What is Metal Pickling and Oiling?

A spool of steel coil is an impressive sight: thousands of pounds of material, having been forced through immense pressure to form smooth, thin, gleaming metal. But this is the end product ready for sale, after the finishing process. Upon being freshly rolled, you may be surprised to find the steel’s appearance to be much more rough! This can be due to various causes from staining to rust, but most often the metal’s unpolished look will be due to mill scale. Mill scale, also referred to as scale, is a mixture of iron oxide residues which cling to the metal’s surface after rolling. It is typically a dark grayish color, with a rough and flaky texture.

Not only is scale unattractive-looking, it becomes a nuisance when left on the metal. Any coating applied over scale will be rough and uneven, and vulnerable to wear. Once water seeps under the scale, it will flake and fall off. So the effort to paint the metal is wasted; not only will the bare patch need repainting, but other scaly areas will eventually flake off and require repainting as well. For these reasons, scale is usually removed by the manufacturer before being sold.

One of the most common methods of scale removal for steel is pickling and oiling. This involves a lengthy multi-step procedure, but at its most basic, the metal is immersed in “pickle liquor” and oiled it as the final step. So what exactly happens during the pickling process?

  1. Loading: the material is carefully arranged on racks. Crowding the material, or allowing pieces to overlap, means the solution will not be able to reach all surfaces evenly.
  • Cleaning: the rack of steel is immersed in a highly alkaline cleaning solution, which will remove dirt and oil. While this step will clear the metal of surface debris, scale still remains on the metal.
  • Rinsing: the steel is carefully and thoroughly rinsed with water to remove the cleansing solution. This also helps to raise its pH level prior to the pickling.
  • Pickling: the rack is then lowered into a bath of hydrochloric acid, referred to as “pickle liquor”. The immersion in the potent acid effectively eats away at the bits of scale, as well as improving discoloration on the metal’s surface.
  • Second Rinsing: immediately after the pickling, the steel is rinsed to cleanse it of the acid.
  • Second Cleaning: the metal is again placed in an alkaline cleansing solution. This will neutralize any remaining acid residue from pickling.
  • Final Rinsing: the rack is removed from the cleaner and given one last thorough rinse.
  • Oiling: after pickling and rinsing, the metal will now have the smooth and shiny appearance we associate with steel. However, if we were to stop at this step, the steel would again be vulnerable to the accumulation of surface debris. The freshly cleaned surfaces are also now more fully exposed to air, which makes it more likely to rust. So the final step of the process is oiling, which protects the metal and provides a barrier to air and contamination. This involves placing the rack of steel in an oil bath to give it an overall coating. Whether using mineral oil or a water-based oil, the cover will help preserve the steel from developing flash rust while in storage. Once the metal is selected for additional fabrication, the oil will be removed via cleansing.

 As you can tell, the pickling process is lengthy and work-intensive. However, it’s also a necessary step to prevent oxidation and to prepare the metal for later processing. Without pickling, leveling a scale-covered coil to sheet would result in a product of subpar quality. And just as pickling a cucumber helps to preserve the vegetables’ shelf life, metal pickling and oiling does the same for the material. The manufacturer may not need to process their coil immediately, but it would be unfortunate to discover their stored stock has experienced “spoilage”: rust development and other damage. Properly pickled and oiled, the corrosion of your steel will be prevented for a much longer period of time.

How to Prevent Rust

We’ve all seen rust, whether it’s the dirty-orange flaking off a fence or swing set and marking up your children’s clothes, to the brownish water flowing in houses with old plumbing. But rust isn’t just an annoyance with its unsightly appearance and tendency to stain. For iron equipment and structures, rust can become a real danger when allowed to progress unchecked. In cases such as the Genoa bridge collapse in August 2018, a lack of maintenance to prevent rust and corrosion can lead to deadly consequences.

