Difference Between Carbide & High-Speed Steel

Simply looking at the two makes it hard to distinguish between scrap carbide and high-speed steel [HSS]. Still, the differences between the two alloys (and if you don’t know what an alloy is, take a listen here) are significant and could mean more money in your pocket, depending on which one you have.

Carbide vs. High-Speed Steel: What’s The Difference?

You must realize the price difference immediately and ask yourself, “Why is carbide so much more valuable than normal HSS (High-Speed Steel)?” To give you a better overall idea, let’s review a few significant differences in the chemical composition.

 High-Speed SteelCarbide
Tungsten1-18%60-90%
IronAt least 70%0-4%
Carbon1-7%0-3%
Chromium1-7%
Vanadium0-2%
Molybdenum0-4%
Magnetic?Strong pullSlight pull

The most significant difference that you can see is the tungsten vs. iron makeup. The value of iron is drastically lower due to iron being so much more abundant across the world commodity focus. 

Differences In Applications

While both are used inside the machine shop world, they differ for several reasons.

  • Carbide bits and drills are used for their longevity and sharpness.
  • Carbide or tungsten-based units will last much longer and generally give a more precise cut when used with CNC machines, machine tools that cut or move material as programmed on the controller, or other drilling machines. 
  • While more expensive, carbide bits generally have a longer lifespan than others.
  • Higher cutting speed means they can go faster and absorb more heat.

HSS is used as a substitute for carbide in many applications.

  • Price: These bits are much cheaper than carbide, and you can buy many of them to replace one carbide bit.
  • Size of the job: if you or a machine operator use these bits for smaller batches, it may not be worth having carbide tips. 
  • A great alternative: HSS is a great option compared to carbide, and in shops that use multiple tools, this will prove significantly cost-beneficial. 

Suggested Reading: Metal of the Month: Carbide

Differences In Scrap Value

Carbide bits are generally worth 10-30 times that of HSS counterparts. These bits have metal tungsten, which is expensive, much rarer, and harder to work with than high-speed steel. The refining process is much more manageable because of the large proportion of tungsten in the makeup of carbides. Believe it or not, many scrap pieces of carbide are ground up into a powder before getting melted and made into new units.

HSS contains much lower amounts (if any) of tungsten and will be worth considerably less per pound. These items typically cost 20-100% more than regular steel. Sometimes, scrap yards do not want to waste their time with HSS because there are so many different grades. With varying grades of HSS readily available, it is challenging for a scrap yard to warrant separating every drill bit. Many yards will only buy as regular prepared steel.