When getting to know the different types of steel beams, what’s important to look out for?
Beams are a structural steel shape designed to carry heavy loads with supports at two points or more. However, even seemingly slight geometric differences impact how well beams will bear weight and resist bending or buckling.
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So, it’s good to have an idea of the different types of steel beams to better understand when and why a structural engineer will choose one beam type over another. First, let’s take a look at how steel beams are made.
How are steel beams made?
There are two primary ways to fabricate steel beams: welding and hot rolling.
Hot rolled steel beams
Beams are a hot rolled structural steel product. Steel resists shaping when it’s cold. So, the first step in making steel beams is to heat the steel. To do this, steel goes through a furnace with automatic burner control systems to maintain target temperatures, utilizing complex computer programs.
The actual rolling is a process made possible with profile mill stands that form the intended cross section. Through a combination of motors and mounted bearings, the steel is passed through large rollers configured in such a way as to form the desired beam shape. These forces regularly exceed thousands of tons, and because the steel is so hot, it easily passes through. The steel is then closely monitored as it cools to ensure that the integrity of the microstructures is maintained. Additional processes, like hot dip galvanizing, can be applied to further protect the steel.
Welding steel beams
Beams can also be assembled by welding separate structural steel plates together. In this way, each flange is attached to the web separately. Welding can decrease the weight of the beam, and add strength. This is how plate girders are made. They are welded, bolted or riveted to form unique dimensions. For instance, plate girders might have a deep vertical web and narrower flanges.
Structural steel fabricators can bend, cut, weld, and assemble the metal to precise sizes and dimensions. Steel beam sizes and thicknesses will depend both on the type of steel beam being manufactured, and the exact requirements for the specific building application.
What’s needed for steel beam fabrication?
The basic materials for steel beam fabrication include high-quality structural steel made from metal grades that satisfy structural steel standards set by the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) and the appropriate equipment, tools, and techniques to properly execute engineering diagrams.
Metal fabricators must be experienced enough to follow engineering diagrams and blueprints and have a working knowledge of the latest fabrication software, equipment, and safety standards in order to produce quality beam fabrication. Click to read more about structural steel fabrication.
What are the sizes of the different types of steel beams?
Types of steel beams have different sizes. Generally, beams have a width, height, and length and are measured by their weight in pounds per foot. And, to account for a variety of building needs, many metal fabricators offer custom cut-to-length fabrication services.
When getting to know the different types of beam sizes keep an eye out for their starting widths.
S beams 3” x 5.7# to 24” x 121#
W beams 4” x 13# to 44” x 335#
M beams 6″ x 4.4# – 12.5″ x 12.4#
H beams 3” x 3” (small), 9 to 27” (medium), greater than 27” (large)
What are the common steel beam metal grades?
Have a building project requiring good corrosion resistance, ductility, and weldability? A992 is quickly becoming the go to choice for structural steel, especially wide flange beams. Why? A992 is an economical structural steel with improved strength to weight ratio.
Available in S beams and W beams
A572 – 50 shows an ideal combination of high strength, high notch toughness, good weldability, and great value.
Available in S beams and W beams
A36 is versatile, heat treatable low-carbon structural steel product grade that is commonly utilized in general construction. It’s easily machined, welded, and formed.
Available in S beams
A709 shows good corrosion resistance and high strength. It is almost exclusively used for building bridges.
Available in W beams
A529 is a high strength carbon manganese structural steel with a minimum yield strength of 50 ksi.
What are the key characteristics and advantages of each beam type?
This chart lays out some of the different types of beams, including I-beams, S-beams, W-beams, H-beams, M-beams, T- beams, and plate girders. It’s possible you may have heard the I-beam referred to as the universal beam, so we’ve included some other common names these beams go by as well.
(Universal beam, Universal Column)
Main beam category with an I-shaped cross section
H, W, and S beams are all kinds of I beams
Good bending capacity under high stress (will not buckle)
(S-section, American Standard Beams)
Legs are always tapered
Available in A36 S beam, and A992 S beam
Great for use in machinery like overhead cranes, or railways
Greater thickness at the web can help resist certain kinds of bending
(Wide Flange Beam)
Parallel flange surfaces
Routinely stocked with either tapered or untapered legs
The width of the flanges exceeds the width for S beams
Up to 355 feet long with
Has the most standard sections available and is the most widely used
Available in A992 W beams, A709-50 W beams, and A572-50 W beams
Most popular beam in modern construction
Easy to connect with other beams and columns
(H Piles , HP beams, bearing piles)
Legs are always untapered such that they have equal thickness along the beam
Up to 204 feet long
Heaviest steel beam
Able to support the most weight with the most bending resistance
Cannot be classified as a standard beam type
Primarily used in RV and home framing
Available in lengths under 40 feet
Provide low weight per foot
T-shaped cross section
No bottom flange makes it a less versatile beam
Act as compression flanges to reduce shear stress vulnerability
Made by riveting or welding I-sections
Economical for heavy loads
Do not offer critical shear resistance
Widely used in bridge construction to carry heavy loads at large spans
This is truly just the beginning of getting to know the different types of steel beams. Please reach out to our team with any questions you have about beam fabrication processes, or if you need help determining which beam type or metal grade is best suited for your desired application.
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Sara Montijo is a writer for Kloeckner Metals. She graduated with honors from NYU and has previously facilitated multimedia programming and worked alongside renowned chefs. Her friends call her a time warp.