Successful heat treating requires close control over all factors affecting the heating and cooling of metals. Such control is possible only when the proper equipment is available and the equipment is selected to fit the particular job. Thus, the furnace must be of the proper size and type and must be so controlled that temperatures are kept within the limits prescribed for each operation. Even the atmosphere within the furnace affects the condition of the part being heat treated. Further, the quenching equipment and the quenching medium must be selected to fit the metal and the heat treating operation. Finally, there must be equipment for handling parts and materials, for cleaning metals, and for straightening parts.

Furnaces and Salt Baths

There are many different types and sizes of furnaces used in heat treatment. As a general rule, furnaces are designed to operate in certain specific temperature ranges and attempted use in other ranges frequently results in work of inferior quality.

In addition, using a furnace beyond its rated maximum temperature shortens its life and may necessitate costly and time consuming repairs.

Fuel fired furnaces (gas or oil) require air for proper combustion and an air compressor or blower is therefore necessary. These furnaces are usually of the muffler type: that is, the combustion of the fuel takes place outside of and around the chamber in which the work is placed. If an open muffler is used, the furnace should be designed so as to prevent the direct impingement of flame on the work.

In furnaces heated by electricity the heating elements are generally in the form of wire or ribbon. Good design requires incorporation of additional heating elements at locations where maximum heat loss may be expected. Such furnaces commonly operate up to a maximum temperature of about 2,000° F. Furnaces operating at temperatures up to about 2,500° F usually employ resistor bars of sintered carbides.

Temperature Measurement and Control

Temperature in the heat treating furnace is measured by a thermoelectric instrument known as a pyrometer. This instrument measures the electrical effect of a thermocouple and, hence, the temperature of the metal being treated. A complete pyrometer consists of three parts - a thermocouple, extension leads, and meter.

Furnaces intended primarily for tempering may be heated by gas or electricity and are frequently equipped with a fan for circulating the hot air.

Salt baths are available for operating at either tempering or hardening temperatures. Depending on the composition of the salt bath, heating can be conducted at temperatures as low as 325° F to as high as 2,450° F. Lead baths can be used in the temperature range of 650° F to 1,700° F. The rate of heating in lead or salt baths is much faster in furnaces.

Heat treating furnaces differ in size, shape, capacity, construction, operation, and control. They may be circular or rectangular and may rest on pedestals or directly on the floor. There are also pit-type furnaces, which are below the surface of the floor. When metal is to be heated in a bath of molten salt or lead, the furnace must contain a pot or crucible for the molten bath.

The size and capacity of a heat treating furnace depends on the intended use. A furnace must be capable of heating rapidly and uniformly, regardless of the desired maximum temperature or the mass of the charge. An oven-type furnace should have a working space (hearth) about twice as long and three times as wide as any part that will be heated in the furnace.

Accurate temperature measurement is essential to good heat treating. The usual method is by means of thermocouples: the most common base metal couples are copper-constantan (up to about 700° F), iron-constantan (up to about 1,400° F), and chromel-alumel (up to about 2,200° F). The most common noble metal couples (which can be used up to about 2,800° F) are platinum coupled with either the alloy 87 percent platinum - 13 percent rhodium or the alloy 90 percent platinum - 10 percent rhodium. The temperatures quoted are for continuous operation.

The life of thermocouples is affected by the maximum temperature (which may frequently exceed those given above) and by the furnace atmosphere. Iron-constantan is more suited for use in reducing and chromel-alumel in oxidizing atmospheres. Thermocouples are usually encased in metallic or ceramic tubes closed at the hot end to protect them from the furnace gases. A necessary attachment is an instrument, such as a millivoltmeter or potentiometer, for measuring the electromotive force generated by the thermocouple. In the interest of accurate control, the hot junction of the thermocouple should be placed as close to the work as possible. The use of an automatic controller is valuable in controlling the temperature at the desired value.

Pyrometers may have meters either of the indicating type or recording type. Indicating pyrometers give direct reading of the furnace temperature. The recording type produces a permanent record of the temperature range throughout the heating operation by means of an inked stylus attached to an arm which traces a line on a sheet of calibrated paper or temperature chart.

Pyrometer installations on all modern furnaces provide automatic regulation of the temperature at any desired setting. Instruments of this type are called controlling potentiometer pyrometers. They include a current regulator and an operating mechanism such as a relay.


The object in heating is to transform pearlite (a mechanical mixture of iron carbide that exists in a finely mixed condition) to austenite as the steel is heated through the critical range. Since this transition takes time, a relatively slow rate of heating must be used. Ordinarily, the cold steel is inserted when the temperature in the furnace is from 300° F to 500° F below the hardening temperature. In this way, too rapid heating through the critical range is prevented.

If temperature measuring equipment is not available, it becomes necessary to estimate temperatures by some other means. An inexpensive, yet fairly accurate method involves the use of commercial crayons, pellets, or paints that melt at various temperatures within the range of 125° F to 1,600° F. The least accurate method of temperature estimation is by observation of the color of the hot hearth of the furnace or of the work. The heat colors observed are affected by many factors, such as the conditions of artificial or natural light, the character of the scale on the work, etc. Steel begins to appear dull red at about 1,000° F, and as the temperature increases the color changes gradually through various shades of red to orange, to yellow, and finally to white. A rough approximation of the correspondence between color and temperature is indicated in figure 6-64.

