1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Annealing, Hardening and Tempering

13540701911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 — Annealing, Hardening and TemperingJoseph Gregory Horner

ANNEALING, HARDENING AND TEMPERING. Annealing (from the prefix an, and the old English aélan, to burn or bake; the meaning has probably also been modified from the French nieler, to enamel black on gold or silver, from the med. Lat. nigellare, to make black; cf. niello) is a process of treating a metal or alloy by heat with the object of imparting to it a certain condition of ductility, extensibility, or a certain grade of softness or hardness, with all that is involved in and follows from those conditions. The effect may be mechanical only, or a chemical change may take place also. Sometimes the causes are obvious, in other cases they are more or less obscure. But of the actual facts, and the immense importance of this operation as well as of the related ones of tempering and hardening in shop processes, there is no question.

When the treatment is of a mechanical character only, there can be no reasonable doubt that the common belief is correct, namely, that the metallic crystals or fibres undergo a molecular rearrangement of some kind. When it is of a chemical character, the process is one of cementation, due to the occlusion of gases in the molecules of the metals.

Numerous examples of annealing due to molecular rearrangement might be selected from the extensive range of workshop operations. The following are a few only:—when a boiler-maker bends the edges of a plate of steel or iron by hammer blows (flanging), he does so in successive stages (heats), at each of which the plate has to be reheated, with inevitable cooling down during the time work is being done upon it. The result is that the plate becomes brittle over the parts which have been subjected to this treatment; and this brittleness is not uniformly distributed, but is localized, and is a source of weakness, inducing a liability to crack. If, however, the plate when finished is raised to a full red heat, and allowed to cool down away from access of cool air, as in a furnace, or underneath wood ashes, it resumes its old ductility. The plate has been annealed, and is as safe as it was before it was flanged. Again, when a sheet of thin metal is forced to assume a shape very widely different from its original plane aspect, as by hammering, or by drawing out in a press—a cartridge case being a familiar example—it is necessary to anneal it several times during the progress of the operation. Without such annealing it would never arrive at the final stage desired, but would become torn asunder by the extension of its metallic fibres. Cutting tools are made of steel having sufficient carbon to afford capacity for hardening. Before the process is performed, the condition in which the carbon is present renders the steel so hard and tough as to render the preliminary turning or shaping necessary in many cases (e.g. in milling cutters) a tedious operation. To lessen this labour, the steel is first annealed. In this case it is brought to a low red heat, and allowed to cool away from the air. It can then be machined with comparative ease and be subsequently hardened or tempered. When a metallic structure has endured long service a state of fatigue results. Annealing is, where practicable, resorted to in order to restore the original strength. A familiar illustration is that of chains which are specially liable to succumb to constant overstrain if continued for only a year or two. This is so well known that the practice is regularly adopted of annealing the chains at regular intervals. They are put into a clear hot furnace and raised to a low red heat, continued for a few hours, and then allowed to cool down in the furnace after the withdrawal of the source of heat. Before the annealing the fracture of a link would be more crystalline than afterwards.

In these examples, and others of which these are typical, two conditions are essential, one being the grade of temperature, the other the cooling. The temperature must never be so high as to cause the metal to become overheated, with risk of burning, nor so low as to prevent the penetration of the substance with a good volume of heat. It must also be continued for sufficient time. More than this cannot be said. Each particular piece of work requires its own treatment and period, and nothing but experience of similar work will help the craftsman. The cooling must always be gradual, such as that which results from removing the source of heat, as by drawing a furnace fire, or covering with non-conducting substances.

The chemical kind of annealing is specifically that employed in the manufacture of malleable cast iron. In this process, castings are made of white iron,—a brittle quality which has its carbon wholly in the combined state. These castings, when subjected to heat for a period of ten days or a fortnight, in closed boxes, in the presence of substances containing oxygen, become highly ductile. This change is due to the absorption of the carbon by the oxygen in the cementing material, a comparatively pure soft iron being left behind. The result is that the originally hard, brittle castings after this treatment may be cut with a knife, and be bent double and twisted into spirals without fracturing.

The distinction between hardening and tempering is one of degree only, and both are of an opposite character to annealing. Hardening, in the shop sense, signifies the making of a piece of steel about as hard as it can be made—“glass hard”—while tempering indicates some stage in an infinite range between the fully hardened and the annealed or softened condition. As a matter of convenience only, hardening is usually a stage in the work of tempering. It is easier to harden first, and “let down” to the temper required, than to secure the exact heat for tempering by raising the material to it. This is partly due to the long established practice of estimating temperature by colour tints; but this is being rapidly invaded by new methods in which the temper heat is obtained in furnaces provided with pyrometers, by means of which exact heat regulation is readily secured, and in which the heating up is done gradually. Such furnaces are used for hardening balls for bearings, cams, small toothed wheels and similar work, as well as for tempering springs, milling cutters and other kinds of cutting tools. But for the cutting tools having single edges, as used in engineers’ shops, the colour test is still generally retained.

In the practice of hardening and tempering tools by colour, experience is the only safe guide. Colour tints vary with degrees of light; steels of different brands require different treatment in regard to temperature and quenching; and steels even of identical chemical composition do not always behave alike when tempered. Every fresh brand of steel has, therefore, to be treated at first in a tentative and experimental fashion in order to secure the best possible results. The larger the masses of steel, and the greater the disparity in dimensions of adjacent parts, the greater is the risk of cracking and distortion. Excessive length and the presence of keen angles increase the difficulties of hardening. The following points have to be observed in the work of hardening and tempering.