When it comes to iron corrosion, the equation is simple: oxygen from air or water + iron = rust. The longer iron is left exposed to oxygen, the more quickly and completely it will rust. So when it comes to rust prevention, the best solution is to somehow attempt to keep these elements apart. These methods include:

Materials

A common choice is to attempt to avoid the issue from the start by using steel alloys, weathering steels, or other alloys which contain virtually no iron. These materials are either naturally resistant to rust, or manufactured to be as rust-free as possible. Stainless steel contains at least 11% chromium, which forms a protective film of chromium oxide preventing any further corrosion. Weathering steels may include up to 21% alloying elements like chromium, phosphorus, nickel and copper. In comparison to stainless, weathering steel will form a patina and begin to look to look orange and rusty. However, appearances can be deceiving: unlike the damaging rust formed on iron structures, the rust formed on weathering steel is actually beneficial. The alloying elements stop any internal corrosion with the rust as an outer layer.

Organic coatings

A simple and cost-effective method of preventing rust is paint. Covering a metal item in an overall coat of paint creates a physical barrier between the metal and oxygen. Oil-based paints are usually the preferred option since they contain no water. It’s also appealing because the oil paint adheres better, is durable, and will dry to a more even finish.

Powder coatings

Like paint, a powder coating creates a protective layer to prevent rust. Powders are commonly applied to the steel by using a compressed air sprayer. Once the powder particles are clinging to the object’s surface in an even layer, it’s ready to be heat-cured. This involved placing the object in a hot oven, which will melt and fuse the powder particles into a continuous coat. So while this method involves more time and expense than painting, the biggest advantage of powder coating is its durability. Not only is it rust-resistant, it’s more resistant to chipping, scratching and other wear due to the thermal bonding of the curing process.

Galvanization

Steel is galvanized by applying a layer of zinc, which provides two benefits: it forms a strong physical barrier, and if corrosion does occur, it will affect the outer zinc rather the metal underneath. For items such as car exteriors that will later be painted, electroplating galvanization is used to bond the zinc to the steel. The process will leave the metal with a soft, even shine. For hot-dipping galvanization, the steel is immersed in a bath of molten zinc and dries to a flat finish. Hot-dipped galvanized steel is often preferred for construction projects because the resulting zinc layer may be up to 5 to 10 times thicker with this process. With each layer of zinc comes more protection against rust.

Maintenance

No matter what material is chosen or coating applied, the best protection against rust will always involve continued routine maintenance. Any deposits and dirt on the metal should be cleaned on a regular basis. If any rust does form on the surface, it should be removed it as quickly as possible, with a protective coating applied or re-applied to the item. Neglect means even a structure as strong as a bridge can be destroyed from the corrosive effects of air, water and salt rusting the steel.

What is a Ferrous Metal?

When classifying metals, focusing on a particular property is most often used as a way to divide them into two groups. Is this metal ductile or non-ductile? Is it magnetic or not?

When it comes to ferrous metals, one basic quality determines the groups: whether the metal contains iron. If iron makes up a large percentage of its composition, the metal is considered to be ferrous. If it contains no iron, or just trace amounts of it, it will be labeled a non-ferrous metal.

Beyond that, it becomes more difficult to apply general labels on the groups and the metals’ properties. While ferrous metals can range from iron itself to stainless steel, the alloying elements greatly affect the metal’s characteristics. For example, most ferrous metals are magnetic. But austenitic stainless steel is not, due to the high levels of nickel added to the steel for alloying. The nickel allows the steel to form in a crystal structure that is mostly austenite – and austenite is not magnetic.

So although it can be difficult to generalize about all ferrous metals as a group, there are some general characteristics that can be made about them. Ferrous metals are very hard and strong, especially in comparison to non-ferrous ones such as tin or copper. They’re vulnerable to rust due to their high percentage of iron, unless given corrosion resistance through alloying elements or protective coatings. And they’re usually (but not always) magnetic, which makes them very useful for motor and electrical applications.

