Chrome vs stainless steel – what is the difference? At first glance, chrome steel and stainless steel products appear identical. Their shiny, smooth, and durable exteriors are popular with household appliances and decorative items.
Chrome is a chemical coating process where a thin chromium layer is applied to a raw metal substrate. Chromium is an element classified as non-stainless steel that is brittle in its natural state but is a critical additive in steel composition for a high strength part. It is not considered an alloy.
Stainless steel is a family of iron alloys typically processed into sheet metal and bar or tube stock that contains at least 10.5% chromium and may include carbon, nickel, nitrogen, aluminum, silicon, copper and manganese.
Chrome is also known as chromium or chromium plating. As previously mentioned, this layer of chromium is applied onto the surface of a plastic or metal object through electroplating, for industrial purposes and decorative applications.
Stainless steel and chrome steel share similar aesthetic qualities, including a shiny appearance. Chrome, however, offers a more lustrous and polished look than stainless steel.
Chrome steel features a low coefficient of friction and protects against corrosion. Stainless steel has a smooth, non-absorbent surface that is very resistant, non-toxic and can be thoroughly cleaned with aggressive disinfectants and may be sterilized. Chrome plating does not tolerate aggressive cleaning agents.
Side by side, you’ll note that stainless steel is typically polished to a high, mirror like finish that is duller and darker than what you see with chrome plated products.
While chrome steel is hard and dense, stainless steel stands alone as one of the hardest and strongest metals next to carbon steel.
Stainless steel is more durable than chrome, offering corrosion resistance as well as scratch and tarnish resistance. However, this is somewhat dependent on the environment, as this metal is not completely immune to all stains or even wear and tear.
Stainless steel alloy: Families & grades
There are four varieties of stainless steel families:
- Austenitic – The most widely used stainless steel
- Ferritic – The most cost-effective family of stainless steel products
- Duplex – The most recent stainless steel alloys developed
- Martensitic & Precipitation Hardening – Used for hardened edge applications. Magnetic after hardening.
The grade of the alloy is another factor. 200 series of stainless steel grades are known for high work hardening. 300 series stainless steel can withstand extremely high temperatures. 400 series stainless steel provides greater strength and durability.
Decorative and Hard Chrome Plating
Plating thickness dictates the difference between decorative plating and hard chrome plating. The plating for the less expensive decorative items is thin (5-8 microns) and is often called nickel-chrome plating since it is applied over an initial layer of nickel plating.
Hard plating (10 to 500 microns) has a low friction coefficient that acts as a lubricant. Time in the electroplating bath dictates the thickness.
Chrome steel has many different applications including:
- Kitchen utensils and appliances
- Doorknobs, faucets and fixtures
- Musical instruments
- Automotive components
- Dies, molds, and tooling
- Mining and agriculture equipment
Applications for stainless steel include:
- Cookware, kitchen cutlery, and food processing
- Surgical tools and medical equipment
- Decorative items
- Hardware items
- Storage tanks and pipes
- Automotive, railroad and marine components
Stainless steel begins as an iron alloy composed of chromium, carbon, nitrogen, manganese, silicon, molybdenum, and nickel. These elements are tailored for different purposes.
Materials melted for 10-12 hours.
- Materials melted for 10-12 hours
- Excess carbon removed. Metal desulfurized
- Adjust chemical composition
- Pour into casts
- Hot and cold roll operations & annealing
- Cut to size
- Finishing operations
Chrome plating is a process of applying a thin layer of chromium onto a substrate (metal or metal alloy) via electroplating.
- Material cleaned, manually cleaned
- Chemically treatment
- Electrolytic chromium bath
Advantages & disadvantages
Recent improvements in plating and steel production lessen the differences. The remaining advantages are as follows:
- Low friction
- Reduced weight
- Lesser expense
- Magnetic properties
These processes are constantly improving, so the differences between chrome steel and stainless steel may eventually vanish.
Is stainless steel or chrome better?
The answer to this question depends entirely on your needs and circumstances. If you require the best look or appearance at low cost, chrome steel is the better option, as it is usually less expensive and offers a shinier luster than stainless steel.
However, this comes with trade-offs, since stainless steel is stronger and is more durable. Long-term exposure to water, heat elements and contact with hot and cold air will cause chrome plating to corrode. If the main objective for your project, stainless should be your metal of choice.
Metal Supermarkets stocks a wide variety of chrome plated and stainless steel products in many different shapes and grades. If you have further questions, reach out to your closest store for assistance with metal sourcing.
Metal Supermarkets is the world’s largest small-quantity metal supplier with over 100 brick-and-mortar stores across the US, Canada, and United Kingdom. We are metal experts and have been providing quality customer service and products since 1985.
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