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I was at my local bike dump looking for a spare set of wheels for an older bike I have. He said that they have lots of steel wheels but very few aluminum. Whats the deal on this?

What are the differences between steel and aluminum wheels? Why are aluminum wheels more desirable?

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What size rims and brake type? – sillyyak Mar 31 '11 at 13:41

9 Answers 9

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Steel has been the standard for cheap bikes for a very long time. Weight is a prime factor, as noted above. In addition, steel rusts.... If you go to someplace where lots of bikes are parked outside for any length of time, like the university where I work, you can pick out the cheap bikes instantly by the nasty rust that starts forming with great speed.

Really cheap bikes have as much steel as possible; even the wheel hubs and such will be made of that material.

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Steel makes for a heavier rim; the modern-box section design works well for taking advantage of aluminum's lower density. Furthermore, since steel will rust, the rims are typically chrome-plated. The chrome plating makes rim brakes almost useless in the wet, which is exacerbated by the poor pads used on most of the classic bikes that shipped with steel wheels. In contrast, steel rims are almost indestructible - they can be bent out of shape and re-bent repeatedly and will wear much longer than aluminum rims.

As far as your specific case, many older bike-boom era bicycles were built with "Schwinn"-sized wheels, ISO 590 or ISO 597, both labeled as 26 x 1 3/8". As far as I know no manufacturer makes aluminum rims in that size, so finding a replacement wheel for an older bike usually means either getting new brakes and converting it to a modern size (ISO 559 or ISO 584) or finding an old wheel that's not too beat up. The latter is usually pretty easy, cheap bikes ship with steel wheels that are often simply discarded.

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Well, Al will be lighter, and I think I read somewhere that steel rims get really slick when wet (this is assuming that you are using rim brakes).

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sillyyak is right. The weight of wheels makes a big difference. I notice a huge difference in stopping in the rain on aluminum vs steel. On bike forums ( ) everyone says aluminum is superior for weight and in the rain

and so does this girl:

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Others have answered the second part "what are the differences..."

Here's an answer for the first part "why not many at the dump"

In in my city 2015 light grade clean steel is worth $0.02/kg. Aluminium extrusion is worth $1.83/kg. Brass like nipples is $3-$4/kg and stainless steel is about $0.90/kg.

Recycling metal pays money, but I'm not going to drag a whole ton of steel there for $2 profit. So plain steel goes in the city recycling bin, and the rest goes in sorted barrels for a yearly trip to the metal man's yard.

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Downvotes are fine - but a comment would be more explanatory. – Criggie 2 days ago
I guess it's because you've addressed the first part of the question - "why aren't there many aluminium wheels at my local bike dump", whereas everyone else has answered the second part - "what are the differences between steel and aluminium wheels". I think you've made an excellent point, but maybe you need to indicate which part of the question you're answering. – Simon MᶜKenzie yesterday
@SimonMᶜKenzie Good point - edited now. – Criggie yesterday

It's been my experience, rehabbing bikes for "Christmas Anonymous" and other charities, that steel wheels do not maintain "true" as well as aluminum wheels. (I've no ideas why this is the case, but I've definitely seen it.)

Beyond that, steel does not brake as well with rim brakes.

And, of course, aluminum is apt to be "siphoned off" for separate recycling as a higher value metal.

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That's interesting. I wonder if the slight springiness of even non-spring steel means there's some residual stress that can work its way out over time. This might explain one of my bikes as well. – Chris H yesterday
@ChrisH - Of course it may just be inferior materials -- if you're cheap enough to use steel rims you're unlikely to use the best grade steel. – Daniel R Hicks yesterday
Could be, my bike with steel wheels is (best guess) around 25 years old, when I'm guessing steel was more common. – Chris H yesterday

Steel wheels are heavy, cheaply made, single wall construction only, not very durable, usually out of round even when new. Most steel wheels are built with hubs that only accept freewheels not cassettes. Most commonly found on department store bicycles. Aluminum wheels are stronger, especially "double-wall" construction, lighter and more round. They are commonly used on "bike shop" bike brands and come in an array of configurations and sizes. They are more expensive but well worth it in the long run.

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Many good answers with varied pros of aluminum.
One more point here: Steel is a flexible material and can lose it's shape easily. If you ride with low pressure (not inflated) your rim will bend almost immediately. On the other hand if aluminum rim will be damaged, it can't be repaired.

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If you plan to keep your bicycle in "stock", choose appropriate rims and tyres regardless of their material. It make sense if your bike is a vintage one or a cruiser.

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That's a fair point, but doesn't answer the original question of why aluminium wheels are more desirable and therefore less common at the bike dump. – Criggie 2 days ago
regarding original question: the main aluminium advantage is a lesser weight but you must you pay for lesser weight due to cost of aluminium. Also a marketing is present here: a man who buys cheap bike also expected as a man who will search for a cheap parts to repair this bike. So steel rims are what this man will search for. – Maksym Shysha 2 days ago

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