Aug 7, 2012

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Bridge Construction: A Very Brief History

Steel is a common metal alloy composed mostly of iron that is often used for bridges. Compared to iron, steel is more resistant to corrosion and is typically stronger, which is much of the reason why construction companies use steel for bridges. It’s worth noting that steel also allows for more grandiose-looking construction than other materials that are widely used.

It wasn’t too far back in history that bridges were built primarily of more natural materials, namely wood and stone. Brick and mortar can be seen as an extension of this old trend. One need only walk through the older parts of New England or Europe to realize how recent the change to steel was. The main advantage of using stone as a building material is that it is readily available and can be carved into large, easy-to-use pieces. Stone is also resistant to the elements, doesn’t rust, and is sturdy.

The downside of stone is that it can be hard to work with. It’s also hard to reinforce stone bridges, hence the arch shape the Romans used; they had to construct a bridge that supported itself because support structures were hard to build. Stone also cannot be easily reshaped. If you need a long, study support beam, you have to find one in a quarry, cut it that way, transport it that way, and place it that way.

Wood has always been the easiest material to work with. Many parks will use wood for construction of small bridges and the like. It is cheap, plentiful, easily cut by hand and transportable. Wood holds up decently, but is not very strong, so it is uncommon to use it to build anything meant for heavy freight. Wood is the most susceptible to the elements, as water will rot it (even if treated) and it wears down under traffic quickly. Wood bridges are best used only when something more complex cannot be built.

In most cases, however, steel is best. It’s not a matter of application as much as it is a matter of asking, “is it worth upgrading to steel for this bridge?” It can be shaped however it needs to be, but would suspension work best? If so, you can make steel cables for the suspension. Do you need a new cross beam? If the answer is “yes,” you can shape and cut steel for that. It can be welded together as if was originally one solid piece, and steel is surprisingly light for how strong it is.

There are a lot of good reasons we use steel for bridges. Essentially, the only reason we don’t use it is if the bridge in question is too small to be worth the investment.

Ranger Steel has supplied North America’s steel plate needs for more than 50 years, including products like steel for bridges. Quality products, competitive pricing, and on-time delivery are hallmarks of the way Ranger Steel consistently does business. Call Ranger Steel today at 800.231.5014 or visit us online at

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