The most common categories of ferrous metals include:

  • Carbon steel: there’s certainly no question of this being a ferrous metal, with over 90% of its composition being made up of iron. It is very hard and can keep a sharp edge, making it well-suited for mechanical uses such as drill bits and blades.
  • Cast iron: this metal is exceptionally hard due to its high levels of carbon, but the carbon also makes it quite brittle. For this reason, cast iron is now primarily used for smaller machine components or cookware.
  • Stainless steel: the most commonly used type of ferrous metals, especially for consumer goods. The addition of chromium is what makes a steel stainless, and gives it good corrosion resistance. And it’s magnetic, which is why you can stick magnetics on your refrigerator.
  • Alloy steel: the properties of this group of ferrous metals can vary much more widely than the others, since the alloy is specifically formulated for a particular purpose. So while alloy steels are ferrous, the added elements allows the metal to be tailored for more strength, ductility, hardness or other property.

Metal Aging through Precipitation Hardening

When it comes to metal aging, the simplest way to understand the process is in terms of heat. In general, if a metal has the ability to withstand high temperatures during heat treatment, then it can be aged. For alloys containing aluminum, copper, magnesium or nickel, aging is the principal method of strengthening the finished product.

When metal is exposed to heat, any impurities (precipitates) contained within it begin to form on the surface. These precipitates help to prevent dislocations, which are defects in the metal’s crystal structure. Because dislocations are a primary cause of metal weakness, this means the precipitates are acting as reinforcements to strengthen the metal. Aging it has made the material stronger, more stable, and more resistant. So it’s clear why accelerating these changes through artificial aging is a popular choice!

Precipitation Hardening

The basic process of precipitation hardening, or age-hardening, consists of three steps:

  1. Solution treatment: Also known as “solutionizing”, this involves heating a metal alloy to extremely high temperatures. This mix creates a solution, where the alloying material is suspended within the liquid base metal. More importantly, it dissolves the precipitates and helps disperse these particles evenly throughout the solution.
  • Quenching: Once an alloy solution has been created, the liquid metal is then cooled as quickly as possible. This quenching can be done using compressed air, oil, water, or brine. Whatever the method used, the aim is to “flash freeze” the metal so that the solid is as evenly-mixed as the solution. The faster it can be cooled, the less time the precipitates have to form on its surface.
  • Aging: The metal is heated again, although to a lower temperature to avoid any dissolving. Applying heat a second time ensures the precipitates within the metal are evenly dispersed. Afterwards the heated metal item is quenched a final time.

However, there are risks involved with heat treatment. Over-aging occurs when the metal is held too long at too high a temperature. This can result in uneven disbursement of precipitates in solution, which leads to cracking and distortion in the cooled product. When monitored carefully throughout the age-hardening process, metal alloys that have completed these steps will be a harder, stronger material.

The Aluminum Extrusion Process

What is extrusion?

Extrusion is the process of shaping material during manufacture. Generally, this is done by forcing a block of metal, called a billet, through a shaped die. Think of it like a frosting tip: whatever is squeezed out appears with the specific design you selected.

How is aluminum extruded?

For aluminum, the two main methods of extrusion are direct and indirect.

Direct extrusion is the most commonly used method, using a stationary die. The billet is heated to 800 – 925 degrees F, then laid on a loader and pushed through the die using a hydraulic press. The steady pressure squeezes the softened metal through the die opening. Using direct extrusion, this process produces a wide variety of solid bars, rods, and hollow tubing.

With indirect extrusion, the process is reversed – the billet remains stationary while the die is forced onto the metal itself. This creates far less friction on the billet than using direct extrusion. The result is a product with more consistent dimensions, grain structure, and mechanical properties. However, the method also has its disadvantages, mainly related to the lack of friction. Billets must be carefully cleaned, since little to no friction means any substances on the metal will affect the extrusion’s surface.

Why use the extrusion process?

