History of Steel: Just What Makes Steel So Great?

How the World’s Favorite Building Material Got Its Start

You hear it all the time: “Steel built this country.” And it’s true. Steel is the world’s most versatile building material, and without it, the skylines of our world’s cities would be very different. The list of things that simply would not exist—cars, ships, skyscrapers, factories, arenas, the list goes on—is huge.

The discovery of steel

Steel was first discovered by accident in the 13th Century BC, when blacksmiths of the time noticed iron became harder when left in a furnace. The iron absorbed carbon from the coal, which changed its properties. Over the centuries, the process was rediscovered and refined by multiple cultures. For example, in India in the 6th Century BC, a form of steel called wootz steel was formed, adding carbon from charcoal to iron, creating a beautiful and durable metal. 

Steel rafters

However, China is credited with the first mass steel production, beginning in the 3rd Century AD. By the 18th Century, steel had become the material of choice for tools and other implements, and its widespread adoption paved the way for the industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. And in America, steel production was at its highest through the 20th Century, coinciding with the biggest construction boom in our nation’s history. 

How steel is made

Steelmaking is a complex process requiring a relatively large amount of energy. Iron ore (rock that contains iron, usually iron oxide) must be smelted in a high-heat furnace to separate iron from the other materials in the ore. The result is iron mixed with carbon—too much carbon. The iron is then heated again in a furnace to remove excess carbon, then sometimes combined with other materials to change its characteristics. Chromium makes the steel harder and resistant to oxidation, resulting in stainless steel, while other additives, like molybdenum, nickel, silicon, and boron, form alloy steel, giving the metal custom characteristics like high ductility or improved strength.

Structural steel for construction

The most common type of steel is mild steel, which contains mostly iron and carbon. It’s more malleable than most other types of steel, such as stainless or alloys, which are designed for specific purposes. Mild steel is most commonly used in construction applications—so much so, that it’s commonly referred to as structural steel.

Mild steel is economical to make, resists rot, and its combination of high strength, reasonable malleability, and ability to be joined together through numerous welding processes make it ideal for construction. And although it may rust and deteriorate when exposed to the elements, it’s almost always powder-coated or painted when there’s a possibility it could get wet.

At Metal Works, we specialize in the fabrication of building elements (like pillars, roof trusses, and more), right here at our 18-acre facility in Oroville, CA. We’re a full-service provider, handling all stages of your steel fabrication needs, from consultation, materials selection and procurement, building, coating, and delivery to your location. To learn more about how we can help with your next project, get in touch with our team today.

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