A grade of steel must be selected of suitable quality for the purpose for which it has to be used. There are a number of such grades, ranging from about 1½ to ½% content of carbon, and each having its special utility. Overheating must be avoided, as that burns the steel and injures or ruins it. A safe rule is never to heat any grade of steel to a temperature higher than that at which experience proves it will take the temper required. Heating must be regular and thorough throughout, and must therefore be slowly done when dealing with thick masses. Contact with sulphurous fuel must be avoided. Baths of molten alloys of lead and tin are used when very exact temperatures are required, and when articles have thick and thin parts adjacent. But the gas furnaces have the same advantages in a more handy form. Quenching is done in water, oil, or in various hardening mixtures, and sometimes in solids. Rain water is the principal hardening agent, but various saline compounds are often added to intensify its action. Water that has been long in use is preferred to fresh. Water is generally used cold, but in many cases it is warmed to about 80° F., as for milling cutters and taps, warmed water being less liable to crack the cutters than cold. Oil is preferred to water for small springs, for guns and for many cutters. Mercury hardens most intensely, because it does not evaporate, and so does lead or wax for the same reason; water evaporates, and in the spheroidal state, as steam, leaves contact with the steel. This is the reason why long and large objects are moved vertically about in the water during quenching, to bring them into contact with fresh cold water.

There is a good deal of mystery affected by many of the hardeners, who are very particular about the composition of their baths, various oils and salts being used in an infinity of combinations. Many of these are the result of long and successful experience, some are of the nature of “fads.” A change of bath may involve injury to the steel. The most difficult articles to harden are springs, milling cutters, taps, reamers. It would be easy to give scores of hardening compositions.

Hardening is performed the more efficiently the more rapidly the quenching is done. In the case of thick objects, however, especially milling cutters, there is risk of cracking, due to the difference of temperature on the outside and in the central body of metal. Rapid hardening is impracticable in such objects. This is the cause of the distortion of long taps and reamers, and of their cracking, and explains why their teeth are often protected with soft soap and other substances.

The presence of the body of heat in a tool is taken advantage of in the work of tempering. The tool, say a chisel, is dipped, a length of 2 in. or more being thus hardened and blackened. It is then removed, and a small area rubbed rapidly with a bit of grindstone, observations being made of the changing tints which gradually appear as the heat is communicated from the hot shank to the cooled end. The heat becomes equalized, and at the same time the approximate temperature for quenching for temper is estimated by the appearance of a certain tint; at that instant the article is plunged and allowed to remain until quite cold. For every different class of tool a different tint is required.

“Blazing off” is a particular method of hardening applied to small springs. The springs are heated and plunged in oils, fats, or tallow, which is burned off previous to cooling in air, or in the ashes of the forge, or in oil, or water usually. They are hardened, reheated and tempered, and the tempering by blazing off is repeated for heavy springs. The practice varies almost infinitely with dimensions, quality of steel, and purpose to which the springs have to be applied.

The range of temper for most cutting tools lies between a pale straw or yellow, and a light purple or plum colour. The corresponding range of temperatures is about 430° F. to 530° F., respectively. “Spring temper” is higher, from dark purple to blue, or 550° F. to 630° F. In many fine tools the range of temperature possible between good and poor results lies within from 5° to 10° F.

There is another kind of hardening which is of a superficial character only—“case hardening.” It is employed in cases where toughness has to be combined with durability of surface. It is a cementation process, practised on wrought iron and mild steel, and applied to the link motions of engines, to many pins and studs, eyes of levers, &c. The articles are hermetically luted in an iron box, packed with nitrogenous and saline substances such as potash, bone dust, leather cuttings, and salt. The box is placed in a furnace, and allowed to remain for periods of from twelve to thirty-six hours, during which period the surface of the metal, to a depth of 1/32 to 1/16 in., is penetrated by the cementing materials, and converted into steel. The work is then thrown into water and quenched.

Fig. 1.—Automatic Oil Muffle Furnace.

A muffle furnace, employed for annealing, hardening and tempering is shown in fig. 1; the heat being obtained by means of petroleum, which is contained in the tank A, and is kept under pressure by pumping at intervals with the wooden handle, so that when the valve B is opened the oil is vaporized by passing through a heating coil at the furnace entrance, and when ignited burns fiercely as a gas flame. This passes into the furnace through the two holes, C, C, and plays under and up around the muffle D, standing on a fireclay slab. The doorway is closed by two fireclay blocks at E. A temperature of over 2000° F. can be obtained in furnaces of this class, and the heat is of course under perfect control.

Fig. 2.—Reverbatory Furnace.

A reverberatory type of gas furnace, shown in fig. 2, differs from the oil furnace in having the flames brought down through the roof, by pipes A, A, A, playing on work laid on the fireclay slab B, thence passing under this and out through the elbow-pipe C. The hinged doors, D, give a full opening to the interior of the furnace. It will be noticed in both these furnaces (by Messrs Fletcher, Russell & Co., Ltd.) that the iron casing is a mere shell, enclosing very thick firebrick linings, to retain the heat effectively.  (J. G. H.)