Steel Studs vs. Wood Studs for Residential Framing

Steel beams at construction site (XXL)
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There was a time when the use of steel studs in residential building applications was considered exotic. Its use was limited mostly to builders or home remodeling professionals, and DIYers barely knew they existed and almost never used them in projects. You could only buy them at specialty building supply outlets and rarely saw them at standard consumer stores. 

Now, if you go to any big box home improvement center such as Home Depot, chances are good that you will find a stack of steel studs in the lumber section. But the fact that steel studs are outnumbered 100 to 1 by good old-fashioned wood framing lumber should tell you something: working with steel is not as easy as it seems.

Benefits of Steel Studs

  • Durable: Metal studs are impervious to fire, termites, rot, splitting, and any other number of hazards which can affect any kind of organic-based building material—namely, wood.  
  • Predictable: Unlike wood, which can arrive warped, twisted, or bent, steel studs (unless damaged) always arrive perfectly straight.
  • Cost-effective: While never as cheap as wood, steel studs are now only about 30 percent more expensive than wood studs. 
  • Lightweight: Steel studs are lighter to carry and store than wood because they are hollow.
  • Good for problem areas: Since they are impervious to moisture, steel studs work well in bathrooms and water-prone basements.

Disadvantages

  • Difficult to cut: Cutting steel studs is more difficult than cutting lumber. Pros usually use It is usually done a miter saw or circular saw equipped with a metal-cutting blade in conjunction with tin snips. 
  • Limited availability: Metal studs found at your local home improvement store will only come in the most popular dimensions. Unusual dimensions will need to be sourced at stores that cater to contractors. Local big-box retailers will usually stock the dimensions matching wood 2 x 4 studs, in lengths ranging from 8 to 12 feet. Standard steel studs available at big-box retailers use 25-gauge steel. 
  • Safety: Cutting metal studs is considerably more hazardous than cutting wood. Cutting metal studs by hand with tin snips is a good recipe for lacerating skin, and the sound produced by an electric saw on metal studs will damage hearing unless you wear hearing protection. Cut edges can be quite sharp, so make sure to wear heavy work gloves and long sleeves.
  • Limited creativity: Metal studs are not a "forgiving" material for the DIYer. While wood is a very flexible, malleable, forgiving material, with metal, it is all or nothing.
  • Drywall installation is tricky: When driving a drywall screw into a wood stud, the wood practically seems to draw the screw into it. Tapping a drywall screw into a metal stud requires a bit more work and practice.
  • Heat loss: Steel studs that are in contact with a conditioned area on one face (i.e. a heated basement) and a cold outdoor area on the other face (masonry foundation walls), will allow considerably more heat loss than do wood studs since metal is a much better thermal conductor. This can be avoided if the walls are constructed with a thermal break or gap. 

Recommendations

All factors considered, most DIYers will find that there is little advantage to using metal studs over traditional wood studs. For first-timers, using steel studs require a learning curve that makes installation a little slower than with wood studs, and working with steel comes with additional safety hazards. And there may be locations where you still prefer to use wood as well as metal studs, such as when attaching electrical boxes between studs and door frames. You may also find it easier to attach trim moldings around doors and windows if they have been framed with wood rather than steel. 

However, if you plan to a lot of stud framing work and hope for your projects to last for a long, long time, it may be work learning how to work with steel studs, since they will never bow, warp, or rot.