Sadly, there are no sheep made out of steel for us to get steel wool from, instead, it’s a man-made product that is formed from very fine (and sometimes sharp) steel filaments. We’ve been making and using steel wool for over 100 years as it’s very useful for certain household and industrial purposes, but is it a fire hazard and should we be careful around steel wool?
Steel wool is considered to be flammable as it can catch fire readily. This is mostly due to the increased surface area when compared to solid steel. This allows more heat to be absorbed and more oxygen to contact the fuel and fire will start much easier.
So, this is what you need to know about steel wool and fire safety.
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Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
What Is Steel Wool?
Steel wool which is also often called wire wool, steel wire, wire sponge and iron wool is a material made out of lots of thin and sharp bits of steel.
It was originally invented in the 1890s and requires a particular low-carbon form of steel to be readily manufactured.
It comes in multiple “grades” between superfine and extra coarse. The grade signifies the thickness of the fibers used to manufacture the steel wool and does not reflect the quality of the finished product.
What Is It Used For?
Steel wool is most commonly used by craftspeople as it is an abrasive substance that is great for cleaning a smooth work surface and allowing it to shine.
This doesn’t mean that it can be used on every surface. For example, steel wool reacts with oak and can stain it with a blue/black stain.
It can also cause “after rust” on a range of metals and metal alloys that results in the surface losing its shine and becoming discolored.
It’s great for cleaning glass and porcelain because it’s softer than either of them and removes any build-up on the surface without damaging it.
Oddly, it is also used in pest control and can be employed to block up the small holes that mice and rodents get through.
It also, thanks to its properties when burning, is popular for use in the art of light painting.
Can Steel Wool Catch Fire?
Yes, steel wool is not a form of dust but, in common with dust, the fine fibers of steel wool have a much greater surface area when compared to the volume of steel than you find in solid steel.
This change in surface area makes steel wool combustible in air and, in fact, it’s so easy to burn that it can be used as a form of tinder.
Steel wool will also burn when it is wet, which is a handy property when trying to start a campfire in the pouring rain.
Is It Flammable?
Yes, steel wool is flammable, because it can catch fire easily, even at room temperature.
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However, certain production processes for steel wool may result in the fiber becoming coated in oil, and that oil may make it even more flammable.
Is It Explosive?
Steel wool is not an explosion hazard (though if burning steel wool comes into contact with something that is explosive things may not turn out well) as it’s a solid and not a gas or liquid when burning.
Is It a Fire Hazard?
Yes, because steel wool burns easily it should be treated as a fire hazard and stored away from naked flames and sparks.
At What Temperature Does Steel Wool Burn?
Steel wool burns at a temperature of around 700 degrees Celsius (that’s about 1292 Fahrenheit) and it can burn for as long as there is mass left and a source of oxygen available for the steel wool to burn in.
Can Steel Wool Spontaneously Combust?
Technically, no. Uncontaminated steel wool will not spontaneously combust.
However, steel wool, which is contaminated with oil, may spontaneously combust because the oil may spontaneously combust and when it does so, it will allow the steel wool to burn.
Is Steel Wool Heat Resistant?
Yes. While steel wool is flammable, it can resist heat, and the company TEXSTEEL makes metal wool fibers for heat-resistant blankets.
What Does Burned Steel Wool Look Like?
Live Science describes burned steel wool as looking like “the death of Krypton” (that’s the planet Superman comes from) and we think it’s a pretty good description of things.
As steel wool burns it does so quite slowly and thus you can watch the mass of steel wool slowly decrease in size and draw in on itself, rather like Krypton does in the movies.
Can Mice Eat Through Steel Wool?
Yes, mice can eat through steel wool and if they do, it’s not very pleasant for them, the steel fibers, if digested, will carve the mouse up from the inside out. Fortunately, mice may be able to eat through steel wool but unless they have absolutely no option (because they are trapped), they won’t.
What Should You Not Use Steel Wool On?
Steel wool should never be used on stainless steel as it will remove the finish and allow the steel beneath to corrode in the air.
Is Copper Steel Wool Flammable?
No, while copper steel wool may look similar to steel wool, it’s neither flammable nor combustible.