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    Common Metal Shapes and Terminology

    When working with metal, it is helpful to know what type of metal you are working with, such as steel, aluminum, or alloys so you can use the right type of metal and shape of metal for your particular metalworking project. Whether you are working with metals in a pure state, as alloys or as protective coverings for other metalworking jobs, knowing what type of metal is best for each type of job is important to getting your DIY project done correctly.

    Metal stock, especially steel and aluminum, is available in many standard shapes, ready to be cut, threaded, bent, or joined. The following table shows the most common stock shapes, and methods of measurement. The columns to the right give their names and indicate how they are sized. Some dealers will also take orders for shapes custom-extruded to virtually any specification.

    Channels, I-beams, and H-beams have two parallel arms, called flanges, connected by a perpendicular piece called the web. As a layman, you may find the conventions of metal measurement confusing in some instances. But the metal industry adheres to the following terminology: The length of a flange from end to end is called flange width, and the length of the web is called the depth of the shape.

    Shape Name Method of Measurement
    Angle metal shape. Angle Leg length by leg length by leg thickness
    Stip or band metal shape. Strip or band Thickness by width (pieces 1/4" and thicker are flats, pieces wider than 12" are sheets)
    Channel metal shape. Channel Depth (web length) by web thickness by flange width
    Flat metal shape. Flat Thickness by width (pieces 3/16" thick and less are strips or bands, pieces wider than 8" are plates)
    Hexagon and octagon metal shape. Hexagon, octagon Width (from side to side, not corner to corner)
    Round or pipe metal shape. Round tube or pipe Outside diameter by wall thickness
    Square tube or rectangular tube metal shape. Square tube, retangular tube Outside width (by outside height for retangular tube) by wall thickness
    I Beam or H Beam metal shape. I Beam, H Beam Depth (web length) by web thickness by flange width
    Plate metal shape. Plate Thickness by width (pieces 3/16" thick and less are sheets, pieces 8" wide and less are flats)
    Round or rod metal shape. Round or rod Diameter
    Sheet metal shape. Sheet Thickness by width (pieces 1/4" and thicker are plates, pieces 12" wide and less are strips or bands)
    Square metal shape. Square Width
     

    How to Identify Metals by Appearance and Use

    Whether you are working with metals in a pure state, as alloys or as protective coverings for other metalworking jobs, knowing what type of metal is best for each type of job is important to getting your project done correctly.

    The metals you are likely to encounter as a do-it-yourself (DIY) metalworker are listed vertically on the chart. The columns to the right list each metal's surface color, interior color, prominent properties, and major uses. These help identify the metals.

    Metal or Alloy Surface Interior Properties Uses
    Cast iron Dull gray Silvery white or gray Hard, brittle; rusts slowly Engine blocks, machine bases, fireplace equipment, bathtubs
    Steel; low-carbon (mild) Dark gray or rusty; may have black scales Bright silvery gray Soft, bendable; easy to work; rusts quickly Wrought-iron work; furniture, fencing, architectural trim
    Steel; medium carbon Dark gray or rusty; may have black scales Bright silvery gray Hard and strong; rusts quickly Nuts, bolts, axles, pins
    Steel; high-carbon (tool-grade) Dark gray or rusty; may have black scales Bright silvery gray Hard, brittle; rusts quickly Cutting tools, hand tools
    Stainless steel Clean silvery gray Bright grayish silver Tough; difficult to work; does not rust or corrode Kitchenware, furniture, picture frames
    Aluminum Gray to white, dull Silvery white Light, soft, malleable; very easy to work or cast Siding, roofing, gutters, flashing, auto and marine parts
    Copper Reddish brown to green Bright copper Soft; easy to work; good electricity conductor Wiring and plumbing; major component of brass and bronze
    Brass and bronze (copper combined with zinc or tin, and other metals) Yellow, green or brown Reddish yellow Soft; can be worked hot or cold; casts and polishes well Marine fittings, architectural trim, bearings
    Nickel Dark silvery gray, some green Bright silvery white Strong, hard; corrosion-resistant Plating, alloys
    Nickel-copper (Monel) Dark gray Light gray Stronger and harder than nickel; corrosion-resistant Corrosion-resistant construction
    Lead Bluish gray White Very heavy and soft; poisonous; corrosion-resistant Protective linings, solder (with tin), alloys
    Tin Gray Silvery white Soft, malleable; corrosion-resistant Galvanizing, alloys
    Pewter (tin, antimony, and copper) Gray White Soft-casts well; modern pewter contains no lead, making it nonpoisonous Eating utensils, decorative items
    Zinc Bluish gray Bluish white Soft but brittle; corrosion-resistant Galvanizing, alloys
    Silver Dull gray Bright silver Soft; easy to work and cast Eating utensils, decorative items, plating, solder
    Gold Yellow Bright gold Soft but tough; corrosion-resistant; easy to work and cast Jewelry, electronics work, plating