Hardenability of Steel

Many types of steel have a beneficial response to a method of heat treatment known as quenching. One of the most important criteria in the selection process of a workpiece material is hardenability. Hardenability describes how deep a metal can be hardened upon quenching from high temperature, and can also be referred to as the depth of hardening.

Steel At Microscopic Scale:

The first level of classification of steels at a microscopic level is their crystal structure, the way in which atoms are arranged in space. Body-Centered Cubic (BCC) and Face Centered Cubic (FCC) configurations are examples of metallic crystal structures. Examples of BCC and FCC crystal structures can be seen below in Figure 1. Keep in mind that the images in Figure 1 are meant to display atomic position and that the distance between the atoms is exaggerated.

Figure 1: Example of a BCC crystal structure (left) and FCC crystal structure (right)

The next level of classification is a phase. A phase is a uniform portion of a material that has the same physical and chemical properties. Steel has 3 different phases:

  1. Austenite: Face-Centered cubic iron; also iron and steel alloys that have the FCC crystal structure.
  2. Ferrite: Body-centered cubic iron and steel alloys that have a BCC crystal structure.
  3. Cementite: Iron carbide (Fe3C)

The final level of classification discussed in this article is the microstructure. The three phases seen above can be combined to form different microstructures of steel. Examples of these microstructures and their general mechanical properties are shown below:

  • Martensite: the hardest and strongest microstructure, yet the most brittle
  • Pearlite: Hard, strong, and ductile but not particularly tough
  • Bainite: has desirable strength-ductility combination, harder than pearlite but not as hard as martensite

Hardening at Microscopic Scale:

The hardenability of steel is a function of the carbon content of the material, other alloying elements, and the grain size of the austenite. Austenite is a gamma phase iron and at high temperatures its atomic structure undergoes a transition from a BCC configuration to an FCC configuration.

High hardenability refers to the ability of the alloy to produce a high martensite percentage throughout the body of the material upon quenching. Hardened steels are created by rapidly quenching the material from a high temperature. This involves a rapid transition from a state of 100% austenite to a high percentage of martensite. If the steel is more than 0.15% carbon, the martensite becomes a highly strained body-centered cubic form and is supersaturated with carbon. The carbon effectively shuts down most slip planes within the microstructure, creating a very hard and brittle material. If the quenching rate is not fast enough, carbon will diffuse out of the austenitic phase. The steel then becomes pearlite, bainite, or if kept hot long enough, ferrite. None of the microstructures just stated have the same strength as martensite after tempering and are generally seen as unfavorable for most applications.

The successful heat treatment of a steel depends on three factors:

  1. The size and shape of the specimen
  2. The composition of the steel
  3. The method of quenching

1. The size and shape of the specimen

During the quenching process, heat must be transferred to the surface of the specimen before it can be dissipated into the quenching medium. Consequently, the rate at which the interior of the specimen cools is dependent on its surface area to volume ratio. The larger the ratio, the more rapid the specimen will cool and therefore the deeper the hardening effect. For example, a 3-inch cylindrical bar with a 1-inch diameter will have a higher hardenability than a 3-inch bar with a 1.5-inch diameter. Because of this effect, parts with more corners and edges are more amendable to hardening by quenching than regular and rounded shapes. Figure 2 is a sample time-temperature transformation (TTT) diagram of the cooling curves of an oil-quenched 95 mm bar. The surface will transform into 100% martensite while the core will contain some bainite and thus have a lower hardness.

Figure 2: Sample time temperature transformation (TTT) diagram also known as an isothermal transformation diagram

2.  The composition of the steel

It’s important to remember that different alloys of steel contain different elemental compositions. The ratio of these elements relative to the amount of iron within the steel yield a wide variety of mechanical properties. Increasing the carbon content makes steel harder and stronger but less ductile. The predominant alloying element of stainless steels in chromium, which gives the metal its strong resistance to corrosion. Since humans have been tinkering with the composition of steel for over a millennium, the number of combinations is endless.

Because there are so many combinations that yield so many different mechanical properties, standardized tests are used to help categorize different types of steel. A common test for hardenability is the Jominy Test, shown in Figure 3 below. During this test a standard block of material is heated until it is 100% austenite. The block is then quickly moved to an apparatus where it is water quenched. The surface, or the area in contact with the water, is immediately cooled and the rate of cooling drops as a function of distance from the surface. A flat is then ground onto the block along the length of the sample. The hardness at various points is measured along this flat. This data is then plotted in a hardenability chart with hardness as the y-axis and distance as the x-axis.

