Bicycle Frame Materials | Titanium vs. Steel

What's the perfect material for a bicycle frame? Recently we've been inundated with emails asking about titanium versus steel. So much so, that I thought it was time for an article comparing the two. If you feel like reading a definitive series of articles that I wrote in 2009 for The Bicycle Paper on frame materials including aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and steel, that's here. If, on the other hand, you'd like to read a smaller comparison between titanium and steel bicycle frames in the modern era, this is it.

Let's first start with perceptions and mis-conceptions that people seem to have about the materials. I'll pick five that seem to follow these materials around and then dispel or confirm them using real experience from our years of experience building frames from both materials. Unlike almost every other manufacturer, we work directly with 100% of our customers, and not through dealers. This gives us immediate and accurate feedback. You can benefit from that knowledge as well. So let's look at these things and see how they stack up.

Titanium Bicycles frames are:
1.) Stronger than steel: The perception that titanium is going to be more reliable than steel because it's 'stronger than steel' is...FALSE
2.) Lighter: A lightweight titanium bike frame is lighter than a lightweight steel frame...right?FALSE
3.) More resistant to rust: Titanium, like stainless steel, will not rust or corrode in weather...TRUE
4.) Confortable to ride: Titanium rides smooth and comfortable like a steel frame...TRUE
5.) Expensive: A high quality titanium frame is very expensive.TRUE
Steel Bicycle frames are:
1.) Strong: Strong as steel! Steel has a well-deserved reputation as 'strong'TRUE
2.) Heavier than titanium: The perception that a steel frame cannot be built lighter than a titanium frame is...FALSE
3.) Prone to rust: The perception that steel frames are often ruined by rust and corrosion is...FALSE
4.) Comfortable to ride: Steel frames are the standard for the best riding characteristicsTRUE
5.) Inexpensive: High quality steel is much less expensive than high quality titaniumTRUE

OK, let's break them down one by one and make some comparisons based on our very real experience working with both materials.

1.) Reliability: The Winner is Steel

While both materials are very strong when used for bicycle frames, reliability is not the same. Surprisingly, modern titanium bicycle frames are much more likely to break than steel frames. Not because of strength, but just plain defective materials. There are applications where titanium may be stronger, or more reliable, but bicycle fame building is not it. In the early days of the titanium bicycle (1970's and 80's), the only titanium that was available to us was engineered and built for the aviation/aerospace industry. This had to pass very stringent standards, and as a result was extremely high quality and reliable. Inexpensive, poor quality titanium was not even available. I would say, back then, that titanium frames were at least as reliable as a steel frame was, and possibly more so. It's hard to judge because there were so few built as they were extremely expensive.

In modern times however, the titanium available for building bicycles is not engineered or built to these standards. The aerospace industry has moved on from titanium, and it's very difficult, if not impossible to find really high quality titanium to build bicycles from. This results in a much higher failure rate than anyone (including me) would expect. For instance, when we started offering titanium again in 2008, we were flooded with requests to repair broken titanium frames of all makes. While some were from no-name manufacturers, most were very high-end frames that cost well over $3,000 new. It seems that it's difficult to find someone who will repair titanium bicycle frames, but there's a lot of broken ones out there. For the first year or so back in the ti frame world, mostly what we did were repairs.

Soon we began to sell custom ti frames again. As we began to build them, we discovered quite rapidly that the materials that we could acquire were not nearly as reliable as the titanium materials we used in the 1980's. Defects in modern titanium tubing run at a MUCH higher rate than defects in steel tubing. For this reason, steel wins the reliability category hands down. It's not even a close competition.

If you are choosing a modern material for reliability, titanium is not least when it comes to bicycle frames.

2.) Weight: The Winner is Steel

OK then, should you choose titanium over steel if weight is your main concern? Not if the year is after 1998.