Extrusion is favored for many metals since it is easier to manufacture, with aluminum being particularly suited for the process:

  • Quick fabrication and assembly: compared to other tooling processes such as stamping, casting or injection molding, extrusion has a shorter lead time and done at a lower cost. This means items will be much more quick-to-market, from prototype development to product launch.
  • Easy tailoring: there are already a number of standard aluminum extrusion designs already available. This speeds production and assembly, by improving performance and cutting down on secondary operations.
  • Strength: with the extrusion process, the metal’s strength can be concentrated in specific areas by varying the wall thickness and internal reinforcement of the design. This is even more of an advantage with aluminum extrusions intended for use in cold environments. Unlike other metals which can become brittle with cold, aluminum strengthens with lower temperatures. The combination of the extra reinforcement through extrusion, coupled with the property of the aluminum itself, makes for a dependably strong metal.
  • Excellent thermal and electrical conductors: aluminum is nearly twice as conductive as copper, and much less expensive a material. It also conducts both heat and cold better than many other common metals. Because of this, extruded aluminum products are an attractive choice for home builders. Its lower price, heat dissipation properties, and resistance to fire are all advantages for house framing.
  • Sustainability: aluminum can be recycled infinite times, with no degradation of the metal’s properties. This means extruded aluminum products often contain a high percentage of recycled content. The addition of recycled material to the primary aluminum has no effect on the finished product’s overall aesthetics or functionality.

What is the Difference between Annealing and Tempering?

At first glance, it might be difficult to distinguish annealing from tempering. Both are heat treatments designed to alter the physical and mechanical properties of a metal, and both involve heating that metal and gradually cooling it. So what makes the annealing steel different, and what are the advantages of this process?

When it comes to annealing, it’s important to remember how dependent the process is on precision and control. Like tempering, annealing involves reheating quenched steel and then allowing it to cool. However, at each stage of the annealing process, careful oversight is crucial to producing the most high-quality result possible.

Annealing involves three separate stages:

  1.  Recovery: simply put, this is applying heat to soften the metal. To ensure the most even heat distribution, air should be allowed to circulate freely around the items being annealed. For this reason, the heating is most often done in large ovens which can be tightly sealed, raised to the desired temperature, and closely monitored. Recovery then occurs when the heat breaks down dislocations and other irregularities within the metal’s structure.
  1. Recrystallization: during this stage, the heat is raised to above the metal’s recrystallization temperature while still remaining just below its melting point. This means that new smaller grains are formed within the steel, replacing older grains with pre-existing stresses. So while the finished product will be less hard then it was before, the uniform structure of the new grains will give the steel more strength and resiliency.
  1.  Grain growth: this is the cooling stage of the annealing process. In contrast to tempering, which allows the steel to cool naturally at room temperature, the cooling of annealed metals must be highly controlled. To do this, cooling is often done by immersing the hot steel into a low-conductivity environment such as burying it in sand or ashes. It can also be done by switching off the oven and allowing the metal to slowly cool within the machinery’s fading heat. Whatever the method used, the aim is to have as slow and gradual a cooling process as possible. When fully cooled, the steel will now possess a more refined micro-structure. In real terms, this means it has more elasticity, so that it can take the stress of machining or grinding with far less risk of cracking.

While all heat treatments result in a strengthened alloy, annealing is crucial for items that have previously been cold worked. Cold working produces stresses within the metal, which annealing then helps to reverse by bringing it closer to the metal’s original properties. That means the benefits of annealing are twofold: eliminating as much residual stresses as possible while restoring its strength and ductility. So while tempering is used for products such as structural beams, the more ductile steel produced through annealing is found in items like mattress springs, wiring, and tools.

What is the Tempering Process?

Steel is a term we consider synonymous with strength. Having a steely glare, being tough as steel: both expressions used to describe someone who is hard, strong, and determined.

So then, it may surprise you to learn that untempered steel can be nearly as fragile as glass! Without the tempering process, any steel produced will be extremely hard but also quite brittle. If it remains this way, it would be too prone to breakage to use in most applications.

Tempering is a method of heat treatment used to increase the resilience of iron-based alloys such as steel. After an initial heat treatment has been done to boost the steel’s hardness, tempering then reduces some of that hardness to help improve its strength. The end result is a steel which is less brittle, with increased ductility and abrasion resistance.

