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How To Choose the Right Metal for Your Fabrication Project

Apr 15, 2024 | custom fabrication

Appearance, application, and environment must be taken into consideration in determining the right metal for your fabrication projects. 

It’s all part of being an engineer. You’re guided by customer requirements. But the properties, availability, and cost of the metal will impact the lifetime of your design. It’s up to you to make the right recommendations.

Steel, copper, aluminum, and magnesium each have many alloys that enhance or mitigate various characteristics. The variety of options can seem endless. This quick guide on commonly used metals for fabrication will help you get started.

Steel is the king of all metal

Steel is everywhere in the modern world because it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to use. It has excellent strength and can have aesthetic qualities that make the finished product stand out. 

With steel, you can build gigantic structures or tiny parts. You can change its appearance with paint and coatings or proudly display its unique characteristics.

All steel is a combination of carbon and iron. Tweaking the amount of carbon and adding other elements creates variety in the final composition. Let’s take a look at five of the most common types of steel found in a fabrication shop. 

  1. Low-carbon steel

Also known as “mild steel,” this material is found in every fabrication shop because it’s one of the most economical choices. With low tensile strength and high ductility, this material is easy to weld and machine. Low-carbon steel is magnetic and can be galvanized to protect the outer finish from the elements.  

Even though it has a lower strength than many other metals, it can still be used in structural elements in many projects. Low-carbon steel is also easy to machine, making it a popular choice for many internal parts in larger machines.

  1. Medium-carbon steel

As the name suggests, the percentage of carbon is higher in this metal. Its formulation also includes manganese. This makes it strong, but much harder to stretch, pull, and hammer than low-carbon steel. But because it is a harder steel than low carbon, it is more prone to cracking when welded. 

This is a steel that responds well to being quenched and tempered for heat treatment. It’s a good material for shafts and gears. Railroad tracks are often built from this metal. 

  1. High-carbon steel

This alloy contains the most carbon and manganese. It is a very tough material, but difficult to cut and weld. Machining typically involves using a fiber laser to make cutting quicker and easier. 

Because of its durable nature, it is regularly used to shape other metals. High-carbon steel is great for blades and tools that cut. If you have a toolbox, it’s likely your hammer and wrenches are made from it. 

  1. Stainless steel

You know this metal by its mirror-like reflection. Made by adding aluminum and chromium to a steel alloy, it’s often used for aesthetic purposes. Stainless steel shows up as anything from shining panels to attractive railings and decorative features. 

Stainless steel rail

It’s not just for looks, either. This metal is often the choice for projects that need corrosion resistance, which makes it suitable for aerospace and automotive applications. It also has antibacterial properties that are valuable in medical instruments. 

  1. Tool steel

Tool steel is one of the toughest metals. It’s made by adding other metals into the alloy mix. Tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium all deliver unique properties to carbon steel. Because of this, there are many grades of tool steel. Which one you require will depend on its application.  

This steel is generally characterized by being abrasion and wear-resistant. It doesn’t deform easily and holds its shape well at high temperatures or under impact. You find it in hand tools, stamping machines, and cutting tools

When to choose copper and copper alloys 

While steel is the most common metal used in fabrication, copper and its alloys are often chosen as well. Prized for its orange-brown hue and its formability, copper has many other desirable qualities as well. 

Copper alloys can be useful for piping water intended to be consumed by people. They are also a popular choice for distillation machinery and in the pharmaceutical industry. You will also find them in the electronic, aerospace, and automotive industries. 

Copper 

Copper has always been a metal in high demand. Museums hold intricate artifacts made of copper from all over the world. From weapons to tools, our distant ancestors recognized the value of copper metal fabrication. 

Today, copper’s conductivity and the ability to draw it out into thin wire make it excellent for electrical work. You can find it everywhere, connecting both large and small power sources to the people who need them.

Copper has many desirable properties that make it the right fit for specialized components. 

Copper is malleable and ductile. It resists corrosion, but not electricity. It’s an attractive metal for components that may be visible. It’s also easy to reuse and recycle at the end of the product’s life.

Copper wire

Copper Alloys

Historically, bronze and brass were all considered separate metals. In modern times, they are now often referred to as simply “copper alloys.”

Bronze

We often think of bronze in terms of its artistic properties. It’s a metal that can be sculpted into works of art and is found in musical instruments. But it does find its way into metal fabrication projects. 

Bronze is non-sparking and non-magnetic, making it a good choice for springs, bearings, and bushings. It is also used in applications that involve explosives and other flammable materials.  

Brass

Brass is easily formed, corrosion resistant, and has high ductility. It is also a low-friction metal. You could consider brass for fasteners and connectors that might be in wet environments or involve moving assemblies. 

Brass also makes a strong visual impact and holds up to frequent touching. This is because it’s not only a nice-looking metal, ranging from red to golden hues, but it has antibacterial properties as well. 

Let’s not forget about aluminum and magnesium 

Aluminum

When weight reduction is a primary consideration, Aluminum is often the metal of choice. It’s non-magnetic and has excellent corrosion resistance. It’s also very durable and conducts heat and electricity well. 

Aluminum is often used in fabrication projects in the form of sheet metal. It can also be machined from a larger block of metal when required. It is a cost-effective choice that works well with many finishing options. However, the metal is difficult to weld and takes expertise to get good results. 

Whether it’s used in sheets that are cut and shaped or machined from billets, aluminum is used heavily in the aerospace, beverage, and automotive industries.

Magnesium alloys

Magnesium alloys tend to be about a third less dense than aluminum, which makes them lighter without sacrificing strength. While they are easily machinable, the trade-off is that these alloys tend to be more difficult to weld. After the intense heat of welding, the metal shrinks and becomes brittle.  

But they are worth using in the right places. These metals are often found in marine applications because they resist corrosion and are quite strong. You will also find medical instruments made from this material, as they are non-toxic and reduce complications when used on sensitive areas of the body. 

The aerospace and automotive industry values magnesium alloys for their ability to conduct heat while also being lightweight. Certain alloys work best when the specification calls for components to stretch under a load instead of being completely rigid 

A knowledgeable fabricator can help choose metals for fabrication

We realize that the quick guide above is just scratching the surface of all things metal. With multiple alloys within each metal, it takes a deep understanding of both the materials and the project to select the right metals for fabrication. 

The right fabricator can also be your partner, helping you to make the right material choices for your projects. They should be experts, not only in fabrication but also in the unique properties of each metal. A working knowledge of how different materials interact will ensure that components are compatible with your overall design.

At Impact Fab, we know a high-quality partner is the key to delivering high-quality parts. We’ve been the easy button for engineers, making sure your quality standards and deadlines are met since 1994.

We don’t just build something to spec — we think about the end result. We’ll review your design with you and make sure it’s going to achieve the desired result. And that includes offering expert suggestions if there are better materials you should consider for your project. 

Contact us, and let’s see what we can build together.