Carbon steel

Carbon steel is an iron-carbon alloy, which contains up to 2.1 wt.% carbon. For carbon steels, there is no minimum specified content of other alloying elements, however, they often contain manganese. The maximum manganese, silicon and copper content should be less than 1.65 wt.%, 0.6 wt.% and 0.6 wt.%, respectively.

The SAE designation of Carbon steel is in the format of 10xx, where xx indicates the amount of carbon. For example; 1020 contains 0.2% of carbon and 1045 contains 0.45% of carbon.

Types of carbon steel and their properties

Carbon steel can be classified into three categories according to its carbon content: low-carbon steel (or mild-carbon steel), medium-carbon steel and high-carbon steel. Their carbon content, microstructure and properties compare as follows:


Carbon content (wt.%)




Low-carbon steel

< 0.25

Ferrite, pearlite

Low hardness and cost. High ductility, toughness, machinability and weldability

AISI 304, ASTM A815, AISI 316L

Medium-carbon steel

0.25 – 0.60


Low hardenability, medium strength, ductility and toughness

AISI 409, ASTM A29, SCM435

High-carbon steel

0.60 – 1.25


High hardness, strength, low ductility

AISI 440C, EN 10088-3


Low-carbon steel

Low-carbon steel is the most widely used form of carbon steel. These steels usually have a carbon content of less than 0.25 wt.%. They cannot be hardened by heat treatment (to form martensite) so this is usually achieved by cold work.

Carbon steels are usually relatively soft and have low strength. They do, however, have high ductility, making them excellent for machining, welding and low cost.

High-strength, low-alloy steels (HSLA) are also often classified as low-carbon steels, however, also contain other elements such as copper, nickel, vanadium and molybdenum. Combined, these comprise up to 10 wt.% of the steel content. High-strength, low-alloy steels, as the name suggests, have higher strengths, which is achieved by heat treatment. They also retain ductility, making them easily formable and machinable. HSLA are more resistant to corrosion than plain low-carbon steels.

Medium-carbon steel

Medium-carbon steel has a carbon content of 0.25 – 0.60 wt.% and a manganese content of 0.60 – 1.65 wt.%. The mechanical properties of this steel are improved via heat treatment involving automatising followed by quenching and tempering, giving them a martensitic microstructure.

Heat treatment can only be performed on very thin sections, however, additional alloying elements, such as chromium, molybdenum and nickel, can be added to improve the steels’ ability to be heat treated and, thus, hardened.

Hardened medium-carbon steels have greater strength than low-carbon steels, however, this comes at the expense of ductility and toughness.

High-carbon steel

High-carbon steel has a carbon content of 0.60– 1.25 wt.% and a manganese content of 0.30 – 0.90 wt.%. It has the highest hardness and toughness of the carbon steels and the lowest ductility. High-carbon steels are very wear-resistant as a result of the fact that they are almost always hardened and tempered.

Tool steels and die steels are types of high-carbon steels, which contain additional alloying elements including chromium, vanadium, molybdenum and tungsten. The addition of these elements results in the very hard wear-resistant steel, which is a result of the formation of carbide compounds such as tungsten carbide (WC).