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Charles Vlasov
Charles Vlasov

Steel Heat Treatment Handbook Metallurgy And Te... [UPD]

When it comes to understanding any subject, and heat treatment in particular, having sources you can trust is invaluable. Establishing a good technical reference library (Fig. 1), whether at work or at home (or both), is a good way to research the information you find, because solving everyday problems requires both an understanding of the root cause and an understanding of the underlying principles behind it. In addition, one must be able to uncover the entire scope of technical issues confronting us so as to find practical solutions and know why a particular phenomenon took place so that corrective action may be taken to avoid its reoccurrence in the future.

Steel Heat Treatment Handbook Metallurgy And Te...

Readers are encouraged to contact the writer ( with other reference books that they have found to be particularly helpful in solving heat-treating, metallurgy and engineering problems associated with the subjects listed (or others). As we update the list in the future, our library will continue to grow to the benefit of all.

Dan Herring is president of THE HERRING GROUP Inc., which specializes in consulting services (heat treatment and metallurgy) and technical services (industrial education/training and process/equipment assistance). He is also a research associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology/Thermal Processing Technology Center. tel: 630-834-3017; e-mail:; web:

Tempering is a heat treatment technique applied to ferrous alloys, such as steel or cast iron, to achieve greater toughness by decreasing the hardness of the alloy. The reduction in hardness is usually accompanied by an increase in ductility, thereby decreasing the brittleness of the metal. Tempering is usually performed after quenching, which is rapid cooling of the metal to put it in its hardest state. Tempering is accomplished by controlled heating of the quenched work-piece to a temperature below its "lower critical temperature". This is also called the lower transformation temperature or lower arrest (A1) temperature; the temperature at which the crystalline phases of the alloy, called ferrite and cementite, begin combining to form a single-phase solid solution referred to as austenite. Heating above this temperature is avoided, so as not to destroy the very-hard, quenched microstructure, called martensite.[3]

In carbon steels, tempering alters the size and distribution of carbides in the martensite, forming a microstructure called "tempered martensite". Tempering is also performed on normalized steels and cast irons, to increase ductility, machinability, and impact strength.[3] Steel is usually tempered evenly, called "through tempering," producing a nearly uniform hardness, but it is sometimes heated unevenly, referred to as "differential tempering," producing a variation in hardness.[4]

Very few metals react to heat treatment in the same manner, or to the same extent, that carbon steel does, and carbon-steel heat-treating behavior can vary radically depending on alloying elements. Steel can be softened to a very malleable state through annealing, or it can be hardened to a state as hard and brittle as glass by quenching. However, in its hardened state, steel is usually far too brittle, lacking the fracture toughness to be useful for most applications. Tempering is a method used to decrease the hardness, thereby increasing the ductility of the quenched steel, to impart some springiness and malleability to the metal. This allows the metal to bend before breaking. Depending on how much temper is imparted to the steel, it may bend elastically (the steel returns to its original shape once the load is removed), or it may bend plastically (the steel does not return to its original shape, resulting in permanent deformation), before fracturing. Tempering is used to precisely balance the mechanical properties of the metal, such as shear strength, yield strength, hardness, ductility and tensile strength, to achieve any number of a combination of properties, making the steel useful for a wide variety of applications. Tools such as hammers and wrenches require good resistance to abrasion, impact resistance, and resistance to deformation. Springs do not require as much wear resistance, but must deform elastically without breaking. Automotive parts tend to be a little less strong, but need to deform plastically before breaking.

Except in rare cases where maximum hardness or wear resistance is needed, such as the untempered steel used for files, quenched steel is almost always tempered to some degree. However, steel is sometimes annealed through a process called normalizing, leaving the steel only partially softened. Tempering is sometimes used on normalized steels to further soften it, increasing the malleability and machinability for easier metalworking. Tempering may also be used on welded steel, to relieve some of the stresses and excess hardness created in the heat affected zone around the weld.[3]

Tempering is most often performed on steel that has been heated above its upper critical (A3) temperature and then quickly cooled, in a process called quenching, using methods such as immersing the hot steel in water, oil, or forced-air. The quenched steel, being placed in or very near its hardest possible state, is then tempered to incrementally decrease the hardness to a point more suitable for the desired application. The hardness of the quenched steel depends on both cooling speed and on the composition of the alloy. Steel with a high carbon content will reach a much harder state than steel with a low carbon content. Likewise, tempering high-carbon steel to a certain temperature will produce steel that is considerably harder than low-carbon steel that is tempered at the same temperature. The amount of time held at the tempering temperature also has an effect. Tempering at a slightly elevated temperature for a shorter time may produce the same effect as tempering at a lower temperature for a longer time. Tempering times vary, depending on the carbon content, size, and desired application of the steel, but typically range from a few minutes to a few hours.

