What happens when you light steel wool on fire?

"Experiments" like this are really just about feeding your inner 10-year-old's desire to set things on fire and gawk at the results. I know it. You know it. But that knowledge doesn't make the inferno any less entertaining. And if we have to justify things by adding in a brief discussion about the interaction of oxygen and iron, so be it.


  1. jam a piece of steel wool on the end of a stretched out coat hanger and you have yourself and awesome sparkler, just swing it around in the air and watch out for flying chunks of flame.

  2. I’m surprised they didn’t mention that you can use a battery (either a 9V or 2 AA’s in series) to start the combustion. Much more fun than a blowtorch, I think.

    1. Yeah – the showed us this in our hunter safety lecture. Toss a couple pads in the glove box or your pocket and you have a quick, easy fire starter. They did it with some D batteries, and I asked if AA would work. They didn’t know and tried it. It did. We all learned something important that day.

    2. Yeah, I discovered that quite by accident working on an electronics project as a teenager! Still one of my favorite phenomena.

  3. I remember the old attach bunch of steel wool to length of wire, light and spin for dangerous home fireworks when I was a kid.

  4. Here, in Argentina, we replace the very expensive fireworks for new year and christmas my tiying light steel wool to the end of a half a meter string.
    Light it up and swing it around up your head.
    And tell everyone run away.

    By the way, here it is called Virulana.

  5. Steel wool is great for those MacGyver Alaskan wilderness survival situations where you need to get some fire going right now. It is a really exothermic burn. Of course it is nothing compared to 20 liters of gasoline.

  6. @roryrhorerton as a Boy Scout this was a fire starting technique for survival situations. If you have a flashlight and some steel wool you can start a fire.

    1. “as a Boy Scout this was a fire starting technique for survival situations. If you have a flashlight and some steel wool you can start a fire.”

      I always pack steel wool and a 9-volt battery. Works like a charm.

  7. Quick, somebody go back in time and tell the science fiction film producers of the 1940s what could be accomplished with a double exposure of that burn plus an image of the Earth (or other planet)!

  8. Duh… I did that more than once when I was a kid, just the way SanQuinter said in comment #6 (probably ’cause I live in Chile) :) anyway, I didn’t knew the reason behind it.

  9. Brings back memories of a stoned night in architecture school, and of a friend’s model of a final project that had used steel wool to represent trees. Needless to say, he didn’t find the burned trees half as funny as we did!

  10. Fire, fire, fire. Fire on my brain.

    Fire, fire, fire. You’re my water.

    Fire, fire, fire. Fire on my brain.

    Fire, fire, fire. Girl I’m thirsty for you.


  11. As a kid I used to burn steel wool, then grind the iron oxide residue in a mortar and pestle, then add the appropriate amount of aluminum powder (my grandfather had some, perhaps for mixing up aluminum paint) to make thermite. It was the only way I could think of to get iron oxide powder. (This was way pre-internet). A bit of magnesium ribbon to light it. Safety glasses for sure – ruined eyes are forever.

  12. In chem-lab after separating water into oxygen and hydrogen, part of the experiment was to lightly heat a piece of steel wool and poke it into the test tube containing the oxygen. It turns white hot. Poking it into the other test tube is a very bad and dangerous idea.

    1. I had the same thought, Anon.

      I’ve used steel wool and a 9-volt battery to start a campfire before. It’s a neat trick.

  13. Good Lord, people – be SUPER careful fooling around with this! As a firefighter, I can tell you that burning metals are one of the scariest things we have to deal with. They burn hotter than hell, and are nearly impossible to put out unless you have ideal conditions. If you’re going to mess around with this, for Heaven’s sake have a dry powder (NOT dry chemical – they’re not the same thing) extinguisher handy, and DO NOT TRY TO USE WATER to extinguish any metal fires – in many cases it’ll only make it worse, and you’ll have an even nastier situation on your hands. Thank you!


      1. If you’re going to be screwing around with burning metals, yes you SHOULD have a class D extinguisher on hand. Unless you’re an idiot, or an inconsiderate @$$ho/e who doesn’t care about the lives of others who might have to risk theirs to save yours. Cheesehead.

  14. When I watch how the reaction travels through the wool, I can’t help but be reminded of those slo-mo videos of lightning as it works its way from the clouds to multiple points on the ground.

    Of course, in the steel wool, the iron ‘fibers’ are the channels for the reaction. Lightning – which is still completely UNexplained – isn’t a reaction following channels in the air (??? or is it ???) but the similarities are maddening.

  15. I did this accidentally in high school science lab one time… we were going to be lighting the Bunsen burners later, so we’d been issued flint strikers. I was messing around with mine – grinding off a pile of powder by striking at sub-ignition speed, and then setting it all off at once – when one of my epic pile of sparks fell into a bundle of fine steel wool that the previous class had left on the workbench. I had known, of course, that rust could happen at faster-than-geologic speeds, but I had NO IDEA until that moment that you could light it off. I freaked out for a couple of seconds, then picked up the wool between two strikers and ran like hell for the concrete outside. Made it without getting busted OR hurt.
    I’ve had hella respect for burning metal ever since.

  16. A friend who did SFX work used to rig up steel wool to a live wire attached to a wood frame to create huge popping sparks… it was insanely dangerous.

  17. When I was a kid we had a pretty rad slot car race track. I can’t remember how I accidentally discovered that this was possible, but it was a ton of fun to put a hunk of steel wool on the track and send the cars flying into a block of fire.

  18. My brother is NOT a pyromaniac, but he enjoyed this video. Although he does have antisocial personality disorder (as does my ex, sadly).

  19. The wool appears unchanged. Normally iron (including steel) will change color (to rust-colored) when it oxidizes.

    Not to be a jerk, but could the “burning metal” y’all are admiring, in fact simply be an oil coating applied to steel wool during manufacture? The the flare-up you’re seeing would simply be combustion of the oil, not the metal itself.

    1. I didn’t watch the video, but steel wool does burn, and you can do it with a couple batteries.

      Have fun but be safe.

  20. I had one of these go off when I was rooting around in my kitchen junk drawer when a 9-volt battery came in contact with a pad of 000 steel wool. Luckily I noticed it. I could have shut the drawer, started a fire and burned the house down.
    Now I keep a separate drawer for all things electrical and nothing else.

  21. The claim that I remember from sprouthood (Wilderness Survival Merit badge), was that it’d work even after it’d gotten wet, unlike other tinder.

  22. No one else noticed the fire monster at the very end?

    I’ll see your flaming steel wool with torch and raise you a nine volt battery.

  23. Yeah, steel wool burns like crazy, as do a surprising amount of other metals. Of course we’re not talking sheets or ingots bursting into flames, but rather filings, dust and shavings.

    Esp. metal dust! Floating in the air + open flame = very big boom. Spontaneous combustion is a big danger, too – like that ankle-deep pile of curly metal shavings on the floor behind your drill-press.

    When a ship carrying metal filings or shavings in its hold has to stop for any length of time, they immediately have to rig hoses and run them over the sides of the ship. Otherwise the WATER AROUND THE SHIP WOULD BOIL due to buildup of heat from the metal. And we know what happens to a ship in boiling water……

  24. I seem to remember that you can also start it aflame by connecting it to a couple of D batteries. Good for an emergency fire starter.

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