The Age-Old Debate: Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel

By August 15, 2018Materials

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When a customer calls us for a bid on a job one of the first questions we ask is what type of material do you want to use?  This seems like a pretty straightforward question, but typically is one of the toughest decisions to make and can be quite costly.  Often times, when the customer is unsure they’ll say stainless steel, assuming that stainless is the best choice from a strength and overall performance perspective.   We are here to tell you, this is not true.  All steel is not created equally and each variation has very different use cases.

Basics

Let’s start with the basics.  What is this stuff made up of?  Well, the different variations of steel all include a percentage of carbon and iron – which makes it an alloy.  The steel alloy family includes hundreds of applications and different grades, however the two major variations are carbon steel and stainless steel.  Carbon steel is composed of iron and a percentage of carbon, typically between .12 – 2.00 percent.  Stainless steel is composed of iron and at least 10.5% chromium.

stainless steel

What Now?

You’re probably saying, why the heck should I care about the composition of the different variations?  This is boring, lets move on!  Well, we’re getting there.  The different compositions will impact your decision greatly depending on your end goal.  The chromium in stainless steel is what makes it resistant to corrosion (one of the major differentiators to carbon vs. stainless).  The less chromium the cheaper the stainless steel but also the less durable which can lead to ongoing maintenance costs and lower lifespan.  Carbon steel on the other hand is influenced by the higher carbon content which ultimately changes the characteristics of steel to become stronger and harder.

Our Advice

So, what is our final decision?  If your project is concerned with corrosion, rust implications, or needs to be aesthetically appealing then stainless is going to be your best bet.  However, if you’re focused on durability, heat distribution and malleability our recommendation is carbon steel.  Your pocket book will thank you too since typically stainless steel is more expensive than carbon.  If you’re still not sure where to begin, just ask one of our managers or supervisors!  With over 45 years of experience and real use cases, we are prepared to recommend the best material and approach for your project.