Annealing vs Tempering

Annealing and tempering are two of the most common heat treatment services used in metal production. But you may wonder: what is the purpose of heat treating in the first place? What differentiates these processes, and why choose one over the other?

Heat Treatment
When producing metal products, a beam or plate emerging from the casts aren’t necessarily considered to be finished. Through heat treatment, the physical and mechanical properties of the metal can be changed without affecting its shape. So the metal is heated short of the point where it would begin to melt or deform its shape, but high enough to modify its internal crystallization structure.
The goal is that after completing its heat treatment, the item will have been transformed to produce a more useful type of metal. With heat treatment, there will be improvements in the metal’s toughness, strength, and durability. But it can also boost assets in different areas: one process can produce a more ductile product, while another creates a tougher one. This is where the choice of heat treatment is key: once you identify what qualities are most important for the finished product, it will help determine which method is best to use.

Tempering is usually performed on steel and other iron alloys, because those freshly-cast metals are extremely hard. This might sound like a nice benefit – but that high degree of hardness causes the steel to be brittle and susceptible to cracking. This means the untempered metals are considered unsuitable for most applications due to their structural vulnerability. But with tempering, some of this excess hardness is reduced. What remains afterwards is still a very hard metal, but enough internal stress has been alleviated to make it stronger overall.
When casting steel, once the metal has been formed into its desired shape, it’s immediately quenched to cool it as fast as possible. Think of it like immersing blanched vegetables in an ice bath: the goal is to lock in the iron’s structure at its peak. However as mentioned previously, while this quenched metal is incredibly hard, it is quite brittle. It is critical to follow the quenching process immediately with tempering, to help refine the steel before it can cool with existing flaws or weaknesses.
To begin tempering, the metal is placed in an oven. The oven’s heat is then carefully and gradually raised to avoid any metal cracking. Once it hits the desired temperature, the steel is held there for a length of time to allow the heat to permeate it completely. It is then removed and allowed to cool in open air.
When the tempering process is completed, it will have changed the metal’s ductility, strength, toughness, and hardness. What initially was an item too hard and brittle for use is now ready for sale or additional processing. The use of tempered steels include applications where toughness and strength are critical: construction, industrial machinery, and cutting implements.

At first, annealing seems virtually the same as tempering: slowly heating metal to a specific temperature, and then letting it cool. But the big difference comes down to cooling. With tempering, the metal is removed from the oven and allowed to cool on its own to room temperature. Annealing, on the other hand, involves great effort to extend that cooling period as long as possible.
Why is this slow cooling significant? It’s because as the metal cools, its crystal structure continues to change with the temperature. Tempering is a simpler process because the main objective is to reduce brittleness. In annealing, the extended cooling allows for even more transformation and refinement of the metal’s structure. One method of cooling is simply turning down the oven until the temperature reaches zero, and letting the metal cool with its surroundings. Another approach is removing the metal from the oven and insulating it in a low-conductivity material such as sand or ashes. Either way, by the time it reaches room temperature, annealed metals will be a softer material compared to tempered ones.
This softness makes annealed metal well-suited for applications where it won’t experience major stresses, but ductility is important. You will find annealed copper in electrical wiring, annealed brass in pipes and fixtures, and annealed aluminum in a variety of sheet and shapes.