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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?

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

12 Answers 12

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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.

  • There have been some great all steel bicycles. Raleigh for instance was proud of the all-steel bicycle. However yes, Aluminium is much more expensive. – Danielle Madeley Dec 8 '15 at 3:58
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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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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.

  • Downvotes are fine - but a comment would be more explanatory. – Criggie Nov 25 '15 at 18:50
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    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 Nov 27 '15 at 0:19
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    @SimonMᶜKenzie Good point - edited now. – Criggie Nov 27 '15 at 4:34
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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've had (in the distant past) scary moments when not able to stop as fast as I'd like when braking on steel when it is wet. I notice a huge improvement in stopping in the rain on aluminum. On bike forums ( http://www.bikeforums.net/archive/index.php/t-449632.html ) everyone says aluminum is superior for weight and in the rain:

Alu wheels are a major, major improvement you can make to an old bike for not much cost. Better braking, especially in rain, and much lighter and faster. Used to be, steel wheels were much cheaper to make than alu ones. Nowadays, all wheels (basically) are alu, so even cheap alu ones will be a lot better than what you've got.

and so does this girl: http://simplybike.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/steel-vs-aluminum-wheels/

on rainy days, it makes a world of a difference. This is what has brought me to ride the aluminum wheeled Grand Prix to work more often – it can stop quickly and efficiently in the rain. The steel rims do stop, but it sometimes is difficult to come to a complete stop on wet roads, and it feels more like a slowing down than a breaking. I squeeze on the brakes as hard as I can and the bike still rolls forward a little more than it should. The roadbike with the aluminum wheels, by comparison, presents no such problem. Breaking with the aluminum wheels on wet roads feels much like it does on dry roads.

  • It's well-known that steel rims do not work as well with rim brakes as do aluminum rims, especially in the rain. This has nothing to do with the weight difference, but is due to the difference in coefficient of friction. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 4 '15 at 1:49
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    thank you, captain obvious. There are two issues here: Weight and difference in braking. I'm trying to address both issues. in this 4 year old post. – mcgyver5 Dec 4 '15 at 2:35
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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.

  • 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 Nov 26 '15 at 7:42
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    @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 Nov 26 '15 at 15:00
  • Could be, my bike with steel wheels is (best guess) around 25 years old, when I'm guessing steel was more common. – Chris H Nov 26 '15 at 15:09
  • I would think that the fact that aluminum rims are generally stiffer is due to the fact that aluminum rims always use a chamber design. Steel rims, by contrast, are basically just a single sheet of metal that's bent into shape. That's also why you need longer spokes for steel rims. – cmaster Aug 15 '18 at 12:56
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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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Steel will never fatigue if stressed to less than 40% of its Ultimate Tensile Strength; aluminium fatigues at any stress level, provided the stress be cyclic. Aluminium rims depend on the rims being discarded for other reasons before they crack up. For more information, check MIL-HDBK-5 "Metallic Materials and Elements for Aerospace Vehicle Structures" (edition G is easiest). Older bikes are built to last longer or indefinitely with relatively little maintenance...

  • I'm not sure this answers the question, except perhaps in a very indirect way. Even can you possibly find an online reference for that? It sounds authoritative but I'm not so interested that I'll buy a legacy book to read about it. EPI claim, for example "It is a simplistic rule of thumb that, for steels having a UTS less than 160,000 psi, the endurance limit for the material will be approximately 45 to 50% of the UTS if the surface of the test specimen is smooth and polished" where you have none of their caveats. – Móż Feb 12 '16 at 1:26
  • You can add links - like this lib.ucdavis.edu/dept/pse/resources/fulltext/MILHDBK5H.pdf but we prefer the answers to be self-contained, and the links to be only additional supporting material. Your quoted number of 40% does not appear in this edition. The phrase "Ultimate Tensile Strength" appears twice, but only in relation to fasteners, on pages 8-111 and the table on 8-114. Please check your information and edit the answer with all possible accuracy. – Criggie Feb 12 '16 at 9:07
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OK, there is a lot of hearsay ... Points to consider

1) There is more than one type of steel. Steels with varying elasticity and tensile strength, yield strength, failure limits, hardness, toughness can be made. The same is true for aluminium.

