What’s Steel Wool?

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Steel wool is a versatile material made of fine steel strands used for cleaning, sanding, and more. It was developed in the 19th century from woodchip waste. Different grades are available for various tasks, and it can be a fire hazard.

Steel wool is a material made up of fine strands of steel 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 carpenters as a substitute for sandpaper and has a number of other uses as well. Many hardware stores and markets carry it, and multiple grades are sometimes available for different tasks, ranging from coarse to fine.

This product was originally developed in the 19th century and was made from a waste product known as woodchip. Swarf appears when metal is turned; metalworkers noted that the fine fibers in the chip appeared to have interesting properties, not least their ability to behave almost like fabric. Supposedly they started using swarf at home and other people got into the habit, creating a demand for commercially produced versions.

The common name of this product is a reference to the fact that the fibers look like shaggy wool that hasn’t been combed or carded. The multiple fine filaments create an abrasive surface and the roughness of the steel can be adjusted with the use of different sized fibers ensuring the product can be used on everything from fine joinery projects to pots and pans. Many companies make individual steel wool pads along with large rolls that can be cut to size as needed, for people who use a lot.

Grading standards for steel wool vary, so if a consumer isn’t sure which grade to buy, they may want to buy a piece with a label indicating it’s appropriate for a specific need. People should be aware that the fibers can be harsh on a user’s hands; while people don’t need gloves to use it, they might want to use it carefully to make sure they don’t end up with minor cuts and scrapes.

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 camping, for example, because it lights up even when wet. People should exercise caution when using this product in the vicinity of open flames and avoid exposing it to electric currents, as it may spark or catch fire unexpectedly.

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