A Complete Guide to the Various Types of Steel

A Complete Guide to the Various Types of Steel

Published on March 21st, 2023

Steel is ubiquitous in everyday life. Whether you’re talking about the pipelines that run oil and gas under our feet or the razors we use to shave, it’s practically impossible to live a day in the modern world without benefiting from steel.

So, what is steel? At its simplest, steel is an upgraded form of iron. When you dive a little deeper, you learn that steel is actually an alloy—a combination of iron and carbon. This combination allows steel to boast more strength and fracture resistance than iron. Of course, this is an oversimplification—you’re here to discover a complete guide to the various types of steel, so let’s get started.

Carbon Steel

Just a few short sentences ago, we told you that steel was an alloy made of carbon and iron—while that’s true, there are a few clarifications we need to make to give you the whole picture. When you hear someone talk about carbon steel, they’re referring to a product that contains no more than two percent carbon.

While it must contain carbon, this type of steel will not contain any other elements, like nickel, chromium, titanium, cobalt, tungsten, zirconium, or vanadium. Adding any of these elements would make it an alloy steel, not carbon steel.

Sometimes, you may see people talking about a carbon steel that contains less than 0.4 percent copper. This is something of a debate across the industry, so we wanted to make it clear that, in this article, we’re exclusively talking about steel that contains only iron and carbon when we say “carbon steel.”

A few examples of high-quality carbon steel include ASTM A36, ASTM A572, ASTM A1011, and ASTM A768. Each has a unique set of benefits and applications—for instance, ASTM A36 steel is often used in structural applications while you may find ASTM A1011 steel in barrels, drums, or automotive applications.

Low-Carbon Steel

Whether you’ve heard it referred to as low-carbon steel, mild-carbon steel, or plain-carbon steel, all of the above are talking about steel that contains no more than 0.3 percent carbon.

So, why are most steel products made with this type of steel? First and foremost, low-carbon steel is one of the most affordable steel options on the market.

In addition, low-carbon steel is easy to shape and form, especially when compared to medium and high-carbon steel. As you add more carbon to the alloy, the steel becomes more and more challenging to work with (although other properties get boosted, as we’ll discuss later).

If you want steel that has a bit more hardness but don’t want to pay for another type of steel, you could consider carburizing the low-carbon steel—this increases hardness but does not change the toughness or ductility of the metal.

If you are producing:

  • Automobile components
  • Bolts
  • Machinery
  • Medical equipment
  • Pipes

You may want to contact us aboutsteel fabrication servicesfor low-carbon steel.

Medium-Carbon Steel

You get medium-carbon steel when you increase the carbon count from 0.31 percent to 0.6 percent. Medium-carbon steel can also contain between 0.31 percent and 1.6 percent magnesium, which improves some areas where low-carbon steel is lacking.

Medium-carbon steel’s upside is the increased strength—its downside is the lowered toughness and ductility. While you end up with a stronger final product, you’ll have more trouble getting it into the proper shape.

Medium-carbon steel may be right for you if you’re producing railroad tracks, gears, pressure structures, or machine parts.

High-Carbon Steel

The final form of carbon steel is high-carbon steel, which refers to steel with 0.61 percent to 1.5 percent carbon. High-carbon steel also contains between 0.31 percent and 0.9 percent magnesium.

You may have already guessed that high-carbon steel is the strongest of the three types and the most difficult to work with. You’ll need special tools to weld, form, or cut high-carbon steel.

That said, there’s no substitute for the best, especially when you need to produce exceptionally strong plates, bars, or spring steel.

Alloy Steels

We mentioned alloy steels earlier, and these are where things get complicated. Carbon steel keeps things simple by adding carbon and (potentially) magnesium. Alloy steels can combine with a wide range of elements to achieve various unique results.

When you hear about alloy steels, the most common elements used are chromium, cobalt, molybdenum, nickel, tungsten, and vanadium. When compared to carbon steel, alloy steels are the more expensive option.

Stainless Steel

If there’s a type of steel that you already know about, it’s stainless steel. This is the material used everywhere in kitchens, from knives to cookware! Chromium provides the characteristic sheen, which is a material that makes up a minimum of 10.5 percent of each stainless-steel product.

Austenitic Alloys

The most common stainless steel on the market is made with austenitic alloys. When you want a product to resist oxidation, possess non-magnetic qualities, and come with that classic stainless-steel appearance, this is what you use!

Ferritic Alloys

Sometimes, you’ll want your stainless steel to have magnetic qualities. In these cases, you should use ferritic alloys. Due to the low amount of nickel in ferritic alloys, this type of stainless steel is the most affordable.

Martensitic Alloys

Finally, martensitic alloys are the least common. These alloys boast excellent toughness and hardness, but at the cost of their oxidation properties.

Tooling Steels

Finally, we have tooling steels—a group used for functions such as drilling. These steels are specifically designed to have high heat resistance, durability, and strength, and to achieve these properties, get combined with elements such as:

  • Cobalt
  • Molybdenum
  • Tungsten
  • Vanadium

Now that you have this complete guide to the various types of steel, we hope you have a better understanding of how each form of steel differs from the others. Likewise, we hope this article has clarified which type of steel you should use for your applications. If you want to learn more about steel fabrication services, don’t hesitate to contact the team here at California Steel Services.

A Complete Guide to the Various Types of Steel

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