2) Steel was bad as a wheel material because caliper braking systems in wet weather would not work properly. Aluminium wheel rims did not lose friction so much in these conditions.

3) Aluminium wheels are popular, light, easy to manufacture and obtain. They are probably more developed than steel counterparts because there is a market.

4) Elasticity does not mean weakness. Why would structural engineers build skyscrapers from steel girders? A material with high elasticity can bend or deform to a different shape under extreme stress and still return to its original shape. (Aluminium is classically less elastic than steel and fails earlier under extreme stress).

I'm not sure about the actual properties of the aluminium used, but I'd be surprised if it was more rigid than the most rigid steel. (more like a coke can)

  • 1
    Welcome to Bicycles @david. In general, we recommend that new members take the tour to make best use of the site. Re your answer, in my view the two issues with steel wheels are a) they are chromed so that they don't corrode, and when wet they are very hard to stop, regardless of improved brake calipers, and b) they are heavy in comparison to alloy. But in the end, you don't really answer the question Why are aluminum wheels more desirable? Please check out How to Answer. – andy256 Feb 28 '17 at 7:24
  • Aluminum rims are more rigid than steel rims, because Aluminum rims always use a chamber design. Steel rims are just a single sheet of metal bent into shape while aluminum rims are extruded into a complex shaped tube with significant cross section. That's what gives them so much extra stability. – cmaster Aug 15 '18 at 13:02
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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.

  • Why minus? Am I wrong? Isn't it a difference between the wheels? – Alexander Nov 30 '15 at 7:50
  • whoever gave the downvote disagrees with your statements somehow. Normally a comment should be placed to help discuss and poteniallly improve the answer. I suspect its "your rim will bent almost immediately" when riding with low pressure, which seems incorrect to me. – Criggie Aug 13 '18 at 22:01
  • With low pressure the rim will get hit from the obstacles. The steel rim's beads bends easily. – Alexander Sep 1 '18 at 21:14
  • As you point out, steel is more "elastic" than aluminium, so for small-medium hits it recovers. For a big hit, steel will deform where aluminium would more likely crack. But this is a big impact and its not "rim bends almost immediately if riding with low pressure" – Criggie Sep 1 '18 at 22:55
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My recent experience. Bought two aluminum rims and noticed how subtle impacts easily bent the frames. Now after a little use of time with them I converted to Steel which is a bit heavier but not as much as everyone proclaims. I get that people are in need for speed but being in the city, quality is a must when it comes to impacts on beveled urban grounds etc.

  • What do you mean by "subtle impacts easily bent the frames"? If you mean that the rims get out of true, then there's something wrong with how the wheel was built. If you mean that the frame of the bike got deformed, better buy a new bike immediately... My experience is, that aluminum rims hold shape perfectly, even with 6.5 bar in the tires and rough riding. – cmaster Aug 15 '18 at 13:08
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If you plan to keep your bicycle "stock", choose appropriate rims and tyres regardless of their material. Steel rims make sense if your bike is a vintage one or a cruiser.

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 is 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.

UPD (from my comment below):

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.

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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 Nov 25 '15 at 12:13
  • 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 Nov 25 '15 at 13:18
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    You should edit that into your answer. – Batman Nov 29 '15 at 2:22
  • No, weight is definitely not the main point for bikes with rim brakes. Slippery rims in rain are. Aluminum rims are already bad in rain, but steel rims are next to useless. Stiffness is also better with typical aluminum rims. Reduced weight is pretty much just a nice add-on... – cmaster Aug 15 '18 at 13:15

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