Figure 3: Diagram of a Jominy end quench specimen mounted during quenching (left) and post hardness testing (right)

Hardenability curves are constructed from the results of Jominy Tests. Examples of a few steel alloy curves are shown in Figure 4. With a diminishing cooling rate (steeper drop in hardness over a short distance), more time is allowed for carbon diffusion and the formation of a greater proportion of softer pearlite. This means less martensite and a lower hardenability. A material that retains higher hardness values over relatively long distances is considered highly hardenable. Also, the greater the difference in hardness between the two ends, the lower the hardenability. It is typical of hardenability curves that as the distance from the quenched end increases, the cooling rate decreases. 1040 steel initially has the same hardness as both 4140 and 4340 but cools extremely quickly over the length of the sample. 4140 and 4340 steel cool at a more gradual rate and therefore have a higher hardenability. 4340 has a less extreme rate of coolness relative to 4140 and thus has the highest hardenability of the trio.

Figure 4: Hardenability charts for 4140, 1040 and 4340 steels

Hardenability curves are dependent on carbon content. A greater percentage of carbon present in steel will increase its hardness. It should be noted that all three alloys in Figure 4 contain the same amount of carbon (0.40% C).  Carbon is not the only alloying element that can have an effect on hardenability. The disparity in hardenability behavior between these three steels can be explained in terms of their alloying elements. Table 1 below shows a comparison of the alloying content in each of the steels. 1040 is a plain carbon steel and therefore has the lowest hardenability as there are no other elements besides iron to block the carbon atoms from escaping the matrix. The nickel added to 4340 allows for a slightly greater amount of martensite to form compared to 4140, giving it the highest hardenability of these three alloys. Most metallic alloying elements slow down the formation of pearlite, ferrite and bainite, therefore they increase a steel’s hardenability.

Table 1: Shows the alloying contents of 4340, 4140, and 1040 steel

Type of Steel: Nickel (wt %): Molybdenum (wt %): Chromium (wt %):
4340 1.85% 0.25% 0.80%
4140 0.00% 0.20% 1.00%
1040 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%

There can be a variation in hardenability within one material group. During the industrial production of steel, there are always slight unavoidable variations in the elemental composition and average grain size from one batch to another. Most of the time a material’s hardenability is represented by maximum and minimum curves set as limits.

Hardenability also increases with increasing austenitic grain size. A grain is an individual crystal in a polycrystalline metal. Think of a stained glass window (like the one seen below), the colored glass would be the grains while the soldering material holding it altogether would be the grain boundaries. Austenite, ferrite, and cementite are all different types of grains that make up the different microstructures of steel. It is at the grain boundaries that the pearlite and bainite will form. This is detrimental to the hardening process as martensite is the desired microstructure, the other types get in the way of its growth. Martensite forms from the rapid cooling of austenite grains and its transformation process is still not well understood. With increasing grain size, there are more austenite grains and fewer grain boundaries. Therefore, there are fewer opportunities for microstructures like pearlite and bainite to form and more opportunities for martensite to form.

Figure 5: The colorful glass pieces represent grains of austenite which transforms into the desirable martensite upon quenching. The black portions in between the color portions represent grain boundaries. Sites where pearlite or bainite will form upon quenching.

3. The method of quenching

As previously stated, the type of quench affects the cooling rate. Using oil, water, aqueous polymer quenchants, or air will yield a different hardness through the interior of the workpiece. This also shifts the hardenability curves. Water produces the most severe quench followed by oil and then air. Aqueous polymer quenchants provide quenching rates between those of water and oil and can be tailored to specific applications by changing the polymer concentration and temperature. The degree of agitation also affects the rate of heat removal. The faster the quenching medium moves across the specimen, the greater the quenching effectiveness. Oil quenches are generally used when a water quench may be too severe for a type of steel as it may crack or warp upon treatment.

Figure 6: Metalworker quenching casts in an oil bath

Machining Hardened Steels:

The type of cutter that should be chosen for processing tools chosen for machining a workpiece after hardening depends on a few different variables. Not counting the geometric requirements specific to the application, two of the most important variables are the material hardness and its hardenability. Some relatively high-stress applications require a minimum of 80% martensite to be produced throughout the interior of the workpiece. Usually, moderately stressed parts only require about 50% martensite throughout the workpiece. When machining a quenched metal with very low hardenability a standard coated solid carbide tool may work without a problem. This is because the hardest portion of the workpiece is limited to its surface. When machining a steel with a high hardenability it is recommended that you use a cutter with specialized geometry that is for that specific application. High hardenability will result in a workpiece that is hard throughout its entire volume. Harvey Tool has a number of different cutters for hardened steel throughout the catalog, including drills, end mills, keyseat cutters, and engravers.

Summary:

Hardenability is a measure of the depth to which a ferrous alloy may be hardened by the formation of martensite throughout its entire volume, surface to core. It is an important material property you must consider when choosing a steel as well as cutting tools for a particular application. The hardening of any steel depends on the size and shape of the part, the molecular composition of the steel, and the type of quenching method used.

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