When it comes to bullet-resistant doors and frames, most organizations choose either "hollow metal" doors and frames (which are made from welded cold-rolled steel) or a UL-rated aluminum framing system with "storefront" doors, “frameless” all-acrylic/all-glass doors, or ballistic wood doors. But these aren't the only options. Some high-end or institutional settings call for something a cut above the rest: stainless steel.
According to Eric Malzahn, a project manager at Total Security Solutions, “You don’t see stainless steel all that often. It’s not nearly as prevalent. Your hollow metal and your aluminum are the two front runners.”
Why is that?
“Cost is the major issue," Eric explains. "Stainless demands a great deal of attention to the finish. That brings in this immense amount of labor, which means cost. They’re time-consuming. We’ll always find a way to make it work, but going to stainless steel for a door basically doubles the cost.”
Nonetheless, situations do arise where customers opt for stainless steel doors and frames. This usually comes down to either aesthetics or needing to match existing decor. For example, many federal buildings have favored stainless steel over the years, and thus need to have stainless steel ballistic framing and doors when they make security upgrades.
“Whether it’s a wood door, or a steel door, or a stainless door," Eric reminds us, "from a security standpoint, if you had a non-rated door and rated door side-by-side in the same room, you want to be able to blend it together so that it doesn’t look like the doors are any different. You don’t want potential attackers to be able to look around and say ‘this is a ballistic door, this isn’t,' then plan accordingly.”
Why Stainless Steel Bullet-Resistant Doors and Frames Are a Challenge
Working in stainless steel poses a unique set of challenges. In contrast to mild or cold-rolled steel, stainless steel is thicker and heavier. It is also more sensitive to temperature and metallurgy during welding, fabrication, and even installation. For example, a stainless steel door could in theory use a standard steel or rated aluminum frame. But under certain conditions having those different metals in long-term contact with each other can cause a reaction, accelerating oxidation.
"All things equal, a standard steel door is pretty easy,” Eric explains. “You form the outside casings, weld the seams together, grind them smooth, touch it up with some filler, then prime coat it. With standard hollow-metal doors and frames, that steel is relatively forgiving. But with a stainless steel door, there’s no luxury there. Stainless has a grain, similar to wood grain, which is going to ultimately be visible. So any flaws need to be finished out. You can’t cover it up: you need to grind it smooth, and then repolish and regrain the entire door top to bottom, end to end, in order for the finish to look right. Whenever you touch it, you have the potential to leave fingerprints and skin oil that can discolor the stainless. It’s a never-ending battle with stainless fabrication, chasing quality left and right.”
And all of these challenges grow with size: working twice as big is four times as hard (especially when it comes to large stainless steel framing systems, which cannot be welded in the field).
This is why so many bulletproof companies can make a nice cash tray or stainless steel-framed window but can't supply a stainless steel door of similar quality.
TSS Stainless in Federal Reserve Banks, a Case Study
Most of the stainless steel bullet-resistant doors and frames TSS has made in the last several years have been for institutional customers, like Federal Reserve Bank locations.
“These are the most gorgeous buildings," Eric says. "The outside doesn’t look too special necessarily, just like any other government building. But inside, they’re full granite. Absolutely gorgeous. The stainless looks terrific there.”
But this isn't just about aesthetics, because Federal Reserve Banks aren't just offices where economists and bankers punch numbers into keyboards. Federal Reserve buildings are an attractive target. Our nation's twelve Federal Reserve banks hold actual gold on behalf of the U.S. and foreign governments, banks, and other "official international organizations." The vast majority of this is held in the New York Fed's gold vault and constitutes the world’s largest known quantity of monetary gold in a single location: Almost half a million gold bars with a combined weight of just over 6 tons, worth approximately $8,402,202,200.
"With each of the jobs we've done for the Federal Reserve, there's been more to it than just the interior or exterior doors. In fact, the doors weren’t super-complicated, in the scheme of things, fairly straightforward Level 3 stainless steel doors and frames." These projects also included more complex interior security measures, like ballistically secure mantrap vestibules, walk-thru checkpoints made from UL-rated aluminum framing and ballistic transparency, and safe rooms with stainless doors to match non-rated doors elsewhere in the building.
"Although we often work with local contractors, we did all of these installations ourselves, because it was so important both to match the existing non-rated stainless doors and because it was important to us that it looked good. It breaks your heart to see doors like these get scuffed up by someone else who isn't used to handling stainless."
The Art & Science of Stainless
"There’s a little more of an art to working with stainless," Eric concludes. "You have to change the products that you use on the welder, whether it’s the welding rod, the temperature, the settings on the equipment. All of that has a variance with stainless that you wouldn’t have with mild steel. And as you get deeper into that, it’s more of a refined skillset, beyond what your average shop welder could work on. You have to be more thoughtful, from the first design through to the final delivery.”
TSS president and CEO Jim Richards agrees. “It’s tedious, tough work," he says. "I shied away from it for years. With doors, we only really focused on this in the past 3 to 5 years, by both increasing the skill level of our in-house talent and bringing in new people that really know stainless steel.” In 2021, TSS acquired Bulldog Innovative Manufacturing in Fowlerville, MI, in part to bring in designers and welders especially skilled with stainless steel. "We've learned a lot, building expertise in this very painstaking area."
Do you have a security project that may call for stainless steel bullet-resistant doors and frames? Contact our ballistic security experts today with your questions or get started with a project or specification.