Stainless Steel vs. Steel: A Detailed Guide

Steel and stainless steel are prominent iron alloys used to manufacture goods. However, despite their similar roots, they have different chemical properties and manufacturing and processing concerns. 

In this article, we’ll break down these differences between steel and stainless for you so you can make the best choice for your project. 

What Is the Major Difference Between Stainless Steel and Steel?

Both these materials mainly have iron and carbon, with different amounts of other elements. However, you can only use the word ‘stainless’ for alloys that have more than 10.5% chromium. This element imparts characteristic properties, like stability against rust, to steel.

Let’s compare the chemical and physical properties of steel and stainless steel in detail.

stainless steel

Stainless Steel vs. Steel: The Chemical Composition

Steel is an alloy primarily known for its strength, durability, and economic value. It typically contains iron mixed with 0.2% to 2.1% carbon. 

Different grades further have some other alloying agents that enhance their properties. For example, tool steel, used in tools, has trace amounts of tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium to enhance its wear resistance and toughness. 

In comparison, stainless steel is known for its stability against chemical forces and corrosive agents. It is characterized by its chromium content, that’s often accompanied by elements like nickel, molybdenum, and nitrogen. This chromium forms a chemically stable oxide layer over the steel’s surface.

Differentiating the Properties of Stainless Steel and Steel.

Let’s look at the properties side by side to understand the difference. 

1.Corrosion Resistance.

Stability against corrosive agents is a major defining difference between these two alloys. Steel cannot resist corrosion well, so it rusts easily. In contrast, stainless steel is significantly stable.

2.Strength.

Steel is majorly used where large loads are involved due to its high strength. Stainless steel has higher tensile strength and hardness than steel. However, it’s not as strong because it contains lower amounts of carbon. 

However, the exact comparison of strength between the two will vary on a grade-per-grade basis. 

3.Ductility.

This refers to a material’s flexibility and the ease with which you can draw it into wires. 

As stainless steel has a higher tensile strength due to its alloying elements, it is often more ductile. However, the exact comparison depends on the grades under consideration. For example, heat-treated martensitic steels are relatively brittle. 

4.Appearance.

Stainless steel has a polished, smooth, refined look, making it popular in high-end products. In contrast, steel is duller and has an industrial look to it. 

5.Magnetism

Steel is magnetic. And stainless steel is generally non-magnetic except for a few types and grades.  

Comparing the Manufacturing Processes of Stainless Steel and Steel.

Steel Mill interior

Both these alloys have a similar manufacturing process, but there are some key differences. Let’s discuss the:

Manufacturing Steel.

Steel has a straightforward manufacturing process as it does not need to be refined much.

You melt all raw materials, like iron ore, coal, and limestone, together in a blast furnace. After the melting process is complete, you cast the resulting steel alloy into large blocks, which you can then roll into sheets, etc. 

You can further employ the necessary heat and surface treatments if your grade demands them.

Manufacturing Stainless Steel.

Stainless steel is manufactured along the same lines, but every step is more thorough. For instance, you melt the raw materials in an electric furnace to have greater control over the process. 

You need stainless steel to be more refined than your traditional steels too, so you may have to perform additional steps, like degassing, desulfurization, and dephosphorization. 

  • Degassing involves removing gases from your molten steel. Elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen affect the porosity and brittleness of the final product, so degassing is essential. 
  • In desulfurization, you remove sulfur from your molten stainless steel through a refining agent. This element can cause hot cracking and reduce your steel’s corrosion resistance if not removed. 
  • Dephosphorization involves removing phosphorous. This element can make your steel brittle and reduce its toughness, and you can use a basic slag to remove it chemically. 

And once your stainless steel solidifies, you may have to treat it with processes like annealing to enhance its ductility. Such processes are often not necessary for carbon steel.

Stainless steel often has applications where aesthetics are a concern, like kitchenware or instruments. So, it also goes through more finishing processes than steel.

Stainless Steel vs. Steel: Ease of Machinability and Common Fabrication Techniques.

Although stainless steel is more ductile than regular steel, it is harder to the machine. 

Stainless steel is a tough material with a work-hardening tendency – its hardness and strength increase as you cut it. However, you can enhance its ease of machineability by altering its alloy composition. In general, metal fabricators often need specialized tools and techniques to work with this material.

In stark contrast, steel is easy to cut, drill, and shape using standard tools and techniques. Let’s compare the fabrication processes for these materials:

Welding,Industry

1.Welding.

Steel is easier to weld as compared to stainless steel, and standard methods to weld it include:

  • gas metal arc welding (GMAW).
  • shielded metal arc welding (SMAW).
  • submerged arc welding (SAW).

Stainless steel is more challenging to weld and requires techniques like gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) and gas metal arc welding (GMAW). This is due to its higher thermal conductivity and tendency to warp.

2.Cutting.

You can cut steel using common, low-cost techniques due to its lower strength and ease of machinability. Use methods like sawing, shearing, or plasma cutting on this material. 

In contrast, you often need more specialized and power-intensive tools and processes to cut stainless steel. Otherwise, the material can get worn down, and the cuts may not be smooth. 

Some techniques include plasma cutting, laser cutting, and waterjet cutting.  

3.Machining.

You can use common machining techniques like tuning, drilling, and milling on steel, given its ease of machinability. 

As stainless steel possesses more strength and work-hardens, it requires specialized techniques. Typical ones include face-milling and high-speed drilling.

Cost Comparison of Steel and Stainless Steel.

Given the differences in manufacturing techniques, fabrication techniques, and raw materials, the cost of both these iron alloys vary. 

Let’s discuss how the prices of stainless steel and steel are affected by such factors. 

