Steel Steel is part and parcel of the things we make and use, and understanding it is a pretty big part

of any mechanical doings, from making knives to building springs for a fox trap. There are several things folks ought to understand about steel when they go to make things with it. One of these is that steel is iron with a specific amount of carbon in it, and a few other things mixed in to give it the appropriate properties for the use it is set aside for. Steel is made up to a recipe, and the cookbook is kept in order by the Society of Engineers (SAE), the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) or similar bodies in other places around the world. The simplest recipes are the plain carbon steels.

from Machinery's Handbook Now we can get into the hardening of steel. When you heat a steel with enough carbon in it to harden, the steel will start to glow. The color has been used by the experienced steelworker to judge when it is

time to cool the piece off quickly to harden it, though checking with a magnet for the loss of magnetic attraction is a better guide, and not as apt to mislead a fellow if the background lighting is too bright or not bright enough. You have two places where the heating process does different things to the innards of your piece of steel, and the engineering folks call these the critical temperatures. The lower critical temperature takes place at around 1330 to 1340 degrees, Fahrenheit, and the steel glows red at that temperature. The upper critical temperature varies with the carbon content of the steel. It is at its lowest point, the same temperature as the lower critical temperature, in steel with 85 points of carbon (85 hundredths of a percent). A piece of 1085 steel will hit critical at 1330 to 1340 degrees F. And that is both criticals. A piece of 1095 will hit the lower critical point at 1330 to 1340, and upper critical at around 1450. When the steel goes above the upper critical temperature, it loses its magnetism. A magnet no longer is attracted to the metal. These critical temperatures mark places where the crystal structure of the steel changes. At room temp and up to the lower critical temperature, the crystal structure is oriented to be magnetic. In steels below eighty-five points of carbon, this crystal structure is a mix of ferrite and pearlite, and attracts a magnet. In steels of more than eighty-five points of carbon, your steel is made up of cementite and pearlite crystals, and attracts a magnet, though not as strongly as the ferrite mix does. This isn't of much importance unless a fellow is winding transformer cores or making electromagnets for something, but it is a handy thing to know. At the lower critical temp, the pearlite changes to austenite, which does not attract a magnet, and above the upper critical temp, it is no longer magnetic at all because everything has changed to austenite. In the range between the critical temperatures, the steels with less than eighty-five points of carbon are letting the pearlite dissolve into a new form, called austenite, that is not magnetic. The ferrite dissolves slower, so there is still some attraction to the magnet. By the time you pass the upper critical temperature, the ferrite has all dissolved and the structure is all austenite. The same thing happens on the other end of the line with your steels with more than eight-five points of carbon, your knife and spring steels. The pearlite goes away into austenite, and cementite starts to dissolve, slowly, into that same crystal structure. By the time you pass the upper critical temperature, it is all austenite.

Now all this crystal-changing is taking in heat from the furnace, and when you pull the steel out of the furnace, the crystal structure begins to go back toward the room temp form, and the steel gives off some of the heat that the crystal structure took in, and actually gets hotter for a little while as it gives off the heat of crystallization that it took in. Hardening is a matter of cooling the steel fast enough to catch it in a changed crystalline state, so that it has to readjust itself internally. Now when we harden steel, it gets much more brittle, and steel that is very hard, but breaks too easily, isn't all that useful for us to build things with. We need a middle ground, and that is where the tempering of hardened steel comes in. We harden steel by quenching it from critical temperature, thus catching it with its crystal structure in an array that will make it harder and stronger. Inside the steel, we trap the converted austenite and squeeze it between the crystal bonds so that it is forced into a new form, called martensite, that is stronger than the original. Now martensite is a bigger crystal than is austenite, so this stresses the entire framework of the steel, and makes it prone to breaking if we aren't careful. If we quench very rapidly, we get a percentage of the steel trapped as austenite, particularly in certain alloys, but this will transform over time, which will make the steel 'grow' as it ages. That makes more stress, and stress makes fractures. Then we heat it up again to reduce the effect, making it a little less hard and strong, but a whole lot less brittle. That is the old blacksmith way for hardening steel and then tempering it. We've taken the martensite and let it swell up a little, with enough heat to let the surrounding crystalline frame slide a little, and knit into new forms, and then cool back down into a more stable form. There is another way, which came into wide-spread use back in the 1940s, which was a hot quench, using a salt bath to quench the steel, and bring it to the tempering temperature without totally cooling the workpiece down, and this process, called austempering, does a nice job of making hard, strong and tough things with a minimum of waste in the heating department. It also does a nice job of preventing stress cracks in the finished part. The last nice thing it does is that it keeps the air off the part, so you don't get any rusting. This process works best for parts with a thin cross section, things like shovel blades, and saws.

Now these processes use a salt bath to do their quench/temper. A salt bath is an iron vessel full of molten salt, generally potassium chloride and barium chloride, mixed, with a little sodium carbonate in the mix to keep from leaching out the carbon in your steel's surface. With a whole bunch of the carbonate, you will wind up adding carbon, which will give you a case hardening effect that can make your surface harder than the rest of the piece. There are even salt mixes that get hot enough to do your hardening because they will get all the way up to the upper critical temperature. Let's break out the recipe book for a minute. Carbon steel is basically iron with a specific amount of carbon aboard. Low carbon, 1018 or 1020, with twenty points or less of carbon (two tenths of one percent) is pretty soft stuff. It can have more carbon added to the surface by heating it up to red heat in a place where there is a lot of carbon available to let it seep into the surface, which is called pack hardening or case hardening. The fancy term is carburizing. The carbon goes into the surface, and the steel gets hard when you quench it. It gets a very hard skin on it, and wears very well while still being soft inside, and resisting breaking. Basically what the hardening does is to turn the surface of the low carbon steel into a higher carbon steel. The guts may stay 1020, but the surface may go 1060 (six tenths of a percent) or more. 1040 is a workhorse of the manufacturing world, with forty points of carbon, and it can be hardened, a little, but remains very resistant to breaking. It stretches before it breaks, as a rule. The Europeans used a steel of this general type to make the Mauser rifle actions, and they skinned the actions with a carbon case hardening that they hardened and tempered to give a strong skin and a soft, tough core. 1060 is another structural steel, with sixty points of carbon, and it is used in many automotive and agricultural machinery applications. Like 1040, it will stretch or bend before breaking. 1080 is used for heavy springs, and heavy cutting implements. 1085 is a eutectic steel, it is all cementite when you have it at room temperature, and the cementite all turns to austenite at about 1340 degrees. There is not but the one critical temperature for this material and the other alloys like it. This is another spring and file steel, and used a lot for horseshoe rasps. 1095 is knife steel. It can be hardened, very hard, but it gets brittle when you do that. It is also sold as W1, or water hardening tool steel, for use when machining things that don't get as hot as machining

steel will get. When used in cutlery, it serves quite nicely, but it rusts easily if you don't keep it oiled. These carbon ranges hold over into the alloy steels. The various alloying elements, like manganese, chrome, nickel, molybdenum and vanadium all act to change some property of the crystalline structure of steel, thus affecting its heat treatment. (There is meat here for another entire article.)

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