends are known as easy open lids because they provide the convenience of opening without need for any tools or implements.[9] An additional innovation developed for specifically for food cans has been a new design whereby the tab is bent slightly upwards, creating a larger surface area and allowing easier finger access under the tab.[10]

Cans can be made with easy open features. Some cans have screw caps for pouring liquids and resealing. Some have hinged covers or slip-on covers for easy access. Paint cans often have a removable plug on the top for access and for reclosing.


Steel from cans and other sources is the most recycled packaging material.[11] Around 65% of steel cans are recycled.[12] In the United States, 63% of steel cans are recycled, compared to 52% of aluminium cans.[13] In Europe the recycling rate in 2011 is about 74%.[11] While much recycling of tins occurs once the can hits the smelters other methods are also used. For instance some people use two tin cans to form the basis of a camp or survival stove, commonly fueled by rubbing alcohol or other alcohols, upon which small meals are cooked.

Health issues

Dissolution of tin into the food

Although tin is corrosion resistant, acidic food like fruits and vegetables can cause corrosion of the tin layer. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea have been reported after ingesting canned food containing 200 mg/kg of tin.[14] A 2002 study showed that 99.5% of 1200 tested cans contained below the UK regulatory limit of 200 mg/kg of tin, an improvement over most previous studies largely attributed to the increased use of fully lacquered cans for acidic foods, and concluded that the results do not raise any long term food safety concerns for consumers. The two non-compliant products were voluntarily recalled.[15]

Evidence of tin impurities can be indicated by color, as in the case of pears, but lack of color change does not guarantee that a food is not tainted with tin.[16]


Main article: Bisphenol-A
The chemical compound Bisphenol A found in can linings "...is associated with organizational changes in the prostate, breast, testis, mammary glands, body size, brain structure and chemistry, and behavior of laboratory animals",[17] unborn children and adults.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a toxic chemical compound present in commercially available tin can plastic linings[18] and transferred to canned food. The inside of the can is coated with an epoxy coating, in an attempt to prevent food or beverage from coming into contact with the metal. The longer, warmer and the more acidic the food is in a can, the more BPA will leach out into it. In September 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA a toxic substance.[19][20] In the European Union and Canada, BPA use is banned in baby bottles. The FDA failed to regulate BPA.(see Bisphenol A#US public health regulatory history) Several companies like Campbell's Soup announced to eliminate BPA from the linings of their cans,[18] but will not state which chemical they will replace it with (see Bisphenol A#Chemical manufacturers reactions to bans).

See also


  1. Kraus, F J (2009). "Steel Cans". In Yam, K L. Encyclopedia of Packaging Technology. Wiley. pp. 205–216. ISBN 978-0-470-08704-6.
  2. Geoghegan, Tom (2013-04-21). "BBC News - The story of how the tin can nearly wasn't". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-04.
  3. American Can Company: Revolution in Containers, Excerpts of William C. Stolk; Address of The Newcomen Society of North America, April 21, 1960 - Printed July 1960, from oilcans.net, retrieved 16 July 2010
  4. Soroka (2002) Fundamentals of Packaging Technology, Institute of Packaging Professionals ISBN 1-930268-25-4
  5. 1 2 Soroka, W. Illustrated Glossary of Packaging Terminology (Second ed.). Institute of Packaging Professionals.
  6. Petroleum week, Volume 9, 1959, p. 82 (Google Books)
  7. Hickman, Martin (2010-04-01). "Revealed: the nasty secret in your kitchen cupboard". London: The Independent. Retrieved 2010-04-01.
  8. "Can standards". cancentral.com. Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  9. "The Canmaker". canmaker.com.
  10. Jing Han (1 August 2005). "Ergonomics designs of aluminum beverage cans & bottles". ResearchGate.
  11. 1 2 "APEAL - Steel for packaging: cans, Home, Food, Beverage, Aerosol, Paint, and Specialty cans". apeal.org.
  12. "64.9% of steel cans are recycled". worldsteel.org. 10 January 2007. Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  13. "Recyclings FAQ". cancentral.com. Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  14. Blunden, Steve; Wallace, Tony (2003). "Tin in canned food: a review and understanding of occurrence and effect". Food and Chemical Toxicology. 41 (12): 1651–1662. doi:10.1016/S0278-6915(03)00217-5. PMID 14563390.
  15. "Tin in canned fruit and vegetables (Number 29/02)" (PDF). Food Standards Agency. 2002-08-22. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
  16. Chandler, BV; Clegg, K Marry (1970). "Pink discoloration in canned pears I.—Role of tin in pigment formation". Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 21 (6): 315. doi:10.1002/jsfa.2740210612.
  17. Vogel, S. (2009). "The Politics of Plastics: The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A 'Safety'". American Journal of Public Health 99 (S3): 559–566.
  18. 1 2 "Campbells Eliminating BPA in Soup Cans". www.torontosun.com. Retrieved 2013-06-04.
  19. . Canada Gazette Part II. 13 October 2010;144(21):1806–18.
  20. Martin Mittelstaedt. Canada first to declare bisphenol A toxic. Globe and Mail (Canada). 13 October 2010.

General references, further reading

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