A Comprehensive Comparison Between Alloy and Stainless Steel

Steel is crucial for modern infrastructure and manufacturing, playing a significant role in various industries worldwide. Its versatility and durability make it essential in multiple sectors, including construction, automotive, aerospace, and consumer goods. In this detailed comparison, we will explore two common types of steel—alloy steel and stainless steel—to understand their distinct properties, applications, and advantages.

A Comprehensive Comparison Between Alloy and Stainless Steel

Alloy Steel Overview


Alloy steel is a type of steel that includes more than one alloying element. The addition of each element often introduces new characteristics or improves specific material properties. In general, all basic steel contains iron and a small percentage of carbon. Manufacturers add chromium, a common alloying element, to enhance corrosion resistance properties.

Alloy steel can be combined with various elements, such as vanadium, nickel, manganese, molybdenum, titanium, and tungsten. The specific elements added often determine the properties of the alloy steel. For example, manganese improves the alloy steel’s ductility, wear resistance, and hardenability. On the other hand, chromium enhances toughness, hardness, and resistance to wear.

Types of Alloy Steel

High-Alloy Steels

Alloy steels typically contain a high amount (more than 5% of the total composition) of one or more alloying elements to achieve excellent toughness, hardness, and strength. Common alloying elements for this steel category include manganese, chromium, vanadium, nickel, and molybdenum. Stainless steel serves as a prime example of high-alloy steel, containing a minimum of 12% chromium, depending on its grade.

Low-Alloy Steels

Low-alloy steels contain a lower proportion of one or more alloying elements (up to a maximum of 5% of the total composition), which provide improved toughness, strength, hardness, or other desirable qualities. Some typical examples of alloying elements in this category include tungsten, molybdenum, copper, chromium, manganese, boron, and nickel. Low-alloy steels are commonly used in mining and construction equipment due to their high requirement for good strength-to-weight ratio properties.

Maraging Steels

These steels are well-known for their exceptional toughness and strength. Manufacturers utilize these steels in applications requiring high-strength properties, such as military and aerospace applications.

Tool Steels

Tool steels, which are highly alloyed steels, are suitable for tool and die applications. They can resist wear and maintain hardness even at high temperatures.

Alloy Steel Overview

Stainless Steel Overview


Stainless steel is a kind of steel that includes at least 10.5% chromium. The presence of chromium gives stainless steel excellent corrosion resistance, making it suitable for varied uses, from medical equipment to cookware. Due to its distinctive properties, stainless steel is a favored choice for both consumers and businesses. It’s important to note that stainless steel comes in different grades, each with unique characteristics.

Common Types of Stainless Steel

Although there are thousands of grades of stainless steel, they can be successfully grouped into the following categories:

Austenitic Stainless Steels

Austenitic steels typically contain 8-20% nickel and 17-25% chromium at a minimum (the basic stainless 304 contains 18% chromium and 8% nickel). These steel grades are usually non-magnetic and are used in food processing equipment and chemical plants due to their high resistance to rust, stains, and corrosion after exposure to water.

Austenitic grades offer excellent corrosion resistance, toughness, ductility, weldability, and high formability. Some good examples of austenitic stainless steel include 253, 304/304L, and 316/316L.

Martensitic Stainless Steels

This type of stainless steel contains between 14-18% chromium and balanced levels of carbon ranging from 0.2% to 2%. Martensitic stainless steel could be tempered and hardened, similar to carbon steel. However, they have lower ductility and are less weldable. Some common examples of martensitic stainless steel grades include 431, 420C, and 431.

Ferritic Stainless Steels

The ferritic group contains a portion of chromium, typically between 11% and 27%, and less or no nickel. Due to its high chromium content, this group’s steel is less corrosion-resistant than austenitic stainless steel. Ferritic steels share certain qualities with iron and show improved mechanical properties at high temperatures, and they can be strengthened through annealing.

However, ferritic stainless steels lack toughness, reducing their structural applications. They are only available in coil and sheet, with stainless steel 430 and 409 being apt examples.

Duplex Stainless Steels

Duplex stainless steels contain chromium ranging from 18 to 28% and nickel alloying elements between 3.5 and 5.5%. This grade of stainless steel consists of equal parts of ferrite and austenite, providing excellent resistance to pitting and chloride stress. They are weldable, easy to fabricate, magnetic, and offer better corrosion resistance than austenitic grades. Examples of this grade include 2205 and S32750 stainless steel.

Precipitation-hardening Stainless Steel Grades

They contain about 12-16% chromium, 3-8% nickel, and a small proportion of other alloying elements such as copper, aluminum, and titanium capable of forming a precipitate. They are usually very strong, ductile, and heat-treatable. They are machined in the annealed condition and then heat treated.

