Stainless Steel: Characteristics, Uses and Problems

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These guidelines provide general information on the characteristics and common uses of stainless steel and identifies typical problems associated with this material along with common causes of its deterioration.


  • Gayle, Margot, Look, David, and Waite, John. Metals in America's Historic Buildings: Uses and Preservation Treatments. Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1992.

  • Zahner, L. William. Architectural Metal Surfaces. New York: Wiley 2004.


Characteristics of Stainless Steel

  • Contains iron and a minimum of 10 percent chromium.

  • Marketed for its corrosion resistance, sanitary qualities and modern appearance.

  • Expensive initially compared to aluminum.

  • Low maintenance and replacement costs.

  • More durable than most sheet metals.

  • Capable of being polished using an electropolishing methods.

  • Early standard finishes included hot-rolled, annealed and pickled. These methods are still used today, but appearance is slightly different.

  • Thin sheets were be produced using the cold reduction process (introduced in 1947), which consists of cold-rolling of the metal.

  • Gold- and bronze-plated stainless steel was also produced and used in the late 1940s.

Typical Uses

Typical historical and current uses for stainless steel include:

  • Martensitic stainless steel (iron-chromium alloys containing 1 percent chromium and .35 percent carbon) was originally used for cutlery and munitions in the early 1900s.

  • Ferritic stainless steel (iron-chromium alloys with a low carbon content) was used for the electric light bulb filament; also common for turbine blades in the early 1900s.

  • Austenitic stainless steel (iron-chromium-nickel and iron- chromium-nickel-manganese alloys containing 18 percent chromium and 8 percent nickel) were developed between 1909 and 1912 and are commonly used as formed sheets in architectural construction.

  • Precipitation-hardening stainless steel (titanium, boron or beryllium added to iron-chromium-nickel alloys as hardeners) was introduced in the late 1920s.

  • Manufactured in Great Britain for cutlery, stoves, and motor cars.

  • Marketed in the late 1920s and early 1930s for kitchen use, public lobbies, exterior ornament, railings, hardware, doors, light fixtures, furniture, signage and equipment.

  • Notable buildings incorporating the use of stainless steel include the Chrysler Building (1930) designed by William Van Alen, and the Empire State Building (1931), designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon.

  • Used for plaques, signs and sculptural elements as well as many extruded shapes for storefronts, trim and hardware.

  • Used in curtain wall construction in the 1940s and 1950s.

  • Promoted in the 1950s and 1960s for gutters, roofing, flashing and sheathing.

Natural or Inherent Problems

  • Corrosion: Due to stainless steel's sensitivity to hydrochloric acids.

  • Intergranular Corrosion: Under intense heat (900 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit), the chromium content of stainless steel is removed; the damaged area is recognizable by the presence of a blue and orange stain around the affected area; such intense heat can be produced when welding.

  • Pitting: Can occur when the metal is prevented from producing the chromium oxide film that protects it; this can result from dirt build-up on the surface that keeps oxygen from reaching the surface and developing this protective film.

  • Galvanic Corrosion: Stainless steel can become corrosive when comes in contact with lead, nickel, copper, copper alloys and graphite.

Vandalism or Human-Induced Problems

  • Dents and Scratches: Common in high-traffic areas.

  • Warping: Can be caused by thermal expansion and exposure to intense heat.