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Heat Treatment of steel

Heat treating of steel is the process of heating and cooling of carbon steel to change the steel's physical
and mechanical properties without changing the original shape and size.
Heat Treating is often associated with increasing the strength of the steel, but it can also be used to alter
certain manufacturability objectives such as improve machinability, formability, restore ductility etc. Thus
heat treating is a very useful process to helps other manufacturing processes and also improve product
performance by increasing strength or provides other desirable characteristics. High carbon steels are
particularly suitable for heat treatment, since carbon steel respond well to heat treatment and the
commercial use of steels exceeds that of any other material.
There are many difference types of heat treating processes, it individual process provides different
desirable characteristics to the product.

The purpose of anneal heat treating may involve one or more of the following aims:
To soften the steel and to improve machinability.
To relieve internal stresses induced by some previous treatment (rolling, forging, uneven cooling).
To remove coarseness of grain.
The treatment is applied to forgings, cold-worked sheets and wire, and castings. The operation consists
heating the steel to a certain temperature,
"soaking" at this temperature for a time sufficient to allow the necessary changes to occur,
cooling at a predetermined rate.
Sub-critical Anneal
It is not always necessary to heat the steel into the critical range. Mild steel products which have to be
repeatedly cold worked in the processes of manufacture are softened by annealing at 500 to 650C for
several hours. This is known as "process" or "close" annealing, and is commonly employed for wire and
sheets. The recrystallisation temperature of pure iron is in the region of 500C consequently the higher
temperature of 650C brings about rapid recrystallisation of the distorted ferrite Since mild steel contains
only a small volume of strained pearlite a high degree of softening is induced. As shown, Fig. 1b
illustrates the structure formed consisting of the polyhedral ferrite with elongated pearlite (see also Fig. 2).
Prolonged annealing induces greater ductility at the expense of strength, owing to the tendency of the
cementite in the strained pearlite to "ball-up" or spheroidise, as illustrated in Fig. 1c. This is known as
"divorced pearlite". The ferrite grains also become larger, particularly if the metal has been cold worked a
critical amount. A serious embrittlement sometimes arises after prolonged treatment owing to the
formation of cementitic films at the ferrite boundaries. With severe forming operations, cracks are liable to
start at these cementite membranes.

Figure 1. Effect of annealing cold-worked mild steel

Figure 2. Effect of annealing at 650C on worked steel. Ferrite recrystallised. Pearlite remains elongated
The modern tendency is to use batch or continuous annealing furnaces with an inert purging gas. Batch
annealing usually consists of 24-30 hrs 670C, soak 12 hrs, slow cool 4-5 days. Open coil annealing
consists in recoiling loosely with controlled space between wraps and it reduces stickers and
discoloration. Continuous annealing is used for thin strip (85% Red) running at about 400 m/min. The
cycle is approximately up to 660C 20 sec, soak and cool 30-40 sec. There is little chance for grain
growth and it produces harder and stiffer strip; useful for cans and panelling.
"Double reduced" steel is formed by heavy reduction (~50%) after annealing but it suffers from
directionality. This can be eliminated by heating between 700-920C and rapidly quenching.
Full Anneal and Normalising Treatments
For steels with less than 0,9% carbon both treatments consist in heating to about 25-50C above the
upper critical point indicated by the Fe-Fe3C equilibrium diagram (Fig. 3). For higher carbon steels the
temperature is 50C above the lower critical point.

Figure 3. Heat-treatment ranges of steels

Average annealing and hardening temperatures are:

