On Metal Studs
When our general contracting grandfather was building homes in the early part of this century, a two by four measured a full two inches by four inches. Today, the same stick of wood framing material measures a full half-inch less in either direction.
In spite of this fact, we believe that modern technology and innovations in building materials and construction methods are producing better, more energy-efficient and affordable housing. Thus, we agree with the statement – “they don’t build them like they used to” — we believe that they build them better.
While there is no substitute for Old World craftsmanship, technology does have its benefits. Accordingly, there are hosts of building materials being manufactured with durability and lasting-quality that rival that of an early-time predecessor.
One such material that is becoming increasingly more visible in the residential building industry are metal studs. Actually metal isn’t being used solely in the fabrication of “studs” – the vertical wall framing units. Floor joist, ceiling joist, roof rafters and even complete roof framing systems called “roof trusses” are framing components that are also being fabricated from steel.
Although many people believe that light gauge steel is state-of-the-art technology, such is not the case. We had our first experience with metal framing almost twenty years ago while constructing an office/apartment in a commercial setting. In sharp contrast to residential construction, metal has been a mainstay in commercial construction for years.
Why steel? There are many advantages that steel offers that can’t be achieved with traditional wood framing material. Among the most significant advantages of steel is its resistance to rot, fungus, rust and structural pests – in spite of a report some years back (later found to be bogus) that “steel eating termites” had made their way into the U.S.
Also, steel construction proponents report that a home constructed of steel weighs substantially less than the same home constructed of wood. Engineering provided by steel industry experts concludes that a “lighter” structure responds more favorably when subjected to seismic activity. In other words, all else being equal, a steel home is less likely to sustain the level of damage that would its “heavier” wood counterpart.
Another selling point of steel is that it is more fire resistant than wood. Moreover, steel framing used in conjunction with other fire resistant materials and construction details can significantly diminish the prospect of a fire. However, steel is not by any means fireproof. In the case of a raging fire, a steel home can suffer as much damage as the same home constructed of wood.
One definite benefit of steel studs is their uniformity. In contrast, no two wood framing members of the “same dimension” measure exactly the same. Furthermore, the moisture content of a wood framing member will ultimately influence its final dimensions. Moisture can also cause other problems when it comes to wood framing – namely twisting and rot.
Wavy walls are, more often than not, the result of wood studs that twist during the drying process. What’s more, excessive moisture caused by a leaking tub or shower is often the cause of rotted framing which must be torn out and replaced. This can be a rather costly proposition if the rot goes undetected for a prolonged period of time.
Steel studs, on the other hand, are unscathed by both of these conditions. Some of the straightest walls that we have seen are framed using steel studs. This is primarily due to the fact that all steel studs of the same dimension are exact carbon copies of one another. Moisture has no bearing on the size of the material. And because steel in inorganic, it is not subject to the rot that is inherit with wood. However, when it comes to water, one potential downfall of steel is rust. Though, steel industry experts contend that “certified steel” is galvanized (coated with zinc) and, thus, is resistant to rust.
When it comes to framing a wall with metal studs it is quite different than working with wood. For example, when it comes to cutting the material a chop saw with a metal cutting blade is used instead of using a circular saw. For lighter gauge material aviation snips will cut the material.
And don’t expect to find a single nail in metal framing. Metal studs are fastened to a “C” channel or “track” at the top and bottom using self-tapping construction screws. Thus, a hammer has no value, but an electric screw gun can make easy work of such a task.
In as much as the cost of material is concerned, steel and wood are generally comparable. However, the cost of steel is traditionally more stable while the price of wood tends to fluctuate due to industry conditions. By the same token, the labor cost to construct a steel home can be significantly more if the framing crew is used to working with wood and doesn’t have vast experience with steel.
As more and more builders experiment with steel, the labor force becomes more familiar with timesaving construction techniques, steel is becoming an increasingly affordable alternative. In fact, many production builders using steel have resorted to prefabricating their walls and roof systems in a factory setting – making field assembly much quicker, easier and less costly.
Steel may be the new kid on the block for now, but chances are that it will soon become as common to the construction of homes as it is to the automobile – white walls not included.
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