The tempering process begins after the steel has gone through an initial hardening treatment. With hardening, steel is brought to very high temperatures just short of melting, and quenched to cool it as quickly as possible. This quenching essentially locks the steel’s crystal structure and creates a very hard material. Tempering is then done immediately afterwards; if left to sit after quenching, the risk of cracking within the material will increase. To temper the steel, it involves reheating it once again to a high temperature and cooling, but in a less extreme or abrupt way than with hardening. Once exposed to the desired temperature, the steady heat application helps to relieve any internal stresses within the steel. Finally, the metal is removed and allowed to cool naturally in still air. So perhaps the best way to imagine tempering is as though you were baking a cake: you’ll have the best result if you are careful to set the right temperature, length of time, and gradual cooling.

Adjusting the peak temperature for tempering allows you the opportunity to create a product for a specific need. There are 3 temperature range categories when tempering steel:

  1. Low temperature: this tempering will somewhat reduce the metal’s brittleness, while retaining its hardness. Steel produced this way is often used for case hardening components and cold work tools.
  1. Medium temperature: the heat used in this range will produce a more elastic product. This means it’s now a more machinable and formable metal, which can be shaped and worked without losing the original shape. This steel is often used to manufacture knives.
  1. High temperature: the higher the temperature used during the tempering process, the greater toughness that is given to the steel. This combination of resiliency and toughness makes it a good choice when producing structural steel and machine components.

Overall, it’s a rule that any hardened steel must be tempered. And without tempering, your stainless steel and other alloys won’t have the high level of ductility and weldability that we’ve come to expect from high quality materials.

What is Metal Aging?

Aging [verb]: the process of growing older. While that definition does apply, in the metals industry “aging” is specific jargon referring to treatments which speed up that process. But why would you choose to age your new metal products? It helps if you remember not to view aging as a negative. In fact, much like wine, the properties of a metal alloy often improve with age.

As metal ages, its base material physically transforms. The interaction of the metal’s atoms with the oxygen in its environment – whether surrounded by air or water – will begin change its surface texture and color. This starts with a basic oxide layer being formed. The oxide then becomes a hydroxide, and the hydroxide layer continues to interact with the atmosphere.

So why is this exposure to the elements considered a desirable result, unlike rust? That’s because iron oxide, or rust, is much more fragile and ultimately destructive when compared to a hydroxide. Exposed iron develops rust which flakes off and forms again, and will continue this cycle until it deteriorates the metal below. Meanwhile, a hydroxide layer actually creates a more stable surface composition. This hydroxide effectively creates an outer shell, which shields the metal below from any further interaction to its environment. The aging process of the metal comes to a near halt, with the hydroxide layer giving it both greater strength and longevity.

In general, there are two types of metal aging:

Natural aging: just as the name suggests, this is letting the metal age with time, in its natural environment. The strengthening benefits of aging will be more gradual but still effective.

Artificial aging: this refers to any method used to artificially accelerate the aging process. This is usually done through heat treatment of the metal alloys.

Both types do carry a risk of over-aging. This happens when the aging process pushes the metal past the point of strengthening into stressing and deteriorating it. As you might expect, this is more likely to occur with artificial aging: either because the metal has already undergone the aging process, or the heat applied is too intense or prolonged. However, when properly carried out, metal aging is a great benefit to the finished product.

Decoding Steel by its Numbers

Like any other field of expertise, the steel industry has its own jargon – one that may be confusing upon first encounter. Why are they assigned four-digit codes? What’s the difference between Alloy 4130 and 4140?

Steel is sorted into four main categories as set by the AISI (American Iron and Steel Institute):

  • Carbon steel
  • Alloy steel
  • Stainless steel
  • Tool steel

Being steel, these contain the same two basic elements of iron and carbon. Determining their category depends on the percentage of carbon and other alloys added to the iron, which changes the properties of the finished metal.

