Heat Treatment of Ferrous Metals – Part Two

in Aircraft Materials Processes and Hardware


Tempering reduces the brittleness imparted by hardening and produces definite physical properties within the steel. Tempering always follows, never precedes, the hardening operation. In addition to reducing brittleness, tempering softens the steel.

Tempering is always conducted at temperatures below the low critical point of the steel. In this respect, tempering differs from annealing, normalizing, or hardening, all of which require temperatures above the upper critical point. When hardened steel is reheated, tempering begins at 212 °F and continues as the temperature increases toward the low critical point. By selecting a definite tempering temperature, the resulting hardness and strength can be predetermined. Approximate temperatures for various tensile strengths are listed in Figure 5-6. The minimum time at the tempering temperature should be 1 hour. If the part is over 1 inch in thickness, increase the time by 1 hour for each additional inch of thickness. Tempered steels used in aircraft work have from 125,000 to 200,000 psi ultimate tensile strength.

Generally, the rate of cooling from the tempering temperature has no effect on the resulting structure; therefore, the steel is usually cooled in still air after being removed from the furnace.

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)


Annealing of steel produces a fine grained, soft, ductile metal without internal stresses or strains. In the annealed state, steel has its lowest strength. In general, annealing is the opposite of hardening.

Annealing of steel is accomplished by heating the metal to just above the upper critical point, soaking at that temperature, and cooling very slowly in the furnace. (Refer to Figure 5-6 for recommended temperatures.) Soaking time is approximately 1 hour per inch of thickness of the material. To produce maximum softness in steel, the metal must be cooled very slowly. Slow cooling is obtained by shutting off the heat and allowing the furnace and metal to cool together to 900 °F or lower, then removing the metal from the furnace and cooling in still air. Another method is to bury the heated steel in ashes, sand, or other substance that does not conduct heat readily.


The normalizing of steel removes the internal stresses set up by heat treating, welding, casting, forming, or machining. Stress, if not controlled, will lead to failure. Because of the better physical properties, aircraft steels are often used in the normalized state, but seldom, if ever, in the annealed state.

One of the most important uses of normalizing in aircraft work is in welded parts. Welding causes strains to be set up in the adjacent material. In addition, the weld itself is a cast structure as opposed to the wrought structure of the rest of the material. These two types of structures have different grain sizes, and to refine the grain as well as to relieve the internal stresses, all welded parts should be normalized after fabrication.

Normalizing is accomplished by heating the steel above the upper critical point and cooling in still air. The more rapid quenching obtained by air cooling, as compared to furnace cooling, results in a harder and stronger material than that obtained by annealing. Recommended normalizing temperatures for the various types of aircraft steels are listed in Figure 5-6.


Casehardening produces a hard wear-resistant surface or case over a strong, tough core. Casehardening is ideal for parts which require a wear-resistant surface and, at the same time, must be tough enough internally to withstand the applied loads. The steels best suited to casehardening are the low carbon and low alloy steels. If high carbon steel is casehardened, the hardness penetrates the core and causes brittleness. In casehardening, the surface of the metal is changed chemically by introducing a high carbide or nitride content. The core is unaffected chemically.

When heat treated, the surface responds to hardening while the core toughens. The common forms of casehardening are carburizing, cyaniding, and nitriding. Since cyaniding is not used in aircraft work, only carburizing and nitriding are discussed in this section.


Carburizing is a casehardening process in which carbon is added to the surface of low carbon steel. Thus, a carburized steel has a high carbon surface and a low carbon interior. When the carburized steel is heat treated, the case is hardened while the core remains soft and tough.

A common method of carburizing is called “pack carburizing.” When carburizing is to be done by this method, the steel parts are packed in a container with charcoal or some other material rich in carbon. The container is then sealed with fire clay, placed in a furnace, heated to approximately 1,700 °F, and soaked at that temperature for several hours. As the temperature increases, carbon monoxide gas forms inside the container and, being unable to escape, combines with the gamma iron in the surface of the steel. The depth to which the carbon penetrates depends on the length of the soaking period. For example, when carbon steel is soaked for 8 hours, the carbon penetrates to a depth of about 0.062 inch.

In another method of carburizing, called “gas carburizing,” a material rich in carbon is introduced into the furnace atmosphere. The carburizing atmosphere is produced by the use of various gases or by the burning of oil, wood, or other materials. When the steel parts are heated in this atmosphere, carbon monoxide combines with the gamma iron to produce practically the same results as those described under the pack carburizing process.

A third method of carburizing is that of “liquid carburizing.” In this method, the steel is placed in a molten salt bath that contains the chemicals required to produce a case comparable with one resulting from pack or gas carburizing.

Alloy steels with low carbon content as well as low carbon steels may be carburized by any of the three processes. However, some alloys, such as nickel, tend to retard the absorption of carbon. As a result, the time required to produce a given thickness of case varies with the composition of the metal.


Nitriding is unlike other casehardening processes in that, before nitriding, the part is heat treated to produce definite physical properties. Thus, parts are hardened and tempered before being nitrided. Most steels can be nitrided, but special alloys are required for best results. These special alloys contain aluminum as one of the alloying elements and are called “nitralloys.”

In nitriding, the part is placed in a special nitriding furnace and heated to a temperature of approximately 1,000 °F. With the part at this temperature, ammonia gas is circulated within the specially constructed furnace chamber. The high temperature cracks the ammonia gas into nitrogen and hydrogen. The ammonia which does not break down is caught in a water trap below the regions of the other two gases. The nitrogen reacts with the iron to form nitride. The iron nitride is dispersed in minute particles at the surface and works inward. The depth of penetration depends on the length of the treatment. In nitriding, soaking periods as long as 72 hours are frequently required to produce the desired thickness of case.

Nitriding can be accomplished with a minimum of distortion, because of the low temperature at which parts are casehardened and because no quenching is required after exposure to the ammonia gas.