Pure iron, wrought iron, and extremely low carbon steels cannot be appreciably hardened by heat treatment, since they contain no hardening element. Cast iron can be hardened, but its heat treatment is limited. When cast iron is cooled rapidly, it forms white iron, which is hard and brittle. When cooled slowly, it forms gray iron, which is soft but brittle under impact. In plain carbon steel, the maximum hardness depends almost entirely on the carbon content of the steel. As the carbon content increases, the ability of the steel to be hardened increases. However, this increase in the ability to harden with an increase in carbon content continues only to a certain point. In practice, that point is 0.85 percent carbon content. When the carbon content is increased beyond 0.85 percent, there is no increase in wear resistance.
For most steels, the hardening treatment consists of heating the steel to a temperature just above the upper critical point, soaking or holding for the required length of time, and then cooling it rapidly by plunging the hot steel into oil, water, or brine. Although most steels must be cooled rapidly for hardening, a few may be cooled in still air. Hardening increases the hardness and strength of the steel but makes it less ductile.
When hardening carbon steel, it must be cooled to below 1,000 °F in less than 1 second. Should the time required for the temperature to drop to 1,000 °F exceed 1 second, the austenite begins to transform into fine pearlite. This pearlite varies in hardness, but is much harder than the pearlite formed by annealing and much softer than the martensite desired. After the 1,000 °F temperature is reached, the rapid cooling must continue if the final structure is to be all martensite. When alloys are added to steel, the time limit for the temperature drop to 1,000 °F increases above the 1 second limit for carbon steels. Therefore, a slower quenching medium will produce hardness in alloy steels. Because of the high internal stresses in the ďas quenched" condition, steel must be tempered just before it becomes cold. The part should be removed from the quenching bath at a temperature of approximately 200 °F, since the temperature range from 200 °F down to room temperature is the cracking range. Hardening temperatures and quenching mediums for the various types of steel are listed in Figure 5-6.
A variety of different shapes and sizes of tongs for handling hot steels is necessary. It should be remembered that cooling of the area contacted by the tongs is retarded and that such areas may not harden, particularly if the steel being treated is very shallow hardening. Small parts may be wired together or quenched in baskets made of wire mesh.
Special quenching jigs and fixtures are frequently used to hold steels during quenching in a manner to restrain distortion.
When selective hardening is desired, portions of the steel may be protected by covering with alundum cement or some other insulating material. Selective hardening may be accomplished also by the use of water or oil jets designed to direct quenching medium on the areas to be hardened. This also is accomplished by the induction and flame hardening procedures previously described, particularly on large production jobs.
Shallow hardening steels, such as plain carbon and certain varieties of alloy steels, have such a high critical cooling rate that they must be quenched in brine or water to effect hardening. In general, intricately shaped sections should not be made of shallow hardening steels because of the tendency of these steels to warp and crack during hardening. Such items should be made of deeper hardening steels capable of being hardened by quenching in oil or air.
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