Carbon and stainless steel are both created with percentages of carbon and iron, but their characteristics are fairly distinct. Below, we’ve outlined the benefits and drawbacks of each alloy.
Carbon Steel Characteristics and Uses
This is the most basic form of steel available. A tiny proportion of carbon is added to drastically improve the metal’s hardness, but it also makes the carbon steel less ductile. Typically, the percentage of carbon in this steel is much higher than in stainless steel, and it largely defines how the metal behaves. Any other alloying elements — such as manganese, tungsten, or chromium — have a smaller effect on the carbon steel’s overall properties.
That being said, carbon steel still makes up around 90% of today’s steel production. The construction industry uses about a quarter of the world's steel, which can be found in almost every building made by humans, as well as in the construction of roads, railways, other infrastructure, appliances, and buildings. It can be used to make a wide range of products, such as playground equipment, automobile parts, structural beams, knives, steel wires, and refrigerator parts. The alloy is susceptible to corrosion, so it needs to be galvanized for outdoor use. It’s also not nearly as attractive as stainless steel, with a dull, uninspiring finish. Overall, the higher carbon content increases the metal’s durability, heat distribution, and malleability, but it also lowers its melting point.
Stainless Steel Characteristics and Uses
On a superficial level, stainless steel is an attractive metal, with a lustrous and reflective finish that is easy on the eyes. This is due to the high percentage of chromium (over 10.5%) in the alloy, which changes its appearance and also helps to prevent corrosion. Unlike carbon steel, stainless steel has a chromium oxide coating that protects against rust and stains. Some stainless steel alloys are even resistant to sulfuric or phosphoric acid.
You’ll find stainless steel in countless applications, including handrails, cutlery, razor blades, hot water tanks, and medical instruments such as surgical tools, medical equipment, and surgical implants. Its architectural uses include bridges, monuments, and sculptures. It is also used in automotive and aerospace applications, jewelry, and many others. It is used as a finish for refrigerators, freezers, countertops, and dishwashers. It is ideal for food production and storage, as it does not affect the flavor of the food. During the Art Deco period, stainless steel was hugely influential in creating decorative and structural elements that we revere today. However, stainless steel is heavier than carbon steel and aluminum, with the lowest strength-to-weight ratio. That makes it unsuitable for aviation and other industries where weight is a critical factor.
Overall, stainless steel’s decorative and rust-resistant properties make it the clear winner for many people, but carbon steel is still the preferred metal for manufacturing and construction purposes.