How to Design a Steel Beam

by Tom Kujawa

Designing a steel beam is not as complicated as you may think. There are essentially 6 Steps to design most steel beams:

  1. Material - Choose the appropriate grade of steel for the beam you will be designing.
  2. Shape - Select the shape of steel beam you would like to design.
  3. Span - Enter the distance you are trying to span.
  4. Bracing - Not to be overlooked! Bracing is critical in determining the capacity of a beam.
  5. Load - Enter loads based on their type and load case.
  6. Design - In the United States, there are two common methods of beam design (ASD and LRFD). Select the method you would like to use and specify deflection limits.

In the WebStructural beam design app each of these steps has an associated icon to allow you to efficiently work through the design process.

1. Material

There are many different grades of steel, but usually one common grade for each shape type. There are also many different shape types used in steel construction including: W, HSS, C, and angles to name a few. One of the most commonly used shape types for I-beams in steel construction is the W (wide flange) shape. W Shapes are usually made from Grade A992 steel. For our example, we'll be designing a W shape steel I-beam. Let's start by selecting the appropriate material for this shape. Click the "Edit material..." link to launch the Material Dialog and select A992 from the material list.

2. Shape

Next, let's select our W shape from WebStructural's extensive shape library. Click the "Edit shape..." link to launch the Shape Dialog and select W8X15 from the list (you might need to scroll the list a little to find it). This beam is roughly 8" deep (or tall), that's the first number in the shape name. The beam weighs 15 lbs/ft, the second number in the shape name. Typically, the lighter the beam, the less it will cost, so to design the most cost-effective beam, you'll want to choose one that weighs the least but meets your design criteria. After we enter all the design criteria and analyze our beam, we can always change the shape and material if it's not adequate for our loads (demand).

3. Span

Span is the distance between points of support for a beam. A beam is often just a single span supported at both ends. However, that's not always the case. Beams can be supported anywhere along their length or they can be cantilevered beyond their end supports. To add or edit span length in WebStructural, simply click Edit spans... or click the span dimension on the drawing and add a span to the left or right, then enter the length of your second span.

For our example, add a span to the right and make it 4'-0". Adjust the first span to equal 12'-0".

Beam support conditions can also be changed in WebStructural by simply clicking on a support (the gray triangle under the beam). Cliking a support will toggle through three support types (support conditions): Pinned, Fixed, or Free. For our example, change the right most support to Free by clicking the right-most gray triangle in the drawing. This will create a cantilever (overhang) on the right side of the beam.

4. Bracing

Bracing is an incredibly important, yet often overlooked aspect of beam design. When a beam is bent, tension and compression forces are introduced. For a simple span beam (one spanning between two pinned supports), the top of the beam will be in compression. It is these compression forces that can cause a beam to buckled out-of-plane (called lateral torsional buckling or LTB). To understand this type of buckling, think of compressing a short ruler between your hands. Now think of compressing a yard stick. Which one is more likely to flex and twist when you compress it? Clearly the longer, more slender one. It is this slenderness that is directly related to buckling. If we are able to brace a beam against this type of buckling, then we can often achieve greater bending strength. WebStructural allows you to specify bracings in many different common configurations. Span supports are automatically assumed to be bracing locations. Remember, continuous bracing assumes that the compression side of the beam is braced. If you need to find the compression side of your beam just take a look at the moment diagram. The compression side will be the inside of the curve where ever you see areas of high curvature (moment). If you're unsure about bracing conditions you can always conservatively assume the beam is completely unbraced.

5. Loads

Load Cases

A beam can carry loads from many different sources. Below is a list of some of the more common types of Load Cases:

Dead loads (D) are those which are always present. Think of a concrete slab, or the weight of a wall. Those loads are always present and do not change.

Live Loads (L) are typically occupancy type loads. You are a type of Live Load in the structure you are in right now. American Society of Civil Engineers publishes a book (ASCE 7) with guidance for the amount of live load that should be used for different structures.

Roof Live Loads (Lr) are similar to Live Loads, but are specific to the roof and are typically related to construction or maintenance activities.

Snow Loads (S) are exactly want they sound like, loads cause by snow. Local building codes often dictate the appropriate ground or design snow loads to use. These are typically basic loads. Drift and unbalanced conditions should be accounted for as needed.

Other Loads are less common in beam design but can include Wind (W), Seimic or Earthquake (E), Rain (R), Lateral Earth (H), etc.

Load Types

Beams can be loaded in many ways, but most loadings that cause flexure can be described as either:

Uniform Loads These loads have units of force per unit length. With WebStructural, the default units for Uniform Loads is kips per foot (1 kip = 1000 lbs.). Uniform loads are often used to simplify repetitive and closely spaced point loads such as floor joists or roof rafters. To calculate the appropriate uniform load to apply to a beam, simply multiply the beams tributary area by the appropriate area load. Area loads and other structural loads are established by the American Society of Civil Engineers ASCE7 document and are given as pounds per square foot (psf).

