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What is the Difference Between Tool Steel and Stainless Steel?

Published by Lucy Thurston on

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Due to the numerous applications and versatility of steel angles and other steel shapes, it can be easy to confuse the multiple types. Steel is renowned for its durability and strength alike; however, there are various subcategories of steel, each of which has its own characteristics that help it serve specific purposes. Tool steel and stainless steel are just two of these categories and, while they share a handful of similarities, they’re fundamentally different when it comes to their composition, properties, and applications. Each of these differences is explored in further detail below

The Composition of Tool Steel vs Stainless Steel Sheet Metal

To start with, what sets tool steel and stainless steel apart from one another is their composition. Any stainless steel tube suppliers will be able to tell you that tool steel is predominantly made of iron, as well as carbon and other alloying elements. These alloying elements include tungsten, vanadium, molybdenum, and chromium. What varies most is the carbon content, as this can range anywhere from 0.5% to 1.5%, which affects the wear resistance and hardness of the steel.

On the other side of the coin, stainless steel is still an iron alloy; however, it contains a minimum of 10.5% chromium by mass. From this, a passive chromium oxide layer is formed on the surface, resulting in exceptional corrosion resistance. In order to enhance specific properties, titanium, molybdenum, or nickel can also be added.

The Properties of Stainless Steel vs Tool Steel Grades

The properties of stainless steel vs tool steel will also be identified by sheet steel suppliers as a clear difference between the two. For instance, stainless steel is renowned for its corrosion resistance. Consequently, it’s an ideal metal for applications in which exposure to harsh environments, chemicals, and moisture can be a problem. On top of this, stainless steel boasts impact resistance, ductility, and strength, which places it as a versatile choice for a number of architectural elements, medical equipment, kitchen utensils, or structural components. This is, of course, in addition to the aesthetic appeal of stainless steel.

On the other hand, tool steel can withstand high temperatures, has exceptional abrasion resistance, and boasts hardness, too. As a result, in instances in which tools are put under intense heat, stress, and wear, tool steel might be the ideal option. Similarly, if forming, shaping, or cutting is required, tool steel could also be the way forward. This is down to the strong dimensional stability of tool steel, which means it can retain its shape even in the most extreme of conditions.

The Applications of Tool Steel vs Stainless Steel

Whether it’s a steel flat or another shape of the metal, the applications of tool steel vs stainless steel differ. Take tool steel, for example, which is widely used in the manufacturing and production of cutting tools, dies, moulds, and numerous other types of machinery components. Therefore, tool steel is most commonly used in the toolmaking, construction, aerospace, and automotive industries. This is because it’s capable of withstanding demanding conditions, including heavy loads, abrasive materials, and high temperatures.

As far as medical instruments, food processing equipment, storage tanks, or pipelines are concerned, stainless steel is the preferred choice. This is in addition to its applications in automotive components, jewellery, cutlery, kitchen appliances, and architectural projects. Similarly, the varying grades of the metal will result in changing levels of heat resistance, strength, and corrosion resistance.

The Machinability of Stainless Steel vs Tool Steel

One pro that stainless steel has is that it tends to be more machinable than tool steel; however, this doesn’t mean that it’s without its challenges. In fact, its tendency to work-harden and its high strength can result in difficulty in achieving high finishes, as well as increased tool wear. This is where modern machining techniques come in to make efficient work with stainless steel more manageable.

As previously mentioned, it can be challenging to machine tool steel because of its abrasiveness and hardness. In fact, specialised tools and techniques are often required to effectively fashion tool steel components.

The Cost of Tool Steel vs Stainless Steel

Naturally, cost considerations come into everything, and the comparison between tool steel and stainless steel is no exception. That said, tool steel can be relatively expensive as a result of its heat treatment requirements and specific alloying elements. Despite this, the cost is by no means unreasonable, as tool steel boasts a number of superior properties, which results in an improved performance in demanding applications and an extended tool life.

Generally speaking, stainless steel is more cost-effective than tool steel; however, the multiple finishes and grades mean that prices can vary significantly. Typically, though, the lower the grade of stainless steel, the more affordable it will be.

A Tool Steel and Stainless Steel Shop Near Me

As quality steel suppliers in the UK, Rapid Metals is home to tool steel and stainless steel alike, meaning you can get your hands on various materials for any number of projects. To learn more about the differences between tool steel and stainless steel, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

We look forward to hearing from you and helping you make the right decisions regarding all things metal.

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