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Heat Treating

One of the most interesting areas of bladesmithing is the heat treatment. I only use
carbon steels and do not have experience with more highly alloyed steels, I will share
what I know, but encourage you to do your own homework. I would also suggest that you
learn one steel and how to get the most from it before you add a new steel to your
inventory. Whenever I add a new steel and whenever I change my process, I make test
blades that are tested to destruction. Destruction testing is the only way you will be sure
you know what your blades are capable of doing, it is educational and a lot of fun. I am
self taught and am continually learning, if there are any glaring errors or omissions in
this please let me know.

I like to forge iron and was a blacksmith for a very short time, but I put that aside when I
moved up to steel. It is the hidden quality in steel that makes it so exceptional and
fascinating. That quality is its ability to change it's hardness and physical characteristics
by controlling the heating and cooling of the steel.


For this discussion, I will take you through the hardening process that I use on a high
carbon steel blade, but first a few asides. When you place the steel in the fire it begins to
gain heat. The steel will begin to give off visible color just above 900F it will continue to
pick up color until it reaches a point where it seems to hang. It is still gaining heat, but it
is undergoing an internal transformation from its cold structure into a metastable
condition called austenite. This point at which it seems to hang is called decalescence
and it represents the bottom of the critical temperature. It usually begins around 1335F in
carbon steel depending on the carbon content.

Once it passes through this point, the crystal structure of the steel changes as the ferrite
reacts with some of the carbide and begins to pool into austenite. As the temperature
increases more of the austenite will begin to form in other places and continue until it
reaches a point 10 or 15 degrees above the critical temperature where all of the ferrite
should be consumed. At this point the steel should consist of austenite and undissolved
carbides. The austenite grains start from a small nucleus and continue to grow until they
impinge on other growing grains. The initial grain size is established at this point and if
the excess carbide is in large quantities it will maintain this size with little increase,
pinned by the carbide.

You can see this transformation if you watch the steel carefully and bring the steel up
slowly. The Japanese talked about watching the shadows on the blade and quenching
when the shadows turned to liquid. If you take the blade out of the fire at this point and
watch the colors drop, you will notice a point where the steel will brighten even as it is
cooling. On a tapered cross section like a knife blade it will appear to travel up from the
edge to the spine of the blade. This is call recalescence and represents the transformation
from austenite back to pearlite. After I am done forging a blade, I cycle the blade just
above critical and down to dark heat at least three times. I watch for these two points to
establish critical in my mind and to set up a very fine grain pearlite structure in the steel.

After reaching critical temperature, the steel should be fully austenized, but the carbides
will continue to dissolve. It may be necessary to soak at temperature to fully dissolve all
the carbides. In some steels it may be necessary to continue to raise the temperature for
this to be accomplished especially in the presence of alloying elements that retard the

Once the steel is above critical and austenite, it may be quenched and hardened. The
structure of the steel can be established by carefully controlling the time it takes the steel
drop from critical through the various temperature sensitive points.

Transformations on Cooling

Annealing, normalizing, sphereodizing

The structure and hardness of the steel is established by the rate of cooling from the
austenitic condition. If brought down slowly the steel will be annealed and soft. The
structure will be mostly ferrite and cementite, carbides. This can be done in a temperature
controlled furnace by dropping the temperature through a known rate over a set period of
time dependent on the type of steel. Another method is to preheat a heavy bar of low
carbon to the same temperature as critical for the steel and bury both of them together in
vermiculite. The vermiculite, obtained in bags from garden supply, is made from chipped
mica and is an excellent insulating material. It will slow the cooling rate down so that the
blade will still be hot to the touch the next day. For most of the carbon steels this will be
enough to anneal the piece.

If allowed to air cool it will be normalized, a tougher condition comprised of fine pearlite
and carbides. Blades can be ground and prepared for heat treatment in either normalized
or annealed states. Another treatment that is particularly effective for workability and for
dimensional stability is called sphereodizing. With the steel in a normalized condition
you reheat, usually in salt to inhibit oxidization, to a temperature just below lower
critical, 1300F and hold for at least an hour. What occurs is that the carbides will begin to
aglomulate or pool into larger more evenly spaced particles in a ferrite matrix. It makes
handfinishing much easier.

It is important to precondition your blades not only because it helps workability, but also
to stress relieve the steel after forging. This will reduce chances of cracking and warping
in the quench. It is helpful to think of the forging stage as the beginning of the heat
treatment and to pay careful attention to the heats especially in the final forging. My last
heats are always at critical. When the blade is finally shaped, I cycle the blade just above
critical and down to almost black heat at least three times, cooling between by moving it
back and forth in the air gently.

