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    Tractor Supply Company

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    Common Metal Shapes and Terminology

    Authored by Tractor Supply Company

    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 shows the most common stock shapes, and methods of measurement. 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.

    Common metal shapes and measurement method

    Angle

    Leg length by leg length by leg thickness

    Strip or band

    Thickness by width (pieces 1/4" and thicker are flats, pieces wider than 12" are sheets)

    Channel

    Depth (web length) by web thickness by flange width

    Flat

    Thickness by width (pieces 3/16" thick and less are strips or bands, pieces wider than 8" are plates)

    Hexagon, Octagon

    Width (from side to side, not corner to corner)

    Round tube or pipe

    Outside diameter by wall thickness

    Square tube, rectangular tube

    Outside width (by outside height for rectangular tube) by wall thickness

    I Beam, H Beam

    Depth (web length) by web thickness by flange width

    Plate

    Thickness by width (pieces 3/16" thick and less are sheets, pieces 8" wide and less are flats)

    Round or rod

    Diameter

    Sheet

    Thickness by width (pieces 1/4" and thicker are plates, pieces 12" wide and less are strips or bands)

    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 below. You'll find surface, interior, properties and usage descriptions with each metal. These will help identify various metals.

    Cast iron

    Surface: Dull gray

    Interior: Silvery white or gray

    Properties: Hard, brittle, rusts slowly

    Uses: Engine blocks, machine bases, fireplace equipment, bathtubs

     

    Steel; low carbon (mild)

    Surface: Dark gray or rusty; may have black scales

    Interior: Bright silvery gray

    Properties: Soft, bendable; easy to work; rusts quickly

    Uses: Wrought-iron work; furniture, fencing, architectural trim

     

    Steel; medium carbon

    Surface: Dark gray or rusty; may have black scales

    Interior: Bright silvery gray

    Properties: Hard and strong; rusts quickly

    Uses: Nuts, bolts, axles, pins

     

    Steel; high carbon (tool-grade)

    Surface: Dark gray or rusty; may have black scales

    Interior: Bright silvery gray

    Properties: Hard, brittle; rusts quickly

    Uses: Cutting tools, hand tools

     

    Stainless steel

    Surface: Clean silvery gray

    Interior: Bright grayish silver

    Properties: Tough; difficult to work; does not rust or corrode

    Uses: Kitchenware, furniture, picture frames

     

    Aluminum

    Surface: Gray to white, dull

    Interior: Silvery white

    Properties: Light, soft, malleable; very easy to work or cast

    Uses: Siding, roofing, gutters, flashing, auto and marine parts

     

    Copper

    Surface: Reddish brown to green

    Interior: Bright copper

    Properties: Soft; easy to work; good electricity conductor

    Uses: Wiring and plumbing; major component of brass and bronze

     

    Brass and bronze

    (copper combined with zinc or tin, along with other metals)

    Surface: Yellow, green or brown

    Interior: Reddish yellow

    Properties: Soft; can be worked hot or cold; casts and polishes well

    Uses: Marine fittings, architectural trim, bearings

     

    Nickel

    Surface: Dark silvery gray, some green

    Interior: Bright silvery white

    Properties: Strong, hard; corrosion-resistant

    Uses: Plating, alloys

     

    Nickel-copper (Monel)

    Surface: Dark gray

    Interior: Light gray

    Properties: Stronger and harder than nickel; corrosion-resistant

    Uses: Corrosion-resistant construction

     

    Lead

    Surface: Bluish gray

    Interior: White

    Properties: Very heavy and soft; poisonous; corrosion-resistant

    Uses: Protective linings, solder (with tin), alloys

     

    Tin

    Surface: Gray

    Interior: Silvery white

    Properties: Soft, malleable; corrosion-resistant

    Uses: Galvanizing, alloys

     

    Pewter (tin, antimony and copper)

    Surface: Gray

    Interior: White 

    Properties: Soft-casts well; modern pewter contains no lead, making it nonpoisonous

    Uses: Eating utensils, decorative items

    Zinc

    Surface: Blueish gray

    Interior: Blueish white

    Properties: Soft but brittle; corrosion-resistant

    Uses: Galvanizing, alloys

     

    Silver

    Surface: Dull gray

    Interior: Bright silver

    Properties: Soft; easy to work and cast

    Uses: Eating utensils, decorative items, plating, solder

    Gold

    Surface: Yellow

    Interior: Bright gold

    Properties: Soft but tough; corrosion-resistant; easy to work and cast

    Uses: Jewelry, electronics work, plating

     

    More metal work knowledge

    Did you know you can make bends in iron and steel using nothing more than a torch to heat and soften the metal? Follow our guide to learn how to bend metal.