Stainless Steel Overview

Common Alloying Elements and Their Effects

Manufacturers in various industries enhance the mechanical properties of carbon steel using over 20 different alloying elements, each with unique properties. Here are the top five (5) common alloying elements:

  1. Chromium: The impact of chromium as an alloying element is often determined by its percentage. For example, smaller amounts, such as 0.2 – 2%, can increase a material’s hardness. At the same time, it enhances a material’s resistance to corrosion when used in a higher amount, such as 4 – 18%.
  2. Manganese: Using manganese with low amounts of sulfur and phosphorus can make the formed steel more malleable and less brittle.
  3. Tungsten: As an alloying element, tungsten improves the steel alloy’s structural composition and enhances its heat resistance, leading to a higher melting point.
  4. Nickel: Nickel affects the mechanical properties of steel based on the percentage used. When about 5% is used, it increases the strength of the steel alloy. Additionally, using a higher percentage, above 12%, enhances the corrosion resistance of the alloy.
  5. Vanadium: When used at 0.15%, vanadium can enhance the heat resistance, strength, and entire grain structure of carbon steel. However, when used with chromium, it can also improve hardness without compromising formability.

Physical & Mechanical Properties of Alloy Steel and Stainless Steel

Both alloy and stainless steel are high-strength materials used in various on-demand manufacturing projects. However, they have distinct properties that make them suitable for different applications. Alloy steel is known for its strength and durability, and engineers can adjust its properties, like hardness, ductility, and resistance to both wear and corrosion. Its ability to bear high pressures and temperatures makes it perfect for the automotive and construction industries.

PropertyAlloy Steel (Typical Grade)Stainless Steel (304)
Density (g/cm³)7.8 – 8.17.9 – 8
Yield Strength (MPa)415 – 550215 – 275
Tensile Strength (MPa)620 – 850505 – 860
Hardness (HB)200 – 250123 – 200
Elongation (%)10 – 1540 – 50
Thermal Conductivity (W/mK)25.3 – 60.514.9 – 16.2

Stainless steel is well-known for its outstanding corrosion resistance thanks to its high chromium content (at least 10.5%). This chromium forms a protective layer of chromium oxide on the surface, making it an ideal choice for harsh environments like chemical processing and marine applications. In addition to its resistance to rust and staining, stainless steel also provides a clean and shiny surface finish, which is why it’s commonly used in household appliances, medical devices, and food processing equipment.

Applications of Alloy Steel and Stainless Steel

Common Uses of Alloy Steel

Alloy steel is commonly utilized in various industries that require strength, durability, and wear resistance. It finds applications in multiple areas.

Construction: Alloy steel is used to make parts for bridges, buildings, and pipelines because of its strength and durability.

Automotive industry: Alloy steel is well-suited for marking automotive components like gears, axles, and crankshafts.

Aerospace industry: Alloy steel is used to make high-stress automotive components such as landing gear and turbine blades.

Tool making: Alloy steel is known for its high hardness and wear resistance, making it a faultless material for manufacturing drills, milling cutters, saw blades, and some other tools.

Oil and gas industry: Alloy steel is fit for creating components that can endure high temperatures and pressures, such as pipelines and valves.

Common Uses of Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is commonly utilized in many industries due to its excellent corrosion resistance. It finds applications in various fields.

Kitchenware: Stainless steel is widely used to produce kitchen utensils such as cutlery and cookware. Its widespread use is due to its ease of cleaning, resistance to corrosion and staining, and hygienic properties.

Architecture and construction frequently utilize materials for their strength, durability, and corrosion resistance in structural parts such as building facades and handrails.

Medical equipment is often made of stainless steel due to its biocompatibility, sterilization support, and corrosion and staining resistance.  

The automotive industry utilizes stainless steel to manufacture automotive components like exhaust systems, body panels, and trim due to its corrosion resistance.

The chemical and petrochemical industry uses lining in reactors and storage tanks due to its corrosion resistance, which helps reducing exposure to chemicals and high temperatures.

Applications of Alloy Steel and Stainless Steel

Similarities Between Alloy Steel and Stainless Steel

Alloy steel and stainless steel have many similarities.

Both are Iron-Based Alloys

Both are iron-based alloys but may contain other elements in varying proportions, determining their properties. 

Enhanced Properties

Both types of steel have improved properties due to added alloying elements. For example, chromium’s presence significantly enhances both materials’ corrosion resistance.


Based on their properties, alloy steel and stainless steel have various applications. Both materials are used in the construction, machinery, and automotive industries and can be shaped into different forms.

Fabrication and Welding

Both materials have superior fabrication and welding properties compared to carbon steel. However, alloy steel is superior.

Heat treatment

Both materials can be subjected to heat treatment to change properties such as hardness, ductility, and brittleness. Alloy steel can undergo processes like quenching, tempering, annealing, and normalizing, while stainless steel can undergo annealing, stress relieving, and hardening.


Both steels are recyclable. Alloy steel could also be melted and reused to manufacture new parts without losing their properties.