You have a lot of options when it comes to hardening carbon steel. Even the slightest
change in alloy content can make a remarkable difference in the hardening characteristics
of the steel, so I would again encourage you to study the steels you will be using.

The transformation temperatures and times are described using a chart that shows the Ae1
line, the temperature at which austenite begins to form and the Ms line, the temperature at
which martensite starts to form from austenite.

Chart for 1080 carbon steel

The time line at the bottom of the chart is in seconds and side bars give temperature. This
is called an "S" curve chart and it is very useful in determining the quench speeds for
each steel. The top curve of the "S" is known as the nose of the curve. When quenching
from critical, the temperature of the steel must drop below the nose of the curve within a
precise amount of time in order for the steel to harden to martensite. In this case, it must
get below 900F in under five seconds to form martensite.


If the steel is quenched to below the Ms, martensite will be the predominate structure,
however if the blade is quenched to a point slightly above the Ms point, say around 500F
and held until it has stabilized at that temperature, the steel has the promise to form
martensite, but will not set up until it drops below Ms. This is called marquenching and is
commonly used because it is less stressful particularly in difficult cross sections like we
encounter in knife blades. When the blade is removed from the quench it is still above the
Ms point and has very unusual properties. It can be easily bent or straightened and is still
quite soft. As it cools however, it begins to setup martensite and will harden at room
temperature. Again, you need to look at the chart for each steel you will be using because
the Mf, or martensite finish point can be well below room temperature on some highly
alloyed steels. These steels benefit from sub zero quenching because the colder
temperatures are necessary to complete the austenite transformation and to reach the
martensite finish. Care must be taken that the blade is not chilled by placing on a cold
surface or even by being placed in a breeze or draft. The safest method is to allow it to
cool in still air. The blade should be tempered after it has cooled to the point where it can
be handled with bare hands.


If the steel is quenched from Ae3, critical, to a point between the Ms and the nose of the
curve, say 600F and held at temperature for a long time, the austenite will convert to
banite. Banite is a much tougher structure than martensite and will maintain the hardness
of the steel as tempered to that temperature. This process requires a salt bath and good
controls, but makes an really tough spring and is being used by some makers on steels
like 52100.


The method of controlling the speed of cooling is the quenchant. The quench rate is
determined by how quickly the quenchant can remove the heat from the steel. When a
piece of hot steel enters the quenchant the area surrounding the blade absorbs heat from
the blade until it is heated itself.


Water is a common quench especially in steels with low hardenability. It is fast and clean,
but it is also severe especially with odd cross sectioned pieces like knife blades. If we
look at what happens when steel is quenched in water it will give us an idea of how this
process works. As the hot steel enters the water, the water immediately takes heat until it
reaches boiling temperature. As the water boils, it forms a vapor jacket around the steel
and unless it is circulated or flushed rapidly from the surface, this jacket will inhibit
cooling. In thin cross sections this is not as much of a problem as it would be in thicker
sections, but if not taken into consideration results can be spotty. I like to use rainwater
for my water quenches because the mineral content of municipal or well water can affect
the results of the quench.


A faster quench than water is brine. In some steels that have a low hardenability it may be
necessary to go to a brine quench. Brine solution is made by adding salt, sodium chloride,
to water. The backyard rule of thumb is to add enough salt to float an egg and can be
varied from between 5% and 12% sodium chloride to water. The effect of brine on the
quench is to make the water more efficient by precipitating on the steel and then blowing
off very rapidly creating rapid agitation and disrupting the vapor jacket.

Polymer quenchants
Polymer quenchants use a polymer additive to water. There are many kinds of polymer,
POG, PAG etc, and each have particular attributes. The effect of the polymer is that you
fairly precisely control the speed of the quench by varying the amount of concentration.
Polymer quenchants are used in industry where the temperature of the quench and
concentrations are tightly controlled and are most effective when used with induction or
atmosphere controlled furnaces.


Oil quenches are slower than water based quenches, but in thin cross section will harden
most knife steels. It is not as drastic a quench as water or brine and lessens the chance for
cracking. Talk to any bladesmith and you will get a new formula for quenching oil. The
safest approach is buy a known quenching oil. I like Tough Quench from Brownell's. It is
fast, has high flash point and is reliable.

Low Temperature Salt quench

For marquenching and austempering you can use low temperature salts as a quenchant.
These salts have effective ranges that make them suitable for this application and are not
toxic like lead nor will they flash like hot oil.

