You probably have a box of steel wool under your kitchen sink, and so did your mother and her mother before her. Commercial brands (such as Brillo, which was patented in 1913) are steel wool scouring pads that have been soaked in soap. These pads come in handy for cleaning pots and pans.
What you may not know is that standard steel wool – the kind without soap – can be used for many other useful purposes around your home.
Like many inventions, the creation of steel wool came about quite by accident. The story goes that some late 19th-century metal shop workers gathered up and saved the shavings from below their lathes. Before long, they began using the shavings to polish metal surfaces.
According to Iron Age, the Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute, steel wool was first produced as a product in 1896. When aluminum cookware became popular in the early part of the 20th century, steel wool became a fixture in most American kitchens.
As you probably know, steel wool contains no wool, and it doesn’t always contain steel, either. It is made from low-grade carbon steel wire, aluminum, bronze or stainless steel. The metal is shaved into very thin, flexible strands that when bunched together can have a fuzzy or wool-like appearance.
Steel wool is sold in either rolls or pads and is available in eight grades, from extra-coarse (grade 4) to super fine (grade 0000). The coarser the grade of wire, the more abrasive the steel wool is.
Here are 12 uses for steel wool that go beyond just cleaning pots and pans:
1. Clean garden tools. Dampen a piece of extra-fine (000) steel wool with household oil to clean the tool surface and edges. Then wipe the tool dry with a clean rag.
2. Sharpen scissors. You can keep your scissors sharp by simply using them to cut through a piece of steel wool on a regular basis.
3. Start a campfire. Tuck some small pieces of steel wool wrapped around cotton balls into an airtight bag along with your camping gear. When it’s time to start your campfire, simply fluff one of the cotton balls and ignite the steel wool by rubbing a 9V battery’s leads over it. As it sparks, toss it on your tinder, and you’ll have a fire going in no time.
4. Keep out mice. Steel wool is an inexpensive and easy way to block small holes around baseboards, pipes or other small entryways into your home. Stuff some steel wool into cracks and crevices, and then seal the area with heavy-duty tape. Voila! Your rodent problem is solved.
5. Finish or refinish woodwork. Use super fine (0000) steel wool on a piece of furniture you have shellacked or stained. The steel wool will remove dust particles and give you a smooth surface for your final coat of shellac. You also can use steel wool to achieve a distressed look on your furniture projects. It is easier to hold and to manage around the shapes of your wood than sand paper.
6. Keep a screw in place. Steel wool can tighten and keep a loose screw in place. Simply wind a bit of steel wool around the screw before putting it back into the hole.
7. Polish brass. You can use extra-fine (000) steel wool with a little salt and lemon juice to clean and polish your real brass. Caution: Use on real brass only, not plate brass. Not sure if it is real brass? Try sticking a magnet to it. If it is sticks, it is brass plate.
8. Spruce up sneakers. Clean the scuffed sides of your athletic shoes with a bit of fine (00) grade steel wool, a little water and some elbow grease. Let them dry and go back out and play.
9. Remove heel marks. Get rid of unsightly floor smudges from rubber-soled shoes. Just rub the surface with a steel wool pad and a little water. Then wipe clean with a clean damp sponge.
10. Perk up tires. Have you washed your car, but your tires still look dirty? Apply WD-40  spray on some superfine (0000) steel wool and then scrub your tires. It works on both black walls and white walls.
11. Say goodbye to rust. Use some steel wool to remove rust on outdoor furniture or railings. If you are painting the surface after removing the rust, the steel wool does a great job of roughing the surface for your paint.
12. Remove crayon marks from wallpaper. If your kids like to color outside the lines — way outside the lines — then you can use a piece of damp steel wool and water to (very) gently clean wallpaper. Be sure to gently skim the surface in one direction.
While the pre-soaped kind is sold in the cleaning aisle of your supermarket, you will find standard steel wool in home centers and hardware stores. Many online sites sell steel wool in inexpensive bulk quantities.
Steel wool is a versatile and inexpensive product, and you will probably find even more uses for it around your home and garden.
Do you know of other off-grid uses for steel wool? Share them in the section below: