Why Are Steel Studs More Common Than Wood?

Wooden studs have traditionally dominated residential building, but their steel counterparts are gaining popularity. See more home construction pictures.
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Most houses are built with wooden studs. Mine, constructed in the 1970s, is no exception. It's what we're all used to (unless you happen to be a commercial contractor). If you've seen a house being built, studs are the long (typically several feet long) vertical pieces of lumber, usually measuring 2 inches by 4 inches (5 centimeters by 10 centimeters) or 4 inches by 6 inches (10 centimeters by 15 centimeters) that form the framework.

Houses are generally constructed using a method called stick frame, with the studs being the sticks and rectangular platforms -- like subfloors and ceiling joists -- being the frames. The studs bear the load of the interior and exterior walls, as well as the roof. But it's just one way to build in what's called light frame building. Wooden studs are typically used in houses and small apartment buildings, but they're just one way to frame a house.

Steel studs have long been employed in commercial construction for a bunch of different reasons, and lately, they're becoming more popular in residential buildings, too. With wooden studs, you have to worry about problems like rotting, warping, shrinking, cracking and splitting. Termites, other insects and mold can also quickly destroy wooden studs under the right conditions. Finding quality lumber to use as studs can also be difficult; it varies widely depending on where the wood is grown. Lumber also has to be sorted carefully and you can't use any pieces that aren't straight or have knots, cracks or other imperfections. As much as 20 percent of the lumber bought for studs ends up wasted, and since wood prices can fluctuate, trying to budget for a construction project is challenging.

You can cast those concerns aside with steel studs. Not only are they impervious to everything that affects an organic material like wood, they also won't burn in a fire. These lighter and more stable studs can also withstand earthquakes and tornadoes better than their wooden counterparts, potentially snagging you lower homeowner's insurance premiums. Part of the reason is because steel studs call for screws instead of nails, which is a more stable connection. If you make a mistake in spacing or measuring, you can always unscrew the studs. It's not as easy with wooden studs that are cut and nailed together.

There are no variations to worry about, because the steel industry sets forth standards that all studs must meet. That also means very little waste -- about 2 percent instead of 20. The scrap is totally recyclable, and the cost of steel doesn't fluctuate as much as that of wood. Initially, you may pay more when you buy steel studs, but since they're impervious to just about everything but rust, you can save money over time.

So if steel studs are so fantastic, why aren't wooden ones obsolete? Read on to find out about some of the challenges.

Steel vs. Wood

Steel studs
Steel studs have their pros and cons.
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Steel studs boast a lot of advantages over their wooden counterparts, but they are weighed down with some downsides. Surprisingly, steel studs aren't as strong as wooden ones, especially the lighter versions that can only be used on interior, non-load-bearing walls. Some contractors advise against hanging very heavy things like kitchen cabinets (you don't need those, right?). Steel studs can also cost more than wood ones, and you have to consider some special issues that come along with framing in metal. For one, you have to use different cables and electrical boxes when running wires due to the way that steel can conduct electricity.

Steel studs are often considered more environmentally friendly than wood because steel is recyclable, but others argue that wood is a renewable resource and will eventually degrade. Both mining the ore to make steel and melting it down in the recycling process generate pollution. Metal also conducts cold, so if you have a building with metal framing, you'll want to use a specific type of insulation made of extruded polystyrene to create a strong, thermal barrier. That can actually lead to a more energy-efficient house, though.

In places that are both cold and very humid, you could have the problem of condensation forming on the studs, and since steel can rust, you'll need moisture-proof barriers. For DIY-ers, there's a learning curve -- it's more difficult to cut and screw drywall into steel studs. There are also bits of metal lying around instead of wood shavings. You may not be able to find the heavy duty steel studs (the only kind that can be used for outside or load-bearing walls) at your local home improvement store and may need to track them down somewhere that caters exclusively to contractors.

So, steel studs aren't perfect, and some people prefer to keep using wooden studs. If you do choose steel, you'll still need wood for trim, window and door framing, and bathrooms (because of the plumbing). Which one you pick really depends on your personal preference.

Author's Note

I found out quickly about studs the first time I tried to hang a shelf in my house. Before that, I'd never hung anything heavy so I wasn't aware of the fact that studs are usually 16 inches apart on the center. Let's just say that there's a reason why those home improvement stores sell stud finders. After looking at pictures of buildings framed with steel studs instead of wooden studs and learning about the benefits, I have to admit that steel just seems stronger and better. I would bet that even with all of the benefits of steel studs, that notion of steel as strength has probably been a big influence on the drive toward using them in more residential buildings.

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Sources

  • CEC Consumer Energy Center. "Steel and Steel Framing." 2012. (April 13, 2012) http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/home/construction/steel.html
  • Family Handyman Magazine. "Using Steel Studs." February 2001. (April 13, 2012) http://www.familyhandyman.com/DIY-Projects/Wall---Ceiling/Framing/using-steel-studs/Step-By-Step
  • NAHB Research Center. "Builder's Steel Stud Guide." October 1996. (April 13, 2012) http://www.toolbase.org/ToolbaseResources/level4DG.aspx
  • NAHB Research Center. "Insulating Steel-Framed Homes." March 1996. (April 13, 2012) http://www.toolbase.org/ToolbaseResources/level4DG.aspx?ContentDetailID=1283&BucketID=3&CategoryID=30
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