Steel wool is a great material for DIY and more heavy-duty crafting in a workshop. The texture and strength of this “wool” provide the finishing touches needed for cleaning and polishing metal. However, there are some valid considerations about the flammability of this metal wool.
Steel wool can be highly flammable. This will come as a surprise to a lot of people because of the material involved, but steel wool is quite flammable. It can catch fire and burn with ease once alight. As a result of this, you do need to be careful when handling it and working with it in different situations.
To understand all this a little better, I’m going to go over some important points about the composition of steel wool and why there is this fire risk. From there, I also want to talk about the potential use of steel wool as a fire starter. Those survivalist stories are accurate.
How Can Steel Wool Catch Fire If It Is Steel?
This is a very important question because it is hard to imagine that a metal product would be flammable at all.
Metal can melt at incredibly high temperatures, but it isn’t built to catch fire in the same way as other materials like wood. The answer lies in the construction of the wool rather than the metal itself.
Let’s start by going back to basics here. If you are unfamiliar with steel wool, the wool part of the name comes from its form rather than its origin.
There is nothing in here related to the wool from an animal, such as a sheep’s fleece. Instead, manufacturers work steel into such fine strands and balls of these threads that it resembles wool.
The strength of the metal, combined with the flexibility of the wool, allows for that efficiency in cleaning and polishing materials for metalwork, jewelry making, and more.
Typically, steel isn’t flammable because there aren’t the properties necessary for combustion. However, this changes once we adapt steel from a solid block into this ball of strands.
Steel comes from iron, and a solid block of iron doesn’t have the surface area, flammable cells, or porous structure to make it flammable.
However, this all changes once you start turning it into wool. Now there is a metal structure with a very large surface area due to the individual strands.
There is also a lot of room for oxygen to flow between them. From there, you have a product that can quickly transmit heat and maintain a high combustion rate.
Is Steel Wool Combustible?
Yes. This structure and the risk of ignition make steel wool a very combustible material. Steel wool burns at around 700 degrees Celsius, or 1292 Fahrenheit if you prefer.
Once it reaches that temperature and ignites, those factors of the surface area, high heat transfer rate, and access to oxygen may it easy to sustain a flame and keep burning.
Unless extinguished quickly, or left to burn itself out in a safe environment, this could become a major hazard. The steel wool will continue to burn for as long as the material will allow.
An added problem is that some steel wool is treated with oil to make it more suitable for its purpose in the workshop.
Of course, this isn’t going to help if the wool were to combust under the right conditions. The oil can provide added fuel and allow for a more rapid build-up of heat to sustain the fire.
In addition to the problem of oil, there is the consideration of any other cleaning or polishing products that may have left a residue on the wool fibers.
These too could act as fuel and an accelerant to make the wool more dangerous. There may also be dust and dirt from a recent project adding to the increased surface area and flammability of the wool.
Steel Wool Can Lead To A Big Fire Risk In Workshop When Not Treated With Care.
As you can see, steel wool has the potential to be a big fire hazard in a workshop if you aren’t careful.
The nature of the material and those additional risk factors mean that you need to be very careful when using and storing wool.
It is essential to keep steel wool away from open flames while working, or any tool or electronic device that could create a spark.
Also, store it away from any other flammable material or solvents so it doesn’t accelerate a fire.
Wondering if wool is a good fire retardant? Click the link to the entire article I wrote about using wool as a fire retardant.
Can Steel Wool Be Used As A Fire Starter?
This is where we can look at the flammability of steel wool from a whole other perspective. While there are understandable concerns about steel wool fire risk from a professional standpoint, there are times when it can be of use.
Survivalists and preppers will always promote ways to create campfires with more obscure materials in times of crisis.
The idea here is that you don’t have a lighter or any matches with you to start a fire so you need an alternative solution. This approach uses steel wool as the fire starter alongside a battery.
One of the reasons steel wool is the material of choice here is because it ignites so easily and creates that strong burn.
But, there is also the unusual property of still being flammable when wet. The effect isn’t going to be as great, and there are limits to how saturated with water your ball of steel wool can get.
But, there is the chance that damp steel wool will still create a fire after a rain shower. This is more likely than any wet firewood that would need time to dry out.
How To Start A Fire With Steel Wool And A Battery.
This is how it works.
First, you need to get an appropriate battery. Most say that a 9-volt battery is best, but there have been successful attempts with 3-volt or even a pair of 1.5-volt batteries side by side. You might even be able to do this with a cell phone battery if you lack any other options while stuck out in the wilderness.
From there, you just need to place the steel wool next to the terminals and let the spark ignite it. Once alight, it can act as an effective fire starter for the wood in your fire.
The finer the steel wool, the more combustible it is.
Here’s a quick video to illustrate:
An important detail to remember when dealing with the flammability of steel wool is the factor of the high surface area.
This means that the finer a piece of steel wool is, the more likely it is to go up in flames and burn with ease.
This information is important for both those looking to use steel wool professionally and those curious about its potential as a fire starter.
Those in the former group may want to go for a denser product to limit fire risks unless they need something finer for a specific effect.
Those in the latter camp are better off going for something with a finer consistency for a more reliable combustion rate.
One way to test the fineness of steel wool is to go to a local store and get a feel for the wool. You should be able to notice that there is a very different density and structure to the finer options than the coarser ones.
But, if you have to source your wool online, there is another option.
There should be a number somewhere on the package or within the product information that determines the fineness of the material. Look for something with four zeros if you require the finest option possible.
Fire safety is still essential when camping.
Now, this little hack about the steel wool and phone battery is intriguing, and there are sure to be plenty of people that want to try this out for themselves.
If you want to give this a try on a camping trip, make sure that you do so safely.
Don’t do anything to put yourself, your camp, or the surrounding area at risk.
We have enough wildfires from people being careless with fires, BBQs, and lit cigarettes. We don’t need any more.
Is Steel Wool Flammable, And Should We Still Use It?
To summarize, there are some surprising fire risks when using steel wool. The high surface area of this material means that it has the potential to ignite quite easily and will sustain the flames for a long time.
This is a problem in workshops with other flammable materials, so it pays to consider which type of steel wool you use and how you store it.
However, there is also the benefit of using steel wool as a fire starter for camping and survivalist situations.
Either way, hopefully, you now see steel wool in a different light and appreciate that even though it is steel, it is still flammable.