1.The Raw Material Cost

Steel primarily has carbon as its alloying element, and carbon is inexpensive. Other elements can be present depending on the grade under consideration, but their amount is often low. 

In contrast, stainless steel has a higher percentage of alloying elements like chromium, adding to its price. 

2.The Manufacturing Cost

Steel has a more simple manufacturing process in contrast with stainless steel. The extra processing and refinement steps used in stainless steel manufacturing add to energy and labor costs, making it more expensive. 

3.Machining and Fabrication Cost

As stainless steel is more rigid, it requires specialized tools and techniques. This adds to its machining and fabrication cost, so you’ll find finalized stainless steel products pricier than steel products. 

Differences in the Applications of Steel and Stainless Steel.

You’ll find steel commonly used in heavy-duty applications as it’s a strong material capable of bearing large loads. It’s also widely available and economical to use. It’s common in industries like construction and transport. You’ll find it in bridges, pipelines, and machines. 

In contrast, stainless steel is found in applications that primarily require resistance against rust. It’s also bio-compatible and non-toxic. These qualities make it popular in industries like food processing, medical equipment, and even jewelry. 

Maintenance and Care of Stainless Steel vs. Steel

Given stainless steel’s smoother surface and better corrosion resistance, you need to maintain it less than steel. Let’s compare some major points of these alloys’ maintenance and care.

Corrosion and Rust

As steel rusts more easily than stainless steel, you have to take special care not to expose it to moisture and humidity. It’s best to get a protective coating if your application allows it. 

Cleaning

Stainless steel is resistant to stains, making it easier to clean: you can simply clean it with soap and water. 

On the other hand, steel is rougher and prone to rusting: you can’t risk exposing it to water a lot. So, you will have to use specialized cleaners and rust inhibitors. 

Scratch-Resistance

Both these materials can show scratches over time, but you can resolve the problem in stainless steel easily. Just polish your stainless steel if it shows scratches or wear. However, with steel, you may have to sand it or paint it to get rid of the surface defects. 

The Environmental Impact: Stainless Steel vs. Steel

The Energy Intensiveness of Manufacturing Practices

Extracting metals and manufacturing alloys is an energy-intensive process with a large carbon footprint. We can’t compare stainless steel’s and steel’s manufacturing processes to draw a general conclusion about environmental friendliness. 

You may believe stainless steel has a bigger footprint, but it uses an electric furnace, which is more eco-friendly than the blast furnace. However, it does have more heat-treatment steps involved. So, the exact comparison of the environmental impact of steel and stainless steel varies per grade. 

Composition of the Steel

Disposal and Recyclability.

Both steel and stainless steel are completely recyclable. But stainless steel’s overall lifespan is greater than steel’s because of its enhanced corrosion resistance, so you can recycle it easily and more often. In contrast, steel corrodes much faster.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Stainless Steel and Steel.

Let’s discuss the feasibility of these materials.

The Feasibility of Steel

Advantages Disadvantages
A cost-effective material that can be used extensively, even if budget is a concern.  It is a heavy, dense material.
It is durable and can withstand load and variable weather conditions. Steel is prone to corroding, which can degrade it over time. 
Steel is relatively easy to fabricate – it can be cut, welded, bent, and machined with ease.  Maintaining steel can be challenging due to its susceptibility to rust. 

The Feasibility of Stainless Steel

Advantages Disadvantages
It can withstand corrosive forces, enhancing its durability.  Stainless steel is a pricey metal, especially when compared to steel. 
It has a sleek appearance that is preferred in design and architecture It is not as strong as steel. 
It is a tough metal that can be melted down and reused infinite times without losing its properties. Fabricating stainless steel is hard due to its work-hardening tendency. 

Conclusion

Stainless steel and steel are incredibly useful alloys with varying properties. 

Steel is a strong, easily accessible, easily fabricated, inexpensive, and durable material popular in applications like construction. And stainless steel is a chemically stable, sleek, easy-to-maintain, durable metal. It is mostly used in applications that primarily require corrosion resistance. 

The exact material you go for will depend on its grade and your project’s requirements. You can reach out to us if you’re having difficulty choosing or if you need high-quality steel manufacturers. 

FAQs

1. Which is better for construction: steel or stainless steel?

You’ll have to consider many factors when choosing between steel and stainless steel for a construction project. 

The use of steel is typical in this industry as its stronger and cheaper than stainless steel. You can use it in bulk without concerns about variations in weather or high costs. However, it is not very resistant to corrosion. 

If your project is based in a harsh environment, like a chemical facility, it’s best to go for stainless steel. The material is more hygienic, can be cleaned easily, and is resistant to corrosion. These qualities can justify the additional cost you’ll incur when using it. 

2. What is the best type of steel or stainless steel for outdoor use?

As the outdoor environment is more humid, it’s best to go for stainless steel with higher chromium and nickel content. Molybdenum can further enhance corrosion resistance. You can try 304 or 316 stainless steel.

3. Which is better for jewelry making: steel or stainless Steel?

Steel is not great for jewelry, as it can discolor, tarnish, or corrode over time. It also contains metals like nickel that can cause allergies. 

Stainless steel is a popular material in jewelry due to its shine, hypoallergenic properties, and tarnish-free nature. It is also easy to clean and lasts for a long time. You can easily plate stainless steel with other metals, like gold, too.

 

One Stop Stainless Steel Supply.

Whether you need stainless steel materials for your business or fabrication projects, TuoLian is your best supplier. You can find all types, grades, and thicknesses based on your needs. Guaranteed that we provide the best quality at a reasonable cost.
Update cookies preferences
Scroll to Top