Linear Loads Linear Loads are very similar to uniform loads, but rather than having a constant magnitude, vary along their length. Linear Loads also have units of force per length. Linear loads can be used to represent triangular snow drifts or beams with joists framing in at a skewed angle, or many other triangular and trapezoidal type loading.

Point Loads Point loads have units of force. The default in WebStructural is Kips (1 kip = 1000 lbs.). Point loads can be as simple as a reaction from another member such as a beam framing into another beam, or a column sitting on a beam.

Moments Moments are loads which cause rotation in the axis of a beam and have units of force times length. The default in WebStructural is kip-feet. Moments are more complex to those less familiar with them, but consider a column welded to the top of a steel beam. If a force is applied to top of the column, it will cause the beam it is attached to bend as well, just like a lever. This bending type reaction is a moment. If the force is in the direction of the beam axis (or span direction), it can be input as a moment in WebStructural. If the force applied is perpendicular to the beam axis, then a torsional moment will be introduced. WebStructural does not currently allow for torsional loads to be input.

Loading Our Beam

For our example, let's use a dead load D = 0.63 k/ft and a live load L = 1.5 k/ft Also, we'll make sure to Include Self Weight. You can edit loads by clicking any load on the drawing or by clicking the Edit Loads... text above the drawing or from the menu Edit → Loads...

We'll start by clicking Edit Loads.... That will pull up the Loads Dialog. The Loads Dialog allows you to add new loads or edit existing loads by clicking on a row from the Current Loads table.

Let's go ahead and edit our dead load by clicking on the first (and only) row in the Current Loads table. The first thing we need to do is adjust the load so that it covers the entire length of our beam. You can do this by clicking the button that says Right End. This will change the end position of the load to the end of the beam.

Now let's add our live load. Since our live load is the same length as our dead load we can simply add a magnitude for the Live Load case for our current uniform load. In the Uniform Dialog note the check box that says Show All Load Cases. Click that box to show the Load Case table. Enter 0.63 in the dead load box (box D) and 1.5 in the live load box (box L).

What about Load Factors? Depending on which design method you choose, (see below) the loads you enter will be factored appropriately. Simply enter the service (unfactored) loads.

Your model should now look like this

6. Design

Design Method (ASD or LRFD)

Structural steel can either be designed by Load or Resistance Factor Design (LRFD) and Allowable Stress Design (ASD). Both methods yield similar results. Engineers have their opinions about the pros and cons of each method, but both are currently allowed in the United States. Simply click Edit design... and choose the method you would like to use.

Design Equations

WebStructural will automatically factor your loads and apply them in the appropriate design equations. You can view these equation and exclude ones you don't want to include in analysis if you wish.

To exclude specific equations click on one in the equation table to toggle it.


Deflection is an important measure of beam performance. Beams that have excessive deflection can be strong enough to carry their design loads, but perform poorly in service. Excessive deflections can lead to user complaint including bouncy floors, cracked building finishes, instability for mechanical equipment, etc. The International Building Code (IBC) dictates the minimum deflection for various members and load types. Deflections are typically described as a ratio or L (span) over some value to allow for comparison and standardization. Example: The deflection ratio for 0.5" delection in a 12' beam equals L/288 = 12ftx12in/ft (span) 0.5" (deflection). Now consider a beam that deflects 0.75" and is 18' long. It has an equivalent deflection ratio or L/288. In theory, these beams have the same deflection performance even though the longer span beam has a greater deflection. That is because the deflection is less noticeable over the greater distance. L/100 is often considered to be near the limit of deflection that is detectable to the human eye. L/360 is usually considered a minimum accepatlbe deflection due to live loads on floors, but that is just a minimum.


Once you have input all of your criteria, all you have to do is click that big green Calculate button that I know you've been itching to click. WebStructural will perform a finite element analysis for your beam model. It will determine design forces and calculate the design capacities of the beam using the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) standards. If you originally selected an appropriate beam size, you will see a lot of green and bending, shear, and deflection capacity ratios will be less than 1.0. These values are a percentage of capacity. For example, if your report reads "Bending 0.88" the beam configuration you selected is at 88% of it's flexural capacity (according to AISC).

If your report is red, then your capacity ratios are greater than 1.0 and the beam does not meet the design criteria. This means you need a bigger beam! Simply choose a different shape (larger moment of inertia) and click the Calculate button.

Looks like we're pretty good at this - our design is green!

That's it. Steel beam design in a few clicks.

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Happy Engineering,

The WebStructural Team