Heat Treatment of Ferrous Metals – Part One

in Aircraft Materials Processes and Hardware

The first important consideration in the heat treatment of a steel part is to know its chemical composition. This, in turn, determines its upper critical point. When the upper critical point is known, the next consideration is the rate of heating and cooling to be used. Carrying out these operations involves the use of uniform heating furnaces, proper temperature controls, and suitable quenching mediums.

Behavior of Steel During Heating and Cooling

Changing the internal structure of a ferrous metal is accomplished by heating to a temperature above its upper critical point, holding it at that temperature for a time sufficient to permit certain internal changes to occur, and then cooling to atmospheric temperature under predetermined, controlled conditions.

At ordinary temperatures, the carbon in steel exists in the form of particles of iron carbide scattered throughout an iron matrix known as “ferrite.” The number, size, and distribution of these particles determine the hardness of the steel. At elevated temperatures, the carbon is dissolved in the iron matrix in the form of a solid solution called “austenite,” and the carbide particles appear only after the steel has been cooled. If the cooling is slow, the carbide particles are relatively coarse and few. In this condition, the steel is soft. If the cooling is rapid, as by quenching in oil or water, the carbon precipitates as a cloud of very fine carbide particles, and the steel is hard. The fact that the carbide particles can be dissolved in austenite is the basis of the heat treatment of steel. The temperatures at which this transformation takes place are called the critical points and vary with the composition of the steel. The percentage of carbon in the steel has the greatest influence on the critical points of heat treatment.


Pure iron, wrought iron, and extremely low carbon steels cannot be appreciably hardened by heat treatment, since they contain no hardening element. Cast iron can be hardened, but its heat treatment is limited. When cast iron is cooled rapidly, it forms white iron, which is hard and brittle. When cooled slowly, it forms gray iron, which is soft but brittle under impact.

In plain carbon steel, the maximum hardness depends almost entirely on the carbon content of the steel. As the carbon content increases, the ability of the steel to be hardened increases. However, this increase in the ability to harden with an increase in carbon content continues only to a certain point. In practice, that point is 0.85 percent carbon content. When the carbon content is increased beyond 0.85 percent, there is no increase in wear resistance.

For most steels, the hardening treatment consists of heating the steel to a temperature just above the upper critical point, soaking or holding for the required length of time, and then cooling it rapidly by plunging the hot steel into oil, water, or brine. Although most steels must be cooled rapidly for hardening, a few may be cooled in still air. Hardening increases the hardness and strength of the steel but makes it less ductile.

When hardening carbon steel, it must be cooled to below 1,000 °F in less than 1 second. Should the time required for the temperature to drop to 1,000 °F exceed 1 second, the austenite begins to transform into fine pearlite. This pearlite varies in hardness, but is much harder than the pearlite formed by annealing and much softer than the martensite desired. After the 1,000 °F temperature is reached, the rapid cooling must continue if the final structure is to be all martensite.

When alloys are added to steel, the time limit for the temperature drop to 1,000 °F increases above the 1 second limit for carbon steels. Therefore, a slower quenching medium will produce hardness in alloy steels.

Because of the high internal stresses in the “as quenched” condition, steel must be tempered just before it becomes cold. The part should be removed from the quenching bath at a temperature of approximately 200 °F, since the temperature range from 200 °F down to room temperature is the cracking range.

Hardening temperatures and quenching mediums for the various types of steel are listed in Figure 5-6.

Figure 5-6. Heat treatment procedures for steels.

Figure 5-6. Heat treatment procedures for steels.

Figure 5-6. Heat-treatment procedures for steels. (continued)

Figure 5-6. Heat-treatment procedures for steels. (continued)

Hardening Precautions

A variety of different shapes and sizes of tongs for handling hot steels is necessary. It should be remembered that cooling of the area contacted by the tongs is retarded and that such areas may not harden, particularly if the steel being treated is very shallow hardening. Small parts may be wired together or quenched in baskets made of wire mesh.

Special quenching jigs and fixtures are frequently used to hold steels during quenching in a manner to restrain distortion.

When selective hardening is desired, portions of the steel may be protected by covering with alundum cement or some other insulating material. Selective hardening may be accomplished also by the use of water or oil jets designed to direct quenching medium on the areas to be hardened. This also is accomplished by the induction and flame hardening procedures previously described, particularly on large production jobs.

Shallow hardening steels, such as plain carbon and certain varieties of alloy steels, have such a high critical cooling rate that they must be quenched in brine or water to effect hardening. In general, intricately shaped sections should not be made of shallow hardening steels because of the tendency of these steels to warp and crack during hardening. Such items should be made of deeper hardening steels capable of being hardened by quenching in oil or air.

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