Supplier FAQ | Carbon Steel VS Stainless Steel

Posted by Boyd Metals on July 10, 2017 at 10:58 AM

What is so special about stainless steel? Can it be used everywhere carbon steel is used? Should I never use one or the other for certain tasks?

If you don't know all the differences between these two, you're not alone. We get questions about it on a regular basis. So, to help everyone out, we put together this short article. Here are some key facts about each, tips for how you can tell between them, and advice on when you should use one and not the other.

Facts about Carbon Steel

One of the most utilized metals, carbon steel is an alloy of iron and carbon that is highly malleable and available in a range of carbon levels. Steels are rated on a scale that accounts for low, medium, high and ultra-high carbon percentages. Carbon steel containing no more than .25% carbon is "low carbon steel" and has good weldability. High and ultra high carbon steel can contain between .6 and 4% carbon. Higher carbon steels have a harder surface. These steels are generally brittle and unfavorable for welding purposes. 

In temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, carbon steel starts losing its flexibility and may crack if exposed too long to subfreezing temperatures.

Available in a variety of finishes, such as galvanized, hot-rolled or cold-rolled, carbon steel is used to make an extensive variety of electrical and motor appliances because of its ferromagnetism.

Facts about Stainless Steel

Consisting of chromium and iron, stainless steel is a metal alloy used to make a long list of products, including food grade and pharmaceutical tanks, surgical instruments, wire, sinks, patio furniture, water tubing and cable trays. The percentage of chromium added to the iron will vary between 10 and 35% and changes based on the grade of stainless steel being produced. Nickel, titanium and other elements could be added to stainless steel to improve certain qualities of the steel. Chromium oxide provides a protective layer to stainless steel and prevents rusting and corrosion. In contrast to non-chromium oxide protective coverings that eventually begin dissolving, chromium remains prevalent throughout the steel.

Not sure if either of these is the right choice? Maybe you should consider aluminum.

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel – How to Tell the Difference

Visual differences between carbon steel and stainless steel involve surface finish and how the two metals reflect light. For example, stainless steel is more burnished and lustrous than carbon steel, which has a somewhat matte, dull finish.

Also, if the steel has no signs of oxidation (red rust), this means the steel contains a higher amount of iron found mostly in carbon steels. Stainless steel does not rust.

If you are not sure if something is made of stainless steel or carbon steel, place one or two drops of lemon juice on it and leave the steel sit for a while. If the lemon juice produces a black spot, the steel is probably carbon steel.

Stainless Steel vs Carbon Steel – When to Use and When Not to Use

For products requiring steel that is not reactive, stainless steel represents the best choice, especially concerning items meant to cook food. Carbon steel will react with food by inducing changes to flavor, consistency, and texture. In some cases, carbon steel cooking utensils may present health hazards.

Both carbon and stainless steel are relatively easy to manage during fabrication. They both harden to construct durable products, can be machined without cracking or chipping and welded to established strong joints.

Widely used in medical and food operations, stainless steel is easily sanitized because of its smooth, corrosion-resistant finish. In addition, its strength makes it the steel of choice for making engine parts, firearms, and processing equipment.

To learn more about the different applications of carbon steel and stainless steel, call your full line metals supplier today.

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Download 12 Impressive and Intriguing facts about Steel!


Steel is an amazing, multifaceted material that people use every day, often without even considering its importance. For your entertainment and enlightenment, we have put together a free guide: 12 Impressive and Intriguing Facts About Stainless Steel!

We hope you find this information
as riveting as we do!

Topics: Sourcing Materials, Industry Knowledge