There are two types of heat treatments applicable to aluminum alloys. One is called solution heat treatment, and the other is known as precipitation heat treatment. Some alloys, such as 2017 and 2024, develop their full properties as a result of solution heat treatment followed by about 4 days of aging at room temperature. Other alloys, such as 2014 and 7075, require both heat treatments.
The alloys that require precipitation heat treatment (artificial aging) to develop their full strength also age to a limited extent at room temperature; the rate and amount of strengthening depends upon the alloy. Some reach their maximum natural or room temperature aging strength in a few days, and are designated as -T4 or -T3 temper. Others continue to age appreciably over a long period of time.
Because of this natural aging, the -W designation is specified only when the period of aging is indicated, for example, 7075-W (1/2 hour). Thus, there is considerable difference in the mechanical and physical properties of freshly quenched (-W) material and material that is in the -T3 or -T4 temper.
The hardening of an aluminum alloy by heat treatment consists of four distinct steps:
1. Heating to a predetermined temperature.
2. Soaking at temperature for a specified length of time.
3. Rapidly quenching to a relatively low temperature.
4. Aging or precipitation hardening either spontaneously at room temperature, or as a result of a low temperature thermal treatment.
The first three steps above are known as solution heat treatment, although it has become common practice to use the shorter term, "heat treatment". Room temperature hardening is known as natural aging, while hardening done at moderate temperatures is called artificial aging, or precipitation heat treatment.