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Sunday, July 22, 2012
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In the 1960s, steel was still a big deal here in America. We made lots of it and we used lots of it. Our cars, refrigerators, beer cans, pipelines, guns and many buildings were made mostly of steel (unlike today, where such products have much plastic, aluminum, molded carbon, and other “composites” in them). So back around 1970 I noticed that US Steel was running ads on TV about their latest innovation, called “Cor-Ten” steel. Actually, Cor-Ten was invented in the 30s, but by the late 60’s US Steel felt it was ready for wide-scale marketing and production. Cor-Ten is now known as a “weathering steel“.

Basically, weathering steel was supposed to eliminate the need for paint. Most steel rusts away if not properly coated, usually with paint. But Cor-Ten supposedly rusted in a way that protects itself from further rust. I.e., when exposed to the elements, it creates a dark-red coating something like rust. But unlike rust, this coating keeps it from decaying any further . . . in theory. So long as you could put up with the rusty look to it, you didn’t need paint to keep the steel from frittering away . . . again, in theory. US Steel touted Cor Ten’s rusty look as somehow artistic or natural, something that people would like to see.

I was a big railroad enthusiast back in the 1970s, and I remember seeing new railroad cars made of Cor-Ten, complete with the “faux-rusty” look. But by the 1980s those cars disappeared. Could it be that Cor-Ten wasn’t the magic material that US Steel made it out to be?

Well, a quick web search confirms that notion. It turns out that Cor Ten caused a lot of undesired side effects; e.g., US Steel build an office building in Pittsburgh with Cor Ten, and it stained all the local sidewalks and even some adjacent buildings. It is also hard to remove spray paint graffiti from it, although eventually the rain will cover anything painted on Cor Ten with ugly streaks (which look a whole lot like rust . . . ). The Omni Coliseum in Atlanta was built with Cor-Ten and had to be torn down after 25 years, as the steel components decayed through at critical spots. I myself remember seeing road bridges where Cor-Ten beams caused the concrete supports beneath them to turn an ugly, rusty brown, from rain run-off. I was once taking a drive with one of my railroad buddies (back before I had my drivers license) when we went under a Cor-Ten bridge. I parroted the line from the US Steel commercial of the day, i.e. “this bridge is painting itself”. Ray, my friend at the wheel, cynically replied “this bridge is rusting itself”.

I see that one of Cor-Ten’s biggest uses today is for large outdoor sculptures, e.g. the Chicago Picasso sculpture. So, US Steel was partly right in its commercials; the rusty look of Cor-Ten is considered artistic by some artistic people. In the end, Cor-Ten was not the wonder material that US Steel tried to make us believe. It has found certain niches, and continued improvements to it may widen its use in the future. But sometimes, the big new ideas turn out to not be so great after all. I can’t help but wonder if some of today’s widely touted alternatives to carbon-based energy, e.g. windmills and solar panels, will go the same route (basically the same route they are on right now; good in certain places, but not ready for widespread usage).

PS, since I first posted this, I discovered a local use of CorTen — for “environmental-ish” roadway barriers. Here’s an example at the edge of a township parking lot in our “environmental-ish” township of Montclair.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:01 pm      

  1. Jim, You certainly have a point regarding some of the new energy sources going the way of Cor-Ten steel. So many things have turned out that way over the years–touted as wonderful and the perfect answer to a particular problem, only to find out later that all is not well with what was tho’t to be a solution to a problem. MCS
    P.S. I saw the Picasso everyday I worked in downtown Chicago for 24 years. As to the Cor-Ten steel it’s made out of: First time I’ve heard of it. And yes, it does have a “rusty” color. I tho’t it was made like that. Little did I know…. But then again, when it comes to Picasso, I can do without him. There’s something about the way he always paints women that I do not like, as if he himself does not like women as a whole. Something about that creeps me out. Thus, if Picasso’s piece in downtown Chicago goes the way you say Cor-Ten steel goes, I won’t be sorry. Besides, almost directly across the street from the Picasso is a smaller, very beautiful piece, set back in a niche; it’s almost difficult to see. One has to make a point of stopping to see it. Forget–or maybe never knew–who the sculpturer is; but it’s a beauty. That one is definitely NOT made of Cor-Ten steel. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 22, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

  2. I suppose a lot depends on where the Corten steel was made and where it is used. For example in Gateshead UK the statue “The Angel of the North” is lasting well. At the base of the statue where people have touched it the steel is shiny! Quite remarkable after all these years. The wingspan of the angel is allegedly greater than that of a jumbo jet but so far the statue has stood up to the wind and rain OK. Of course the steel is quite thick at about an inch and a half and the welding looks superb. Its quite interesting that most of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built in the North East then was shipped to Australia in kit form. Unfortunately politicians have shut down these “old fashioned industries” and now the balance of payments is in a bad way. Not being able to organise a booze-up in a brewery seems to be a prerequisite to becoming a politician but it seems to be the same the world over.

    Comment by Davey of UK — October 28, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  3. You seem fearful of new things. Yes, some new things fail, some find their niche, and some are adopted by everyone and they change the world. I’m going to guess you were skeptical that the internet would be of any use when you first heard of it.

    [Reply from Jim G: thanks for the free psychoanalysis! If the internet can give me what others pay $100 an hour for face-to-face, then I’ll overcome my fears and skepticism!]

    Comment by Steve — March 19, 2014 @ 3:50 am

  4. Thanks for providing information to me that weathering steel was supposed to eliminate the need for paint. Most steels rust away if not properly coated, usually with paint. But Cor-Ten supposedly rusted in a way that protects it from further rust. I.e., when exposed to the elements, it creates a dark-red coating something like rust. Thank you!.


    Comment by Steel Buildings NZ — February 28, 2017 @ 12:50 am

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