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Main Content

Common Metal Shapes and Terminology

Metal Information

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

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, retangular tube

Outside width (by outside height for retangular 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 UseWhether 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