A Guide For Heat-Treating Steel At Home

A lot of colloquial words that we might use when describing something’s durability take on extremely specific meanings when a materials scientist or blacksmith uses them. Things like “strength”, “toughness”, “hardness”, and “resilience” all have different meanings when working in a laboratory or industrial setting than most people might otherwise think.

For the beginner metalworker, this can be a little bit confusing at first but some hands-on practice will help. To that end, this beginner lesson in heat-treating steel from [Blondihacks] demonstrates why it can be beneficial to trade some of the metal’s toughness for improved hardness and just how to accomplish it on your own.

The first part of the lesson is to make sure the steel is high-carbon steel, since most other steels aren’t able to be heat treated. It will also have a specific method for its quenching, either in oil, water, or some other medium. But beyond that the only other thing required for this process is a torch of some sort. [Blondihacks] is using a MAP-Pro torch to get the steel up to temperature, which is recognizable when it turns a specific orange color. From there all that’s needed is to quench the hot metal in whatever fluid is called for. At this point the metal can also be tempered, which restores some of its toughness while maintaining a certain amount of hardness.

While the process doesn’t require specialized tools, [Blondihacks] does have a hardness tester, a fairly expensive piece of instrumentation that measures how deeply the metal can be indented by a force. By measuring the size of the indentation made by the tool, the hardness can be determined. As it’s many thousands of dollars this is mostly for demonstration and not necessary for most of us, but does go a long way to demonstrate the effectiveness of heat treating and tempering in an otherwise simple environment. If you’re looking for excuses to start heat treating and tempering metal, here’s a great project which creates a knife nearly from scratch.

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[Ben Krasnow] Discusses The Heat Treatment Of Steel


For home metallurgy, there are two sources of information for the heat treatment and tempering of steel. The first source is academic publications that include theoretical information, while the second includes the home-spun wisdom of blacksmiths who learn through trial and error. [Ben Krasnow] put up a great video that tries to bridge that gap with some great background information with empirical observations to back up his claims.

For investigating the hardness of steel, a few definitions are in order. The first is stiffness, or the ability of a material to ‘spring back’ after being flexed. The second is strength, specifically yield strength, which is the amount of strain a material can withstand before being permanently deformed.

[Ben] did all these experiments with a 1/8″ W1 steel drill rod. As it came from McMaster, this rod could handle a bit of force before becoming permanently bent, and in terms of stiffness was much better than a piece of coat hanger wire [Ben] had lying around. After taking a piece of this drill rod, heating it up to a cherry red and quenching it in water, [Ben] successfully heat treated this steel to a full hardness. After putting it on his testing jig, this full hardness steel didn’t deform at all, it simply broke.

Full hardness steel is basically useless as a structural material, so [Ben] tried his hand at tempering pieces of his drill rod. By putting a few pieces in a kiln at the requisite temperature, [Ben] was able to temper his drill rods to be stronger than the stock material, but not as terribly brittle as a full hard rod.

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