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Steel wool is a material made from thin steel filaments that are either matted together or woven into a pad. Consumers are often familiar with this product in the form of a scouring pad; it is also used by woodworkers as a replacement for sandpaper, and it has a number of other uses as well. Many hardware stores and markets carry it, and sometimes multiple grades are available for different tasks, ranging from coarse to fine.
This product was originally developed in the 19th century, and it was produced from a waste product known as swarf. Swarf appears when metal is turned on a lathe; metalworkers noted that the fine fibers of the swarf appeared to have interesting properties, not least of which was their ability to behave almost like a textile. They presumably started using the swarf at home, and other people picked up the habit, creating a demand for commercially produced versions.
The common name for this product is a reference to the fact that the fibers look like matted wool that has not been combed or carded. The multiple fine filaments create an abrasive surface, and the coarseness of the steel can be adjusted with the use of differently sized fibers, ensuring that the product can be used on everything from fine woodworking projects to pots and pans. Many companies produce individual steel wool pads along with large rolls that can be cut to size as needed, for people who use a lot of it.
Grading standards for steel wool vary, so if a consumer is not sure about which grade to purchase, he may want to buy a piece with a label that indicates it is appropriate for a specific need. People should be aware that the fibers can be hard on a user's hands; while people don't need gloves to use it, they may want to use it carefully to ensure that they do not end up with small cuts and scratches.
Steel wool is also a potential fire hazard, because the fine filaments are highly flammable. Some people use this to their advantage; they take it on camping trips, for example, because it will light even when wet. Individuals should be careful when using this product around open flames, and avoid exposing it to electrical currents, as it can throw off sparks or catch fire unexpectedly.