Hardenability is the property of steel that determines the depth and distribution of hardness induced by quenching from the austenitizing temperature.Hardenability should not be confused with hardness as such or with maximum hardness. Hardness is a measure of the ability of a metal to resist penetration as determined by any one of a number of standard tests (Brinell, Rockwell, Vickers, etc). The maximum attainable hardness of any steel depends solely on carbon content and is not significantly affected by alloy content. Maximum hardness is realized only when the cooling rate in quenching is rapid enough to ensure full transformation to martensite. The as-quenched surface hardness of a steel part is dependent on carbon content and cooling rate, but the depth to which a certain hardness level is maintained with given quenching conditions is a function of its hardenability. Hardenability is largely determinedby the percentage of alloying elements in the steel; however, austenite grain size, time and temperature during austenitizing, and prior microstructure also significantly affect the hardness depth. The hardenability required for a particular part depends on size, design, and service stresses. For highly stressed parts, the best combination of strength and toughness is obtained by through hardening to a martensitic structure followed by adequate tempering. There are applications, however, where through hardening is not necessary or even desirable. For parts that are stressed principally at or near the surface, or in which wear resistance or resistance to shock loading is anticipated, a shallow hardening steel with a moderately soft core may be appropriate.For through hardening of thin sections, carbon steels may be adequate; but as section size increases, alloy steels of increasing hardenability are required. The usual practice is to select the most economical grade that can meet the desired properties consistently. It is not alloying elements adds little to the properties and can sometimes induce susceptibility to quenching cracks.
Quenching Media: The choice of quenching media is often a critical factor in the selection of steel of the proper hardenability for a particular application. Quenching severity can be varied by selection of quenching medium, agitation control, and additives that improve the cooling capability of the quenchant. Increasing the quenching severity permits the use of less expensive steels of lower hardenability; however, consideration must also be given to the amount of distortion that can be tolerated and the susceptibility to quench cracking. In general, the more severe the quenchant and the less symmetrical the part being quenched, the greater are the size and shape changes that result from quenching and the greater is the risk of quench cracking. Consequently, although water quenching is less costly than oil quenching, and water quenching steels are less expensive than those requiring oil quenching, it is important to know that the parts being hardened can withstand the resulting distortion and the possibility of cracking.
Oil, salt, and synthetic water-polymer quenchants are also used, but they often require steels of higher alloy content and hardenability. A general rule for the selection of steel and quenchant for a particular part is that the steel should have a hardenability not exceeding that required by the severity of the quenchant selected. The carbon content of the steel should also not exceed that required to meet specified hardness and strength, because quench cracking susceptibility increases with carbon content. The choice of quenching media is important in hardening, but another factor is agitation of the quenching bath. The more rapidly the bath is agitated, the more rapidly heat is removed from the steel and the more effective is the quench.
Hardenability Test Methods: The most commonly used method for determining hardenability is the end-quench test developed by Jominy and Boegehold, and described in detail in both SAE J06 and ASTM A255. In this test a normalized 1-inch-round, approximately 4-inch-long specimen of the steel to be evaluated is heated uniformly to its austenitizing temperature. The specimen is then removed from the furnace, placed in a jig, and immediately end quenched by a jet of room-temperature water. The water is played on the end face of the specimen, without touching the sides, until the entire specimen has cooled. Longitudinal flat surfaces are ground on opposite sides of the piece and Rockwell C scale hardness readings are taken at 1⁄16-inch intervals from the quenched end. The resulting data are plotted on graph paper with the hardness values as ordinates (y-axis) and distances from the quenched end as abscissas (x-axis). Representative data have been accumulated for a variety of standard steel grades and are published by SAE and AISI as “H-bands.” These data show graphically and in tabular form the high and low limits applicable to each grade. The suffix H following the standard AISI/SAE numerical designation indicates that the steel has been produced to specific hardenability limits.
Experiments have confirmed that the cooling rate at a given point along the Jominy bar corresponds closely to the cooling rate at various locations in round bars of various sizes. In general, when end-quench curves for different steels coincide approximately, similar treatments will produce similar properties in sections of the same size. On occasion it is necessary to predict the end-quench hardenability of a steel not available for testing, and reasonably accurate means of calculating hardness for any Jominy location on a section of steel of known analysis and grain size have been developed.
Tempering: As-quenched steels are in a highly stressed condition and are seldom used without tempering. Tempering imparts plasticity or toughness to the steel, and is inevitably accompanied by a loss in hardness and strength. The loss in strength, however, is only incidental to the very important increase in toughness, which is due to the relief of residual stresses induced during quenching and to precipitation, coalescence, and spheroidization of iron and alloy carbides resulting in a micro structure of greater plasticity.
Alloying slows the tempering rate, so that alloy steel requires a higher tempering temperature to obtain a given hardness than carbon steel of the same carbon content. The higher tempering temperature for a given hardness permits a greater relaxation of residual stress and thereby improves the steel’s mechanical properties. Tempering is done in furnaces or in oil or salt baths at temperatures varying from 300 to 1200 degrees F. With most grades of alloy steel, the range between 500 and 700 degrees F is avoided because of a phenomenon known as “blue brittleness,” which reduces impact properties. Tempering the martensitic stainless steels in the range of 800-1100 degrees F is not recommended because of the low and erratic impact properties and reduced corrosion resistance that result. Maximum toughness is achieved at higher temperatures. It is important to temper parts as soon as possible after quenching, because any delay greatly increases the risk of cracking resulting from the high-stress condition in the as-quenched part.
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