It is also possible to secure some idea of the temperature of a piece of carbon or low alloy steel, in the low temperature range used for tempering, from the color of the thin oxide film that forms on the cleaned surface of the steel when heated in this range. The approximate temperature/color relationship for a time at temperature of about one-half is indicated on the lower portion of the scale in figure 6-64.

Protective Atmospheres

It is often necessary or desirable to protect steel or cast iron from surface oxidation (scaling) and loss of carbon from the surface layers (decarburization). Commercial furnaces, therefore, are generally equipped with some means of atmosphere control. This usually is in the form of a burner for burning controlled amounts of gas and air and directing the products of combustion into the furnace muffle. Water vapor, a product of this combustion, is detrimental and many furnaces are equipped with a means for eliminating it. For furnaces not equipped with atmosphere control, a variety of external atmosphere generators are available. The gas so generated is piped into the furnace and one generator may supply several furnaces. If no method of atmosphere control is available, some degree of protection may be secured by covering the work with cast iron borings or chips.

Since the work in salt or lead baths is surrounded by the liquid heating medium, the problem of preventing scaling or decarburization is simplified.

Vacuum furnaces also are used for annealing steels, especially when a bright nonoxidized surface is a prime consideration.


The temperature of the furnace must be held constant during the soaking period, since it is during this period that rearrangement of the internal structure of the steel takes place. Soaking temperatures for various types of steel are specified in ranges varying as much as 100° F. (See figure 6-65.) Small parts are soaked in the lower part of the specified range and heavy parts in the upper part of the specified range. The length of the soaking period depends upon the type of steel and the size of the part. Naturally, heavier parts require longer soaking to ensure equal heating throughout. As a general rule, a soaking period of 30 minutes to 1 hour is sufficient for the average heat treating operation.


The rate of cooling through the critical range determines the form that the steel will retain. Various rates of cooling are used to produce the desired results. Still air is a slow cooling medium, but is much faster than furnace cooling. Liquids are the fastest cooling media and are therefore used in hardening steels.

There are three commonly used quenching liquids - brine, water, and oil. Brine is the most severe medium, water is next, and oil is the least severe. Generally an oil quench is used for alloy steels, and brine or water for carbon steels.

Quenching Media

Quenching solutions act only through their ability to cool the steel. They have no beneficial chemical action on the quenched steel and in themselves impart no unusual properties. Most requirements for quenching media are met satisfactorily by water or aqueous solutions of inorganic salts such as table salt or caustic soda, or by some type of oil. The rate of cooling is relatively rapid during quenching in brine, somewhat less rapid in water, and slow in oil.

Brine usually is made of a 5 to 10 percent solution of salt (sodium chloride) in water. In addition to its greater cooling speed, brine has the ability to "throw" the scale from steel during quenching. The cooling ability of both water and brine, particularly water, is considerably affected by their temperature. Both should be kept cold - well below 60° F. If the volume of steel being quenched tends to raise the temperature of the bath appreciably, the quenching bath should be cooled by adding ice or by some means of refrigeration.

There are many specially prepared quenching oils on the market; their cooling rates do not vary widely. A straight mineral oil with a Saybolt viscosity of about 100 at 100° F is generally used. Unlike brine and water, the oils have the greatest cooling velocity at a slightly elevated temperature - about 100 to 140° F - because of their decreased viscosity at these temperatures.

When steel is quenched, the liquid in immediate contact with the hot surface vaporizes; this vapor reduces the rate of heat abstraction markedly. Vigorous agitation of the steel or the use of a pressure spray quench is necessary to dislodge these vapor films and thus permit the desired rate of cooling.

The tendency of steel to warp and crack during the quenching process is difficult to overcome because certain parts of the article cool more rapidly than others. The following recommendations will greatly reduce the warping tendency.

1. A part should never be thrown into the quenching bath. By permitting it to lie on the bottom of the bath, it is apt to cool faster on the top side than on the bottom side, thus causing it to warp or crack.

2. The part should be agitated slightly to destroy the coating of vapor which might prevent it from cooling rapidly. This allows the bath to convey its heat to the atmosphere.

3. Irregular shaped parts should be immersed in such a way that the heavy end enters the bath first.

Quenching Equipment

The quenching tank should be of the proper size to handle the material being quenched. Circulating pumps and coolers may be used to maintain approximately constant temperatures when a large amount of quenching is to be done. To avoid building up a high concentration of salt in the quenching tank, provision must be made to add fresh water to the quench tank used for molten salt baths.

Tank location in reference to the heat treating furnace is very important. The tank should be situated to permit rapid transfer of the part from the furnace to the quenching medium. A delay of more than a few seconds will, in many instances, prove detrimental to the effectiveness of the heat treatment. When material of thin section is being heat treated, guard sheets should be employed to retard the loss of heat during transfer to the quench tank. A rinse tank must be provided to remove all salt from the material after quenching if the salt has not been adequately removed in the quenching tank.