Differences Between Alloy Steel and Stainless Steel

Physical Properties

Alloy steel is well-known for its high strength-to-weight ratio, strength, and durability. It also maintains hardness at high temperatures and provides good wear and corrosion resistance. On the other hand, stainless steel is toilless to clean and incredibly resistant to corrosion and stains. It is non-magnetic, durable, electrically conductive, and highly resistant to high temperatures.

Chemical Composition

Alloy steel contains high amounts of chromium, molybdenum, and other alloying elements, allowing it to be heat-treated to various hardness levels. On the other hand, stainless steel is exceptionally resistant to acids, bases, and organic solutions. It primarily consists of chromium, carbon, and iron, with some varieties also containing nickel, manganese, silicon, and other elements.

Corrosion Resistance

Thanks to its chromium content, stainless steel is highly resistant to rust and corrosion. The chromium oxide layer makes it suitable for use in environments exposed to water, chemicals, or atmospheric conditions. In comparison, while some types of alloy steel can resist rust better than carbon steel, stainless steel generally outperforms alloy steel in this regard.

Tensile Strength

Tensile strength refers to a material’s capability to withstand tension before breaking. This property is often determined by the type of alloy and the heat treatment used. Alloy steel is highly durable, with a tensile strength of about 960 MPa, while stainless steel is less durable, with a tensile strength of 621 MPa.

Fatigue Strength

Fatigue stress refers to a material’s capacity to endure stress for a specific number of cycles. It is the maximum pressure a material can withstand, for example, the fatigue stress of stainless 316L is 146.45 MPa.

Generally, stainless steels typically have lower fatigue strength compared to alloy steel. However, stainless steel grades such as duplex stainless steel demonstrate high fatigue strength due to their microstructure.

Heat Treatment

Heat Treatment of Alloy Steel: Heat treatment can significantly change alloy steel. Annealing, quenching, tempering, and normalizing are several of the most normal heat treatment processes. Undergoing the process, alloy steel can be made softer, harder, more ductile, or more wear-resistant.

Heat Treatment of Stainless Steel: Stainless steel can undergo several heat treatment processes. These include annealing, stress relieving, hardening, and tempering, which can modify its properties. For example, annealing can enhance its ductility and eliminate internal stresses, while hardening and tempering can improve its strength and toughness.

Heat Treatment ProcessAlloy Steel EffectStainless Steel Effect
AnnealingIncreases softness and improves machinabilityIncreases ductility, reduces hardness
QuenchingIncreases hardness, strengthUsually not applicable (may cause cracking)
TemperingReduces hardness, increases ductilityBalances ductility and hardness
NormalizingRefines grain structure improve mechanical propertiesHomogenizes and refines grain structure

Heat Treatment Effects on Alloy Steel and Stainless Steel


Stainless steel generally costs more due to its chromium content and the manufacturing processes. On the other hand, alloy steel, which varies in cost based on the type and amounts of elements utilized, is usually less expensive.


Due to their unique properties, these two materials can be used in various applications. Stainless steel is frequently used in kitchenware, medical instruments, and any scenario where corrosion resistance is essential. On the other hand, alloy steel’s enhanced strength and durability make it fit for structural applications, pipelines, auto parts, and machine components.


Alloy steel is versatile and can be used in various applications, like automotive parts, construction materials, and tools. Stainless steel is also versatile but is most commonly utilized in applications requiring corrosion resistance, such as food processing equipment and medical devices.


Due to its higher strength and durability, alloy steel requires less maintenance than stainless steel. On the other hand, stainless steel demands regular cleaning and polishing to maintain its look and prevent corrosion.

Differences Between Alloy Steel and Stainless Steel

The Mutual Alternatives to Alloy Steel and Stainless Steel

Some alternative materials to traditional alloy steel and stainless steel include:

  1. Titanium Alloys: Titanium alloys are renowned for their high strength-to-weight ratios, making them a perfect option for applications where weight is a key point.
  2. Aluminum Alloys: Aluminum alloys are commonly utilized in applications where both strength and weight are crucial factors.


Advantages of Alloy Steel Over Stainless Steel

Alloy steel offers several advantages over stainless steel and is a material worth considering for various applications.

  • It is relatively cost-effective.
  • It is highly versatile because of its higher machinability. 
  • It has higher temperature resistance. 
  • It has a higher strength-to-weight ratio.

Advantages of Stainless Steel Over Alloy Steel

Stainless steel is a widely used material with several advantages over alloy steel.

  • It has a higher corrosion resistance. 
  • It has a better aesthetic appeal. 
  • It has low maintenance.
  • It is more ductile. 
  • It is recyclable.


Stainless steel and alloy have numerous applications across various industries, providing significant benefits. It is essential to identify your priorities to determine the best steel for your industrial requirements. Stainless steel is the perfect option if you prioritize strength and corrosion resistance. On the other hand, if you require toughness, strength, and durability, alloy steel is the better option.