After going through a hardening process, the end results is a much harder steel. Yet this does come at a cost, since the gain in hardness is accompanied by decreased ductility. Ductility is a measure of a metal’s ability to withstand tensile stress, which is any force that pulls the two ends of an object away from each other. If left as is without any further processing, the hardened steel will become weaker and increasingly brittle the more it is stretched and worked.
To avoid this issue, some type of heat treatment is commonly performed after hardening to boost the ductile properties of the steel. The aim is to make the metal more formable, more machinable, and reduce residual stresses in the material. Normalizing is one common method of producing a more resilient form of steel.
There are three stages in the normalizing process:
- Recovery: This involves heating the steel to a high enough point to relieve its internal stresses. After being placed in a furnace, the steel is heated at a slow rising rate until is reaches the desired temperature.
- Recrystallization: In the second heating phase, the temperature is raised to a range above the steel’s recrystallization point while remaining below its melting point. It will glow red-hot, but still retain its shape. During this stage, new metal grains will begin to form without preexisting stresses in the material.
- Grain Growth: The newly-formed grains are allowed to fully develop during cooling in the final stage of normalization. Unlike quenching or other methods designed for rapid cooling after heat treatment, the normalizing process calls for metal to be cooled naturally at room temperature.
Once the process is complete, the metal is left with an altered microstructure. Grains which were previously more coarse are now transformed to finer, more uniform grains which improves the overall toughness of the material.
One of the biggest advantages of normalizing is its cost-effectiveness, being less expensive than other forms of heat treatment. For example, aannealing follows the same basic process as normalizing, but at a much slower and controlled pace. The lengthy use of a furnace in annealing, including during the cooling process, makes it more costly to produce finished steel as compared to normalizing. Normalization also creates a harder and stronger metal than annealing. So depending on the material’s intended use, the cost-savings and strengthening of normalization makes it a popular choice to treat hardened steel.