Contrary to its name, steel wool is not made from a combination of metal shavings and sheared wool. I was under that impression before I researched this article, but “wool” is just an arbitrary label to describe the texture of a steel wool pad.

A Brillo or S.O.S pad can be found in most kitchens, making the lives of dish-doers less greasy, slimy, and under-the-fingernail filthy. But what is the origin of steel wool and how exactly is it made? (I apologize in advance for getting all AP chemistry and physics on the reader.) 

chocolate, tea
Mackenzie Patel

The Process

Made in large factories, steel wool starts off as large, spooled coils of low carbon steel (cheaper and more malleable than high carbon steel).

The steel coils are then fed through a series of die machines: cutting devices that thin the steel by over half of its original width. This narrowing of the metal creates a stronger material that can pass the tensile strength test. 

“Tensile strength” means how well a material can resist tension; in steel wool’s case, the steel should have a high strength so it can withstand scrubbing sessions. 

After the tensile strength is verified, the steel is shaved in the steel wool cutting machine. Creatively named, this machine shaves the steel through a layer of blades, producing sharp ringlets. A river of steel threads flows under the machine, and new shavings are added to the rope.

After shaving, the steel winds onto rolls and is weaved together (similar to a crotchet pattern). Who knew the antiquated technique of a needle and thread could find its way into a modern factory? For household pads, a needle mat (which provides bulk and isolation) is punched together with the woven steel and a scrub-ready material is born.

Watch Science Channel's video on the steel wool process for detailed graphics and information. 


Mechanics originally discovered the household uses for steel wool after collecting the shavings and using them as cleaning pads in the garage. Its basic composition hasn’t changed much since the end of the 19th century – and thousands are still being sold every year.

Also, steel wool isn’t just used in the kitchen. Sharpening scissors, polishing metal (i.e. aluminum and brass), and killing rodents all use the gritty qualities of steel wool. The Andy Warhol piece, Brillo Box (Soap Pads) (1964), also uses this tamed tangle of metal as art inspiration.


Not exhausted by this industrial gobbledygook yet? Fantastic, because steel wool saves fingernails and dirty pans from eternal filth. Coated with soap and anti-rust layers, these clean boys are kitchen-grade heroes. If your pad isn’t anti-rust, dry out the wool and store it in the freezer between uses. As far as materials go, steel wool works best on aluminum, stainless steel, and iron pans. It's grill safe as well. 

Cleaning a burnt pan quickly and easily requires steel wool in most cases – unless you’d like to bid adieu to that manicure. Its manufacturing process is simple but brilliant; weaving shaved steel together sounds so "badass grandmother". And it’s possible to light steel wool on fire by rubbing it with a nine-volt battery – who needs matches anymore? 


Science Channel's Steel Wool Process

SOS Steel Wool Pads