Methods for Heating

There are a number of ways to bring the steel to temperature for heat treating. Expensive
industrial or commercial heat treating equipment will not be discussed, but rather we will
cover what is within the means of a small shop.

Solid fuels

Perhaps the oldest method for heating and heat treating metals has been the charcoal fire.
Charcoal is an excellent fuel because you can make an even heat over a long bed, it is a
non oxidizing environment and is easily controlled. Charcoal cut to the right size chunks
makes a soft bed and is not likely to bend or deform the blade as it is move in the fire. On
the negative side however, charcoal is a fire hazard. It throws sparks, gives off intense
radiant heat and is sometimes hard to put out, reigniting itself long after it has been
doused. It is also a nuisance to make, expensive to buy and very messy.

Coal has been used for most of this century and I feel it is absolutely the worst fuel for
steel that could be imagined. I do not recommend it for anything especially heat treating.

Open environment propane

You can heat treat in an open environment propane forge. The atmosphere should be
adjusted so that it is neutral or slightly rich. The heat will be radiant heat from the walls
of the forge and invariably there will be hot and cool spots in the forge. Once you
recognize the limitations, you can successfully heat treat in a propane forge. I have set up
a digital controller on my long hardening furnace to insure that I do not over shoot the
temperature, but still must rely on eye to judge the temperature of the steel.

Torch hardening

For small blades it is possible and efficient to heat them with a torch. You need a large
tip, adjusted to a slightly rich flame. This will show as a blue inner cone off the white hot
point in the flame. Moving the flame back and forth over the blade will give an even heat.
Be careful to shoot the flame at an angle to the blade so that no spot gets hotter than
another. Another use for a torch is flame hardening of the edge. By moving the flame just
along the edge at a consistent and fast pace, the edge will rapidly austenize and air
harden. It requires practice and a good hand, but can yield consistent results and can be
useful in some applications.

High Temperature Salt Baths

High temperature salts can be melted using electric or propane furnaces. The salts are
usually held in a stainless pipe, but black iron will work also though are not as durable.
Salts can be purchased in various temperature ranges and melting points and should be
selected for the steels you will be working. You can purchase salts in small quantities
from Jeff Carlisle. The advantage to working with salt bath is that it provides a uniform
heat through out the container due to the natural convection of the liquid, it is non
oxiding and no scaling will occur, and it provides a rapid transfer of heat to the steel. The
temperature can be accurately controlled and a simple furnace can be easily built. It is the
ideal solution for the small shop. I recommend buying some carbon stirring rods available
through any casting or jewelry supply. If you stir your bath regularly it will help prevent
decarb on your blades, a tip from Al Pendray.

Electric furnaces

There are several electric heat treating furnaces available for heat treating. These can be
fitted with programmable digital controllers and are very accurate tools. Paragon makes
furnaces designed for the custom knifemaker and even will custom build furnaces for
specific applications. These are atmospheric, but can be adapted with by introducing inert
gases to create a neutral atmosphere. These are a good out of the box solution and provide
excellent control.


After the steel has been quenched and hardened to martensite, it will be hard, but also
quite brittle. By reheating the steel toughness is added and also the hardness can be
controlled. Tempering is a function of time and temperature and is greatly affected by the
various alloys in the steel. A polished piece of steel will oxidize as it is reheated and
begin to show colors, the higher the temperature the thicker the oxide layer and the darker
the color. These have been used to judge the "temper" of the steel, but the color is also
affected by the surface polish, the alloy elements in the steel and the duration of the
tempering cycle and are not reliable indicators of the tempered condition of within the
structure of the steel.

Careful control of the temperature and the time of the tempering cycle will give more
reliable results. Each steel responds differently to tempering and you should make sample
test pieces and test them thoroughly to find the best combination for the steel and job it is
expected to perform. The purpose of tempering is to relieve the stresses built up during
the transformation from austeninte to martensite and to control the hardness of the steel to
suit the use of the tool.

Tempering can also trip retained austenite to make fresh untempered martensite. A
common and effective practice is to double temper steel. The first tempering heat is for at
least a one hour cycle and then a second heat is used to temper any fresh martensite that
has been transformed.

A two to three hour drawing cycle is more effective than a shorter duration higher
temperature draw. Care should be taken not to over heat the piece while tempering since
it will soften the steel and diminish its potential.

Tempering may be done in almost any heat source that can be accurately controlled. The
size of the piece to be tempered will often be the determining factor. For long pieces, low
temperature salt is useful.

Page Two, "The Sequence"

Iron Carbon Equilibrium Phase Diagram


Don Fogg Custom Knives

Copyright © 1997 Don Fogg Custom Knives. All rights reserved.

Revised: .