Expansion and Contraction of Metals

in Aircraft Welding

The expansion and contraction of metal is a factor taken into consideration during the design and manufacturing of all aircraft. It is equally important to recognize and allow for the dimensional changes and metal stress that may occur during any welding process.

Heat causes metals to expand; cooling causes them to contract. Therefore, uneven heating causes uneven expansion, and uneven cooling causes uneven contraction. Under such conditions, stresses are set up within the metal. These forces must be relieved, and unless precautions are taken, warping or buckling of the metal takes place. Likewise, on cooling, if nothing is done to take up the stress set up by the contraction forces, further warping may result; or if the metal is too heavy to permit this change in shape, the stresses remain within the metal itself.


The coefficient of linear expansion of a metal is the amount in inches that a one inch piece of metal expands when its temperature is raised 1 °F. The amount that a piece of metal expands when heat is applied is found by multiplying the coefficient of linear expansion by the temperature rise and multiplying that product by the length of the metal in inches.

Expansion and contraction have a tendency to buckle and warp thin sheet metal 1⁄8-inch or thinner. This is the result of having a large surface area that spreads heat rapidly and dissipates it soon after the source of heat is removed. The most effective method of alleviating this situation is to remove the heat from the metal near the weld, preventing it from spreading across the whole surface area. This can be done by placing heavy pieces of metal, known as chill bars, on either side of the weld; to absorb the heat and prevent it from spreading. Copper is most often used for chill bars because of its ability to absorb heat readily. Welding fixtures sometimes use this same principle to remove heat from the base metal. Expansion can also be controlled by tack welding at intervals along the joint.

The effect of welding a seam longer than 10 or 12 inches is to draw the seam together as the weld progresses. If the edges of the seam are placed in contact with each other throughout their length before welding starts, the far ends of the seam actually overlap before the weld is completed. This tendency can be overcome by setting the pieces to be welded with the seam spaced correctly at one end and increasing the space at the opposite end. [Figure 5-39]

Figure 5-39. Allowance for a straight butt weld when joining steel sheets.

Figure 5-39. Allowance for a straight butt weld when joining steel sheets.

The amount of space allowed depends on the type of material, the thickness of the material, the welding process being used, and the shape and size of the pieces to be welded. Instruction and/or welding experience dictates the space needed to produce a stress-free joint.

The weld is started at the correctly spaced end and proceeds toward the end that has the increased gap. As the seam is welded, the space closes and should provide the correct gap at the point of welding. Sheet metal under 1⁄16-inch can be handled by flanging the edges, tack welding at intervals, and then by welding between the tacks.

There are fewer tendencies for plate stock over 1⁄8-inch to warp and buckle when welded because the greater thickness limits the heat to a narrow area and dissipates it before it travels far on the plate.

Preheating the metal before welding is another method of controlling expansion and contraction. Preheating is especially important when welding tubular structures and castings. Great stress can be set up in tubular welds by contraction. When welding two members of a tee joint, one tube tends to draw up because of the uneven contraction. If the metal is preheated before the welding operation begins, contraction still takes place in the weld, but the accompanying contraction in the rest of the structure is at almost the same rate, and internal stress is reduced.