What Are The Different Types of Ferrous Metals and Their Uses?

Steel is often perceived as a basic blend of iron and carbon, yet its complexity extends far beyond this common misconception. Contrary to popular belief, more than 3,500 distinct grades of steel exist. The variety in steel grades comes from the different amounts of carbon, the addition of other alloying elements, and the various ways manufacturers make them.

4 Types Of Steel

Experts categorize steel into four primary groups — Carbon, Alloy, Stainless, and Tool. Each type has a unique composition and set of applications. So, what exactly are these different types of steel made of, and what purposes do they serve?

  1. Carbon Steels

Carbon steels are primarily iron and carbon, with only minimal amounts of other elements. This category is the most prevalent among the four types of steel, making up about 90% of all steel production.

There are three subcategories of Carbon Steel, distinguished by the amount of carbon present in the alloy:

  • Low-Carbon Steels/Mild Steels: This subgroup contains up to 0.3% carbon. Due to their ease of shaping and welding, mild steels are commonly used in applications such as construction beams, automotive panels, and furniture.
  • Medium Carbon Steels: With a carbon content ranging from 0.3% to 0.6%, medium carbon steels offer increased strength compared to mild steels. They are often utilized in structural components, gears, axles, and shafts.
  • High Carbon Steels: These contain more than 0.6% carbon, providing exceptional hardness and wear resistance. They are commonly used in cutting tools, knives, springs, and wire products where hardness and durability are critical. Due to their cost-effectiveness and sufficient strength for major construction projects, companies produce these steels in large volumes.
  1. Alloy Steels

Alloy steels are formed by introducing extra alloying elements such as nickel, copper, chromium, and/or aluminum into the steel composition. This improves the steel’s properties including strength, ductility, resistance to corrosion, and ease of machining.

Here’s how different alloying elements contribute to enhancing steel properties:

  • Chromium: Enhances toughness and resistance to wear and tear.
  • Silicon: Improves magnetic properties, beneficial for generators, motors, and transformers. It also acts as a deoxidizer, reducing defects.
  • Nickel: Boosts strength, toughness, and corrosion resistance.
  • Aluminum: Lightweight and heat-resistant, ideal for hot exhaust systems and generators.
  • Cobalt: Increases heat resistance, suitable for high-speed power tools, and improves cutting capabilities.
  • Vanadium: Enhances strength, toughness, and wear resistance, particularly useful in high-power tools.
  • Manganese: Creates impact-resistant steel with increased strength and hardenability, utilized in structural applications, safes, and security materials.
  • Molybdenum: Strengthens steel at high temperatures and improves corrosion resistance, commonly found in high-pressure industries like underwater, oil, and gas.
  • Copper: Offers electrical conduction properties, frequently used in electrical applications.
  1. Stainless Steels

Stainless steels comprise 10-20% chromium as their primary alloying element and additional elements like nickel, silicon, manganese, and carbon.

These steels exhibit exceptional corrosion resistance, which makes them ideal for outdoor construction where they can withstand harsh weather conditions. Moreover, they are extensively employed in electrical equipment. For instance, 304 Stainless Steel can endure environmental factors while safeguarding electrical components.

Stainless steel is also predominantly favored across industries for its hygienic properties. It is commonly used in medical instruments, piping systems, cutting implements, and food processing machinery.

  1. Tool Steels

As the name suggests, tool steels are highly proficient in cutting and drilling applications. Their exceptional performance is attributed to the presence of tungsten, molybdenum, cobalt, and vanadium, which enhance their resistance to heat and overall durability. 

Due to their ability to maintain shape even under intense usage, they are the preferred material for a wide range of hand tools. They’re commonly used to manufacture drill bits, saw blades, cutters, dies, and punches.

What are the Different Grades of Steel?

Steel grading systems are crucial in categorizing steel types based on their unique properties and applications. These systems provide a standardized way to differentiate between steel grades, ensuring quality and consistency across industries.

For example, cooling heated steel can significantly impact its molecular strength. The time the material is exposed to critical temperature during cooling is also very important. Specific heat-treatment processes can result in different grades, even for steel sheets with identical alloy content.

The ASTM Grading System

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) utilizes a comprehensive grading system to classify metals. Each metal is assigned a letter prefix denoting its overall category, with “A” representing iron and steel materials. Furthermore, a sequentially assigned number corresponds to the metal’s specific properties, providing a standardized method for classification.


Consider ASTM A36 steel, a commonly used structural steel in construction projects. In this designation:

  • “A” signifies iron and steel materials.
  • “36” denotes the minimum yield strength of the steel, measured in kilopounds per square inch (ksi). In the case of ASTM A36, the minimum yield strength is 36 ksi.

The SAE Grading System

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) employs a four-digit numerical system for classifying steel. The first two digits indicate the type of steel and the concentration of alloying elements present, while the last two digits represent the metal’s carbon concentration. This system facilitates precise identification and categorizing of steel grades based on their composition.


Let’s consider the classification “SAE 1040 steel”:

  • The first two digits, “10,” indicate the steel type and the concentration of alloying elements present. In this case, the steel belongs to the 10xx series, which typically denotes plain carbon steel.
  • The last two digits, “40,” represent the metal’s carbon concentration. In SAE 1040 steel, the carbon concentration is approximately 0.40%.

Steel grading standards are essential for scientists, engineers, architects, and government agencies involved in material selection and construction projects. By showing the properties of steel, these standards ensure consistency and quality in manufacturing processes. 

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