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What is Steel Wool?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon257488 — On Mar 27, 2012

What is the composition of steel wool?

By anon165948 — On Apr 06, 2011

what does it take to corrode steel wool?

By daveb — On Feb 21, 2011

I'm a fire spinner, and i'd like to add a bit of spark into the mix. I was thinking of either adding wool filings to the fuel or encasing the wool in a wire mesh case around the wick. Which would work best and what are the safety precautions I should be aware of if any.

Question: is it OK to grate steel wool? would it catch a light?

By anon90108 — On Jun 14, 2010

I grow plants and the slugs and snails are really bad with the rain we have had, so i wrapped it at the bottom of the stems. No snails now. he he

By anon12354 — On May 04, 2008

what is the percent of iron in steel wool?

By anon11552 — On Apr 18, 2008

Also pack a 9v square battery on your camping trip. rub it on a portion of exposed steel wool wrapped in toilet paper. This causes an electrical short igniting the wool the toilette paper will help work as a fire starter. This will work wet too and without the paper.

By anon11105 — On Apr 08, 2008

I didn't know that steel wool came in large sheets so you can cut them to size. I did however, know that it can catch on fire, for there was an article about it in a magazine I momentarily read, and the fact that the flash bulbs in old flash cubes are made of glass 2 metal rods and a piece of steel wool.

By mrjones — On Apr 03, 2008

interesting! i had no idea that steel wool was flammable. i'll be sure to pack some for my next camping trip. i've used them when we refinished our hardwood floors to "sand" them between coats of polyurethane. they work pretty well, although they can be a bit messy, because bits and pieces come off when you're sanding.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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