Carbon, %






0.9 to 1.3

Avg.temp. C







These temperatures allow for the effects of slight variations in the impurities present and also the thermal
lag associated with the critical changes. After soaking at the temperature for a time dependent on the
thickness of the article, the steel is very slowly cooled. This treatment is known as full annealing, and is
used for removing strains from forgings and castings, improving machinability and also when softening
and refinement of structure are both required.
Normalising differs from the full annealing in that the metal is allowed to cool in still air. The structure and
properties produced, however, varying with the thickness of metal treated. The tensile strength, yield
point, reduction of area and impact value are higher than the figures obtained by annealing.
Changes on Annealing
Consider the heating of a 0,3% carbon steel. At the lower critical point (Ac1) each "grain" of pearlite
changes to several minute austenite crystals and as the temperature is raised the excess ferrite is
dissolved, finally disappearing at the upper critical point (Ac3), still with the production of fine austenite
crystals. Time is necessary for the carbon to become uniformly distributed in this austenite. The properties
obtained subsequently depend on the coarseness of the pearlite and ferrite and their relative distribution.
These depend on:
a) the size of the austenite grains; the smaller their size the better the distribution of the ferrite and
b) the rate of cooling through the critical range, which affects both the ferrite and the pearlite.
As the temperature is raised above Ac3 the crystals increase in size. On a certain temperature the
growth, which is rapid at first, diminishes. Treatment just above the upper critical point should be aimed
at, since the austenite crystals are then small.
By cooling slowly through the critical range, ferrite commences to deposit on a few nuclei at the austenite
boundaries. Large rounded ferrite crystals are formed, evenly distributed among the relatively coarse
pearlite. With a higher rate of cooling, many ferrite crystals are formed at the austenite boundaries and a
network structure of small ferrite crystals is produced with fine pearlite in the centre.
Overheated, Burnt and Underannealed Structures
When the steel is heated well above the upper critical temperature large austenite crystals form. Slow
cooling gives rise to the Widmansttten type of structure, with its characteristic lack of both ductility and
resistance to shock. This is known as an overheated structure, and it can be refined by reheating the steel
to just above the upper critical point. Surface decarburisation usually occurs during the overheating.
During the Second World War, aircraft engine makers were troubled with overheating (above 1250C) in
drop-stampings made from alloy steels. In the hardened and tempered condition the fractured surface
shows dull facets. The minimum overheating temperature depends on the "purity" of the steel and is
substantially lower in general for electric steel than for open-hearth steel. The overheated structure in
these alloy steels occurs when they are cooled at an intermediate rate from the high temperature. At
faster or slower rates the overheated structure may be eliminated. This, together with the fact that the
overheating temperature is significantly raised in the presence of high contents of MnS and inclusions,
suggests that this overheating is conected in some way with a diffusion and precipitation process,

involving MnS. This type of overheating can occur in an atmosphere free from oxygen, thus emphasising
the difference between overheating and burning.
As the steel approaches the solidus temperature, incipient fusion and oxidation take place at the grain
boundaries. Such a steel is said to be burnt and it is characterised by the presence of brittle iron oxide
films, which render the steel unfit for service, except as scrap for remelting.

Hardening and Tempering of Tool Steels

In this text, an example is tool steel W1, designated only by the type letter and numeral as used in the
USA and the UK for standardized tool steels. This designation system is so well known by steel
consumers all over the world that no qualifying institutional designations are necessary.
Carbon steels and vanadium-alloyed steels
The hardening of these steels, which are made with carbon contents between 0,80% and 1,20%, is quite
straightforward: Since the rate of carbide dissolution proceeds rapidly, the holding time, as a
consequence, is short and therefore the heating of small tools can often take place without any extra
precautions against atmospheric oxidation.
The hardening temperature is about 780C. Quenching is carried out direct into brine with tempering
following immediately. The quenching operation is the most critical part of the heat treatment since too
slow a rate of cooling might give rise to either soft spots or quenching cracks.
If the tool is designed to contain hardened areas around holes or reentrant angles the cooling effect must
be very intensive at these areas. Manual stirring will often suffice but in many cases the coolant must be
sprayed on to the tool. For sections heavier than 20 mm the depth of hardening, i.e. the distance from the
surface to the 550 HV level, is about 4 mm. Sections less than about 8 mm in thickness will harden
For awkward tools, hardenability may be a crucial factor and under such circumstances the composition
of the steel must be adjusted in accordance herewith, in particular as regards the alloying elements Mn
and Cr, which have a powerful influence on hardenability.
The diagram in Figure 1 shows how the hardening temperature affects the depth of hardening and
fracture number on Wl-type steel of conventional composition. The V-content is only 0,04%, which implies
that the steel starts to be coarse-grained when the hardening temperature exceeds 815C.

Figure 1. Depth of hardening for carbon steel, 25 mm in diameter, corresponding to W1. Quenched in
water from various temperatures
In Figure 2 are shown the results of corresponding trials with steel containing somewhat larger amounts
of alloying elements. The depth of hardening is considerably greater. Owing to the high content of V the
steel remains fine-grained even when hardened from exceptionally high temperatures.
The very considerable toughness inherent in plain-carbon steel, due to its shallow-hardening properties,
is forfeited if the tool through-hardens locally at some sections because the cross-sectional area there is
too small. For shearing tools or small tools generally, such as scissors, knives or letter die punches, which
are not subjected to heavy impact blows, this drawback is of less importance. Tools operating under
heavy blows, e.g. upsetting dies for cold-heading of bolts, must not be through-hardened.
Coining and striking punches are other examples of carbon tool steels that require high wear resistance.
Such tools may also be subjected to bending stresses and should therefore not be through-hardened.
The tempering temperature normally used for tools belonging to this group lies in the range 170C, the
hardness being generally about 60-64 HRC.

Figure 2. Depth of hardening for carbon steel, 25 mm in diameter, corresponding to W1. Quenched in
water from various temperatures