Tempering quenched steel at very low temperatures, between 66 and 148 C (151 and 298 F), will usually not have much effect other than a slight relief of some of the internal stresses and a decrease in brittleness. Tempering at higher temperatures, from 148 to 205 C (298 to 401 F), will produce a slight reduction in hardness, but will primarily relieve much of the internal stresses. In some steels with low alloy content, tempering in the range of 260 and 340 C (500 and 644 F) causes a decrease in ductility and an increase in brittleness, and is referred to as the "tempered martensite embrittlement" (TME) range. Except in the case of blacksmithing, this range is usually avoided. Steel requiring more strength than toughness, such as tools, are usually not tempered above 205 C (401 F). Instead, a variation in hardness is usually produced by varying only the tempering time. When increased toughness is desired at the expense of strength, higher tempering temperatures, from 370 to 540 C (698 to 1,004 F), are used. Tempering at even higher temperatures, between 540 and 600 C (1,004 and 1,112 F), will produce excellent toughness, but at a serious reduction in the strength and hardness. At 600 C (1,112 F), the steel may experience another stage of embrittlement, called "temper embrittlement" (TE), which occurs if the steel is held within the temperature range of temper embrittlement for too long. When heating above this temperature, the steel will usually not be held for any amount of time, and quickly cooled to avoid temper embrittlement.[3]

Steel that has been heated above its upper critical temperature and then cooled in standing air is called normalized steel. Normalized steel consists of pearlite, martensite and sometimes bainite grains, mixed together within the microstructure. This produces steel that is much stronger than full-annealed steel, and much tougher than tempered quenched-steel. However, added toughness is sometimes needed at a reduction in strength. Tempering provides a way to carefully decrease the hardness of the steel, thereby increasing the toughness to a more desirable point. Cast-steel is often normalized rather than annealed, to decrease the amount of distortion that can occur. Tempering can further decrease the hardness, increasing the ductility to a point more like annealed steel.[8] Tempering is often used on carbon steels, producing much the same results. The process, called "normalize and temper", is used frequently on steels such as 1045 carbon steel, or most other steels containing 0.35 to 0.55% carbon. These steels are usually tempered after normalizing, to increase the toughness and relieve internal stresses. This can make the metal more suitable for its intended use and easier to machine.[9]

Steel that has been arc welded, gas welded, or welded in any other manner besides forge welded, is affected in a localized area by the heat from the welding process. This localized area, called the heat-affected zone (HAZ), consists of steel that varies considerably in hardness, from normalized steel to steel nearly as hard as quenched steel near the edge of this heat-affected zone. Thermal contraction from the uneven heating, solidification and cooling creates internal stresses in the metal, both within and surrounding the weld. Tempering is sometimes used in place of stress relieving (even heating and cooling of the entire object to just below the A1 temperature) to both reduce the internal stresses and to decrease the brittleness around the weld. Localized tempering is often used on welds when the construction is too large, intricate, or otherwise too inconvenient to heat the entire object evenly. Tempering temperatures for this purpose are generally around 205 C (401 F) and 343 C (649 F).[10]

Because few methods of precisely measuring temperature existed until modern times, temperature was usually judged by watching the tempering colors of the metal. Tempering often consisted of heating above a charcoal or coal forge, or by fire, so holding the work at exactly the right temperature for the correct amount of time was usually not possible. Tempering was usually performed by slowly, evenly overheating the metal, as judged by the color, and then immediately cooling, either in open air or by immersing in water. This produced much the same effect as heating at the proper temperature for the right amount of time, and avoided embrittlement by tempering within a short time period. However, although tempering-color guides exist, this method of tempering usually requires a good amount of practice to perfect, because the final outcome depends on many factors, including the composition of the steel, the speed at which it was heated, the type of heat source (oxidizing or carburizing), the cooling rate, oil films or impurities on the surface, and many other circumstances which vary from smith to smith or even from job to job. The thickness of the steel also plays a role. With thicker items, it becomes easier to heat only the surface to the right temperature, before the heat can penetrate through. However, very thick items may not be able to harden all the way through during quenching.[11] 041b061a72


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