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The Differences Between Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metal?

ferrous non-ferrous metals

What Are Ferrous Metals?

Starting with ferrous metals first, the short answer is ferrous metals contain iron, which, of course, is a well-known term for steel and often heard in metal lexicon when talking about things like angle iron, flat iron and red iron.

Iron is also magnetic, which is, not coincidentally, a good way to check metal properties. Metals that are not magnetic are, almost always, not ferrous metals.

Because of their iron content, ferrous metals are known for their strength and rigidity. Ferrous metals are non-malleable, particularly when compared to soft metals like aluminum, copper and brass. Unfortunately, because of their iron content, ferrous metals are prone to rust when exposed to air and water.

However, with treatments like hot dip galvanizing and paint, ferrous metals have become the backbone of construction work and heavy infrastructures like bridges, tunnels and skyscrapers. Heavy steel, usually a combination of W-beam, tube and heavy plates, are the skeletal support for nearly all building, bridge or infrastructure work the world over!

One interesting question is whether or not stainless steel is a ferrous metal? The surprising answer is yes. (Many would guess otherwise because it feels like a non-ferrous metal, which in many cases is not magnetic).

One of the reasons stainless steel was developed was to overcome iron corrosion and susceptibility to rust. It generally contains about 12% more chromium than regular steel (this number can vary based on the type of stainless steel) and may contain nickel for specific mechanical properties needed in ultra-corrosive environments.

Stainless steel is very expensive compared to steel, usually more than double, so it is rarely used in projects where steel can be painted or galvanized.

What Are Examples of Ferrous Metals?

Steel: Iron plus carbon; widely used in construction and industrial metal fabrication

Carbon steel: Even higher carbon content added to iron; exceptionally hard metal

Stainless steel: An alloy steel made with added chromium which protects against rust

Other alloy steels: Lightweight metals such as chromium, nickel, titanium added to strengthen other metals without adding weight

Cast iron: Iron, carbon, silicon; heavy, hard metal that is resistant to wear

Steel fabrication, naturally, comes in all shapes and sizes. Big structural carbon metal is an obvious example of ferrous metals at work. Most of us have seen pictures of men sitting with their lunch pails atop big steel beams way up in the sky.

All Metals Fabrication does not fabricate big structural steel like that described above. However, we do fabricate many important projects from smaller-sized steel tubes, angles, sheets and plates. Common fabrication jobs might include roller coaster tracks, small platforms, molds and supports.

We also fabricate a very wide variety of stainless steel jobs that fit inside the ferrous category. Stainless steel is used in areas where rust prevention is a must. Stainless steel makes for fantastic high-end railing (as painted steel railing will eventually require maintenance as the paint begins to wear out). Stainless steel is also used in industrial equipment like testing chambers, conveyors, food processing, medical processing and clean room accessories.

OEM assemblies also are fabricated from stainless steel like wastewater treatment parts, transportation components and electrical enclosures.

Quite honestly, the list of ferrous materials, parts and pieces is massive and something we see and use every day. Still, it is helpful to understand the term as it is often used, and sometimes, done so incorrectly. 

What Are Non-Ferrous Metals?

Switching gears to non-ferrous metals, we might start by saying one could almost define non-ferrous metals as the opposite of ferrous metals—meaning, metal with no iron. Non-ferrous metals, because they are generally much softer and more naturally mined, have been used since the Copper Age, around 5,000 B.C.

One might guess, since non-ferrous metals do not contain iron, they are usually more corrosion-resistant than ferrous metals. Some examples of non-ferrous metals are aluminum, aluminum alloys, zinc, copper and tin.

Copper, for example, is well-known by most people as it has been used for centuries for constructing buildings. Those green copper domes atop cathedrals or state capitols are good examples of copper that has oxidized over a long time and turned colors, naturally, as the copper develops and the exterior coating starts out brown, then black, and then, finally turns green.

We often see non-ferrous metals used in industrial applications such as gutters, roofing, pipes and electrical components. Non-ferrous metals also include brass, gold, nickel, silver and lead.

All these natural metals are very soft—very unlike steel! Soft metal does not necessarily mean weak metal, but their strengths are manifest in different ways. Lead, as we know, does a great job of blocking radioactive rays; hence the lead aprons we wear when getting x-rayed at the dentist office. Lead is also, very surprisingly for some, extremely soft. Lead can be molded, formed and shaped with something as easy as your hands and a light mallet. Lead is surprisingly dense as well and will shock most by how heavy it is. The saying “That will go over like a lead balloon” is quite appropriate when a person realizes just how dense and heavy lead really is. So, again, strong, heavy, thick—but not rigid, which showcases a big difference, in this example, between traditional definitions of ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

Another characteristic of non-ferrous metals is that they are usually very expensive. Gratefully, extra expense, in many cases, is justified because most non-ferrous metals last a long, long time, which is another strength when compared to ferrous metals. Iron corrodes easily in the form of rust, something we all understand. Rust actually eats away at iron until it returns back to mother earth.

Non-ferrous metals, on the other hand, often have oxidation processes that seal themselves against wearing agents like oxygen and H2O. We previously talked about copper—aluminum does the same. It develops a white oxidization layer that settles over the metal, appearing almost like a white film. That is a layer of oxidation that prevents continued reaction, preventing the metal from completely disintegrating.

Other common properties of non-ferrous metals are non-magnetic, malleable and lightweight. This makes them ideal for use in aircraft and other applications.

What Are Examples of Non-Ferrous Metals?

Aluminum: Lightweight, low-strength, easily shaped

Copper: Highly malleable with high electrical conductivity

Lead: Heavy, soft, malleable metal; low melting point, low strength

Tin: Soft, malleable, low tensile strength metal often used to coat steel to prevent corrosion

Zinc: Medium-strength metal with low melting point widely used in galvanizing to prevent rust on iron or steel

All Metals Fabrication does a great job of fabricating non-ferrous metals as well. This has become even more applicable in today’s world where fiber lasers have entered the market. Most non-ferrous metals were hard to cut on traditional CO2 lasers because of reflectivity (laser beams reflecting uncontrollably off the bright copper, brass and aluminum alloys).

New fiber lasers use different cutting technology which allows for cutting these reflective materials without the danger of backward laser reflection.

Copper shingles, for example, are something we can now cut in multiple decorative shapes without having to do it manually. Heavy aluminum plates are another example of parts that before were hard to cut, as the laser beam would reflect uncontrollably out of the “puddle” of melted aluminum, and now is much easier to manage, allowing us to manufacture aluminum plate parts out of material as thick as one inch.

Whether ferrous or non-ferrous metal fabrication, All Metals Fabrication is an industry expert and can help you solve the fabrication puzzle. We work with nearly every metal mentioned above including steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, zinc, lead and many other variations or alloys of these standard groups. Metal fabrication is a foundational industry that has its roots with blacksmiths of old.

Contact us to learn more at info@allmetalsfab.com. We would love to hear from you.

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