The Role of Steel in Ship construction from the 20th Century to Today 

steelworker at work in a factory

Most of our steel production and fabrication here at Steel Specialties is headed for land, but there is a whole world of steel used for the open seas. For more than a hundred years now, maritime shipbuilding has needed steel production. A grand old ship, of course, requires more than just one type of metal. Most ships are built of different types of metals that work better in certain parts of the ship. It all depends on the metal’s yield strength and tensile strength. One of the great metals used for floating vessels is steel. Just like it does for construction projects, manufacturing, automobiles, and airplanes, it offers durability, strength, and resistance. 

Steel as a Fundamental Material for Ships 

The beginning of shipbuilding was a whole lot of trial and error. Today there are plenty of government regulations and regulatory entities that ensure a ship’s integrity and construction. It was not always this way. In colonial times, most of these vessels were made out of wood and were built for fishing and foreign trade. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, people built their own boats for fishing. 

As the Industrial Revolution allowed for better manufacturing and material production, shipbuilders began using iron because it allowed larger ships. Iron ships could be built bigger than wooden ships and thus improved the ability to carry cargo. So in the 18th century, countries like Great Britain were the first to explore building ships completely out of wrought iron. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that shipbuilders began using steel in ship production. 

Since 1940 most ships have used welded steel as their main material. During World War II, new techniques of welding pre-fabricated steel parts together helped speed up ship production when it was needed the most. The Liberty Ship—as they were called—carried essential supplies across the ocean but were often sunk by German U Boats. This meant America had to speed up the production of lasting and durable ships. One Liberty Ship was built as fast as forty-two days!

Ships That Made History  

One of the most iconic ships is the Titanic. It was at the time a marvel of engineering and seemed to define all odds when it came to luxury and functionality. There were some shortcomings to the vessel, which was discovered in the most tragic of ways. The Titanic was built between 1911 and 1912. Her main composition included thousands of one-inch thick mild steel plates, which were secured with two million wrought-iron rivets. 

At the time, the ship was equipped with the greatest technology. Wreckage recovered from the sunken ship has been studied to try and determine what exactly contributed to the Titanic’s quick sinking. According to some of the data collected, there were two possible faults

  • Cracking of the hull plates
  • Failure of the riveted seams 

It has been suggested as well that if the iron rivets had been of higher quality or had been of steel, the ship would have taken longer to sink, thus allowing more people to be saved. 

Not many years later, another notable ship would sink to the bottom of the seas. This one was sunk by enemy boats, but it is often credited as being a turning point for what was to become the first global conflict. The sinking of the Lusitania would change the course of the war, but the Lusitania was at the time, one of many great vessels that employed quality steel and materials. 

The Most Commonly Used Materials for Shipbuilding Today 

Modern vessels are constructed from a variety of materials and metals. The composition has been perfected and tinkered with for generations and different types of vessels will have different makeups. The most common shipbuilding materials are:


This great and versatile metal is not only essential for on-land construction but used extensively for shipbuilding. Steel will typically be used for the integral structures and the ‘innards’ of the ship. The hull of a ship is often made out of mild steel which contains .15% to. 23% carbon and high manganese content. Other parts that are constructed from steel include main deck plating, bottom plating, keel, and the upper strake. 

  • High tensile steel: This type of steel is more robust and stronger than common types of steel. This makes it a great material for parts of the ship that operate under substantial mechanical stress. 
  • Stainless steel: We see stainless steel used in a variety of capacities throughout our daily lives. When it comes to ships, stainless steel provides durability and stability. Another essential characteristic of steel is the fact that it is noncorrosive. It does not rust. For obvious reasons, this is a plus in the water! Not to mention other debilitating conditions like saltwater, sunlight, and pressures.  

The frame of the ship is usually constructed of steel. The frame supports the tail shaft of the rudder and propeller. Today the frame is constructed out of steel plates. It is coated heavily to protect from corrosion. 

Aluminum alloys

Another common material used today for some parts of a ship includes aluminum alloys. A ship constructed from aluminum alloy will typically be lighter than its steel counterpart. Its weight is part of what makes it a unique material for these projects. Aluminum alloys are also beneficial because they are good against corrosion. 

Get the Power of Steel with Quality Steel Fabrication

History has proved that steel is a formidable building material. We’ve discussed the role of steel in 20th-century war efforts, in our automobiles, and now in shipbuilding. Steel Specialties supplies steel to various construction projects in the city and region. From the school in your neighborhood to University halls, we’ve been proud to do our part to build the city of El Paso. 


If you’re looking for steel fabrication or metal distribution in El Paso or the surrounding area. Look no further than Steel Specialties. Call us today to find out what we do. 

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