“Once giants lived in the earth, Conan. And in the darkness of chaos, they fooled Crom, and they took from him the enigma of steel. Crom was angered, and the earth shook. Fire and Wind struck down these giants … but in their rage, the gods forgot the secret of steel and left it on the battlefield. And we who found it are just men – not gods, not giants, just men. The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one, no one in the world can you trust – not men, not women, not beasts … this you can trust.” – Conan’s dad, from the film “Conan the Barbarian.”
Bicycle framebuilders have known about the secret of steel for a long time. In fact, steel has been used to build more bicycle frames than any other material. It has also been used about 50 years longer than any other material currently in use. In this second installment of our six-part series on frame materials, you’ll learn something about where steel comes from, and more about its advantages and disadvantages in bicycle-frame fabrication. But first, I’d recommend a re-read of the first installment of the series to familiarize yourself with the terminology.
Steel is made mostly of iron whose atomic symbol is Fe, from the Latin ferrum – and that’s where the term ferrous comes from when we refer to ferrous and non-ferrous materials. As you may have guessed, steel is a ferrous material, and aluminum and titanium are non-ferrous.
Iron is the fourth most abundant element in the earth’s crust, so in the near future we probably won’t be running out of the material that’s used to build steel bikes (chromium and molybdenum are different stories, however). Iron rarely occurs as a chemically pure metal, except in meteorites. On this planet, it’s found in various forms, among them magnetite (Fe3O4), hematite (Fe2O3), siderite (FeCO3), pyrite (FeS2) … and many other forms that end in ‘ites.
How do we get from iron to steel? We add and subtract a couple of ingredients while its molten, and voilà, steel (actually it’s a very involved and evolved process involving exothermic reactions, but we’ll save that for the extended-play version of this article).