People have the idea that a steel bicycle frame has to be heavy....ususally because they owned a heavy bicycle 30 years ago that happened to be made of steel. This is something that I hear everyday. Steel has evolved in a very positive way. High-end steels have gotten much stronger and as a result, can be built much lighter. If you go back to the 1990's, a light steel frame was about 3.75 ~ 4.25 lbs. At that same time, a light titanium frame was about 3.25 ~ 3.75 lbs. In modern steel, we can easily build a steel frame in a medium size at 2.6 ~ 3.2 lbs. Titanium has not evolved in this way, so we still are looking at a medium sized ti frame at around 3.2 pounds. Sure, ti can be built lighter this, but the ride quality suffers when we drop it down below this weight. To build a ti frame that isn't too flexible (or rides like a noodle), we end up with thicker, heavier tubing....there's no way around it.

If light weight is your most important factor, and you want the lightest frame, then steel is the better option. We even build steel bicycles that are lighter than the lightest carbon bikes available!

3.) Rust Resistance: The Winner is Titanium (but steel is not bad)

Here's an area that ti is really good for. It will not corrode or rust like a steel bike can. In fact, it doesn't even need paint. That alone is sometimes a reason that people choose ti....they like that bare metal look. That being said, have you ever actually had a steel bicycle frame ruined by rust? Me neither. Actually, I've been here since 1987, and I have seen maybe 1 or 2 bicycles rusted beyond repair. As far as rust that requires repair, that is also very, very rare on a steel bike, although it does occur. Once every year or so we might run into rust on a 20 or 30 year old bicycle that requires some repair work. This is usually discovered during a re-paint.

There are some bicycle salespeople out there that may have you believe that if you buy a steel frame it's going to rust away in a few years. My recommendation is to visit any bicycle repair shop. Look at the bikes in the racks that people ride everyday as their 'rain or shine' commuter. You will see a lot of 20, 30, and even 40 year old steel bikes.

Albeit slight, there is a 'no-rust' advantage for titanium over steel. That is, unless we are talking about stainless steel (which is also available).

Given the reliability advantage of steel, maybe we should call this a tie?

4.) Ride Quality: It's 'steel' a 'ti' (bad puns intended)

Here's one place that I think you'll find almost no difference. When we build a steel bicycle or a titanium bicycle for a specific type of riding, they both perform equally. A lot of people think of titanium as a very comfy ride, but mostly because they've been riding carbon fiber bikes. After 5 or 6 years on a ti race frame, titanium feels like an old friend. That's because if rides as smooth and nice as your old Peugot (or any nice 30 year old steel frame)....but, so does a light weight steel frame.

When it comes to ride quality: Yes, titanium rides like steel. But, so does steel;-)

5.) Cost: Steel Steals the Show Here

In high quality frames you'll pay more than double the price for a titanium bicycle frame compared to a steel frame. That's not because the materials are more expensive, but because of the amount of labor it takes to work with ti. Yes, titanium is a bit more expensive for the materials, but the time it takes to weld a ti frame together is greater by a factor of 10. You are also paying for a lot more argon gas for all of that time welding. It also takes considerably more time to miter the tubing. What you pay a builder for 1 hour to do on a high-end steel frame, you pay that frame builder for 10 hours to do on a ti frame. If it's rushed, you'll end up with weak welds.

You can compare it like this: Compare a $1,700 THERMLX steel custom frame to a $3,500 custom ti frame. Let's say we built them both as 'race' frames. The weight and ride quality would be equal. The chance of a defective tube would be much greater on the ti frame.

Now, let's say you weigh 190lbs and want a sub-3 pound S3 race frame. With steel we could do that for about $3,200 and it would ride great (I know because I ride one). With ti, we can't really do it in a way that won't ride like a squishy noodle. We're limited to about 3.25 pounds for that 'steel feel' ride.

Wrap Up

As you can tell, we really like the 'bang for the buck' of a steel bike. If your budget allows, there's certainly nothing wrong with going ti, and we build plenty of both. We're more than happy to build a ti bike or a steel bike for you. We just want you to know the full truth and select your material accordingly. There are lot of mis-conceptions about both materials that steer people in one direction or the other. Now, armed with information from a builder that builds both, you can choose your material based on the criteria that matters to you.

Thanks for reading. -Dan