carbon steel vs stainless steel

When to Use Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel


More elastic than rubber and 1,000 times stronger than iron, steel gets used in almost every industry. It’s one of the world’s most environmentally friendly materials because it’s easy to recycle and lasts practically forever.

Essentially an iron alloy, steel is at least 3,000 years old, and blacksmiths worked in steel as early as the 13th century. Today, the steel industry employs more than two million people and fuels a $290 billion sector of global business.

Steel comes in two basic types — carbon and stainless.

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Kloeckner Metals is a full-line stainless steel supplier and service center. Download our stainless steel spec sheet and check what Kloeckner Metals routinely stocks.

Stainless Steel Spec Sheet

What is Carbon Steel?

Most of the steel produced throughout the world is carbon steel.

Like all steel, carbon steel is a metal composed of iron and carbon. Carbon steel may also contain other alloys such as chromium, silicon, nickel, or vanadium; but these additives are uncommon.

The American Iron and Steel Institute defines carbon steel as “Steel that has properties made up mostly of the element carbon and which relies on the carbon content for structure.”

Typically, the carbon component makes up between .12 and 2 percent of the alloy, and the remaining non-ferrous ingredients do not total more than 10.5 percent of the product.

The higher the carbon content, the denser and more brittle the steel. An alloy with lower carbon content, though, offers a tougher, more flexible metal.

But there’s more to it than that. Adding additional compounds like nickel or chromium increases the steel’s corrosion resistance and adds toughness and durability to the product.

carbon steel vs stainless steel

Carbon steel comes in three grades — low-carbon, medium-carbon, and high-carbon. Each grade of steel is progressively stronger and more expensive.

Most manufacturers use low-carbon steel because it’s more malleable and easier to weld than higher-carbon alloys. Products made with it retain their shape well despite the force of insults they experience.

In general, carbon steel is solid and resistant to abrasion.

What is Stainless Steel?

Grades of steel that contain more than 10 percent chromium — with or without other alloying elements — are called stainless steel. This form of steel is popular among manufacturers because the chromium reacts with oxygen to create a protective layer that resists corrosion. Consequently, stainless steel makes a reasonable option for items to be used in wet environments.

Stainless steel also holds its strength even when exposed to high temperatures. This metal alloy can withstand temperatures of up to 1700° F for lower grade and up to 2100° F for the high-temperature stainless grade.

Stainless steel comes in five common grades:


What is the chemical composition of carbon steel vs stainless steel?

Simply put, carbon steel contains less than 10.5 percent chromium, and stainless steel contains more than 10.5 percent chromium.  The chart below details the chemical breakdown of carbon and stainless steel.

Carbon Steel

Stainless Steel

Low chromium levels High chromium levels
Carbon makes up 2-2.5% of the alloy The lower the chromium content, the less durable and the cheaper the steel
Usually just a carbon-iron alloy with few, if any other metals May contain nickel or other metals

What are the mechanical properties of carbon steel vs stainless steel?

The mechanical properties of steel vary based on the alloy’s carbon content. The chart below provides a general representation of the relative merits of each kind of steel.

Carbon Steel

Stainless Steel

Wear-resistant and durable High tensile strength
Susceptible to rust and corrosion Resistant to high and low temperatures
Environmentally friendly and recyclable Environmentally friendly and recyclable
Wear resistant Matte finish; more attractive appearance
Less expensive than stainless steel Higher cost and harder to make

While technically possible, stainless steel and carbon steel rarely get welded together because the two metals have different levels of electrical conductivity.


Where will you find carbon steel vs stainless steel?

Carbon steel gets used in a variety of industries and sectors depending on the grade of the steel. Although used in automobiles since the 1930s, stainless steel mostly goes into products for the medical technology, architecture, and food and beverage industries.

Typical applications of carbon steel

  • Low-carbon steel — Used in pipes, food cans, bridges, and automobile body components.
  • Medium-carbon steel — Used in train wheels, crankshafts, railway tracks, or wherever strength and toughness is required.
  • High-carbon steel — Used in cutting tools and where the strongest carbon steel is required.

Typical applications of stainless steel

  • Clean and sterile environments such as medical device manufacturing and medical laboratories.
  • Transportation manufacturing such as vehicles and airplanes.
  • Food and catering where it’s often used in cookware and cutlery.

When considering whether to go with carbon steel vs stainless steel, look at your needs and your budget. For help selecting the right kind of steel for your project, contact an expert at Kloeckner.

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Kloeckner Metals is a full-line metals supplier and service center. Kloeckner combines a national footprint with the latest fabrication and processing technologies and most innovative customer service solutions.

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Natalie Spira
Natalie Spira is Kloeckner's Acquisition Marketing Manager. Previously, she was the Founder and CEO of Fraction Marketing, a marketing agency providing fractional support to scaling startups with a focus on acquisition marketing and demand generation. Natalie holds a MBA from Tel Aviv University with concentrations in entrepreneurship and marketing and a BA in English from UCLA.
carbon steel vs stainless steel
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