Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames – Which Is Best Material?

Written By, Perry Knight
Last Updated:

Choosing a new bike to call your own can be fun, or even stressful, you really need to know your stuff to be able to get the perfect frame for you. The most common frame material is steel and aluminum, there are distinct features between the two that will help you decide. 

In this article we will cover the basic differences up to the performance of each material, we will also hint on a few other materials you might be interested in. With the information we provide, it’s then up to you to make your choice. 

Overview

Steel Bike Frame

Steel frames are heavier, their strength is more robust, however their speed is a little on the slower side. They are found to be durable, require more maintenance, and the material bends. All this, and they come at a cheaper price, although there is higher end steel that costs more than aluminium. 

Steel used to be the only options, but now, you have all kinds of materials to choose from. There are also different types of steel. As was mentioned before, steel is quite heavy, but they do ride well over bumpy roads. Steel can absorb vibrations, they will give you comfort on long routes. 

Steel is easy to repair, due to it being familiar to a lot of mechanics. Because even though steel is durable, they can still break. A steel bike will bend before it breaks, therefore safer because you can tell if it’s going to break soon. Steel bicycles are recommended for touring, mountain biking, and even to use for bike-to-work riders. 

A downside to steel is that it rusts. You can prevent it by applying a rust inhibitor, or properly storing your steel bike in a dry storage. You can also try rust removal

Steel is perfect for those of you who are looking for a sturdy-built-to-last bike. Steel can deal with all kinds of terrains, but if you are looking for something more technically advanced, or fancier, consider carbon or titanium frames. 

Types

There are different steel based frames. Steel is a combination of iron and carbon, usually bike frames are made of a combination of steel and other elements in order to make it more suitable for riding. 

High Tensile: We usually find this in cheaper bikes. This material is weak and heavy. This might be identified as high ten or carbon steel. 

Chromoly: This is a mixture of steel, chromium, and molybdenum. This material is considerably stronger and lighter. Commonly found in higher end bikes. 

Others: There are other combinations, all aims to create a stronger and lighter frame. Of course, aside from the performance, manufacturers will also aim for profit. 

Aluminum Bike Frame

Aluminum frames are lighter and more fragile. They are faster but less durable. They brake and don’t bend, they are also more expensive. 

Aluminium was popular way before carbon. The material is known to be lighter and cheaper, well at least compared to carbon. Aluminium bike frames are usually combined with other elements. With aluminium frames, you want a good strength to weight ratio, manufacturers achieve this with butting. 

Single butting: one end is thicker

Double butting: both ends are thicker 

Triple butting: both ends are thicker and the middle is thinner

You want more butting, the more the better. 

Aside from butting, aluminum tubes are formed to be more aerodynamic. Due to it being freely conformed, it can serve a more aesthetic modern look. At the end of the day, an aluminium frame is good because it’s light. A lighter frame will result in a faster ride. 

In contrast to steel, aluminium frame offers a bumpier ride, and the materials dents easily. During the ride, the aluminium frame is more efficient because the frame is rigid, energy will not be wasted on the frame. Again, in contrast to steel, aluminium will not rust, however, it will corrode. 

The frame is most suitable for racers, as you would want a faster bike and wouldn’t mind so much to it being durable or not. Keep in mind that when your aluminium frame breaks, it will be harder to fix. You need someone equipped with a special skill set and tools. 

Types

There’s not as many types of aluminium frames as there is steel. But aluminium is bound to be mixed with other metals because it is not strong enough to build a bike frame on its own. Usually, it’s mixed with silicon, magnesium, or even zinc to help it become more durable.

Strength

As was discussed before a steel frame is stronger than an aluminium frame. Perfect to absorb shocks and be the base of your mountain bike. Aluminium frames need to watch its strength to weight ratio and tubing. 

Strength To Weight

Even though aluminium is considerably more delicate, it is lighter compared to steel. To achieve a stronger aluminium, strong enough to build a bike frame, the metal is butted. This action will make the material thicker than steel, but still lighter. 

The effect of weight on your ride is significant. It will slow you down on uphill pedalling and speed you up on downhill glides. 

Tubing

You can see for yourself how most steel bikes are tubes, cylindrical, while aluminium are found to be many shapes such as triangular, square, etc. 

Find out if your tubes are on the heavier side or on the lighter side. Aside from the materials, the different types of steel and aluminium, you also want to look out for the shape and butting. There are plain gauge tubing which is tubes without butting and the different types of butting which was mentioned above. 

Even though it is more common in aluminium, you can also have a butted tube in steel framed bikes. 

Now, let’s explore tubing connections. The tubes or connected by welding or brazing. 

Welding: Melting of the frame tubes, applicable for all bike materials. 

Brazing: Melting of a filler metal to help connect the tubes. 

Rust

Even though steel is more prominent to rust, it can still resist it. So both materials can win against rust. Aluminium is naturally resistant, and steel can resist rust when you add chromium to it. That’s how you get stainless steel, fun fact. Aluminium is resistance because of aluminium oxide, it protects against moisture, rust, and corrosion, another fun fact. 

Comfort

Aside from the bike frame, the major contributor to comfort is the size of the bike itself. You want something that fits your body, not too small and not too large. Another thing to consider is the shape. Not the tubing shape, the geometry of the bike. The shape will affect your posture while riding. Other characteristics to consider include seatings, wheels, chains, and so on. 

You also want to factor in your weight. You will need a stronger bike to accommodate a heavier load. Both aluminium and steel are good enough for this. Steel is known to be more comfortable, but it might also be uncomfortable to put in extra effort to pedal because the bike is heavier. Then again, some people enjoy the rigidity and stiffness of an aluminium frame. 

Aesthetics

As was mentioned, aluminium can provide a more modernized look. Because it can bend and adopt certain shapes due to it being lighter. But aesthetics can mean a variety of different things, remember to factor in the color, frame to wheel ratio, overall bike shape and so on. The winner for aesthetics is whichever you like best. 

Option: Carbon Framed Bike

Another commonly discussed material is carbon framed bikes. There are other types of frames, but carbon is by far the most popular after steel and aluminium. Carbon is almost considered to be the best of both worlds with it being strong, rust resistant, and light. Of course, all this comes at a higher price. 

Other materials for bike frames include titanium and bamboo. They can be more aesthetically pleasing or at least unique, but they are not recommended to be long lasting. 

If you have a bamboo mountain bike, and it breaks, you can’t easily get it fixed up in any bike repair shop. Due to it being unique, it’s very rare that somebody has the tools and skill to fix it. You’ll have a better chance finding someone who knows how to fix an aluminium bike. 

Titanium bike frames are light and stiff when compared to steel. It is also more durable compared to other metals. Again, titanium is alloyed, it does not standalone. Just like carbon, titanium is more on the pricier side.

Aluminum Vs. Steel Bike Frame – which is best?

“Steel is real”, or at least that’s how the saying goes. Basically, steel is the best material for commuters and bike enthusiasts alike. A steel frame is highly recommended, especially for those of you getting your first bike.

But if you already own a steel bike, or maybe even a couple, it’s recommended that you try out an aluminium frame. Either way, choose one that will make you the happiest.

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Author
Hello, my names Perry and I've been a freelance writer for the past 5 years and a cycling enthusiastic since I can remember. I love the road, but my main passion is mountain biking.

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