Within each category, steel can then be classified according to type. This usually includes several of the descriptive factors below:

  • Composition: the main categories of carbon, alloy, stainless, and tool steel.
  • Microstructure: these are the subcategories of composition. For instance, stainless steel can be classed as ferritic, austenitic, martensitic, and duplex steels.
  • Method of production: two methods account for almost all modern steel production, known as EAF (electric air furnace), and BOS (basic oxygen steelmaking).
  • Form/Shape: also known as primary forming, creating shapes such as plate or bars.
  • Method of finish: this is referred to as secondary forming, the techniques which give the final product its properties and finish. This can include processes such as hot and cold rolling, tempering, or galvanizing.
  • Physical strength: using ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards, the designation typically includes a letter prefix and assigned number.

There are two primary numbering systems used to classify metals, so steel descriptions typically will include both. Along with AISI, the numbering system set by SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) is most used in the metals industry. For the most part, SAE has adapted their system to align with the classifications set by AISI, so that specifications are standardized for steel.

So with this information, consumers have the ability to recognize the category and classification of a steel item. In the four digit code system, the first number will determine the type:

Starting with 1: Carbon steel

2: Nickel steel

3: Nickel-chromium steel

4: Molybdenum steel

5: Chromium steel

6: Chromium-vanadium steel

7: Tungsten-chromium steel

8: Nickel-chromium-molybdenum steel

9: Silicon-manganese steel and other SAE grades

The following numbers then give additional detail to the specific type of steel. In most cases, the second digit indicates the percentage of alloying element. The last two digits are the percentage of carbon concentration within the steel.

So using the example of 4130 vs 4140 steel: both start with a 4, so they are molybdenum steels – with the concentration of molybdenum being 1%. The difference between the two is that 4130 has a carbon percentage of roughly 0.30%, while 4140 contains 0.40 percent carbon. Because of its lower carbon percentage, 4130 would be more easily machined and weldable than 4140. However, the higher degree of carbon in 4140 alloy gives it greater hardness and strength than 4130. Armed with this knowledge, this may better help you choose the right type of steel for your needs.

Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. Launches FastMetals E-Commerce Platform

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 19, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. (NYSE: RS) today announced the launch of its new e-commerce business, FastMetals, Inc. (www.fastmetals.com), which offers a catalogue pricing model for a diverse selection of metal products including carbon, stainless, aluminum and specialty alloy steels. Located in Massillon, Ohio, FastMetals ships nationwide and has direct access to Reliance’s vast network of metals service center locations which carry over 100,000 products.

“FastMetals was created in response to the growing demand for digital purchasing solutions from metalworkers of all backgrounds,” commented Jim Hoffman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Reliance. “Consistent with Reliance’s core business strategy, FastMetals specializes in small orders with quick-turn around and best-in-class customer service. We are excited to launch this new, innovative venture that differs from our traditional sales model as simply another option for customers to purchase metal from us. Many of our existing service centers presently offer online capabilities and continue to receive inquiries via phone, email or other means based on the individual customer’s preference. FastMetals is yet another channel to experience Reliance’s unique, customer-focused service.”

FastMetals’ model is tailored to smaller, specialized end-users including artists, fabricators, machine shops, hobbyists, and do-it-yourself practitioners. Customers can choose from standard shapes and sizes or select specific dimensions to satisfy unique project requirements. FastMetals provides instant pricing, same-day shipping, no minimum order quantity and direct fulfillment to the individual customer.

About Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co.
Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. (NYSE:RS), headquartered in Los Angeles, California, is the largest metals service center company in North America. Through a network of more than 300 locations in 40 states and thirteen countries outside of the United States, Reliance provides value-added metals processing services and distributes a full line of over 100,000 metal products to more than 125,000 customers in a broad range of industries. Reliance focuses on small orders with quick turnaround and increasing levels of value-added processing. In 2018, Reliance’s average order size was $2,130, approximately 49% of orders included value-added processing and approximately 40% of orders were delivered within 24 hours. Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co.’s press releases and additional information are available on the Company’s website at www.rsac.com.


Brenda Miyamoto
Investor Relations
(213) 576-2428
investor@rsac.com

or Addo Investor Relations
(310) 829-5400