Increasing interest in graphene research in basic sciences and applications emphasizes the need for an economical means of synthesizing it. We report a method for the synthesis of graphene on commercially available stainless steel foils using direct thermal chemical vapor deposition. Our method of synthesis and the use of relatively cheap precursors such as ethanol (CH 3CH2OH) as a source of carbon and SS 304 as the substrate proved to be economically viable. The presence of single-and few-layer graphene was confirmed using confocal Raman microscopy/spectroscopy. X-ray photoelectron spectroscopic measurements were further used to establish the influence of various elemental species present in stainless steel on graphene growth. The role of cooling rate on surface migration of certain chemical species (oxides of Fe, Cr and Mn) that promote or hinder the growth of graphene is probed. Such analysis of the chemical species present on the surface can be promising for graphene based catalytic research. © 2011 IOP Publishing Ltd.